Teaching Best Practices for Human Rights Defenders through Gaming

By Rachel Bernstein, posted on

Learning best practices in any profession can take years, but for human rights defenders, following them can have life or death consequences. There are many precautions that Human Rights Defenders must take to protect themselves and the people with whom they work. For the many journalists, lawyers, activists, and others who are just beginning work on human rights issues, the only available resources to learn best practices are dense manuals or guides. In-person trainings provide a more engaging opportunity to learn, but they are expensive and only about 25 out of hundreds of applicants can attend. Even these lucky few would benefit from an environment where they can learn and make mistakes before putting their skills to the test in real-world scenarios.

What if instead of skimming an online manual, human rights defenders could learn by playing their way through model scenarios in a virtual game? Would players find the format engaging and continue through the end? Would they take the lessons learned from the game seriously, and put them into effect in their everyday work?

This past winter, working alongside experienced human rights defenders, Benetech built and tested a prototype of a game to answer these questions and evaluate how viable such a game would be as a scalable training platform. This narrative adventure game introduces the basics of human rights monitoring and security concepts as the player uncovers mounting evidence of wide-reaching human rights violations. It is designed to be an immersive and realistic game while providing a safe space to fail for inexperienced human rights defenders. In collaboration with OSCE ODIHR, who tapped their broad network, we had a number of human rights defenders play through our prototype and provide us with feedback. The development of this game is a continuation of our capacity building work in human rights leveraging software.

Episode 1: What is the Safest Way to Back Up Data?

The game begins with a missing activist friend, introducing the player to the story through a series of text messages, and immediately, our players bought in.

Game screenshot. Left: A smart phone conversation with your friend, Anatoly after her returns from a protest. Right: A bedroom. Anatoly is missing! Collected and protect as much information as possible.

 “Oh dear, I don’t believe you Anatoly, that everything will be fine”a human rights defender reading the opening sequence

With the story established, the game asks the player to search the friend’s room for clues. As players searched the room, they learned the security tradeoffs between different methods of backing up information. For example, when players are investigating their friend’s computer, they choose between storing evidence on a USB drive, saving it to the cloud, and sending the information to themselves via email.

When time runs out, the game provides a readout of the player’s performance on the mission and on each of the learning objectives. Did they collect all of the evidence safely, or did they leave a digital footprint, that could be followed by malevolent forces?

The emotional draw of the narrative seemed to extend even into these brief written “consequences” of in game actions. One player did not properly shut down the activist friend’s computer, leaving easy access to the friend’s data. The tester reacted: “I didn’t turn the computer off. OMG that’s so bad. That is so bad.”

More so, another tester commented that the game made them think that they should get rid of some items in their own email, showing that the learnings from the game bridged to real life.

Episode 2: Leveling Up

Building on the learnings from this initial prototype, Benetech is collaborating with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to create a narrative adventure game that introduces the basics of human rights monitoring and security concepts as the player uncovers mounting evidence of wide-reaching human rights violations. We are currently developing a fully built out game, Episode 2 – Starlight Stadium, which features a more robust functionality and sleeker design. Through this module, players will learn best practices for establishing secure communication channels, interviewing victims and witnesses, and making observational site visits. Stay tuned for more updates, and for now, we’ll leave you with this sneak peek:

Game Screenshot: start screen. Text: Starlight Stadium Episode 2: Pre-alpha build.

Your search for a missing colleague leads you to uncover a huge investigation he’s been working on that quickly unfolds to reveal systemic, trans-national human rights violations. Gather, verify, and corroborate the evidence to document the human rights violations and hold the perpetrators accountable. Meanwhile, stay safe, the web of corruption is wide!

Learn more about Benetech’s Human Rights work:

Ethical AI: Turning Conflict Data into Actionable Evidence to Promote Justice

Empowering Disability Inclusion through Data