The Games We Play

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Games and apps are being designed to educate children on social issues in a fun way that is also easy to understand.

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With the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and computers in everyday life, non-government agencies and social enterprises have been making use of technology innovatively to reach out to a wider audience. One area being explored is the use of game-based learning to engage the new generation of the tech savvy youth on issues ranging from financial literacy to disaster relief.

By Tan Ee Sze

C

ollecting donations, delivering relief supplies and building schools are some of the humanitarian relief activities that Alexis Lee and her sister Jeannette ‘took part’ in as they made their way through various stages of the online game, Little Jellybean Adventure.

“When you collect all the tokens and the tree logs, you have to mash them up,” explains Alexis, 10. “And then you have to keep pressing the left and right keys to make the person (game character) walk to build the school.”

In between the walking and the mashing and the building, there were also questions to answer on topics ranging from the nature of natural disasters to the components of a first aid kit. Says Jeanette, 12, “It tells us a bit about what is needed during a natural disaster and how to go about delivering 27 aid to the people who are most affected by it.”

With Singapore, a city fortunate to be sheltered from the wrath of Mother Nature and untouched by natural calamities such as the devastation of typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban City, and way beyond the reach of hot ash spewing from Mount Sinabung, such online games are one of the more effective ways in which agencies such as Mercy Relief are hoping will reach out to children, to move them from being passive bystanders of humanitarian crises to an understanding where they can relate to the demands and challenges of relief efforts.

“While Mercy Relief focuses on poverty alleviation and community development abroad, back in Singapore, it also recognises the importance of developing a caring and sociallyconscientious society,” explains Jaffar Mydin, Director, Corporate Outreach & Support, Mercy Relief.

In addressing the growing demands and challenges in this sector in Asia, the agency’s aim is to cultivate the next generation of young humanitarians in Singapore, and is also looking to harness technology to aid in these efforts.

“With the increased access to technological devices and a large proportion of Singapore’s population being connected, innovation in the area of humanitarian education is critical to meet the needs of our increasingly techsavvy audience, especially our youths,” says Jaffar.

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Audrey Tan (co-founder) with a moolah fan, play-testing the initial prototypes.


Mercy Relief is hoping to reach out to children, so that they avoid becoming passive bystanders to humanitarian crises.


In 2009, Mercy Relief partnered Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Interactive and Digital Media to develop a light-hearted and fun platform that could be used to engage and educate the younger generation on humanitarian issues. The result was Little Mercy, a series of online games launched during the first Observance of World Humanitarian Day that year.

“Game-based learning using the Little Mercy platform helps create awareness and develop an understanding of humanitarian crises through social narratives, strategic challenges and timebased planning that remain relevant and useful when applied in the real world,” says Jaffar.

Little Mercy, which is available on the Mercy Relief website www.mercyrelief.org, consists of five different games with unique characters that ‘transport’ the players into the world of humanitarian workers through various game scenarios and contextual challenges.

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For example, Little Jellybean Adventure educates players on the practical, medical and logistical aspects of relief management on Jellybean Island, taking them through the process of collecting donations, finding out what is needed on the ground and meeting those needs, delivering emergency relief and medical care, and building a better place to live.

The need for timely assistance is highlighted in Speedy Rescue, which requires players to deliver relief assistance to refugees in a time-based environment. Other games in the series include Relief Rush, which tests the player’s knowledge on natural disasters and humanitarian relief; Piyo Rescue, which helps players understand the mechanics of giving proper medical assistance; and Sun Sun’s Water Rescue, which invites players to explore the practical processes involved in clean water management.

The online games are just one part of a wider effort by Mercy Relief to make use of mobile, social and web-based applications to raise public awareness on humanitarian issues and ongoing humanitarian relief operations.

Technological tools are also being utilised to better prepare relief missions and ensure efficient disaster responses during times of crisis. For example, they help in organising humanitarian relief operations, mapping out which areas are in need of critical aid, and coordinating manpower and resources with Mercy Relief’s local partners, authorities and within the organisation. Mobile phone technologies such as WhatsApp are also used to track and monitor the movements of personnel during relief missions to ensure their safety and security.

“In tech-savvy Singapore, we hold an invaluable asset and a responsibility to use technology to empower humanitarian assistance, to enable bigger scales, increase speed and enhance effective response to vulnerable and disaster-affected communities,” says Jaffar.

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Game-based learning for the tech-savvy has become a huge hit.

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Preview of the Little Mercy Games during the CD Lionhearter Launch in NYP – 10 Jul 2013.

The Fun Way to Financial Literacy

Singapore-based social enterprise PlayMoolah is also tapping on gamebased technologies to engage and educate its target audience. Its focus, however, is on financial literacy.

The goal of PlayMoolah is to enable smart money decisions, explains the company’s co-founder Min Xuan Lee. The idea for this social enterprise came about in 2008, when Min and co-founder Audrey Tan witnessed first-hand the repercussions of poor financial literacy during the financial crisis.

“We saw many people, including our own friends, struggling with their finances, and they were all very smart people with good jobs,” she recalls. One man, who was in his 30s, told them that his parents were travelling the world and charging everything on credit, and he was anxious about having to inherit their debts. They also knew of people taking credit to purchase houses, only to have to declare bankruptcy when the debts mounted.

“It wasn’t that these people weren’t taught basic finance management skills; they just weren’t able to translate their knowledge into action, and were trapped in their relationship with money, and as a result suffered stress, worry and anxiety.”

They also found that the most empowered people were those who had a healthy and balanced relationship with money, and who were in control of stewarding money in a way that was aligned with their values and beliefs. “We wanted to use money as a metaphor; to show what is actually important in life, and to rebuild a positive and healthy relationship to money in our society,” elaborates Min.

The team researched the problem and found an opportunity to leverage technology to influence the knowledge, attitudes and behaviour around money.

This led them to develop a prototype for MoolahVerse, an online product for children aged 6 – 12 to learn basic money management through the power of play and games, together with their parents. The MoolahVerse shows the cycle of money which encompasses Earn, Spend, Save, Invest, and Give. Other products aimed at this age group include two game apps – Coin Catcher to help children discern between needs and wants; and YuSheng Rush, a hidden-object game about budgeting. The company also developed a tool called Moolah-It, which helps children prioritise their wants and understand more about opportunity cost.

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“We wanted to use money as a metaphor; to show what is actually important in life”

— Min Xuan Lee, co-founder Playmoolah


Targetting a higher age bracket is PlayMoolah’s newest product, WhyMoolah, a mobile app which enables young Singaporeans aged 21 – 35 to visualise their financial future. Available as a free download on the Apple App Store and Google Play, the app takes users through a life simulation that maps their money and life decisions to consequences.

“WhyMoolah helps users confront the small and big life decisions in a way that makes money simple to understand,” says Min. “It takes them through the possible life stages from graduation to retirement – from getting a college loan to managing a salary, applying for credit cards, paying CPF and taxes, buying a HDB flat, buying a car and more.”

Creating WhyMoolah was a research-intensive process as the company wanted to design and visualise information in a way that was valuable to young Singaporeans and ‘real-to-life’. “The challenge wasn’t a lack of information, but the fact that there was so much of it,” says Min. “We had to sieve through all the government agency websites, forums, and worked with our partners in DBS to make sure that the data in the app accurately portrayed the cost of living in Singapore.”

Another challenge was to come up with a simplified model of life that could be translated into gameplay. “Life is so complex and multi-faceted, and we had so many ideas of what we could build; it was a challenge to strip it down,” explains Min.

For example, in thinking about how to ‘measure’ life, the team referred to many models in life coaching before striping it down to just three – career, social, and health.

Still, based on these three attributes, PlayMoolah was able to come up with an app that gives users a powerful demonstration of how their current lifestyle decisions will play out in the future and, in the process, heighten their awareness of their own financial situation.

Players also have to make decisions on how they spend their time to maintain their career, social and health attributes, and their stress levels. “Money is just one part of the equation,” says Min. “We believe that money is just a tool and an enabler for the more important things in life.”


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