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Making a game of Nick Kristof’s Half the Sky movement


A new game released on Facebook wants to raise awareness about the challenges faced by women around the world. Half the Sky aims to be a movement about empowering girls and women worldwide, fighting gender discrimination and oppression.

“We don’t just want to preach to the choir, but rather to build the choir, so we were looking for ways to reach people who have no interest whatsoever in these issues,” Kristof told Humanosphere.

The game has been met by praise as well as criticism, see below, of its portrayal of women living in poverty.

Nicholas Kristof
New York Times

When writing the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, renowned New York Times columnist Nick Kristof said he also wanted a game to be part the movement he and his wife Sheryl WuDunn were trying to foment. The book prompted a TV documentary of the same name, but Kristof said he was  inspired to make a game of it by the 2006 release of Darfur is Dying by MTVu.

Kristof stressed that the game is an experiment.

“One challenge is that here in the U.S. right now, I think the public is retreating from an interest in global affairs, so in that sense we may be sailing against the wind,” he said. “My hunch is that the news media will have less coverage of global issues in the coming years.”

In the midst of the genocide and atrocities committed in the Darfur region of Sudan, activists used the game Darfur is Dying to reach 800,000 people within a few months of its release. In one year the game was played by 1.2 million people worldwide. Players had to navigate a Sudanese refugee camp and learned about the problems faced by Darfuri’s through play.

At the end, users were encouraged to send a message to a member of Congress and some 50,000 of the game’s players took the advocacy step at the end of the game.

The release of Half the Sky the Movement: The Game this week is the culmination of three years of work by Kristof and WuDunn. With an estimated $15 million budget for their project, the movement is now turning to social media, gaming and video as a way to maintain momentum and bring in more advocates. A two part television special brought female actresses like Diane Lane and Olivia Wilde to bear witness to the challenges faced by women and girls and the champions that are featured in the book.

However, the concern Kristof had was that the book and documentary were just reaching people already engaged in women’s empowerment.

“One of the problems with a book is that the people who read it are mostly those who agree with it,” said Kristof via email. “We tried to pull more people in with the Half the Sky television documentary, partly with the use of famous actresses, but likewise most of the people who watched it were presumably those who thought that the issue of women’s empowerment is an important one.”

The growth of Facebook coupled with the popularity of games like Farmville made it the right place for the game to live.

“Around 300 million people play games on Facebook across the globe on a monthly basis. If we’re able to inspire a portion of this group of players to spend 15 or 30 minutes of their time with this game, the ripple effect of players’ actions will result in significant and much-needed funding for this critical cause,” said Games for Change Co-Presidents Asi Burak and Michelle Byrd in a press release.

How it Works

Half 1Players begin as the young Indian mother, Radhika . “It’s your turn to hold up half the sky!” says the game with a button that calls that player to “Start Helping!” to begin. At the onset, players learn that Radhika’s young daughter is sick. Users are given choice to either confront husband or stay silent. If the husband is confronted, the game rewards the user for the action because “you took matters into your own hands.”

Such tasks accumulate points that advances the user to advocate status, followed by activist and so on. Reaching 4,500 points unlocks a donation such as a fistula surgery sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and the Fistula Foundation. The game includes other mechanisms for giving through play. The game progresses along in this manner taking the user from India to Kenya, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.

After making enough money, Radhika goes to clinic and learns that her daughter has pneumonia. She was not vaccinated and that is intimated to have been able to prevent the infection. After negotiating to volunteer in order for the daughter to get treatment a pop up appears saying that immunizations save lives. The user can give $20 to the UN Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign and receive 50 game coins in return.

Later on, a task related to collecting books for the school triggered a donation to Room to Read from the Pearson Foundation. Meanwhile, the user is gently reminded every few minutes to support the partners of Half the Sky. Each organization provides a list of actionable items that ranges from sharing information on Facebook to hosting an event to making a donation. The donations themselves will reward the users on the game. Other multiplayer games on Facebook and mobile devices provide the same option, but in this case the money is donated to an organization of choice rather than pocketed by the game developer.

Based on the success of awareness raising games like Darfur is Dying, the Half the Sky team set out to partner with NGOs and the private sector to build the game. “Games are a pretty good way to reach a diverse online audience, and we see this as an experiment. As far as we know there has never  been an online social purpose game with this much backing behind it, and maybe it’ll prove to be an important tool to raise awareness and build the advocacy community,” explained Kristof.

Johnson & Johnson and the Pearson Foundation both committed $250,000 to the Fistula Foundation and Room to Read respectively. Game play alone will trigger a total of $500,000 in donations. Individual donations made to partners such as Heifer International, the UN Foundation’s Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and World Vision will add to that sum.

Half 2

Goals for A Game

“Ultimately, we’d like to get women’s rights and empowerment to be more a part of the global conversation and higher on the global agenda,” said Kristof. In order to do that, the game will need to reach as many people as possible, explained Burak. Games generally can get 3% of customers to pay for items that will allow the user to accelerate more quickly through the game. The Games for Change team set a slightly higher goal of 5% since the money will go in support of NGOs. It is his belief that the extra incentive will drive more giving.

According to the Daily Beast, the team hopes to reach 2 to 5 million players. At the 5% conversion rate, that means activating somewhere between 100,000 and 250,000 donors. To do so, the game has to be both informative and something that Facebook users would want to play in its own right. It differs from the book and documentary because it is interactive and gives the player choice. “It is not as if someone is telling you a story,” said Burak. “Your actions are what creates the story.”

Concerns and Criticisms

Half the Sky has received its share of both praise and criticism at every step.

Critics have assailed Kristof for putting himself at the center of the story, for promoting neo-liberal solutions and focusing too heavily on white saviors and dark skinned victims. Sayantani DasGupta wrote about the use of the famous actresses in the documentary for the Racialicious blog saying:

These actresses are not there to share, say, their own stories of gender violence, or because they are already involved in anti-gender violence work in the U.S. or even work already going on in these countries. Rather, they are there as tourists of violence, often visiting those countries for the first time with Kristof. They are wealthy celebrities whose lives, as Meg Ryan tells one sex trafficked Cambodian teen, are “far from” the experience they were witnessing.

Some of the same criticisms that have been leveled at Kristof’s prior work have been aimed at the game. Dr Laura Agustín called the game’s idea paternalistic in January 2012 column for Counter Punch.

Kristof says his game will be a Facebook app like FarmVille: “You’ll have a village, and in order to nurture this village, you’ll have to look after the women and girls in the village.” The paternalism couldn’t be clearer, and to show it’s all not just a game (because there’sactual money involved), schools and refugee camps get funds if you play well. A nice philanthropic touch.

Writer Anne Elizabeth Moore described the game as disempowering. Moore recently wrote an article in The Baffler that connected the Half the Sky documentary with Milton Friedman’s 1980 series Free to Choose. She connected the narrative structures of the two and argued that they both found ways to champion neoliberalism in a way that gave little opportunity for the viewer to raise any questions.

In a conversation via email, Moore said that they game was detached from reality because it forces the player into binary decisions.

“You’re given these binary options that, in real life, wouldn’t really be binary. Admittedly this format would be impossible to actually use as a tool of empowerment, but the damage could have been lessened if the options were neither binary nor market-based,” she explained.

Other questions were raised by individuals who would not speak on the record. These people questioned the efficacy of the money spent on the project. It applies a multi-platform version of storytelling called transmedia storytelling. Half the Sky takes the next step into Transmedia Activism by engaging its viewers to become activists in women’s empowerment.

The $15 million budget (correction: Asi Burak tells us the budget is around $8 million in total. $1 million for the game itself) represents what appears to be the largest amount spent on a such a campaign.

There were also questions about the portrayal of the characters in the game. Radhika with her larger head and oversize anime-style eyes is seen as a caricature, a ‘Disneyification” of women and girls that contributes to, rather than argues against, objectification. Some even felt them borderline racist. Moore raised questions about the production of the game citing it as an industry with few women and even fewer opportunities for them.

Experiment in Gaming Activism

The makers of the game knew that they could not fit everything in. A disclaimer at the start of the game tells the user that the situations presented are not an actual representation of what life is really like, but are meant to represent the challenges faced by women and girls. It is a game, so it has to be something that people will want to play.


When asked what can be done to support gender equity, Kristof pointed towards economic empowerment and education.

“There are no silver bullets, but I think the two interventions that matter the most for empowering women are access to education and the opportunity to earn an income and control economic assets,” he said. Problems like maternal mortality and human trafficking stand in the way of such progress, but Kristof places less emphasis on legal solutions.  “In general, I think legal solutions matter a bit less than social change,” he says.

In the end, it is worth trying to make it work, argues Kristof.

“As far as we know there has never been an online social purpose game with this much backing behind it, and maybe it’ll prove to be an important tool to raise awareness and build the advocacy community. Or maybe it won’t. But one of the things I’ve learned in journalism is that we have to be willing to experiment and try new things. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]