EVOKE: A Social Game Makes Real World Change

EVOKE was a free-to-play online social network game, sponsored by the World Bank Institute, that encouraged participants to brainstorm ways to tackle some of the most pressing issues our world faces: poverty, pollution, violence. The game ran from March to May this spring, "a ten-week crash course in changing the world."

Jane McGonigal, game designer for EVOKE, recently published a "lessons learned" post on the EVOKE blog in which she shared her team's Post-Vita on what went right and what went wrong with this ambitious plan to make a ten-week-long game to change the world. As social games in particular become increasingly popular and "game mechanics" seem to be a buzzword for encouraging better user engagement and virality, McGonigal's insights are worth paying attention to, particularly for those of us committed to creating projects and programs that help further social innovation and social justice.

Making Connections with Social Media

McGonigal's list of the projects triumphs included its success in quickly creating an active and productive social community. There were some targeted efforts for pre-registration, and this helped them launch with a critical mass of players, who participated in a number of social ways -- by sharing photos, videos, comments and blog entries and via a social networking system with friending, messaging, and social updates. "The site never felt static," writes McGonigal. "The community felt large, active and buzzing. The activity feed was the first “hook” for many players to stick around on the site. It added a level of transparency to how many people were actively playing; throughout the entire 10 weeks, we averaged a 25-minute cycle in which the activity feed entirely replenished itself. There was live gameplay going on 24/7 for 10 weeks."

The game also took good advantage of the flurry of media surrounding McGonigal's TED talk, and the numbers of people who visited the site, registered, and participated in the game far exceeded the team's initial expectations.

Educating and Empowering

Robert Dawkins, EVOKE's Executive Producer did say he wished the game had done a better job integrating with university curricula, he praised the amount of quality posts and interaction that the players shared. Dawkins speaks of "narrative as a pedagogical tool," and points to how the creation of the EVOKE world, "the characters; the story and the plot line helped drive, motivate and inspire learning."

There were multiple ways to participate and to advance through the games levels, and the EVOKE team were glad they'd created ways for casual and active players to meet goals. One notable innovation was the "Leadercloud" that recognized the numerous ways in which players were "heroes" in the game.

Thinking about Accessibility

The graphic novel that accompanied each week's quest was striking, and the art design of the game really fit with the sort of dystopian future (if we don't act now!) that the game depicted.

But the files for these graphics were large, making loading the webpages difficult for players in areas with low bandwidth and unreliable Internet connectivity. In reviewing the experiment, the EVOKE team recognized some issues with accessibility. This first EVOKE game did not have SMS integration, but the team realized that it was an important access point, although it would probably impact gameplay to design around SMS.

Making Change

One of the most powerful aspects of EVOKE was that the game was so connected to real world change. As McGonigal writes, "We didn’t adopt a “sugar with the medicine” approach. The rewards weren’t artificial; the rewards were to learn world-changing ideas and to be creative and to master social innovation skills. And we didn’t do simulation or virtual worlds. We linked real-world stories and efforts with online interaction and feedback."

Photo credits: Flickr user Bruno C.