Educating youth about diversity and the importance of empathy is difficult and dull using traditional classroom methods. Our team of unpaid volunteers built an interactive fiction mobile game, where youths can experience life as somebody unlike themselves, make choices, and reflect on how we treat each other. The feedback has been tremendous - teachers, students, and even adults love the stories and our data analytics indicates real positive impact on individuals who have played the game.
To Be You, an experiential and interactive mobile game that seeks to cultivate empathy debuted on 21 July 2021, Singapore’s Racial Harmony Day. The immersive fiction game gets to the heart of empathy by letting players experience "life" as someone else, make life choices, discover challenges and dilemmas, and connect with the life journeys of people from different backgrounds.
Conceptualised by a team from the charity Better.sg, To Be You was one of the winners at the Mission:Unite hackathon organised by the Ministry of Community, Culture, and Youth (Singapore) in 2020, a hackathon spurring youths to identify challenges and ideate ways to bring about greater social compact. Conceived to help dismantle stereotypes, reduce prejudice, and ultimately foster greater empathy and inclusiveness among Singaporeans, To Be You offers a fun game experience that will deliberate issues pertinent to the society today. To achieve authentic representations of what Singaporeans go through emotionally in the face of discrimination, To Be You worked with community organisations, focus groups, researchers, and writers to create compelling fictional stories based upon real accounts from Singaporeans.
“In a multicultural society, empathy is not optional. Our diversity is what makes us unique and we really want this game to be something that sparks change in the communities. Our team believes that empathy cannot be taught through lessons or excursions - it must be experienced and felt. We want Singaporeans to learn about the challenges of people different from themselves, to interact with their peers, to take the time to listen to their stories and experiences, and to understand what it’s like to be somebody else,” said Gaurav Keerthi, CEO of Better.sg and Co-Lead of To Be You.
Unpacking a Multi-faceted Personal Identity - To Be You features a total of six characters whose stories are interwoven. The first two characters are Nadia Binte Rahim, a Malay-Muslim youth who has a crush on a Chinese-Christian boy and dreams of being a doctor, but has to deal with parental expectations; and Aman Singh, a Punjabi Sikh youth facing pressures during National Service, when pursuing his passion, and even with his family and girlfriend. The other characters are Ravi Kannasamy, Unaisah Begum, Zhihao Lim, and Marie de Costa. To Be You places the user directly in the character’s shoes, letting them make choices in difficult situations, and go through seemingly ordinary moments in life from a different perspective. Each episode unpacks an element of our societal diversity, such as race, religion, gender - and also invisible elements like personalities, socio-economic background, and more.
Gamification for Social Change - The team has done extensive research on issues of personal identity in Singapore, as well as understood the behavioral patterns of Singaporean youths today. Analysis of the youth target demographic showed that mobile gaming is the best way to engage them. There are over a million gamers in Singapore, and almost a third of them play mobile games daily. To create an immersive user experience, the team has adapted the game interface according to the psychographic design of the characters. Each story is told in an interactive narrative style. User interface includes Whatsapp chats, emails, and journal reflections and is kept in a casual, conversational tone to make the game fun, relatable and real. “Many people find it tricky to sensitively talk about identity struggles.
It is even harder to empathise with another person's struggles. Our reference points tend to be our own lived experiences and perhaps those of people close or similar to us. We may also be afraid of the consequences of saying the wrong thing. Gamification is a great way to engage people, youths in particular, and can act as a bridge to deeper sharing and understanding in real life. Active engagement with the lived experiences of others as well as personal reflection are crucial to developing empathy. To Be You offers this embodied experience within storylines based on real life events. This game may just be a game changing approach in our journey for social progress,” said Dr Kalpana Vignehsa, a Sociologist and Research Fellow at Institute of Policy Studies, and research advisor for the project.
Since its launch, over 5000 youths have played the game and left heart-felt reflections about the experience. The game has also been used in corporates, seeking to engage their staff on diversity issues in a more immersive way. Reading the player reflections at the end of each chapter makes it abundantly clear: playing the game made a real impact.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
To Be You is a first-of-its kind interactive fiction game, that replicates the user experience that youths are used to (Instagram, Whatsapp, Twitch, Email, etc) to create a fully immersive story-telling experience on the phone. It gets to the heart of empathy by letting you experience "life" as someone else, make life choices, discover hardships and dilemmas, and learn to empathise with the life journeys of people from different backgrounds. This idea won the top prize at the 2020 Ministry of Community, Culture, and Youth (MCCY) : Mission Unite Hackathon.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The project has been live for one year and we are conducting in-depth data analytics to understand the social insights from our player data. We are also in the process of scaling up outreach and partnerships to engage even more players.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The project was fully funded by the Ministry of Community, Culture, and Youth in Singapore.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
We partnered schools, corporates, and social organisations that worked on inter-cultural/diversity issues in Singapore, to implement it as a learning tool for their audiences. Over 15,000 people have visited, spending an average of about 6 minutes on the site each (and most than a third of them finished a chapter in one of the character's stories.)
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
We have both qualitative and quantitative data. On the qualitative side, we have nearly a thousand full-text (unstructured data) reflections from players after each chapter, which is publicly shown to the players. On the quantitative side, we track all the choices that players make, and are in the midst of doing data analytics. The initial insight is that the "immersiveness" of the experience was rated very highly by players, with over 70% saying that they felt "fully immersed" as the character in the story, and felt real emotions on their behalf.
Challenges and Failures
As a team of unpaid volunteers, motivating the team to build this complex solution from scratch was very challenging. Getting designers, developers, and data analysts to put aside time from their busy work schedules every night to build this game was challenging, especially during COVID when we could not meet in person. We overcame this challenge by meeting online regularly, motivating each other, and celebrating small wins together. Because we believe in "paying it forward", we have fully open-sourced all our code, so that others can use our project code for free.
Conditions for Success
We hope that every young person in Singapore will be exposed to this game at least once, so that they can try to put themselves in the shoes of another person unlike themselves, and learn to develop empathy. Empathy is not something that can be "tracked" or "scored" easily though. Our "success condition" is thus to maximise player numbers for the youth demographic. As a small country, the number of students in each year is only about 30,000 - and we have already reached 5,000 of them in our first year.
We have received queries about using interactive fiction and gamification for other social issues, from other government agencies.
Dealing with difficult social issues sometimes requires creative, unusual, and innovative solutions. Dealing with racism or sexism, for example, is difficult and unlikely to succeed if policymakers try the "normal" head-on approach. Our approach - while unusual - is more likely to succeed because it presents the experience as a game, rather than a scolding session or a didactic lesson that bores the recipient.
- Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed
- Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways
18 January 2023