Planting Seeds: A mobile game that supports Kenyan women

The first iteration of Seeds to hit the iTunes store doesn’t look like a game at all. Its name is Microlending, and true to its name it enables U.S. smartphone users to make one-to-one financial loans to Kenyan businesswomen in need of startup cash or support. And it works just fine, the very first loan having gone through a few days after its Oct. 4 launch without a hitch.

But the team behind the app doesn’t think that a straightforward loaner-to-loanee pipeline is enough to get their message across. That’s why the complete version of their app, currently on crowd funding site Fundable and developed by a team of Duke University computer science students, will allow loaners and businesswomen to connect in a second, less direct way: through the guise of a game.

In the U.S. mobile transaction is still new, and not widely used; even Square, the most popular mobile-based payment method, still works by clipping a device into your phone’s port and swiping a credit card through it. Other services, like the Google Wallet app, work by registering your credit cards with your Google account, and then tapping your Android phone on a credit card reader. In Kenya, however, paying via mobile is just as common as paying with cash. Programs by British telecommunications company Vodafone, Kenya’s leading provider, make it easy to manage almost all transactions with a mobile phone as the only middle man.

So how to get U.S. smartphone users plugged into a system of which they’re largely unaware? That’s where the game comes in. Seeds is an in-development free-to-play game–essentially, the first game to be built on this microlending API.  Rachel Cook, a U.S. trader turned activist and the director of Seeds, describes the finished product as “Farmville meets Kiva,” referring to the web-based global microlending platform that helps people in poverty-stricken areas of the globe acquire microloans.

The game component will work much like FarmVille and its social simulation ilk, but with a bit more backstory.  The Zeople (or ‘Seedlings’; the details are still being ironed out) are a civilization that has been pushed to the brink of destruction by natural disasters, and players are tasked with helping them rebuild. As per the free-to-play model that Zynga popularized, playing the game is free, but players can accelerate the build times in their budding cities by paying small amounts of money.

So far so standard, as social games go. But Seeds is a “serious game,” part of a recent trend combining game design, entrepreneurship, and social consciousness whose goal is to reach an increasingly connected and gaming-savvy populace, either economically or educationally.  Seeds operates mainly on the former; money players spend goes to women entrepreneurs in Kenya, not into a company’s earnings. Players can choose which types of businesses their money goes to, and earn achievement points for donating to a variety of sectors.

It’s ‘fun’ meets ‘funding,’ and the Seeds team is looking to find that perfectly balanced design that makes fun more socially conscious–or, more cynically, makes social consciousness more fun.


Germination of an idea

Befitting its ‘serious’ purpose, Seeds’ development was unlike that of most other videogames. Cook’s interest in microlending first came from a 2009 New York Times article entitled “Saving the World’s Women” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, which argues that the best way to fight global poverty is by empowering the half of the population that is so often isolated and undereducated. “The world is awakening to a powerful truth,” Kristof and WuDunn proclaim: “Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.” The article goes on to detail the stories of oppressed third-world women who were able to become independent by starting their own businesses, often with the help of microloans.

In many poor countries, the greatest unexploited resource isn’t oil fields or veins of gold; it is the women and girls who aren’t educated and never become a major presence in the formal economy. With education and with help starting businesses, impoverished women can earn money and support their countries as well as their families. They represent perhaps the best hope for fighting global poverty.

This was the inspiration for the soon-to-be mobile game, but before Seeds came its older sibling the Microlending Film Project. Recently demoed in NYC, the Microlending Film Project is another ongoing effort to couple art and social justice, and features women from Paraguay, Kenya, Detroit U.S.A. and India who are launching their own businesses, often from their own homes.

Kenya stood out among the locations featured in Cook’s Film Project; as Cook explained, “There’s this very vibrant mobile money transfer system in place in a way that there isn’t anywhere else in the world. People that live in cheap little houses in the slums have cell phones and they just go and buy produce at a stand and text message the payment.” The program, M-Pesa, by Vodaphone, reported in 2012 over 17 million registered users in Kenya, with over 2 million individual transfers made daily (TheNextWeb).

One other statistic added to Cook’s idea for the Microlending Film Project’s next direction: Of the 56 million Americans playing social games, the average user is a 43 year old woman.  “Seeing the demographic overlap,” said Cook, “and recognizing the opportunity that was there, that was the idea behind Seeds.”

So despite Cook’s self-avowed obsession with games like The Sims and Tiny Tower, the idea that became Seeds was not born fully clothed in a game design document. Rather, the decision to make a game came from the desire to communicate global women’s financial needs to as wide an audience as possible.

Brad Wiggins, a freelance game designer previously with Regicide Games, wrote the game design document, and Amanda Wixted, a former Zynga employee and FarmVille engineer, helped develop the game. Now, several computer science students at Duke University are putting the final touches on the game, as part of an independent project, which will be released free-to-play on the iTunes store this December.

The final product gets money to businesswomen in two ways: one, through direct loans similar to Kiva’s operating style; and through money accrued within the game. Partnering the Seeds developers in this effort is mobile-based job preparation platform g.Maarifa, as well as Kenyan women’s rights activist Lydiah Dola, who is serving as Seeds’  loan officer.

“As a member of a women’s movement, I get to talk a lot to women who are frustrated in life in a way or the other,” wrote Dola in an online chat. “Women who own small businesses which can not cater for their daily needs in the family…These women want to expand their businesses but have no means….So Seeds comes in to assist them get money to boost their businesses so at least they can grow from one level of life to a higher one.”


Gaming to Save the World

In her 2010 TED Talk “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” and 2011 book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal advocated that not only does the “real world” benefit from skills acquired in games and virtual environments, but that the energy we already expend on gameplay is a force that, if harnessed, could radically change the world. “When we play a game, we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, more determination, more optimism, and we’re more likely to reach out to others for help,” she said in 2010. “My goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games.” Many developers, gamers, and activists have rallied around McGonigal’s somewhat radical vision, creating a momentum for “serious games” of which Seeds is only a part.

On the other side of the spectrum from McGonigal, however, is game designer and theorist Ian Bogost, who has heavily critiqued a trend he calls “gamification.” A colleague and friend of McGonigal, Bogost criticized Reality is Broken as an oversimplification of both the “real world” and the “play spaces” McGonigal identifies as separate from it.  “But don’t conclude that I think she’s wrong,” he wrote in his review of the book:

it’s not that simple. Jane’s an optimist, perhaps the biggest optimist I know. And those of you who know me probably realize that I’m not the biggest optimist you know. See, I don’t think reality is broken. It’s messed up and horrifying, sure, but we don’t get to fix it, ever. It’s flawed and messy and delightful and repellent and stunning. Reality is alright.

Both of these top-tier game theorists make compelling arguments; Bogost in particular captures a poetic, if hipsterish sentiment in his pessimist-with-a-heart prose. But theory can only go so far when you have a mission in mind, and you’ve picked games as the medium in which to accomplish it.

It’s easy to see which side of the debate Seeds falls on; they even refer to McGonigal right at the top of their page, referring to her as the “gaming guru” who “taught us that we spend 3 billion hours a week playing computer and videogames worldwide.  What if we harnessed that time to make the world a better place, while still having a hella good time playing games?”

But nevertheless, Cook and her team are aware of the challenges of making an activity that is amusing and diverting to some people and quite serious—possibly life-changing—to others. “We didn’t want to do a “Raise the Village” thing,” said Cook, referencing a 2010 iPhone game also FarmVille-like in its gameplay: expending energy to raise buildings, harvest crops, etc.The central point of Raise the Village, however, was that real-world equivalents of the crops and buildings that players made within the game were being created in real Ugandan villages. What’s more, the game itself took place in a cartoonish simulated version of a Ugandan villages, where users ‘played’ with bobble-headed smiling black children as they built their “village” and organized their “lives.”

Raise the Village was a seminal example of the nascent “serious game,” and won several awards from gaming and social justice institutions for its work. But even videogame journalists who liked the game seemed to have trouble describing it; their reviews betray a discomfort with the words “game” and “play” when used in such real and even hyperreal situations.

That’s why Cook and her team have decided to structure Seeds the way they did, with a defined separation between the microlending elements and the game itself. The Zeople’s story might make allusions subtle and unsubtle to real-world issues like colonization and reconstruction, but their narrative is intentionally written in the language of fiction and fantasy.

And after all, that narrative, and the game itself, are in some ways just a guise for the microlending platform which, though not without inherent statements of power and agency, does work to empower otherwise disaffected women and would-be entrepreneurs.

“I think the idea of a game is OK,” said Dola. “and the fact that it is entertainment makes it even more fun,  that Seeds will be collecting money in a more exciting way that just the usual fundraising. So I will say it is just a way in which Seeds have chosen to shape our program, and I am sure we are open to even more exciting ways in future.”


Taking Root

There’s no set release date, but Seeds is growing at a steady pace, despite the fact that its Fundable page still lists it as only 35% funded, with 24 backers. The game, and its film sibling the Microlending Film Project, have been featured in NYC and Chicago in the past month, with another event sponsored by Duke University next week. Meanwhile the project is moving ahead just fine without full financial backing; several Duke University students are working as lead developers on the game, as part of Computer Science 290, a class that puts students to work on real commercial projects.

And on Friday, professional and amateur programmers took a crack at building more games and features off of Seeds’ API at Hacksgiving, a competition hosted by women’s tech startup Hack’n Jill. Seeds itself may be almost done, but an open API and developing environment will be essential to keep microlending a part of U.S. smartphone culture. The team is looking to expand on the Kenyan side, as well. Dola, a women’s rights activist in Kenya long before she heard about Seeds, hopes to start entrepreneurship programs to teach women how to use the loans that Seeds and other services can supply. “So as not only to provide fish to the society,” she wrote in an online chat interview, “but also to teach the women how to fish.”