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Decode Global raises awareness with mobile games app

“Games are…unifying across cultures and across countries,” said Angelique Mannella, founder of Montreal-based startup Decode Global, in an interview with The Daily. Decode Global develops mobile applications that it hopes will serve as vehicles for social activism and change. Lately, the company has garnered attention from both domestic and international media for its innovative approach to the problem of water scarcity in rural India.

Many village schools lack sufficient sanitation facilities due to inaccessible water sources. For this reason, it is not uncommon for girls to withdraw from schooling at the onset of menstruation. Additionally, the traditional female position within most family units in rural India requires that she partake in collecting water for the household, compromising academic endeavours. A United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative case study estimates that drop out rates in the rural parts of India are as high as 60 per cent.

Decode Global’s mobile app “Get Water!” aims to raise awareness of water scarcity and how it affects the lives of girls in developing areas. “The main audience for the game is North Americans, people who don’t necessarily experience not being able to go to school because there isn’t access to clean water,” explained Mannella, “but [the audience] can be sensitized to the issue…and [they can] help raise awareness about it, just by playing the game.”

Like-minded non-governmental organizations are actively trying to solve the same problem, but setting Decode Global apart is the medium Mannella selected to spread their message. The company’s mission statement cites the role of mobile games in “sustainable social change.”

Mannella recognized the growth potential in the mobile apps sector early on. With smartphones at everyone’s fingertips, the implications of an app-based campaign may reach an audience unprecedented in size. The prevalence of mobile phones extends beyond North America, with the number of mobile phone subscribers in rural India surpassing 320 million last year. 3.6 million of these users have access to the internet on their smartphones. Despite the high presence of mobile technology, rural areas often lack running water and electricity.

A six-month experience managing technology and database systems at a microcredit organization in South America as an undergraduate inspired this McGill alumna’s objective to use technology for social action. NetCorps, the program in which Mannella participated, was discontinued in 2008, but she sought to fill its place with her budding project. With the aim of creating “an internationally focused company that combines technology and social impact while giving young people the opportunity to work on their projects, see the world, and develop their skills in nontraditional ways,” Decode Global was born in early 2012. It was the unique gaming industry Mannella unearthed upon her return to Montreal that brought the company’s focus to games.

Games are enticing and fun, and using mobile games as a platform for social change suggests that they can also be educational and inspiring. Roy Baron, one of Decode Global’s 2012 Fellows involved in developing Get Water!, commented on the medium’s significance. “Games are inherently interactive and involve the audience with the issue… [allowing] players to not only view someone’s situation, but to actually live it.” A challenge for the developers lay in addressing the ways in which water scarcity compromises girls’ education while maintaining a hopeful tone in the game’s storyline. The team addressed this challenge by designing a simple game that could easily be played during one’s commute or while waiting in line. The game presents a fun and relaxing outlet while engaging its player with pressing social issues. “Get Water! doesn’t seek to depress or throw the issue in people’s faces,” Baron told The Daily. “Instead, it offers a compelling and entertaining experience that’s intended for people to play in short snippets.”

Get Water! is a side-scrolling, endless runner game that provides a first-person perspective on daily life through the eyes of a young woman named Maya. Maya is not only an avatar in this game, but a role model for girls in similar circumstances. “Maya is a head-strong, book-loving, optimistic girl,” reads Get Water!’s Indiegogo page, which was created to attract crowdfunding for the project;  she embodies what we colloquially call ‘girl power.’ The ultimate goal at the end of the game’s obstacle circuit is that Maya attend school.

Though the game’s simplification of the challenges these women face may increase its appeal to its North American audience, it could also undercut Decode Global’s mission of raising awareness. The storyline presented in the game detracts from the nuances of water scarcity and the resultant lack of opportunity for women in rural India.

Decode Global’s campaigns on the ground, carried out through local partnerships, strive similarly to empower women through education.

In close partnership with New Delhi social enterprise Boond, which targets a range of social issues through grassroots initiatives, Decode Global has established a presence within the communities it aims to help. Boond’s workers advocate for the benefits of feminine hygiene in communities that are remote from supply-chain logistics. Decode Global is currently developing a mobile game for Boond’s women’s healthcare workers to integrate in their outreach to village schoolgirls. “We [at Decode] bring in the technology expertise, and Boond brings in the expertise of working in…very rural areas in India,” Mannella told The Daily.

In Maya’s gamified case, access to hygiene and water sanitation means being able to attain a proper education. Decode Global believes that their technology can do even more to empower these women. Beyond health outreach campaigns, Decode Global’s apps can support the development of small businesses. In low-resource communities, women are heavy users of the mobile technology to which they have access. Yet their technological needs get little attention. “We look at ways to build more applications and games that are beneficial to them, which can help them be more successful entrepreneurs,” said Mannella, “independent of anything else, that’s a big priority for us.”

Decode Global, in collaboration with Concordia University’s research centre in Technoculture, Art and Games and Dawson College, will launch a summer program that specifically focuses on games for social impact. Through such programs, the group aims to nurture the burgeoning games-for-change community in Montreal and to incubate future projects and innovations in the field. Whether games and partnerships such as this will truly encourage change through awareness-building and on-the-ground work – instead of merely fostering ‘slacktivism’ in its players – remains to be seen.

The Get Water! mobile app will be made available for iOS on World Water Day, March 22, 2013. The release of an Android-compatible app will follow in early April.