Why you should care
Because those popular choose-your-own-adventure ’80s books translate surprisingly well into cellphone games.
Three months ago, Edris Senfuka, 27, a farmer and property broker from Mukono, Uganda, received a curious text on his cellphone: an invitation to play an educational game for free. It piqued his curiosity. “I had not seen anything else like it,” he says.
The game, based around financial literacy, had Senfuka listen to a story and make decisions by pushing his phone’s buttons. Each choice led to a different outcome — much like the choose-your-own-adventure books popular in the 1980s.
Today, the CYOA model is being used on cellphones as an educational tool, covering topics from better farming techniques to how to have safe sex, in a string of developing countries.
Wanji games are designed to be both fun and educational.
The idea came to Paul Falzone in 2014, when he was working with nonprofit Peripheral Vision International (PVI) in remote Karamoja, in Uganda’s northeast. PVI was trying to locate public TV screens to show contraception videos, but sometimes 100 miles lay between one screen and the next. Flip phones, though, were ubiquitous. “That got us asking the question, ‘How can we use this old technology in a new way?’” Falzone says. When he was in a used bookshop in New York and came across a copy of an ’80s choose-your-own-adventure book, “that’s when the lightbulb went off,” he says.
Wanji Games (wanji means “what” in Luganda, a major language in Uganda) was launched in 2017 by Falzone and co-creator Leah Newman. Users call what’s known as the 3-2-1 Service, a toll-free hotline that provides information via interactive voice response on a range of development topics, and select a game from the Topic menu. Each of the eight participating countries have at least one game to play — such as sex education (Malawi), domestic violence education (Cambodia), farming techniques (Uganda) and how to avoid sex traffickers when immigrating (Ethiopia).
In “Smart Finances Happy Life,” players make about 300,000 Ugandan shillings ($81) a month through casual labor. Since work isn’t guaranteed, they must budget their money. “How can you keep track of your income and expenses?” the game asks. There are two options: “Press 1 to keep track of expenses in your head so that no one can see how you’ve spent your money” or “Press 3 to purchase a book and a pen to record your daily expenses.”
Spoiler alert: The first option leaves the player without money when it’s time to pay school fees — game over. Choosing the second option allows continued play.
Another example: In the Malawian sex education game, callers who opt to play as male can “Press 1 to have sex without condoms and try to ejaculate on the outside” or “Press 3 to stop now and purchase condoms.”
Wanji games are designed to be both fun and educational, says Newman, product director at mobile communications provider Viamo, which works to create the games in 18 local languages. The interactive narratives allow players to “explore the decision that they may want to make in the real world but without the consequences,” Newman says.
Leveraging the platform for different topics and audiences is “really important,” says Lauren Frank, an associate professor of communications at Portland State University who has studied the games in Cambodia and Uganda. Frank is in the early stages of researching, via surveys and talking to players, how the games can be improved.
There have been a few hiccups along the way. Falzone recounts how they tested a prototype with a fantasy element in Uganda — the community became convinced that PVI was practicing black magic. The lesson? Finding narratives that reflect the daily lives of community members and teach practical skills, Falzone says.
The games are catching on. In the first nine months of 2019, there have been 771,000 unique callers — more than the number of calls received in 2017–18 combined (about 665,000).
Senfuka, who last played the game a few weeks ago, says what he’s learned has already paid off. The 27-year-old father of two is earning more, and he’s bought a motorbike that he uses as a taxi to make even more money. “I learned the importance of saving and put it into practice,” he says.