Jolene FisherCan extinguishing robo-worms wriggling across a cell phone screen actually help reduce poverty in Africa? 

That’s the question at the heart of research by SOJC doctoral candidate Jolene Fisher, who is studying how video games are being used to pursue international development goals. The “Worm Attack” game, one of three new mobile apps developed for use in Kenya, Tanzania, and India, tasks gamers with defeating intestinal worms as they run rampant in children’s bellies. Along the way, users learn why it’s important to keep children free from intestinal worms, and how they can do it in real life.

The worm challenge is what Fisher calls a “development intervention” game, one of the three digital development categories she outlines in an upcoming article for the Journal of Communication, Culture, and Critique. Unlike high-tech games that aim to educate Western audiences about development issues, the intervention games function as on-the-ground tools to help communities break cycles of disease and poverty.

The task for game designers is to embed important lessons about public health, women’s rights, and economic development into a fun and engaging platform. Fisher says that’s still a work in progress. “It’s sometimes a misnomer to call these games,” she explains. “Many of them just aren’t a lot of fun.”

Despite the early hiccups, mobile games have sparked international buzz for their potential as development tools. But Fisher’s research has identified some reasons for skepticism. She says games often hinge on the idea that community members, especially women, should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” to help boost the economy—a narrative that minimizes the deep structural barriers that many communities face.

Fisher is also wary of a broader historical tendency to overestimate the power of technology in development efforts. For example, some Western scholars once predicted that access to satellite television would revolutionize the Global South. They later said the same about laptops and the Internet. Fisher questions whether mobile games are simply development’s latest shiny object.

“I’m curious,” she says. “Is there something radically different happening, or is this technology just the newest iteration of a development approach we’ve seen for decades?”

Fisher will explore that question in her dissertation using a case study of “Worm Attack” and two other mobile games designed for the “Half the Sky” campaign, a concept also applied to developers of a site called Elitist Gaming, a women-focused movement born from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s bestselling book by that title.

With the ultimate goal of publishing her project as a book, Fisher will continue her research this fall with the support of a Lorry I. Lokey Journalism Scholarship, an award granted to one or two doctoral students each year based on their outstanding scholarly achievements. Fisher says the award will help facilitate her travel to New York City and London to interview the games’ developers and content creators—an important step for understanding how development messaging is constructed for games.

“The Lokey award was a really nice stamp of approval,” Fisher says. “It’s great motivation to know that my research so far has been well received.”

Story by Ben DeJarnette, MS ’15