Design for UNICEF: Mancala Phone Game

9 November, 2009

In Clay Shirky's Design for UNICEF class this semester, we've been trying to come up with ways of using the rapidly growing number of cell phones in sub-saharan Africa as a platform for projects that would improve the health, education, or security of young people. It's an incredibly tough assignment, mostly because of the profound and also wildly diverse challenges in every country across the continent. You can come up with a simple idea for using SMS to make it easier for people to coordinate car rides from remote areas into major cities and it turns out that the two text messages required would cost the users a day's salary; or they aren't literate enough to use interactive text menus on their phones; or they don't have enough access to power to keep their phones charged; etc.

In order to attempt to address these challenges without becoming overwhelmed or discouraged, we spent the first half of the semester iterating over a large number of ideas very quickly. Each week, we'd split into groups, come up with a few ideas, and put together simple three-slide presentations to explain them to the class. This process gave us a lot of rapid feedback both from Clay, the various UNICEF staff members he brought in, and from fellow classmates. It also let us drop ideas that seemed infeasible without too much pain and let us make quick transformations to other ideas in order to adapt them to new incoming information. Eventually we settled on the project ideas that seemed most likely to yield practical results when worked on in a concerted manner for the rest of the semester.

This post, however, is not about the project my group chose to work on. It's about one of the ones that got dropped along the way.

Throughout this iterative process, intriguing ideas got left behind not necessarily because of lack of merit, but because they would be hard to work on in the context of an ITP class in New York City. One of my favorite ideas was amongst these; I'm sure everyone in the class has a similar pet project that ended up as a castoff. I thought I'd describe mine here where someone with the interest and resources to pick it up and run with it might stumble upon it at some time in the future.

The project is called "Mancala Phone Game" and the idea is to use children's bead games to teach cellphone literacy.

After some of the frustrating feedback I described above, I had dinner with a friend who'd worked for the Clinton Global Initiative and traveled to Ghana. I was complaining about all the obstacles to potentially transformative cell phone usage and told her I was trying to think of a way to teach phone competency to kids. After picking her brain for awhile, she mentioned that wherever she went in Ghana she saw kids playing this one game in the dirt with beads. She'd heard it was common throughout Africa; maybe that was something I could use as a teaching tool?

I did some research and discovered that bead-and-board games are almost universal across Africa and parts of Asia. They go by different names and have different rules everywhere, but the format is pretty consistent. The most familiar version of this game for Americans will be Mancala, the name under which it is sold here by Disney.

As soon as I saw a picture of the Mancala board, a light went off in my head. The board has a striking visual similarity to the Nokia 1100, maybe the most common cellphone in the world. I immediately started imagining mappings between the Nokia 1100's keys and buttons and the squares on the Mancala board. Make the right series of moves on the Mancala board to win a game objective and it corresponds to successfully navigating the phone to the menu for sending text messages, for example.

One of the most ingenious things the UNICEF people had shown us in class was a project that helped rural African women learn cell phone competency by modeling the menu structure as a series of tree branches on the ground. The women could stand at the trunk of the tree and see the branch end that corresponded to some particular function and they'd be able to figure out how to get to it, by following the branching of the tree — left and right moves corresponding to the various menu buttons, etc.

I thought that something similar might be possible with the Mancala game. Design a set of rules for a game that could be played by children with just rocks and a board scratched out in the dirt. The kids would teach the game to each other and parents would learn it by seeing it played in their homes. The game could travel anywhere that a piece of paper describing the rules or a teacher who already knew them could go. It would cost nearly nothing to distribute. And it would lay the foundation of phone competency for people with the least access to technology and therefore the least familiarity with these kinds of interfaces. As Clay often says, "intuitive" is usually just another way of saying "similar to what we already know".

So where's the problem? Here's an idea that would need no technology, be extremely cheap to develop and distribute, and would seem to have lots of logical supporters in the handset manufacturers who want more buyers for their phones, the carriers who want more usage of their services, and UNICEF and the NGOs who want to see the poorest and least literate benefit from cell technology.

The problem is in the design process. In order to put together an effective game you need to do lots of play testing with a realistic audience. ITP students, or any literate cell phone-familiar people really, can't fairly evaluate the effectiveness of this kind of game for teaching phone competence. Even the poorest people in New York have far more experience with cell phones and other technology than the African populations that would be the real target market for such a project. And without a realistic audience to do lots of iterative play testing, there's no way to design an effective set of rules for a game with any confidence that they'd do any good communicating the concepts of phone competency.

While we still thought the project had a lot of potential, my group and I were convinced by this that the Mancala Phone Game wasn't something we could effectively develop at ITP. But if you're a Peace Corps worker or teacher or NGO or designer and you think you can do something with this idea, I'd love to hear from you to help out however I can. You can download the full slide deck for this presentation, which includes some statistics about phone adoption in Kenya and challenges that a Nokia study found there as well as some analysis of related projects.