The Engagement Lab’s Community PlanIt platform has been put to use again to activate community voices – in particular youth between the ages of 15 and 28 – around the issues surrounding employment and education, this time by the United Nations Development Program in Bhutan. Our staff consulted from afar with local partners in the UNDP and the Institute for Management Studies (IMS), both based in the capital city of Thimphu, during the summer before traveling to Bhutan earlier this fall. In July and August, UNDP in Bhutan and IMS convened workshops with youth leaders in various cities (Dzongkhags) to source ideas for the content of their three week long online game, Youth@Work Bhutan, which launched on October 24. The game has garnered roughly 2,000 registered users and engendered lively debate (to the tune of 30,000 unique comments) about the causes and possible remedies for youth unemployment in the country. Likewise, a spirited competition among the players who proposed ideas for funding small local projects – ranging from the creation of online platforms for community activism, to small business ideas, to charitable work – has driven the forward momentum of the game, which closed on November 14.
Project leaders Scott Bohachyk, Junior Consultant in the UNDP Poverty Unit, and Jigme Dorji, Portfolio Manager Economic Integration & Innovation at the UNDP in Bhutan were keenly interested in using games as a means to engage youth and source ideas from a wide swathe of the community that could then be integrated into any proposal to the Royal Government of Bhutan. Inspired by the outcomes of a version of Community PlanIt that had been played in Moldova during the spring of 2014, called Youth@Work, the UNDP in Bhutan saw the opportunity to use online social game platform to connect youth with other stakeholders in the country to have candid conversations about the underlying causes of unemployment, which affects urban youth in Bhutan disproportionately at a rate of 9.6%, as well as the cultural and social effects of unemployment on individuals, families and communities.
In October, Engagement Lab’s Eric Gordon (Director), Stephen Walter (Managing Director), and Christina Wilson (Project Manager) traveled to Bhutan to meet our UNDP and IMS partners in person, consult with local government officials, as well as facilitate a two-day workshop in Paro with about 40 young leaders currently in high school and college, recent graduates, educators, and Ministry of Education officials. During the course of the two-days, we guided the group through a series of small group activities designed to teach the principles of systems thinking and problem solving through games. By the end of the two days, five groups had each created a proto-type for a non-digital game addressing issues they proposed as fundamental to the unemployment problem such as: the education system, adolescent mental health and well being, substance abuse, social media literacy, and the lack of public spaces for youth networking and recreation. The best games were determined by a vote and then play-tested with the public during a festival at Coronation Park in Thimphu with anyone who cared to play later that week. At the conclusion of the two-day workshop, participants were recognized by the UNDP Resident Representative in Bhutan, Christina Carlson, and presented with certificates of completion.
While the games were still very much in a nascent stage of design, what we heard from participants was that they were eager for new approaches to policy problems that affected their lives personally. They sought ways to engage their peers in meaningful conversations. There is a common (mis)conception of youth in Bhutan that they are “lazy” and overly reliant on the government for access to jobs and opportunity. We heard this time and again, even from the youth themselves, yet the participants of our workshop belied this ethos with their willingness to experiment, their unfailingly polite yet forceful opinions, and their sense of responsibility to making Bhutan embody the place the they have taught to understand in terms of “happiness” while emerging from a developing nation status as a relatively new democracy.
Conversations that have taken place online during the course of Youth@Work Bhutan on Community PlanIt have reinforced this sense of obligation and enthusiasm. A look at any of the three missions (“Work”, “Learn”, “Play”), which ranged in theme from the impacts of urban vs. rural geography, the relevance of the secondary school curriculum to career opportunities, and the importance of recreational facilities and public spaces for youth to congregate and network, confirmed our impressions working with the group from the workshop in Paro. The most outspoken players include university students, high school students, government officials and small business owners. They have created a civil, yet lively dialogue around the issues facing youth, and addressed concerns in candid terms, often relaying their own personal experiences. The Soapbox, a public forum in the game for tangential conversation, has been equally lively, with people posing questions to each other about everything from the work ethic of Bhutanese youth, to the dignity of manual labor in a country where most graduates expect to take white collar government ministry jobs, to whether professional sports might be a way to drive the economy of Bhutan.
We have been struck by the overwhelming success of the game in Bhutan, not only evinced by the active players who have engaged in challenge questions, but also by the number of Causes that were proposed by players in the game. The top three of these Causes, voted on by contributing the coins players earn in the game for answering questions and interacting with one another, will each be awarded $800 by the UNDP in Bhutan. Players have used their social networks to engage their friends and family and rally for their Causes. There are nearly 60 proposals in contention, by far the most of any game of Community PlanIt yet played. At the conclusion of the game, the top three winning Causes were: an HIV / AIDS education and prevention campaign (107, 101 coins), Training on GIS and Spatial Planning for more holistic approaches to civic engineering (97,28 coins), and Shingira, a small press focused on traditional Bhutanese story-telling and art design (94,881 coins). Each of these projects will be seeded with funding from the UNDP, which will report back to the community on their progress. During a public live event in conjunction with International Volunteer Day December 5, outcomes and ongoing plans will be discussed, top players will be recognized, and Cause winners awarded their prizes.
Prior to launch, we at the Engagement Lab had had some concerns as to whether a digital game played online would find traction in a country with little access to broadband internet (rough 27% of Bhutanese). However, thanks to relatively widespread 3G access and faster connections as high school and university campuses, we have seen this game become one of the Lab’s most successful implementations of the game. We are looking forward to analyzing the data and working with the UNDP in Bhutan to help them convey the results of the game and the vast array of input from players to the public and the leaders in government who are looking for the best ways to approach the issue of youth opportunity and well being in Bhutan.
For more information about this game or any other on Community PlanIt, visit communityplanit.org or contact Christina Wilson (christina [at] engagementgamelab.org).