© Katalina Maievska

Gamification of media literacy in Ukraine 

«Air balloons are strictly prohibited.» Such a note is written on some playroom doors of volunteers who work with Ukrainian children in Poland. 

Our team makes a Ukrainian popular science media Kunsht. We produce exhibitions, podcasts, and courses that unite science and art. In early 2022, we applied to MediaFutures with a project we’ve been dreaming of implementing for a long time. Ochi is an application for youth that turns learning media literacy into a gamified experience. It offers a selection of games and tests that are both educational and entertaining. The app’s main feature is a personal dinosaur in AR, which sustains on systematic involvement with the app and grows together with the user’s knowledge.

Our focus is on quality content, which is fun and educational. The word “media-literacy” might sound boring to children, so it is only for internal use. Our games will be about space, superheroes, oceans, cats, dogs, sharks, etc. Yet through stories and quizzes, kids will learn how to discern ads from content, facts from opinions, and narratives from stories. Through playful situations, they will learn how to deal with bullying, grooming, and discern fishing from a mile away. 

Of course, we knew that we would have to work in tight cooperation with a child psychologist to develop our games and gamification system. But could we imagine a whole new level to deal with the traumatization of Ukrainian children? 

In the book «What Kids Buy and Why,» Daniel Acuff and Robert H Reiher tell us that at the age of 7-12, kids are going through the stages of socialization and confirmation. They want to distance themselves from childish concepts and find role models. They seek to get a challenge. But what can be more challenging than living in bomb shelters and waking up from siren alerts? 

According to UNICEF Ukraine, during one month of the war, 4.3 million kids were displaced, which is more than half of the 7.5 million kids in Ukraine. Therefore we are pursuing building a game for Ukrainian kids, which is fun but also takes extra care of children’s emotions. The key to that lies in our gamification strategy, which needs to give incentives but can’t be harsh. 

In the book Gamification by Design, Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham argue that the key to a successful gamification system is an acronym SAPS: giving a player status, access, power, and stuff (they go from the most important to the least important). And Richard Bartle argues that there are four types of players: Explorers, Achievers, Socializers, and Killers. Achievers will want their dinosaurs in our game to develop the fastest; Explorers will be experiencing every facet of the game and discover all of its secrets. Socializers will need to show off with their dino. And Killers will derive enjoyment from defeating other players.

But how to achieve it without traumatizing? 

In consultation with a Ukrainian child psychologist Svetlana Royz, we found out that Ukrainian children need to feel that they are winners; they need two have “white competition” instead of “black competition.” She means that we shouldn’t say “you’re better than 70% of users”, but rather say “you are among 100 winners”.

Eddy Madalena, tenure track researcher in the Dept. of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Physics at the University of Udine, Italy, gave us a piece of advice that we can’t take away the points from our users. It will discourage them. Even though our hero is very much inspired by the hit game of the late 1990s Tamagotchi (even our names rhyme; but in fact, it is a lucky coincidence, the word “ochi” means “eyes” in Ukrainian). 

In some way, Tamagotchi takes the points away, as your pet can die. The creator of the Tamagotchi, Yokoi Akihiro, intended to teach the user that “pets are only cute 20 to 30 percent of the time, and the rest is a lot of trouble, a lot of work.”  Should we take the same path? No, we want to take a different bet and not punish. In this domain, a great reference is the gamification strategy of Duolingo. 

These things are subtle. We have discovered some of them, and we will find more. We need to iterate and see the response of the children. We know that we have to take extra care. Banal things like the sound of squished air balloon can resemble a gunshot and be traumatizing—there are many new layers and challenges on the way. We couldn’t see them coming.

But if Ukrainian kids can face so many new challenges, so can we!