SuperBetter – Applying game-based ‘epic wins’ to real life scenarios in Zambia

Sansamwenje Primary School is set in a remote rural area of north-eastern Zambia and although the school has a thousand pupils, resources are scarce as parents pay just £1 a year to the parent teachers association. The community has few smartphones or PCs and it seems, and is, physically and culturally thousands of miles away from the hectic and hugely competitive world of computer games development. And yet Children for Health is starting a unique experiment to bring these two very distant worlds together.

When they ran the initial EPOCH survey to measure the wellbeing of the thirty adolescents who will be the first cohort of the programme, it was clear that it was not just poverty that was an holding them back from thriving. Many children were orphans, ate just one meal a day or had parents with alcohol problems and some were burdened with the full responsibilities for looking after their household. Not surprisingly, some felt unloved and others had lost hope, so when they were encouraged to attend school on Sunday as part of the SuperBetter project you might think that would be too much to ask of them – but it turned out, they had taken it to their hearts and some said that they wished they could be there ‘every day’.

SuperBetter was created by Jane McGonigal, a successful computer games designer and TED Talk speaker, to apply what is compelling about great games to help young people address the challenges in their lives by framing them in the same terms. Just as with online games, the participants will need to recruit allies, complete quests, battle the ‘bad guys’ and go for ‘epic wins’ and apply it to their ‘real lives’. This approach is very familiar to billions of young people battling through gameplay on their phones and PCs but this is the first time that the approach has been used in a community that is limited with technology. Ironically the programme has been developed, funded and launched entirely digitally without Clare Hanbury at Children for Health and Kelvin Nsekwila the school principal, ever meeting up due to COVID-19 restrictions.

‘We want them to use their imaginations and creativity to solve what they might otherwise think of as boring but pressing real life issues, whether it’s having nutritious diets or sourcing mosquito nets or school uniforms. They have such huge potential and this programme may just unlock it’, says Kelvin. 

Clare sees the 9-12 year olds that will pioneer the approach as being at a golden age, because ‘when they are nine or ten they engage with ideas in more subtle and sophisticated ways and are really outward-looking. They will remember what they learn at this age and it will carry them through life. SuperBetter seems a great way to equip them for a better future and for them to engage their families and whole communities in transforming their lives and prospects’