Escape to the future
An immersive humanitarian strategy game
This is a story of a partnership between the IFRC and Open Lab at Newcastle University and the challenge to build a unique experience that could help people who were attending the General Assembly of 2019 to engage with the new global Strategy 2030. It is told from the two perspectives of the partners.
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent
Over the last two years we have undertaken a thorough and rigorous consultation process for Strategy 2030, more than 10,000 staff, leaders, volunteers, community members, partners and external experts have contributed to the process. Strategy 2030 is the global strategy of the network of 192 Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It provides a high-level roadmap for all members of the Federation who then align and link their own strategies to the global strategy, as such it is a highly influential document.
The final stage of the process is that the General Assembly (where all leaders of the Red Cross and Red Crescent come together to agree on policy, strategy and priorities) adopts the Strategy for the coming decade. It is a large meeting with some 1,000 senior leaders from around the world attending. We had planned numerous workshops, plenary sessions and formal engagements for the Strategy 2030 at this event however we also wanted something else that would provide an experience of the Strategy.
We approached our long term partner Open Lab at Newcastle University, UK to help us. We have maintained a long and successful partnership with Open Lab as we have been consistently able to come up with initiatives that challenged and benefitted us both equally. Open Lab are extremely innovative and creative, they have a large team of students and staff who are energetic, curious, passionate and driven to make an impact with cutting edge digital civics. Open Lab had in fact designed an extremely successful engagement for us during the Strategy consultation process, ‘whatfutures’ an online game played entirely through WhatsApp that was designed to elicit the hopes and concerns of young people for the coming decade and to provide content for Strategy 2030. Over 4,000 young people played from more than 80 countries. So they were the perfect partner to help us drive engagement at the General Assembly of the newly adopted Strategy 2030.
We wanted something that would be fun, have an educational component but that most of all created a memorable experience for the delegates of the Strategy 2030. We very quickly came upon the idea of an escape room during our brainstorms. We believed we could build an immersive humanitarian game that transported delegates into a different space right within the conference centre. Therefore it had to make participants forget where they were, it would need compelling and enveloping visuals, surround sounds and an addictive game element. We also wanted it to be a good group experience where people could form groups with those from other countries and come together to ‘solve the room’ and along the way build connections and a sense of togetherness. Most of all it had to be fun.
The message we wanted people to explore was the power of taking action now in order to influence the future. So the game was set in 2030 where things were going badly for the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the delegates (or ‘time delegates’ as we referred to them in the game) had to travel back in time to 4 periods of the previous decade and make decisions and complete challenges that would change the course of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and of course the communities they support and are a part of. The message was simple, if we don’t make the changes now we will fail our communities.
The game utilised the content of Strategy 2030, so each challenge that the delegates had to solve drew from that content. In one challenge for instance they had to get better at anticipating a disaster in order to save lives and reduce the suffering of people, by ensuring financing models that released money ahead of time and was tied to the forecasts of the disasters. Digital transformation, strong local actors and more integrated systems and effort were key to success. Each of these are key elements of the Strategy and this was replicated in each challenge, giving the delegates a chance to play in a speculative space where they may or may not be able to make the transformations necessary to succeed and to deal with the consequences of those results.
Newcastle University, as usual, were up for the challenge for building this engagement, the only trouble was that we had only given them 2 months to do it.
Open Lab at Newcastle University
A digitally immersive escape room you say? That has to convey the key messages of a critical strategy document? But also has to be fun and entertaining? Delivered to high-level delegates from all around the globe? In four different languages? In two months? We’ll see what we can do…
Having previously worked with the innovation team at IFRC on successful and provocative engagements such as ‘WhatFutures’ and the ‘The Future Is Now’ Exhibition, we at Open Lab were no strangers to the unique challenges of delivering innovation at scale within a global humanitarian context. But even with this experience, a hard deadline of 2 months seemed to be an impossible challenge. Thankfully the strong working relationship formed between Open Lab and IFRC meant that we could hit the ground running, iterate on ideas fast, and quickly build and test prototypes knowing that we had the full support of the innovation team.
After considering various options (inflatable domes, events companies, tents and gazebos), it became clear that the only way we would be able to guarantee an immersive experience that met our high standards and could be delivered in time, was to build the entire thing in Newcastle from scratch then drive it to Geneva for the conference. It sounded crazy, but it was the only way we would be able to work fully on the escape room, knowing that we would have everything we needed once we got to the other end.
We designed the room to use 5 digital projectors to achieve full 360 projection, as well as a suite of stage lights to set ambience and immersion. The game itself was based on the five global challenges expressed within Strategy 2030, with an episode for each challenge. Within each 30-minute session, attendees would be transported from a pandemic control room, to the middle of a forest fire, to a recently abandoned home to name just a few. Each episode requiring its own bespoke digital environment, custom built props, specific lighting arrangements, sound effects and music. At the centre of it all was the time machine, with 5 glowing slots for the laser-cut ‘time artefacts’, each a reward for successful completion of a challenge and etched with the crucial transformations of the strategy.
The true power of game design for conveying complex ideas is that rather than telling someone something and hoping they understand it, you can actually place them in a situation where they live it. For example, a key message of strategy 2030 is one of distributed networks of strong local actors communicating effectively and working together towards a common goal. Rather than just saying this message out loud within the escape room, we created one of the puzzles so as it could only be solved by a team who worked together in this fashion. In this way the transformations were actually acted out by the attendees and the messages internalised into their ways of thinking. We also tried to keep things fun, by varying the types of clues, activities and interactions that were in the game so you could never tell what was coming next.
We are immensely proud of what we achieved in partnership with the IFRC, and the escape room is a shining example of what can be created by an innovation focussed partnership and the willingness to take risks and think outside the box.
The game was an overwhelming success, word of mouth spread quickly that it was worth doing. Over the course of the General Assembly 311 people played the game, but in the final days it was booked solid. Presidents, Secretaries General, volunteers, staff and youth delegates all played the game and it seemed to be enjoyed by all demographics and across multiple language groups. We knew that young people would enjoy the game but were thrilled to see others gaining a fun experience from it too. It was common to hear screams, excited chatter and laughter bursting out from the room into the otherwise serious environment of the conference. People emerged from the room very excited, commenting on how much fun it was.
Those we interviewed afterwards also clearly had the opportunity to think about innovation and change in the organisation and the importance of working collaboratively. They also demonstrated good recall of content from the Strategy. It was particularly fun watching people come together who had never met before and becoming a functioning team inside the room.
At least 10 National Societies also requested to have the escape room for their own big conferences the following year or for help in building their own game. There is clearly an appetite for immersive game experiences that can offer an innovative way to engage both internal and external stakeholders into global humanitarian challenges and the work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.