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Put Yourself In A Sex Worker’s Shoes


Post by: Paul VanDeCarr

Your name is Naomi, you live in Cape Town, South Africa. Now age 35, you’ve been a sex worker for 6 years, ever since your husband left you with a young daughter to raise and all the bills to pay. You project a strong image, but you worry a lot about violent clients, dishonest cops and your health. You need to make $25 to pay for your daughter’s school fees. So you go out on the streets. But you face some tough choices between protecting your health and avoiding trouble with the police.

You can play out this scenario in “Cops and Rubbers,” a table-top game funded by the Sexual Health and Rights Project (SHARP) at Open Society Foundations (OSF), and now available for free download. The goal is to put players in the shoes of sex workers in the many cities and countries worldwide—including OSF’s home base of New York City—where just having a condom is evidence enough of sex work to get you arrested or extorted by the police.

“We’re constantly looking for the most effective ways of getting our message out,” says Brett Davidson, director of the Health Media Initiative at OSF, where he provides communications support to the foundations’ health grantees. When game designer Lien Tran expressed interest in developing a game for the AIDS 2012 Conference in Washington, DC, Davidson circulated word to his colleagues, and SHARP took her up on the idea.”

SHARP was producing a report called Criminalizing Condoms, based on research conducted with partners in six countries, and needed ways to boost its reach. SHARP senior program officer Rachel Thomas thought that a game might induce players to really feel the tough choices that sex workers face every day, in a way that might escape them in a report or other form of communications. And so “Cops and Rubbers” was created.

“The visual spectacle of the game is what drew people in at the AIDS 2012 Conference,” says Tran, who now teaches at the University of Miami. Conference attendees who joined in playing the game were each given an identity as a sex worker and a compelling reason to earn a certain amount of money within six rounds of the game. You get help from an outreach worker, you try to hide condoms from police, and if you get caught, you must face consequences such as paying police the bribes they demand, going to jail, or worse. If you’re not stuck in jail, then you can work and earn money. You want to succeed in the game by earning enough money for your daughter’s school fees, or whatever your character’s goal is, without being exposed to a sexually transmitted infection. “In playing the game,” says Tran, “you talk about sex workers as people rather than sex work as an issue

At the AIDS Conference, players who knew nothing of the criminalization of sex work and, by extension, condoms got a visceral sense of the impossible choices that sex workers face. Other players saw in the game a tool they might use for their advocacy or got ideas about how to improve services for sex workers. And now that the game is available for download, it can be used more broadly by sex workers themselves to educate peers and others about rights and risks. OSF aims to have other educators and advocates use it as well.

“I did initially have concerns about the game,” says SHARP’s Rachel Thomas. “The last thing we wanted to do was to trivialize a serious issue.” To ensure the game was grounded in reality, OSF and game designer Lien Tran based game scenarios on the experiences reported by sex workers from the six countries where the Criminalizing Condoms research took place and incorporated quotes throughout the game.

“This is a complicated issue,” Thomas continues. “But you have to be careful about how many elements or statistics you introduce.” Get too didactic or too precise about, say, HIV transmission rates and players may lose interest. Or get too general and the point of the game—to involve players in the life-and-death dilemmas of sex workers—is lost.

“Games should allow people to have freedom of thought,” says designer Lien Tran. “You shouldn’t try to force a message on someone, but rather provide a context for them to think about how things work as a system. The idea with my games is that you make a choice and there are consequences.” Part of what makes a game good, says Tran, is that it presents players with meaningful choice.

In game play, communication is not just a matter of transmitting a message to a passive recipient, but of getting players thinking about and involved in the issues—and interacting with one another. For Tran, this means working mostly with table-top games that several people play together. She collaborates with experts in different subject areas to develop games that are informed by real-world challenges and data. For example, she worked on a game for Tanzanian farmers about a social safety net program that was funded by the World Bank; and with a Canadian medical student to create a game called “Vanity,” which educates teens about the risks of indoor tanning. In both instances, players internalize the consequences of choices they must make.

“Games are a potentially exciting way to engage people,” says OSF’s Brett Davidson. But, he cautions, “You’ve got to think about your purpose and your audiences. It takes a lot of testing and re-testing. It’s a time commitment.” Tran agrees, saying that game design is a collaborative process. “It’s not just that you hire a game designer and you’re done,” she explains. Rather, it’s an iterative process in which staffers at the organization inform the design with research and feedback on prototypes of the game. SHARP’s Rachel Thomas adds, “Make sure the community that the game is about is involved in all stages of development.” Even with the challenges, the rewards can be great. For a lot of people, there are few more enticing invitations than, “Do you want to play a game?”


Communications Network contributor Paul VanDeCarr is managing director and co-founder of Working Narratives.

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