Gamification Expert &

Behavioral Designer

How Nightmare: Malaria Saves Lives through Social Gamification

Most people are aware that malaria is a deadly disease caused by mosquitoes. But what is not common knowledge is that nearly half the world’s population is at risk for contracting the disease. Every year, over a million individuals die from it and seventy percent of these fatalities are children. What may also surprise you is that malaria vaccines don’t yet exist. However, the tragic deaths associated with this disease can be simply prevented by sleeping under a $3 mosquito net!

Malaria is prevalent in areas that are warm and damp. These conditions are ideal for mosquitoes to thrive and are found in places around the world- specifically Sub Saharan Africa, India and southern Asia. Malaria is considered to be a minimal threat in North America (case in point: mosquito nets are sold by chains like Cost Plus World Market as bedroom decorations rather than for protection).

Simply lecturing about the facts and statistics of malaria may not be enough to garner effective action but vivid and immersive experiences may change how we understand and take action on this epidemic.

As an example of social gamification at work, the Emmy Award winning animation studio, PsyOp partnered with Against Malaria Foundation to develop a free mobile app called Nightmare: Malaria to spread awareness on this issue and raise funds for life saving mosquito nets.

Released this past December, Psyop is banking on their game to generate enough enthusiasm to secure millions of nets for at-risk individuals across the globe. And with enough participation, it may succeed at lowering the death toll significantly by the end of 2014 and beyond. Here’s how they’ve designed the game to be both engaging and informative:

The Basics of Malaria

The graphics of Nightmare Malaria has a story book appeal which is visually striking and reminiscent of  the game, Limbo. Through a stylistic narrative, the game also brings information about the disease to life. To appreciate the creativity behind all this, let’s familiarize ourselves with the basics of malaria:

Malaria is a disease that is caused by the Plasmodium protozoan. This micro-organism is transmitted through the saliva of the female Anopheles mosquito. When the mosquito injects its needle like proboscis into the skin to suck blood, the protozoan is able to enter the victim’s circulatory system (not the most pleasant image, I know).

It then travels to various organs in the body such as the liver, kidneys and brain. The initial symptoms are very general and difficult to diagnose. Afflicted individuals will first start to experience dizziness, drowsiness, irritability and the inability to sleep. As the protozoan reproduces, victims suffer from headaches, convulsions and fevers. Without proper treatment, coma and death can result.

The Story of Malaria as Told By Psyop

The fact that malaria could be the subject of an artful, imaginative and immersive game would probably not occur to most of us. But Psyop certainly shows us how a nasty disease can be fascinatingly taught to a wider audience while generating solutions in the process.

At the beginning part of the game, Susan Sarandon narrates a poignant, dark and dramatic poem about the disease

The evil King Malaria fed

His parasites then began to spread

Through the cells and to the liver

Her blood then becomes a deadly river

The fever, convulsions and vicious sickness

Her end approaches with stunning quickness

The main character of Nightmare: Malaria is a little girl who represents the children who die annually from the disease. In the opening scene, she is happy and secure within her sweet innocent world as she is tucked into bed. She dozes off and enters a blissful, candy colored dream scape. But all of this comes to an end after she is bitten by a mosquito and enters the dark, nightmarish world of her own body.


Playing Nightmare: Malaria

The game consists of eighteen levels. Beginners must help the little girl overcome obstacles through the watery world of her circulatory system. Navigation controls allow her to run or walk forwards or backwards. Along the way, players help the little girl jump and collect teddy bears.

She is challenged to climb over heaps of blood cells and avoid meeting her doom by falling into green abysmal pools of pus (yup, another vivid image)

And she must also dodge mosquitoes in order to survive. At times, mosquito nets are presented to help shelter the little girl.

The controls are deliberately inaccurate to create the sense of struggle. And it is not easy to avoid the pitfalls. Upon death, the player is shown reminders to donate $3 to provide a net to help prevent malaria.

After successfully navigating her blood stream, the little girl is allowed to roam through the passages of her brain.

How Nightmare: Malaria Was Developed

Psyop recently created a game division at their production studio. Nightmare: Malaria was their first project which was intended to help a non-profit organization called The Establishment for the Greater Good, which partnered with Against Malaria Foundation. According to co-founder, Ave Carillo, this decision to partner with these organizations would “save the most lives with the least amount of money.”

Psyop brought on a team of interns to develop the malaria awareness project for EEG who would not otherwise have the means to commission this type of project.

Originally the focus of their efforts was to provide the animation content but they naturally moved on to integrate the dynamic illustrated story with game mechanics in order to enrich the engagement level that viewers had with the story.

Games and Proactive Aid

Most of us wish we could do more to help eliminate much of the suffering across the world. Awareness of issues is often not enough to truly elicit concrete actions. But with the help of gamification, it is possible to integrate contribution as a natural part of the player’s experience. In my blog we’ve seen this with MMORPG’s and disaster relief, and the empowerment of women in developing nations. And now with Nightmare: Malaria, we see how a stylistic, immersive narrative can be employed to save lives from a preventable disease.

Instead of feeling powerless, we now live in a time where we can have fun for good, and make a real difference in the process.


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2 responses to “How Nightmare: Malaria Saves Lives through Social Gamification”

  1. Great cause. By the way, Thanks for showing the second clip of the game development. Never saw that sort of activity before. (Though I am sure these kinds of clips are available online. I just never took the time to look them up.)

  2. Effective theme graphics. And the learnings as you progress through the game. And suggestions to pay up for a good cause when you err. Very motivating!
    On that latter point, when I’m tardy returning a book to the library with someone having it “On Hold” I don’t feel guilty paying the fine because it goes to a good cause. Further on that, the local library has a large funnel that allows coins to work their way down, sometimes taking forever & then on final drop down, spinning super fast & looking like a solid metal piece. Fun game & they have questions for kids to think on about the physics. I get another feeling of Meaning by giving moms some coins to give their kids to use at the funnel. They enjoy it almost as much as I do.

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