Experiencing the COVID-19 crisis through the eyes of a domestic helper

A simulation game by Yein Udaan and XR Labs provides a peek into the everyday decisions marginalised workers are forced to take

May 10, 2020 02:29 pm | Updated May 11, 2020 11:04 am IST - Chennai

Everyone in every whereabouts is battling the COVID-19 situation, and some are doing so from a position of glaring disadvantage. That is the theme of “Survive COVID”, a simulation game created by Chennai-based NGO Yein Udaan and experiential-learning software company XR Labs.

(The game can be accessed at http://covid.xrlabs.cloud/ )

It seeks to underline how invisible groups — the daily-wagers and domestic workers among them — are beleaguered on various fronts, economic, social and emotional, as they dodge the virus as well as the curveballs the crisis throws their way.

The protagonist of the story is a house maid, whose wornout footwear the player has to step into. Conceptualised around the time the nation was first placed in lockdown, the challenge presents a 21-day lockdown scenario, with each day bringing a unique problem, which has to be resolved without causing much damage to a financial reserve, obviously a paltry little amount, and also by keeping the COVID risk low.

If the COVID-19 risk surges to 100 percent before the lockdown ends, or the cash reserve runs out, it is game over, with the player having lost the battle to COVID-19.

Vedika Agarwal, founder of Yein Udaan, states that the problem was gamified so that more eyeballs would turn towards the odds faced by these people in the current situation.

Yein Udaan seeks to create “learning hubs in low-income communities with after-school education of underprivileged children as the primary line of intervention, and Vedika points out that this process of empowerment focusses on these children’s families in a significant manner. There is a parent engagement programme, taking place twice a month, and it is through such interactions volunteers understand the difficulties faced by these families, she says.

“Social distancing is actually a privilege. How can those who live in cramped living quarters practise it effectively? How can someone ration water for hand-washing when there are only two buckets of it at their disposal?” asks Vedika.

The game actually presents these two situations, among others, but does not offer any solutions. Vedika admits that there are no easy solutions, most certainly no panaceas, but she believes awareness of the problems faced by the marginalised is a solution in itself.

“It can draw the empathy of those who are privileged,” is her belief.

Certain situations presented in the game might have been overtaken by newer developments, but one does get a picture of the overall misery of a domestic help, saddled with a spouse who fritters away savings by drinking, is not responsible enough to put aside money towards renewing his autorickshaw’s lease or paying the rent; in-laws who have to be cared for; and little children whose irrepressible energy has to be channelled effectively. Then, there are past loans coming home to roost, and of course, a basket full of COVID-survival requirements, such as purchase of masks for the entire family, hankering for attention and the meagre cash reserve.

Srivatsan Jayasankar, co-founder and CEO, XR Labs, recalls how Vedika called him one day around the time nation was on lockdown and sought to find out if the plight of marginalised people could be brought out in an experiential format — as his company specialises in experiential knowledge transfer through virtual and augmented reality.

“We decided on building a game through a web application. The first ten days went into setting the context, and Vedika has a few volunteers on the field whose inputs had to be weighed in. Following this, Thirukumaran, co-founder, XR Labs, and I were stringing all the available elements together to come up with a story line,” says Srivatsan, adding that they decided on having the monetary constraints and the risk of exposure to COVID-19 as levers driving the protagonist’s decisions.

The game seems to have got it right on three counts: experientiality, interactivity and shareability, and these are integral to how millennials or digital natives process, promote, and even participate in, information.

The simplicity of the platform and content seems to have helped, say Srivatsan and Vedika.

“The app is a simple React.JS front-end web application with usage of animation libraries. It was designed with mobile-first approach and is also adaptive to the web,” says Srivatsan.

“In the first five days, over 50,000 people played the game, and the number is not restricted to India,” says Srivatsan.

Both Srivatsan and Vedika put down its high shareability quotient to the fact that it is an outright simple offering, with well-sequenced questions. “We we did not want to make it complicated,” says Vedika, referring to how by telescoping the travails of a domestic help into a screen in easy-to-follow steps, they got a simple story out, and at the same time pictured for the gamer the collective experience of all marginalised workers.

Fluid design

“The game has been built in such a fluid manner that it can incorporate updates as we go along. Already the game has been tweaked based on feedback from users, such as the prices of certain essential commodities having been presented on the lower side, and we expect more feedback to ensure the game is kept more up-to-date,” says Srivatsan.

Experiential learning

Based on the nature of his work, which involves using virtual reality and augmented reality, Srivatsan seems to equate experiential learning with deep learning.

“Most of those known to me are aware of the difficulties underprivileged people are going through in the current situation, but they don’t understand it the way they should,” says Srivatsan, suggesting that this awareness hardly moves beyond the signpost of knowledge.

He points out that the game is set in the mould of experiential knowledge transfer, which can transfer knowledge into emotion, and ultimately empathy. This progression from knowledge to empathy happens because the player gets to process the other person's world by being experiencing that other person’s emotions in a make-believe situation.

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