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Digital security is obviously a serious concern, especially since people are spending more time than ever online. So you wouldn’t expect digital security training to be fun and games – but it can be, as Pollicy and Paradigm Initiative prove with their new joint initiative, Digital SafeTea.

The expansion of internet access in recent years has brought increasing numbers of people online around the world, and this process was sped up significantly by the COVID-19 pandemic, as isolation and social distancing measures meant that everyday activities like work and schooling had to be moved online.

This increased presence in digital spaces increases our exposure to digital threats, which in turn creates the need for greater awareness of how to stay safe while navigating the online world. This is especially true for women, as numerous reports have pointed to a “shadow pandemic” of online gender-based violence alongside the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are of course many resources on digital security that have been developed over the years, including some geared specifically to women and girls, but many do not know where to find them – or even realise that they need them. There are also organisations that offer digital security training to women, but these tend to be targeted to specific groups of women like journalists or human rights defenders.

As a way to reach African women from all walks of life with crucial information on how to stay safe both online and offline, Uganda-based Pollicy – which recently joined the APC member network – and Paradigm Initiative in Nigeria joined forces to come up with a truly innovative approach to digital security training: an interactive fiction game.

Digital SafeTea is aimed at giving women the “tea” (or “inside scoop”, for those less familiar with the latest internet slang) on online safety. Players are invited to choose one of three characters based on different “archetypes” of African women: Aisha, Goitse and Dami, each with a distinctive profile representing different professions, locations, interests and online activities.

As they step into the world of these three characters, players are faced with a series of different scenarios that pose the kinds of digital threats that women face on a regular basis, from harassing messages to impersonation to non-consensual sharing of intimate images (NCII), which is often erroneously referred to as “revenge porn”.

Once presented with a scenario, players are nudged to pick their response to the threat from available choices, as a way for them to get to the next stage of the game. As players weave through the maze of threats, they are presented with lessons on how to navigate such threats in real life. A particularly useful feature of the game is that it shows players exactly where and how to take action to deal with these situations on the different platforms where they may encounter them.

The game also directs players to sites and toolkits where they can learn more about how to confront the various threats that emerge. These include resources developed by and for women such as Safe Sisters and Cyberwomen.

“Digital security training still remains out of reach for most internet users across Africa,” said Pollicy founder and Executive Director Neema Iyer, who added that one of her main sources of inspiration when designing the game were the “pick your own adventure” type of children’s books. “At Pollicy, we’re interested in exploring how creative media can be used as a driver for improving the experiences of users when it comes to using data and digital platforms. We have been experimenting with community murals, dance, poetry, mockumentaries, chatbots and interactive fiction.”

It was important for the design team to incorporate elements of storytelling to the game, as traditional digital security training is often inaccessible. “It’s important to use art forms, storylines and characters that are relatable to the people who will interact with our interactive fiction game,” Iyer explained.

The need to make digital security training more accessible for women and girls in Africa was made abundantly clear to Pollicy by a recent study of the online lived experiences of women in five African countries. Conducted with support from the Feminist Internet Research Network project led by APC, Pollicy’s research revealed that many of their respondents did not know where to turn to for information on online safety and security.

Digital SafeTea, described by APC communications manager Flavia Fascendini as “a wonderful resource, really well thought through, deeply educational and entertaining,” will help many more women in Africa learn where to turn. Its lively and creative approach to the subject makes digital security training much more accessible to “everyday” women, no matter how much time they spend on the internet or what they use it for.

And to make it even more accessible, the game can be played not only in English, but also in Kiswahili, Luganda and French – three other widely spoken languages in Africa – with Pidgin English to be added shortly.

“This game is such a useful and much-needed resource, and I appreciate that it is in many languages relevant to our continent,” commented Jennifer Radloff, the APC Women’s Rights Programme capacity building lead, who is based in South Africa. “I love the interactivity,” she added.

You can check it out for yourself by clicking here.