Gamifying Eco-Activism in Kazakhstan

March 10, 2021

Almaty, the second-largest city in Central Asia, is home to almost two million people. Surrounded by snowcapped mountains, dense forests, and crystalline lakes, the city prides itself on its picturesque surroundings. Nevertheless, residents of Kazakhstan’s southern capital remain plagued by a number of persistent environmental challenges.

“What do Almaty residents want?” asked Alesya Nugayeva, 34-year-old head of the public foundation Eco Kultura, urbanist, and curator of social and cultural projects in Almaty. Alesya’s question was not an idle one—she and her team conducted intensive research, interviewing 900 Almaty residents, city administration officials, and NGO representatives to find answers.

What Alesya and her team learned was surprising. Though Almaty residents expressed a number of concerns familiar to urban living—public safety (16%), transportation (14%), housing and communal services (11%), education (9%), medicine (8%), public services (8%), and infrastructure (7%)—the most common concern, cited by nearly one in three residents, was the environment.

Data also revealed a poor understanding of how to address these issues. For example, what should a person do if he or she witnesses illegal tree trimming, or garbage carelessly strewn about city streets? While Almaty does have some reporting mechanisms in place, 37 percent of respondents did not know where to apply for a solution to an urgent urban problem. Of the 25 percent of respondents who said they had brought a concern to the attention of state authorities, none felt their issues had been adequately resolved.

While daunting, Alesya knew these shortcomings were not insurmountable.

“On top of the low level of communication between residents and the city administration, there is a lack of centralized information,” Alesya explains. “All the necessary information is on the internet, but it is scattered. Some information is on the Open Almaty website, some on the city administration website, and some on the website of the police department. But when faced with an urgent question, people don’t have time to hunt for answers.”

To tackle this problem, Alesya and her team at Eco Kultura, supported by Eurasia Foundation’s Civil Society Support Program in Central Asia (CSSP), launched an information campaign. But instead of using traditional tools like news blasts or asking users to navigate automated phone or website directories for answers, Eco Kultura developed an online game, #Gorozhanym.

#Gorozhanym, or “Precious Resident,” allows Almaty residents to find information, instructions, and solutions to typical environmental issues they encounter in the city, as well as navigate municipal services. While walking down a virtual street, players notice illegal dumping, air pollution, and other common problems. They next choose from a list of solutions, such as starting a social media campaign or talking to government officials. Players then receive feedback on their choices, including recommendations for activities and links to local resources.

What separates #Gorozhanym from other municipal service directory projects is that all information is presented in the form of an online quiz. The game makes the process of obtaining information easy, engaging, and understandable. Within a week of launch, over 1,000 people had played the game. Dozens shared their results over social media, highlighting the game’s relevance and ease of use. Everyone who completes the quiz also receives a brochure with links to petitions, eco-friendly lifehacks, and environmental call centers, which also received thanks and praise from users.

With #Gorozhanym, Alesya hopes that helping Almaty residents protect their urban green space is just the start. “My goal is that with #Gorozhanym, players feel empowered to make a positive difference in their community, wherever a need arises,” says Alesya.

Alesya too has her eyes on the future. Now that #Gorozhanym is up and running, Alesya and Eco Kultura, with additional CSSP funding and technical support, plan to develop another game to address the second-highest issue of importance to the residents of Almaty—public safety.