Parsons Students Combat Sex Trafficking Through Game Design

In New Delhi, India, the statistics around child disappearances are shocking: five youths have been reported missing in the Indian capital every day since 2010. Out of the 8,470 missing children, including 4,620 boys and 2,665 girls, around 1,800 are yet to be traced.

The disturbing explanation? Human traffickers–criminals who deal in the trade of humans, most commonly for the purpose of sexual slavery, forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation–are abducting children.

Police action, coordinated at the local, national and international level, is a necessary tool in the fight against this “form of modern slavery,” as the Polaris Project has described it. Kate Wallace and Keiji Kimura (Design and Technology ’07) are taking a different approach to tackling this pressing issue, designing a mobile game that teaches at-risk children in India survival skills to protect themselves against exploitation.

Funded, in part, through a grant from New Challenge, The New School’s social innovation competition, BeyondABC is designed for tablet devices that have the potential to reach large numbers of children in remote areas. The focus of the app, Wallace and Kimura say, is prevention.

“The app is called BeyondABC because our target demographic needs an education beyond academics,” Wallace says. “They need to be equipped with the necessary life skills to protect themselves from dangerous situations.”

Designing BeyondABC was a huge undertaking. However, an even bigger challenge was figuring out how to get the app into the hands of the people it’s intended to help. The solution emerged from Wallace and Kimura’s partnership with DataWind, a company that designs tablets for kids without access to traditional schooling, which agreed to add the game to their suite of apps.

Wallace and Kimura designed the program as students in Parsons School of Design’s BFA Design and Technology program, which emphasizes the importance of socially engaged design.

“The culture at The New School is very focused on social justice,” Wallace says. “Being in this environment has greatly inspired our work to make things that are not only delightful and engaging, but also make an impact on the world.”

“I believe that social innovation and an attitude of responsibility towards design have been the hallmarks of my experience at Parsons,” Kimura adds. “As an aspiring game designer, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been taught by a faculty of professors that encourage the creation of experimental games—the likes of which have the potential to inform, educate and ultimately empower generations of young people.”

Wallace and Kimura have earned support–and praise–from the New Challenge, as well as the nonprofit organizations Sewing New Futures andThe Children’s Organization of Southeast Asia, which have partnered with the students to deploy the app. In addition, Wallace was recently named by Her Campus, a global community for college women, on its 22 Under 22 Most Inspiring College Women list.

The idea for BeyondABC emerged from Wallace’s experience as an India China Student Research Fellow in New Delhi, where she studied globalization and its effects on India. This led to her interest in the lack of educational access—including education on human trafficking—in disadvantaged communities.

“Through my interviews, I discovered that certain demographics of Indian youth are lacking basic safety skills they need to protect themselves from exploitive situations,” Wallace recalls. “These skills include things like who to call if they get into trouble, what to do if they get lost, and to never surrender their documents such as passports to a stranger.”

When she returned to New York, Wallace tapped Kimura, a game designer, to work with her on the project. By combining their passion for social engagement with cutting-edge technology, Wallace and Kimura are helping to confront a pressing social issue that affects thousands of children in New Delhi—and millions of people globally.

“Evidence of human trafficking, child exploitation and lack of access to education is so prominent in India that you can’t go there and not doing anything,” Wallace says. “We have been trained to use design to address problems, and when faced with seeing poverty in India first hand it was impossible to not try and do something about it.”