This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Fletcher Magazine.
What’s the secret to peace in the Middle East?
How about “a vial of Bono’s tears,” “bombing in the name of freedom,” or “another damn cookstove”?
If you’re playing JadedAid, a satiric card game co-created by Jessica Heinzelman, F11, the answer might be any of these. The fill-in-the-blank game uses humor to skewer the jargon, stereotypes and limitations of international development and humanitarian aid.
“We have a double objective,” Heinzelman says. “One is for development workers to let off steam and have fun. The other is to provide a way into conversations that can be difficult.”
JadedAid got its start in 2015, after Heinzelman and a friend played the similarly formatted Cards Against Humanity game with colleagues in Washington, D.C., who also worked in development. The party was so big that they ran out of answer cards and started writing their own, many of which struck a chord because they dealt with international work.
“Things are funnier if they’re based in truth and shared experiences,” Heinzelman says. She and two friends decided to formalize the game through a Kickstarter campaign in the fall of 2015, with the promise of delivering cards by mid-December. They reached their goal of $12,000 in two days and raised more than $50,000 in a month.
The group quickly crowd-sourced its final 34 questions and 165 answers from development and humanitarian aid workers, who held game-testing parties from Cambodia to Senegal. At one such party in a Beirut bar, the most popular combinations involved cards related to ISIS.
“They were right across the border in Syria, less than 50 miles away,” says Victoria Stanski, a friend of Heinzelman’s who was working on the humanitarian response to Syrian refugees in Lebanon at the time. Cards in which aid workers poked fun at themselves or referred to sex or drinking were also hits, she said.
That’s how you get combinations like “Save the Children will now be saving . . . indigenous alcohol” and “What is the 18th Sustainable Development Goal?” Answer: “Learning to poop in a Ziploc bag.”
In its first year, JadedAid has sold more than 5,300 sets of cards, at a cost of $19 per pack of 200. Half the orders shipped outside the United States, says Heinzelman, who is now a San Francisco-based consultant on development and technology. She and her co-founders have re-invested the game’s earnings into inventory and the creation of a Peace Corps expansion pack, which was released in November and offers 10 more questions and 46 answers. (For example, “Peace Corps! Spend two years focused on … (a) Hooking up at in-service training; (b) A long-awaited care package; (c) Nothing.”)
Heinzelman says several people at the original party in D.C. didn’t want to be associated with the game, fearing its cheeky humor and profanity could hurt their careers. She and her co-founders carefully vetted the final cards, rejecting those that made light of issues they deemed too sensitive. She says she hasn’t gotten negative reactions from anyone who has played, and notes that she and her co-founders are not as disillusioned as the game might make them seem.
“We’re all very hopeful,” she says. “If we weren’t, we wouldn’t still be working in the developing world.”
In fact, they hope JadedAid can spark change. Although they don’t expect the game to transform systemic problems in the development field, they believe it can help individuals recognize their own questionable behaviors. Cards about cringe-worthy topics such as the white savior complex, poverty porn and “helpies”—selfies taken to brag about helping—may make some players reconsider their actions, Heinzelman says.
Stanski, who now works in humanitarian assistance in northeastern Nigeria, has played JadedAid with colleagues from all over the world. She says the humor helps them process the complex situations and double standards they experience in their work, in which they navigate tangles of jargon and bureaucracy and often put themselves at risk—facing everything from possible kidnappings to bombs and disease—while trying to assist people in desperate circumstances.
“If you’re not laughing, you’re crying,” she says. “There’s cynicism, but it’s layered with optimism. It’s a coping mechanism.”