, Paula A. Zapata-
, Polina Golovátina-Mora
, Anna Borzenkova
and José M. Hernández-Sarmiento
Heriot-Watt University, Mary Burton bl, Edinburgh, EH14 4AS, UK
Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, Circular 1 # 70-1, Cede Central, Medellín, 050031, Colombia
Effective communication with local communities is a critical factor in containing an
particularly in indigenous communities that traditionally rely on ancestral knowledge. This
paper presents an investigation into developing a shared understanding of COVID-19 in
indigenous communities of Choco, Colombia, that could help them develop effective mitigating
practices, while being respectful of their believes. Unstructured interviews and observations
were used to explore how indigenous communities perceive and respond to COVID-19. Based
on these, a communicative strategy was developed using participatory design and gamification
approach, that aimed at bridging their beliefs and traditional ancestral medicine with the official
medical recommendations for prevention of the virus transmission.
The findings revealed that the intervention became a trigger for mindful discussion within
indigenous communities about the preventive measures from the virus, while gamification
elements acted as an enabler of such discussion and created more trusting attitude towards the
recommendations. Based on the initial findings, we discuss challenges of conducting
indigenous research, including the role of trust between researchers and the communities,
gamification as an enabler of shared knowing of a problem matter, and the importance of
flexible participatory research methods whereby indigenous people are treated not as mere
researched, but as full participants of the study.
Gamification, Communicative strategy, COVID-19, Indigenous communities, Narrative,
Communication with local communities is
crucial during an outbreak or a pandemic in an
effort to control the spread of a virus . Failure
to do so (effectively) was particularly evident
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ORCID: 0000-0001-7379-3775 (A. Spanellis); 0000-0001-8461-
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Mora); 0000-0001-5576-0275 (A. Borzenkova); (J. Hernández-
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CEUR Workshop Proceedings (CEUR
during the most recent and still ongoing
COVID-19 pandemic. It can lead to the spread
of misinformation  and the phenomenon
called infodemic, defined as over-abundance of
information, some accurate and some not
making it hard to find trustworthy sources and
reliable guidance when needed , , or
create an information vacuum, if the
communities cannot understand or do not trust
the information provided . In such instances,
the communities create their own interpretation
of the new situation and develop coping
This paper presents the first results of the
research project conducted in the Choco region
of Colombia. The aim of the project was to
conduct a seroprevalence survey in the region
to estimate the spread of the virus in the
indigenous territories and to design a
communicative strategy that includes the World
Health Organization (WHO) recommendations
of the preventive measures during the
pandemic, which would be respectful of
traditional beliefs of the indigenous peoples.
We used gamification techniques to engage the
communities in the discussion of the
recommendations, while being respectful of
their traditional beliefs, and to facilitate
acceptance of and trust in the provided
recommendations. We then combined these
insights with the results of the seroprevalence
survey to observe the differences in perceptions
and behaviors of the infected and other
community members. The preliminary results
showed that the use of Easter Eggs technique
combined with the visual representation of the
imaginary world engaged all groups within the
communities and made them more trusting of
the recommendations. When the
communication was combined with the results
of the tests, the community members were more
inclined to follow the recommendations, e.g.
In the next section we discuss the research
context and design, followed by the
development of the communicative strategy.
Then the paper presents preliminary results,
followed by the discussion of gamification as
an effective technique for communication and
the challenges of conducting research in
Indigenous communities have traditionally
been subject to colonization and imperial
practices, and marginalization by Eurocentric
values . This created a sense of distrust to the
dominant culture and its histories . Such
mindset implicitly favors conventional research
, whereby indigenous peoples are the ones
researched and used to advance selected
research objectives . In response to the
dominating paradigm and attempts to
decolonize indigenous research, indigenous
research methodologies emerged combining
research practices that give indigenous
communities a voice  and project indigenous
Indigenous research methodologies are
participatory, flexible and respectful of the
language, culture and worldview of the
indigenous communities , , striving to
develop shared ways of knowing and bridge
two worlds . When engaging with
indigenous communities, researchers have to be
accountable to the communities, and thus
research methods cannot be reigned supreme by
the Western notion of the scientific method.
These considerations shaped our choices of
methods for data collection, design of the
intervention and data analysis.
The Choco region in Colombia is located in
the remote areas on the Pacific coast and has an
approximate population of 65,000, living in
about 120 native territories and speaking six
different languages (Table 1). The indigenous
settlements live inland between the coast and
the Andes with almost no road infrastructure.
The main means of transportation is the canoe.
They do not have access to digital
communication technology, have low levels of
literacy and are partially surrounded by
criminal gangs (paramilitary, guerrillas and
drug cartels). All these factors make access to
the national healthcare system problematic.
Thus, when the pandemic started, there was
almost no engagement and support provided
from the healthcare and government officials.
The lack of engagement meant the
communities were left on their own to face the
unknown. Together with the national lockdown
this also led to the intensification of criminal
activities . The above description of the
context outlines the challenges of conducting
research in remote indigenous communities. At
the same time, they dignify the importance of
and the need for such engagement.
To align with the principles of the chosen
research methodology and maintain trusting
relations with the indigenous communities, the
research team chose unstructured interviews for
data collection. The field investigator is a
medical expert and has had a continuous
research program in the region over the past 10
years, and therefore has already gained their
trust. According to the researcher, unstructured
interviews in the form of discussion are the
most acceptable form of engagement for these
communities. The field material was captured
in field notes and through subsequent
interviews of the field investigator by the rest of
the research team, as the indigenous
communities did not want to be recorded.
The research team was interested in
understanding the emergent behavior 
during the pandemic and the indigenous
knowledge that the communities were using to
build resilience against the current vulnerability
. This includes exploring how they perceive
current risk , what coping strategies,
experimental practices and associated
responses they have developed so far , how
they assign trust to information , and
historic memories they have of similar
emergencies, e.g. epidemics and outbreaks of
other viruses present in the region .
The initial interviews were conducted in the
town of Quibdó, one of the two regional
centers, where the field investigator had
discussions with the leaders of indigenous
communities, who came there to trade with
each other and procure additional supplies for
their communities. Adult men and women from
six communities participated in this study.
Details of the interviewed population are
presented in Table 1. The interviews were
complemented with observation notes and
photographic materials. For instance, the field
investigator saw a mural in a community center,
and took photos of it that provided ideas for the
aesthetics of the communication materials.
The initial findings were analyzed using
thematic analysis  and provided the basis
for communicative materials. The materials
were designed in the form of a poster, which
met the constraints of the local environment, i.e.
a low-tech solution for the communities with
limited access to information and
communication technologies. Local artists and
translators were involved in all stages of the
design to ensure participatory approach of the
We considered gamification to be an
appropriate approach, because playing is
essential to any human culture , including
indigenous peoples, who have been using
games to share their knowledge and traditions
. With the rise of video games, these games
gave rise to the movement of indigenous game
design and development , which among
other are used for learning  and as a source
of self-exploration . We considered a poster
to be a suitable medium of representation due
to the local constraints, i.e. lack of access to the
digital communication technology.
Then the posters were delivered to the
communities and placed in the communal areas,
and their effectiveness as well as the results of
the project were evaluated using unstructured
interviews and observations. Other methods,
such as surveys, were not considered as they
created a risk of losing fragile trust of the
communities to the lead investigator. From
previous experience, even recording interviews
and group discussions posed a problem.
The development of the communicative
strategy followed a cycle of three phases. In the
first phase, we analyzed the perception of the
pandemic and identified the insights that were
critical to being incorporated in the design. This
phase was followed by the design of the poster
and incorporation of the gamification elements
in it. The initial designs were then tested with
the communities and their recommendations
were incorporated in the design. This cycle
formed the basis for several iterations.
Although some of the interviewees
expressed fear of the uncertainty that came with
the pandemic, many questioned why so much
attention and resources are dedicated to this
disease, noting that we do not have a cure for it,
while other diseases spread in the region are
more dangerous and can be treated. This remark
showed that indigenous communities distrust
the system rather than modern medicine.
So far there has been little engagement from
the government healthcare authorities with the
indigenous communities, e.g. medics came
once to test some communities, but never
shared the results of the tests. This added to the
. At the time of the first
interviews, there have been no confirmed
deaths from COVID-19 within the
communities. The only two confirmed deaths
were local leaders who went to the local
hospital. Their bodies were not returned to the
communities, and this is considered for them
worse than death, as they could not organize a
proper burial ceremony. This incident further
undermined trust in the recommendations on
how to protect the communities from the
pandemic. For instance, the communities
refused to wear masks.
However, this distrust was not projected on
the field investigator who has been engaged
with the community for over 10 years. During
the initial interviews, the field investigator
discussed the official recommendations, in
particular the importance of self-isolating at the
community level. As a result, the community
leaders stopped travelling to the towns,
including Quibdó, and so the team had to adjust
the background research process.
The communities were quite observant of
any changes and were able to trace the spread
of the disease to an individual who brought it to
the village. They observed that the virus affects
elderly more. They do not believe that it
originated from the animals, because they
would have known about it, as they live among
animals. They concluded that it was a man-
made virus designed to eradicate indigenous
knowledge and wisdom held by the elders.
They emphasized that everyone is affected
yed the balance
between nature and men, and criticized
capitalism as it disregards many forms of life.
They have developed their own ways of
protecting themselves. Local spiritual leaders
Jaibanas and herbal healers Hierbateros
believe that the virus will not stick to bitter
blood. Thus, they recommended drinking
herbal tea with lemon, ginger, and elderflower
and bathing with gliricidia (mata raton). They
have also developed ritual ceremonies to
protect from the virus, whereby the spiritual
leaders spit on those participating.
The design process started with analyzing
the official WHO recommendations that should
be included or omitted from the posters, and
which would be respectful of the traditional
knowledge and beliefs of the communities that
were identified during the background research.
Then the team selected an overall theme for the
poster and made nuanced design choices that
also incorporated some of the gamification
principles. Finally, the team incorporated
additional gamification elements to further
strengthen the persuasive design of the poster.
To counteract the perception about the man-
made origins of the virus, the researchers
included a message about animal origins;
however, the message also emphasized that it
came from animals that were kept in captivity
and treated with disrespect. This way, the
message was not confronting the indigenous
resonating with the appreciation of the nature.
Then the team included the message
explaining why the virus is so dangerous (long
incubation period), and why social distancing
(of 2 meters) might help to reduce the spread.
However, the recommendation was made for
social distancing at a community level, because
maintaining social distancing within small and
dense communities might not be feasible.
The team included the message about
washing hands, but not wearing masks or going
to the hospital for those in critical conditions.
These messages were omitted partially because
the communities were particularly negative
about these recommendations, and therefore the
research team faced the risk of undermining
trust in all the other recommendations. In any
case, local health centres are ill-equipped to
provide help to critically ill patients.
Furthermore, the communities live in open and
very well ventilated huts with no walls, which
reduces the risk of airborne transmission and
the need for masks .
The team included a message explaining the
symptoms and recommending to self-isolate at
home for those who exhibit the symptoms.
Finally, the team recommended to drink herbal
drinks to bridge indigenous traditions with
modern medicine, but emphasised the use of
personal plates and cups, explaining that the
virus might be transmitted through the saliva.
After several discussions and design
iterations, the team decided to use an
indigenous village as an overall theme of the
by a mountain range. The messages associated
with the origins of the virus and its impact on
the world were placed in that spot. All the other
recommendations were placed in different parts
of the village. Different elements of the village
resembled that of real villages, e.g. the shape of
the huts, people and their clothes, or various
objects, such as dishes and stairs. Clothes were
adjusted for different indigenous groups.
With regards to the specific elements,
several design choices were made to further
the two worlds. In the outside world, the
animals linked to the origins of the virus were
depicted in cages to further emphasize the
disrespectful treatment of nature and the
unbalance between people and nature. In order
to show that the whole world is affected, the
team depicted people of different races and age
groups. People depicted in the village were
adults, but not elderly. This choice was made to
de-emphasize the perception that the virus
mainly targets the elderly.
Different everyday life attributes were
depicted faithful to the real environment. For
instance, when recommending washing hands,
the poster shows a plastic water tank rather than
a tap, since most of the villages do not have
plumbing, and people bring water in plastic
containers from the nearest river.
Finally, the team used a distinctive icon
throughout the poster to symbolise the virus.
the chest). Thus, the team reinforced the
message about the nature of the disease.
From the beginning, the research team was
planning to use gamification techniques as a
medium for narrating the recommendations and
helping the community to develop a shared
understanding of the new emergency. The team
considered different approaches, e.g. comic-
based storytelling  or completing mini-
quests for readers to solve . Eventually, the
team created a metaphoric ,
 that mimicked the real world, and yet
represented its idealistic version with beautiful
environment and in bright colors. Although the
environment, it was considered appropriate in
this study as the graphic representation of the
world served the same purpose.
This world depicted how traditional houses
look like, although the photographic evidence
showed that some families deviate from this
structure. Men and women were dressed up in
traditional clothes, wearing colorful bead
(chaquira) necklaces, embroidered pieces
(molas of the Kuna Tule culture), and covering
their bodies with traditional ornaments made
with genip (jagua) and achiote (Bixa Orellana)
plants, while attending to their everyday chores.
However, indigenous people wear these
attributes mainly during festivals and spiritual
ceremonies, although some elements are also
used in day-to-day practices and this is reflected
in the choice of ornaments. Such an amplified
virtual world provided an environment for them
to celebrate their identity .
Within this world, the recommendations and
other relevant information were narrated
through mini-storytelling , . It was used
to contextualize impersonal recommendations
 and further strengthen the link with the
identity of indigenous communities. Thus, the
verbal messages were informative rather than
affirmative in nature, engaging the participants
in a dialogue with the poster.
The mini-stories were narrated by an avatar
that impersonated a community leader. The
status of the avatar was visualised through
circular body tattoo patterns, which are only
used by spiritual leaders . This element
aimed to further the impression that the
recommendations came from within, rather
the avatar engaged with each of them
Additionally, the team hid the animals
inhabiting Choco region in different parts of the
poster close to the most important messages
concerning mitigating recommendations, and
community members were invited to find all of
them. For instance, a hummingbird was flying
near a flower on the hair of the lady with a water
tank, drawing attention to the message about
washing hands. This technique resembles
puzzles in hidden object games, a typical
books, and is also sometimes referred to Easter
Eggs technique as a form of variable rewards
. This technique allowed us to draw
attention to specific recommendations and
engage them in exploration of the poster .
Figure 1 shows the final design of the poster.
Throughout the design phase, individual
visual artworks and and prototypes of the poster
were continuously shared with the local artists
and community leaders to ask for their feedback
and suggestions. For instance, the first sketches
of houses and stairs were modelled based on the
photos from the field trips, but the community
leaders and the local artists noted that they did
not look traditional enough, so they were
changed to more traditional looking huts. This
change improved the visual aesthetics of the
Among other changes, the community
leaders commented that the first versions of the
women on the poster were too skinny and light
in complexion, which might have reflected the
implicit perception of our western standards of
beauty. They also commented on the colours of
the clothes and representation of body tattoos.
The community leaders suggested
numbering all the messages, as it made it easier
for them to follow. Furthermore, there were
suggestions of moving different parts of the
message to improve clarity of the poster, and
comments on some attributes, and the clothes
and appearance of indigenous men.
When the design was finalized, the poster
was translated into six language (Spanish and
five indigenous languages) by local teachers.
The poster was printed in 140x100 cm size
and the field researchers completed several
field trips to deliver them to different
communities and continue conducting
seroprevalence survey. At the time of writing
this paper, the team still had several trips
planned to visit the remaining villages and
continue monitoring changes in behavior of the
The poster was placed in community areas
where people normally gather to discuss
community matters. Figure 2 shows the poster
displayed in a common area of one of the
communities. The researchers would place the
poster in the morning and explain to the
community what the main recommendations
were, then they would conduct tests and attend
to other medical matters, and finally they would
informally interview different members about
their impressions of the posters. They would
then complement these reports with their own
observations and photos of people interacting
with the poster.
From the first impression, the communities
liked the virtual world, because they could
identify with it and recognize themselves with
it. They liked the bright colors of the poster that
were more representative of their local and
domestic life attributes and artefacts, e.g.
female skirts (parunas), tableware (totumos) or
colorful clothes in the huts, than standardized
oking infographics. In one village,
they were amazed by how accurate the
representation of the people on the poster was,
reflecting their own identity. Men liked women
characters in particular and found them very
Kids were the first to engage with animals
and were spending a long time in front of the
poster together trying to find different animals.
After some time, adults would join them and
engage with them in the discussion of what was
written on the poster. Thus, the Ester Eggs
technique served as a tool to indirectly engage
adults through the initial excitement of kids,
whereby both groups paid greater attention to
the recommendation through mutual
The researchers did not observe the same
attention being paid to the avatar, although on
one of the photos a community leader points
distinctively on the avatar, when explaining to
the community what was written on the poster.
In contrast, a black man with grey hair wearing
a white shirt representing part of the rest of the
world attracted a lot of attention. They
perceived him as a man of importance and
asked who he was. It is important to note that
indigenous peoples do not distinguish between
different races; instead, they divide the world
into indigenous population and the rest of the
Regarding the changes in behavior, in some
villages the researchers observed that at the
beginning teenagers behaved carelessly, but
once they learnt that their test results were
positive, they started self-isolating, following
the recommendations on the poster. In other
villages, such behavior was observed among
older people. In some villages, people even
started wearing masks. This might indicate that
although they had been aware of the WHO
recommendations, they have become more
perceptive to them. However, a longitudinal
study would need to be conducted to estimate
whether the implemented intervention brought
about long-term behavioral changes, e.g. if
people started washing hands more regularly.
In many villages, people showed
appreciation of the messages written in their
own indigenous language, which made them
more attentive to the poster. In one village,
mothers asked if the team could share A4
printouts with them to take home, so that they
can use it as an education material to teach their
kids their language in writing, as there almost
no materials available. In another village,
people did not recognize their own language at
first, because they are used to receiving written
materials in Spanish, but once they learnt about
it, they became more attentive.
The impact of the findings is two-fold. First,
it provides a basis for discussing whether and
how gamification can be used in indigenous
research. Second, the findings are illustrative of
the challenges of conducting indigenous
research that might inform future similar
studies. Furthermore, they challenge the
prevailing perception of what constitutes a
rigorous research and call for a more nuanced
attention to a study context.
The pandemic is an emergency event that
disrupted lives of indigenous peoples . In
this study, gamification was used to develop a
common understanding of the disease, the
pandemic, its effects and mitigating practices.
Although the developed poster did not convince
the communities of the official view of the
origins of the virus, as we have not found
evidence that they stopped believing that the
virus is man-made, the intervention became a
catalyst of the discussion about the preventive
measures. Some of these measures (e.g.
washing hands) might help to protect the
communities against other disease beyond the
We have observed that the virtual world was
the first aspect of the poster that attracted and
engaged the users. Virtual worlds are an
essential component of a game, creating a
fantasy, which however resembles elements of
the real world . Virtual worlds enable an
immersion with the gamified environment ,
but this only happens if they identify with the
world at a level sufficient to consider
themselves representative and a good fit in the
world. This might partially explain why
standardized infographics with pandemic
recommendations, which the indigenous
communities have seen before, did not persuade
them to listen to the recommendations. This
also points in the direction of identity and the
important of this concept, which the research
team initially attempted to project through the
The initial observations showed that the
avatar representing a spiritual leader went
unnoticed. However, the communities were
drawn to all the indigenous characters
presented on the poster, because the
communities could identify with the characters.
Personal avatars are often used to represent
oneself  and become the means of co-
liking, some community members were
stunned by how realistic and look-alike they
were, and many showed appreciation for
manifesting their own identity in the poster.
These findings highlight the importance of
identity, and we suggest that its role should be
explored further in gamification research.
Additionally, Easter Eggs technique proved
to be particularly effective in engaging the kids
in the poster. Easter Eggs technique is much
less frequently discussed in the literature 
than more commonly used elements, such as
points, badges and leaderboards . In this
study, we have observed that it is not just a form
of reward that an individual receives for
exploring an environment. For the communities
it provided a sustained engagement, whereby
the adults were drawn to the poster by their
kids, after all the animals were found. In these
moments of meaningful engagement, they
became more attentive to the poster, while
explaining to the kids what the poster said, and
thus more perceptive to the recommendations
provided. Therefore, the hidden animals
became a catalyst of a new social practice.
This study is representative of the dilemma
of methodological rigor and relevance in
gamification research , whereby the design
of the study can satisfy the requirements of
internal and external validity, and at the same
time stay relevant to the non-academic users. In
line with the indigenous research methodology
and supported by our observations, engagement
with indigenous people requires highly
participative approach, involving co-
construction of mutual understanding of the
problem area and co-development of the
response. This is particularly visible in how the
discussions during unstructured interviews
unfolded. The indigenous leaders were
questioning the questions of the field researcher
and challenging the status quo, the very essence
of the problem area, i.e. why this virus is
considered more important than other disease
that claim lives of hundreds of thousands of
people every year. When such dynamic occurs,
an investigator cannot remain a mere observer,
as their biases are entwined in their personal
understanding and experiences, as well as
mutual experiences of both parties, and which
provide the basis for interpretation of the
empirical materials . Thus, traditional
notions of methodological rigor is difficult to
apply in such context.
One of the key success criteria of this project
was the trust that indigenous communities
developed with the field researcher, ensuring
that the communities would engage with the
research team. Trust is a social construct that is
highly fragile . An investigator has to
respect the boundaries of what is considered
acceptable by the community. If the
investigator were to attempt conducting a
survey to ensure rigorous evaluation of the
impact of the intervention, the trust would have
been undermined. Alternatively, the impact
could have been evaluated by means of
longitudinal observations, traditionally used in
ethnographic studies, particularly in indigenous
research . However, this approach is not
feasible in times of a pandemic, especially
when the participants are located in remote and
difficult to access areas such as a rainforest.
These considerations further question the
uncompromising nature of definition of
methodological rigor and its applicability in
This paper presents the results of the study
of developing a gamified communicative
strategy for mitigating the impact of the
pandemic in indigenous communities of the
Choco region, Colombia. The present study
goes beyond communication with indigenous
communities and its findings expand our
understanding of the community-based and
needs-centered communication strategies
overall. The positive impact of gamification
complemented and amplified the role of care
and sincere interest in the needs of the
communities in question. That altogether
contributed to overcoming centuries long
distrust and barriers or gaps in apprehension
and perception of the communities constructed
by it, which in its own right made the
communicative strategies more successful.
Both direct and indirect participation of the
communities at different stages of the design
, and their inclusion in
the design of discrete gamification elements,
together with more explicit gamification
techniques such as Easter Eggs and avatar
ensured the engagement of the public, and their
attentive and reflective reading of information.
This research was funded by the Global
Challenges Research Fund through the Scottish
Funding Council. The project was supported by
Asociación OREWA de Cabildos the
association of indigenous peoples in Colombia
and by the indigenous Health care Provider
Institute (IPS in Spanish) Erchichi Jái. We give
special thanks to Loselinio Velasquez Tegaisa
(IPS manager) for his constant commitment and
collaboration with the activities of the project.
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