Games for giving: all to play for

Video games and their players are becoming an engine of social change and a source of fundraising for philanthropic causes

Our City has been in beta-testing for three months. In game-speak, that means it’s being tried out by a few thousand people. Launched on Facebook in December 2014, the game has so far attracted some 8,000 players to its ranks.

They each build and manage a small city, trying to keep its virtual citizens happy and striving to unlock the next slew of features to advance their urban growth. Take a tour of Our City and it won’t be long before you spot that it’s different to other virtual towns. For one, there are minarets and a special feature looks suspiciously like Petra, the famously picturesque ancient ruin.

Set in Jordan, the game’s distinctly Arab citizens – thanks to artwork from Amman-based Curl Stone Entertainment – are part of a new wave of game development taking aim at direct social impact. This pilot release heralds what the game’s backers hope will be a series of virtual cities matched to target locations around the globe.

“This pilot came about through the idea that there is a huge demographic youth bulge of concern in the Middle East,” says Shahera Youssef Younes, programme manager at NetHope, a technology nonprofit. “Millions of dollars worth of donor money has gone into youth engagement programming with very little impact. Finally, there was a realisation that we needed to get a little more creative, instead of just cramming kids into training rooms and thinking that will change the situation.”
“The potential of games is huge, but as with many things in technology, it is sometimes oversold”

Our City is an effort to meet youth where they are, in this case on Facebook, leveraging the tools of gaming and technology. Players don’t just make a virtual difference; to really progress, they have to make a real-world effort too. At certain points, players are prompted to go offline and do anything from water conservation activity to a workforce development course. Only a few months in, there have already been two game-related events hosted by Our City’s NGO partners in Jordan. Avid players have to log in at these real events to unlock special game features, after taking part in activities aimed at civic engagement. While entertainment is the hook, offline programmes show the serious intent behind the clicking and dragging.

“The game’s unique component is that it’s trying to prove a virtual theory of change, which says that youth can be more effectively engaged through game-based interactions, in particular social gaming,” explains Youssef.

“The game is stimulating a virtual behaviour change, but we wanted to go one step further. The youth bulge has social and political risks associated with it and the only way to mitigate those is through real-world behaviour change.”

If games are to make the grade in a young person’s discretionary time they have to be entertaining and attractive. Our City deliberately flips the usual model of an education-focused game, which would typically stress the message ahead of the play. It’s an issue participating organisations are aware of as they try to find the perfect balance.

“I’ve worked a lot with interaction around gaming platforms and really it’s the education push that you want,” says Douglas Ragan, chief of youth and livelihoods at the urban economy branch of UN Habitat, one of the Our City’s backers. Others include USAID, Al Nasher and Gate2Play. “But then there’s the issue of the actual engagement of young people in the game. There’s a very narrow sweet spot to hit.”

Ragan says UN Habitat’s goal with this particular project – it has other gaming interests including a collaboration with the makers of the hugely successful Minecraft – is to raise the awareness of young people, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa region, about how to positively influence their cities.

“It’s in large part awareness-raising and then hopefully that changes behaviour so that it actually gets them active,” he says. “The potential of games is huge, but as with many things in technology, it is sometimes oversold.”

It’s still too soon to see how real-world events have affected play in the game. The Centre for Games and Impact, a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-backed initiative to study the potential for games to influence social development, is in the process of reviewing the results.

“I think the idea of exploring what a citizen’s role is in society and what a government’s role is in terms of engaging citizenry in how a society is built, are all things that can be introduced then explored further,” says Alan Gershenfeld, a founding industry fellow at the centre.

As founder and president of E-Line Media, the company which made Our City, Gershenfeld has spent years working at the intersection of entertainment, technology and social entrepreneurship.

“A game can only go so far, but it can serve as a gateway to start a dialogue and situate some concepts,” he says. It is not, he adds, a road to quick results and rapid change. Failure occurs when agencies dabble, hoping for a massive impact.

“It is hard. The technology is hard, the engagement is hard and learning is hard. But it is solvable if you’re committed.”

Before Our City, simpler games have been more direct with audiences less connected than a typical Arab teenager. First-wave efforts include a series of games developed under the umbrella of Half The Sky, a philanthropic movement to end the oppression of women. In a programme led by Games for Change and supported by USAID, UK-based Mudlark, a game-based digital production company, created 9 Minutes, Worm Attack and Family Values.

All three were designed to work on the simple mobile phones prevalent in the target markets of Kenya, Tanzania and India. They tackled health issues such as worms and pregnancy directly, while promoting messages about the benefits of hygiene, medication and making the right choices.

“In the developing world your mobile is the most penetrative digital device and it very quickly gives people not just communications and computing, but also the entertainment platform,” says Charles Hunter, Mudlark’s managing director.

Although simple in format, Hunter describes the content as ‘hardhitting’, with negative choices in the storylines quickly leading to negative ends.

Like Gershenfeld, Hunter has noted the tendency of organisations to dabble and emphasises the commitment needed to see a game through, and win users in the crowded content markets.

“In-game charitable campaigns are a win-win for everybody”“I think people don’t understand that a game is quite a piece of work to put together,” he says. “It has to be playable and has got to give agency to the actual player so they can feel reward and entertainment from it.”

That sense of reward and entertainment is a key motivator. Known as gamification, game-like behaviours and patterns of reward are being used to encourage giving from those who have grown up in the Xbox era. UK-based for-profit company Makerble has built a donation platform that takes cues from games, including progress bars and colourful icons that represent donations as equivalent to everyday items, such as a coffee or a movie ticket. Founder Matt Kepple explains that gamification is a moniker applied to Makerble after its launch in December, and which occurred as a natural result of the design process.

“People have described Makerble as ‘beautiful’ and ‘playful’,” he explains. “It’s unusual to use those words when talking about charity and social impact. People have fed back that it feels like they’re shopping and it’s easy to browse and see what’s going on.”

Part of the donor’s ease of use is created by Makerble’s underlying transparency. Charities have to report back regularly on how donor money is spent – one mosquito net, two vaccinations, for example – for the causes they select. This, says Kepple, addresses the public’s cynicism about how donations are used.

The impact of the new platform is already being felt as far afield as Malawi, where the World Medical Fund for Children (WMF), which treats 25,000 children a year in Africa, posts regular brief updates to attract donor interest.

“What we liked was that you don’t have to write long reports to donors,” explains Nazlie Chan-Wing-Yen, project coordinator for the WMF. “After a hard day in the field… what we want is to tell people where their $1 or $2 is going.”

Other platforms are also showing that game players can be converted to donors if the motivation is right. Games giant Zynga, which made its name with the colossally popular FarmVille, has used in-game donations to fund charities in its home market of North America and around the globe since 2009. Its charitable offshoot now runs regular campaigns across its portfolio, combining the power of its audience reach with micro-donations and a meaningful boost to awareness.

“It’s really ingrained in studios that in-game charitable campaigns are a win-win for everybody,” says Abby Speight,’s lead product manager. “They deliver great value, players love them and some games have established such a regular cadence... that players expect them.”

Since their inception, some 150 in-game campaigns have prompted players to donate more than $20m to the benefit of 50 non-profit organisations. Donations accrue when players purchase special features that aid game progress. Just as in Our City, these features unlock advances or help players make more rapid gains.

Success is not accidental. The sold features are developed specifically for a charitable cause, with the team coordinating the campaign between the game’s designers and the charity. Zynga collects the donations and passes the funds on when a campaign ends.

“We align the geographic impact of our partners with the demographic of the game,” says Speight. “The majority have a global player base, so we make sure partners work globally.”

The Zynga model plays on the company’s massive audience. It also works because of a collaborative partnership with the beneficiaries. This illustrates two points: whether the aim is social impact or fundraising, neither can stand in the way of game play. Charities that get their game strategy right could open themselves up to a new world of donations, but, much like players in social games, they are unlikely to do so alone.

Photo credit: E-Line Media