What if games could help solve serious social and environmental issues? Several nonprofit organizations believe they can. One such example is the Indianapolis-based Brackets For Good, a group that holds an annual fundraising event modeled after the NCAA March Madness Tournament. The platform creates a competition for charities to see who can secure the most funding, and each organization benefits from the national exposure, whether they win or lose. Fundraising Madness, as it’s called, has generated more than $1.3 million for charities since its inception.
Developing creative ways to raise money and unite communities may not be a novel idea, but a modern, technology-based version of the concept has opened new doors. Gamification involves the use of various features of games to increase participation and engagement in a project, group, or other initiative. These features often include points, challenges, achievement awards, progress meters, and other features you commonly see in video or computer games. Recent examples of gamification in the for-profit sector include Mint.com and FitBit, which aim to make budgeting and exercising fun.
Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, argues that gamification supports cooperation and bonds between people—two key aspects of philanthropy. Here are a few examples of how organizations have harnessed social gaming to advance research and create positive change.
An innovative collaboration at the University of Washington led to the identification of a problematic crystal structure in the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV), which causes immune deficiencies in certain species of monkeys. The virus is important to researchers studying HIV in humans. UW created FoldIt, an online puzzle game that invited users to attempt to solve the structure. In just 10 days, hundreds of thousands of participants found success and accomplished what scientists had been unable to do in more than 15 years of traditional research.
Cundari, a business in Toronto, developed the mobile game Pain Squad to encourage pediatric cancer patients to keep a consistent daily journal of their symptoms. Through the theme of a police investigation, the game puts children in a position to help solve mysteries and earn points in the process. The tie-in is that each child must report any pain they experience twice a day to advance in the game. As a result, doctors were able to collect better patient information that assisted in creating new treatment strategies.
Similar in concept to the FitBit, Zamzee involves a wristband that kids wear to track their physical activity. The program helps fight childhood obesity by “gamifying” exercise. Depending on the child’s activity level, he or she gains points and medals. Follow-up studies showed that Zamzee helped participants increase their activity by an average of 59 percent.
The creation of Jane McGonigal, SuperBetter is a platform that encourages people who have experienced various setbacks to work toward their goals. Games on the site present different challenges in which people build alliances with other characters and work to beat opponents symbolic of their real-life struggles. McGonigal herself utilized SuperBetter to navigate her recovery from a brain concussion.
The developers at Opower have established a network of utility companies that allow consumers to participate in energy conservation challenges. Opower presents energy consumption information to each household to encourage people to use less energy and to see how they compare to their neighbors. Consumption levels have decreased by 2 percent in areas where the competition is offered.
Recyclebank was formed to address the issue of trash, as many US landfills are running out of space and pollution of all types continues to increase. The organization has grown to encompass more than 3 million members, and each time a person chooses to recycle or participates in a sustainability quiz, he or she receives points. Best Buy and WalMart accept these points as currency, thus providing an incentive to recycle.
Part of the United Nations World Food Programme, FreeRice.com offers multiple-choice quizzes that enable people to fight hunger. Every time a user gets an answer right, the organization donates rice to people in need. Users have fun and improve their knowledge of trivia while helping to provide meals around the world. Sponsors have the opportunity to run their ads on the site, which pays for the rice donations.
Users of the fundraising site CrowdRise build digital profiles and pages where they can track their donations and compare with others on various leaderboards. The platform is relatively simple in design, but it encourages large-scale fundraising and has attracted attention and support from a number of celebrities. Since the site was established, users have raised several hundred million dollars for charities, nonprofits, and various personal causes.
AT&T has sponsored the development of GameDesk, a nonprofit that works to improve education at the K-12 levels. It offers a game-based curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), deployed through specialized software. Along with providing lessons in these subject areas, GameDesk emphasizes life skills and values such as responsibility and the importance of finding a sense of purpose.