Technology Nonprofits and Zynga team up to reach out
San Francisco — Gaming is more than just a pastime for teenage boys nowadays.
The Knight Foundation and San Francisco gaming company Zynga are delving into digital games that are meant not just for entertainment, but also for social impact. And their audience is widening. Recent studies suggest that adult women represent a greater portion of the game-playing population than teenage boys.
Mayur Patel, vice president of strategy and assessment at the Knight Foundation, says that games have transformed, becoming a “pervasive” part of our culture, with more than 72 percent of American households gaming at home on the computer or with video games.
That’s why games also have become a new outlet for social enterprises and nonprofits to channel their causes. Sheryl WuDunn, co-author of “Half the Sky” with husband and New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, says the decision to use a digital game for Half the Sky Movement, which raises funds and awareness for women’s empowerment globally, has been dictated by demand.
“Half the Sky is trying to meet the public on their terms and to reach them where they liked to be reached,” she noted.
Playing for nonprofits
That means via social media for many gamers. San Francisco social-games maker Zynga has successfully woven digital games into Facebook, with popular titles such as “FarmVille.” Now it’s doing the same with games that have a philanthropic or social edge. It’s created a new branch of the company, Zynga.org, that focuses on just that – working with nonprofits to help them craft online games or add-ons suitable for their cause.
To date, they’ve worked with nonprofits such as Save the Children, Water.org, the World Food Programme, Direct Relief International, Every Mother Counts, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Wildlife Conservation Society, Fisher House, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, and now, Half the Sky Movement. Collectively, Zynga.org has raised approximately $13 million for its nonprofit partners.
However, Ken Weber, executive director of Zynga.org, expressed some caution about this new trend. While he’s thrilled to see nonprofits employ more tech-savvy campaigns and be more creative with technology, digital games are not the ideal solution for every organization, he advises. He says the idea should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
But Zynga.org, Weber acknowledges, is relatively new to the scene of digital games for social change. Games for Change, a Manhattan nonprofit, has been the leader in this space for a decade and is one of the primary partners in Kristof and WuDunn’s gaming initiative for Half the Sky. With Canadian game developer Frima, and by tapping the expertise and consultation of Zynga.org, Games for Change is creating the online and mobile gaming component to Kristof and WuDunn’s campaign for women.
MTV also began dabbling in this space nearly a decade ago with the much-talked-about game, “Darfur is Dying,” which put gamers in the shoes of a Darfurian refugee. The game was played more than 4 million times by more than 2 million players, according to Jason Rzepka, vice president of public affairs at MTV Networks. MTV has gone on to produce games with topics ranging from sexual health to the financial crisis.
Their most recent endeavor, in partnership with the Knight Foundation, is a political game, designed to get the millennial generation engaged in political conversations, leading up to the presidential election this fall. Scheduled to debut later this month, “Fantasy Election ’12,” Rzepka explains, is comparable to fantasy sports.
“Instead of rewarding touchdowns and penalizing interceptions,” he says, “it rewards honesty and penalizes incivility.”
MTV and the Knight Foundation are hoping that the game will get more young people to vote and get active in politics. The foundation has granted MTV $250,000 to help develop and launch it.
Ultimately, Knight’s Patel says, what makes games work in the social arena is their “empathy” quotient.
“What’s unique about games is their immersive quality that helps engage individuals in a much more interactive way than other media often allows. Users can explore new habits, engage in role playing, problem-solve and collaborate with peers,” Patel elaborates.
And with a more diverse group of gamers, nonprofits and gaming developers are hoping that they can ignite that empathy in a new audience – be it for girl’s empowerment globally or American politics.