PART ONE OF A THREE-PART SERIES
Fun and philanthropy often go hand in hand. From glittering charity balls to philanthropic television extravaganzas like Comic Relief to the fundraising general knowledge quiz in a draughty church hall that I attended recently, entertainment is a widely-used tool to lever open purses and wallets. So it is no surprise that charities are hoping to tap into the booming computer games market as a way to connect with givers. Will they succeed?
Computer gaming may bring to mind pimply teenagers and middle-aged men in elasticated-waisted trousers who should know better but, even if we do not admit it, millions of us are doing it. The gaming industry claims one in three Britons as customers and even Prime Minister David Cameron has admitted to whiling away his downtime with those pesky, addictive Angry Birds.
One of the boldest attempts to lever gaming for good is Jaro.com, a new online game backed by a group of big charities including the British Red Cross as well as the Institute of Fundraising, that grabbed headlines when it launched in April under the banner “Take part in the $1 Billion Game for Good”. Jaro is a pretty simple idea – it is based on the old-tech pencil and paper game of Battleships. Every player pays $10 to play in a massive global knockout tournament where, if enough people sign up, the winner gets to scoop a substantial prize pot.
The giving twist is that part of each entry fee goes to the winner and part to charity, the proportion to be decided by game’s players. At time of writing, players seem to be pretty generous, having voted for 60% of the winnings to go to charity. For Jaro to achieve its goal of raising $1 billion for charity, it is going to have to sell more than 130 million $10 tickets. That’s a lot.
The Jaro model is, of course, familiar. It is a lottery. If it can reach the necessary critical mass then it could raise a lot of money. But that is a big if. So far, Jaro has sold fewer than 2,000 tickets.
Elizabeth Sarquis, a US entrepreneur and founder of the Global Gaming Initiative, is taking a different approach to using gaming for good. Next month she is launching Sidekick Cycle, the first of what she hopes will be a suite of smartphone games that are both fun and get people to give to good causes. The principle is to connect the game and the cause, to give the player an experience that is both fun and philanthropically rewarding. Hence the first cycling-based game will raise money to give bikes to developing countries.
Yet there is an element of lottery here too. Will the game break through in a congested market and get enough players to raise substantial sums? Sarquis hopes so, having recruited a team of top game designers to the cause. At 99 cents to buy, 50% of which goes to charity, the game will need to be a bestseller to raise big money.
A more intriguing approach that gets round the problem of betting on whether a particular game is going to capture the imagination of the world’s gamers is being pioneered by British gaming company the Playmob. CEO Jude Ower is a serious gamer. Very serious. As a teenager, she explains, she even used to get her Mum to pretend that she had been grounded for bad behaviour so that she could spend more time at home playing computer games in the evenings and at weekends.
Imbued with gaming culture, Ower sees the opportunity not in trying to design games that give, but to make it easier for games that are already successful to make giving part of their offer to players. The Playmob platform builds a technical bridge between gaming companies and charities. Game developers see the opportunity in enhancing their games in this way, Ower believes, but they can be put off by the regulatory obstacles to creating a cause marketing scheme. This is where the Playmob comes in, as the intermediary between gaming companies and charities. “We’re taking a 6 month process and turning it into a one month process,” Ower explains.
The Playmob launched at the end of 2012 and has already signed up one of the world’s most famous games ‘The Sims’, letting players buy a Panda for their virtual world that makes a $1.75 donation to WWF. So far, $44,000 has been raised. On its own this is not world-changing but there are effectively no limits on how many games can use this platform to get players giving. The market for virtual goods (like the WWF panda) is currently $15 billion and set to grow to $100 billion by 2020. Playmob hopes that diverting just a tiny fraction of that spend to philanthropy will mean a big impact.