Good Gaming

Social impact games are an engaging and accessible way to raise awareness of social issues.

Gamification means incorporating elements of gaming into areas which normally have nothing to do with play. The idea is to motivate people to do things which they otherwise wouldn’t want to. Games entice people with their inherent entertainment and rewards. These mechanisms can also be assimilated into the activities of the social sector.

Exhibit A: an advertising campaign by Volkswagen called “The Fun Theory”. The flight of stairs at the exit to a subway station was given black and white covers so that it both looked like a piano keyboard and actually played the corresponding notes when you stepped on it. That’s more fun than a normal flight of stairs, and suddenly 66 percent more people ignored the escalator and took the stairs instead. Games have become a central feature in our society. So-called “social games” like Farmville and Candy Crush Saga are booming, reaching people who up until now were never into gaming. Well over 50,000 games have been developed for Facebook alone, and some of them achieved such a degree of virality that they were reaching millions within a few days.

Or look at the online role-playing franchise World of Warcraft. Over ten million active players spend a combined 47 million hours daily in this virtual world. And, in contrast to outdated stereotypes, almost half of them are female. Principles of gaming have encroached on all areas of society, permeating films and language as well as the economy. Companies employ gamification as a marketing strategy, to attract customers and to create positive emotional associations around their brand, e.g. rewarding customers who particularly often use the mapping app Foursquare to visit Starbucks being rewarded with a badge of distinction. Games, in the form of simulations and role-plays, are also used in team-building and training exercises. Or in schools with “learning through play” computer games. Positive incentives which draw people in have been shown to be markedly more effective than lecturing or punishment.

When is a problem not a problem? When it’s a game!

From educational games it’s not a huge leap to so-called Social Impact Games, also known as Games for Change. These games have various aims: firstly the message shouldn’t simply be passed on to the player, but actively experienced. Anybody who plays the game Third World Farmer for instance, gets a taste through his or her avatar just how hard a life of poverty is. Whereas a poster or a documentary film just presents this idea, in a simulation you actually live what it means to be poor and to fall ill in a country with no healthcare system. Rather than remaining passive, you’re taking active part. Andrew deVigal, Multimedia Editor at the New York Times, tweeted: “Tell me something and I will forget. Show me and I’ll remember. GAME ME and I’ll engage.”

The best known advocate for gamification for a better world is Jane McGonigal. The Californian game designer is convinced that there’s an array of positive psychological effects that come with online multi-player gaming. To prove her point she developed, in collaboration with the World Bank Institute, the game EVOKE, in which players contribute to real-world problems by carrying out research and small practical tasks. Doing this successfully is rewarded with points which players can then trade in with the World Bank to give financial support to particular projects. Problems which are of interest to academics can be solved by members of the public through games, as demonstrated by the experimental computer game Foldit, with which members of the public in three weeks deciphered the structure of an important protein to AIDS researchers. Equally clever, and unbeknownst to most users, is the spam-filter ReCaptcha. By getting people to enter a series of letters shown on screen, it not only filters out spam but at the same time digitises books.

Fundraising games

Donations can also be generated by giving a proportion of virtual goods bought in games to good causes. The trade in virtual items is booming: in 2012 more than 14 billion US-dollars were spent worldwide by gamers on objects which exist only in the confines of the game and improve their virtual lives, from watering cans to helipads. When the producers of Farmville appealed in spring 2011 for people to buy goods whose proceeds would go to helping victims of the earthquake in Japan, within 36 hours over a million dollars had been raised for NGO Save the Children. The makers of the game Modern Warfare pledged that for every 100,000 players to log on to play online over a certain weekend they would give 25,000 GBP to the charity War Child.

In other games,  players are encouraged to make a donation themselves, such as the German browser game Pennergame, in which you play as a homeless person and are encouraged to contribute to a charity supporting homeless people. The classic among fundraising games is the quiz Free Rice. Since 2007 players have raised over 100 billion grains of rice for the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP). There are over 45,000 questions on various topics and difficulty levels to choose from, and for every correct answer adds 10 grains of rice to a virtual bowl. Every day people answer tens of thousands of questions. The money for the rice comes from sponsors, and since 2011 the WFP has used it to finance school meals in developing countries.


The boundaries between games and the real world will become more and more blurred in the coming years, and already games are an important arena of social engagement and can play an important role in a communications strategy. For NGOs, elements of gaming offer the chance to create a deeper connection with supporters, making them easier to reach and to activate. So an organisation aiming to combat obesity, for example, might create a computer game which communicates to its target audience information about the effects of different eating habits on personal health. Donors should invest in gamification.

In the USA many foundations are already financing games: the MacArthur, Robert Wood Johnson and Knight Foundations for example, as well as the World Bank Institute. Alongside its positive potential, certain caution is also called for in the implementation of this trend. Research into the causal connections between playing games and knowledge increases or changes in behaviour is still in its early stages. We do know, however, that whilst playing games more and different regions of the brain are activated than during passive learning. Under what circumstances sustainable changes take effect is hotly debated, however. And numbers of downloads and site-visits on their own don’t tell us very much. Structural elements of successful games include: