In April of 2006, a flash-based browser game about the crises in Darfur in western Sudan hit the web. The game went on to be played more than 4 million times by more than 2 million players and generated an awareness of the humanitarian crisis. While the game didn’t actually stop genocide, imprison a dictator or topple a regime, it did get people talking and the Twittersphere buzzing. And for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the buzz was enough to warrant some investigation into the impact of games for social change.
The Knight Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to community engagement, media and the arts, recently teamed up with Zynga to delve into digital games for an ever-widening audience. The idea may sound unusual or even exploitative, but non-profits are in the business of getting people’s attention. Gaming, as the foundation’s vice president of strategy and assessment pointed out, is becoming a pervasive part of culture with more than 72 percent of American households gaming at home.
Zynga caught the attention of the Knight Foundation after the company created a new branch called Zynga.org which provides visibility for nonprofits through its popular social games. 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 and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. Collectively, Zynga.org has raised approximately $13 million for its nonprofit partners.
FarmVille players may have noticed the option to make in-game purchases which benefit social initiatives like those listed above. In 2010, many FarmVille proceeds went to the earthquake recovery effort in Haiti.
So while Zynga is currently going through a tough time financially, it is refreshing to see news of gaming’s social change and the company’s participation in it. Not every cause is worth using a game to broaden its visibility, but for many, the huge popularity of social games like Zynga’s Facebook titles can lead to donations and awareness.
At the moment, the Knight Foundation is working with MTV, the creators of Darfur is Dying to produce a game called Fantasy Election ’12 to get young people engaged in the current political conversation. The game is scheduled to debut later this month.
So what social causes will Zynga and the Knight Foundation champion next?