Gaming Tree

For Microsoft alum Jodi Ropert and her husband Jacques, who had long dreamed of starting a small business together, the decision to enter the mobile app fray with a game was an easy one. But they didn’t want to just create a game — they wanted to help save our ailing planet. Realizing they could capitalize on their zeal for the environment, kids and consumer electronics in one shot, the Windsor, Calif., couple began investigating how to build eco-friendly games that offer both virtual and real-world ways to help save the Earth.

In 2009, just two years after Ropert left her decade-long post as a Microsoft executive, they launched Barefoot Explorers, an iPhone game studio dedicated to reforesting the planet. The company’s first Play2Plant action-adventure game, Panda Hero, was introduced in April. To play, kids 8-14 navigate a dangerous Chinese forest where they rescue endangered pandas. Just as importantly, three trees are planted in the real world each time a customer downloads the game. (The company arranged for the non-profit organization Trees for the Future to do the planting.)

More than 20,000 trees were planted in the first month alone. In May, the game had nabbed the No. 4 kids’ game slot in the U.S. and the No. 1 kids’ game slot in more than 10 countries, according to the iTunes App Store.

“The children we know are utilizing games in a very pervasive way,” says Ropert. “We wanted to take a little sliver of that time and do something really beneficial with it.”

Socially conscious games — as well as educational ones that raise social issues — have increasingly been making headlines. Since 2007, the free trivia site has been donating 10 grains of rice to developing nations for each question a player answers correctly, feeding millions of people in the process, according to the site. Though not developed as social advocacy games, Zynga’s FarmVille, FishVille, Mafia Wars and Zynga Poker raised $1.5 million for Haitian earthquake relief this January in five days, per the company, by selling virtual goods within the game. And the trailer for IBM’s forthcoming CityOne, a free Sims-style game that puts players in the driver’s seat of a hypothetical city’s energy, water and financial infrastructure, has already garnered 71,000 hits on YouTube.

Games that blend play with advocacy and learning clearly have gotten users’ attention. But do they have the power to effect serious social change in the long run?

Those at the heart of the movement, of course, say absolutely. According to Ropert, that thousands of customers immediately downloaded a $2.99 game with a message about endangered animals isn’t Panda Hero’s biggest success — it’s the more than 20,000 trees the company planted. “That has an impact of removing a million pounds of carbon dioxide [from the Earth’s atmosphere] a year,” Ropert says. “Our goal is to build a community of gamers that help plant a million trees.”

At press time, Barefoot Explorers was awaiting its second game, DreamScape, for players of all ages, to appear on the iTunes App Store. The company plans to plant trees in honor of the game’s top 10 scorers each day.

Such games have traditionally been initiated by nonprofits, universities and government organizations (that often distribute them free of charge). But for-profit companies like the Roperts’ have been diving into the socially conscious gaming pool with increasing frequency.

Asi Burak, co-founder of ImpactGames, known for its award-winning game PeaceMaker — which challenges older players to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — says the socially conscious game genre has gained clout during the past year.

“People are not asking anymore why make a game around social issues, they’re asking how,” says Burak, who’s also co-president of Games for Change, a nonprofit that offers resources and education to developers and organizations designing games for social change. “We’ve moved to mainstream adoption. Now everybody understands that games are a really dominant medium. That’s the way to go if you want to engage kids and young adults.”

Burak adds the fact that government bigwigs like former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and institutions like the White House have taken an interest in these games speaks volumes. In 2008, O’Connor not only keynoted Games for Change’s annual festival, she spearheaded efforts to develop iCivics (formerly Our Courts), a collection of free online games that teach school kids about democracy. And this year, first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign for kids’ health held an app development contest for the cause, while U.S. chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra keynoted the seventh annual Games for Change festival.

But are kids and their parents paying attention? Apparently, they are. A 2008 Pew Internet & American Life Project study of 1,102 U.S. teens ages 12 to 17 found that 97 percent of them play some kind of digital game, with 44 percent saying they play games that teach them about “a problem in society.” The games about the U.S. government have generated a significant following. Fifty-seven percent of students who played Do I Have a Right? — one of the first free Web games iCivics released last yearin the classroom went on to play it, unprompted, at home. In addition, 550,000 unique players have played the three judicial branch games featured on more than 700,000 times, per iCivics.

It’s not just kids glued to games on their Xboxes and iPhones. According to data released by the Entertainment Software Association this year, the average gamer is 34 years old, with 67 percent of U.S. households containing at least one player and women comprising 40 percent of all players. PeaceMaker, which ImpactGames self-published in 2007 and sells for $19.95, has sold more than 100,000 copies in more than 60 countries, says Burak. And, its free online demo has garnered 1 million downloads.

These numbers have not gone unnoticed by philanthropic experts, especially with charitable giving taking a dip since the recession. But they don’t want to reach adults only; they feel it’s an opportunity to attract a younger audience, too.

“I don’t think we’re going to look back in 15 years and say, ‘Look at how all this giving grew from computer games,'” says Michael Nilsen, senior director of public affairs for the Association of Fundraising Professionals. “But we’re planting the seed. Fundraising is all about cultivating relationships and getting people involved. Kids are online and using computers massive numbers of hours a day, and you’ve got to meet them in their own environment.”

Melissa Brown, associate director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, agrees that the under-30 sect is not likely to whip out their wallet today. But, she adds, “research suggests that as they mature and their incomes increase, they will become donors. That’s one reason this whole awareness-raising issue is such a big deal.”

Of course, socially conscious games are not expected to be a silver bullet to lining the future coffers of charities and foundations. Nor do experts believe all such efforts are necessarily worthwhile.

For one, because the medium is still so new, game creators still have their share of kinks to work out. “Games are really a sophisticated art form,” says Christopher Swain, director of the University of Southern California’s Games Institute. “It’s not practical [to expect] that someone’s going to be really good at game development and a domain expert on their issue — malaria, or whatever it is. The worst thing that could happen is that they try to design a game because it’s going to be a beginner’s effort.”

For this reason, Swain says, the best bet for those looking to create educational or socially conscious games is to team up with a game developer or firm experienced in the genre.

As for the future of such games, Burak (pictured) is optimistic that the marketplace will continue to see quality products outweigh the “chocolate-covered broccoli.” Says Burak: “More serious funding is coming in, veteran game designers are being approached more and more to create [these games] and the audience is expanding.”
As for the power of digital games to impact society — and/or the planet — Burak points to movies and television shows as a bellwether. If TV shows like M*A*S*H and movies like Milk can manage to successfully blend serious social matters with entertainment, games can too, he says.

“Popular media always has had an amazing influence in dealing with tough social issues,” says Burak, citing recent Oscar winners like  The Hurt Locker, a movie about a U.S. Army bomb squad unit in the Iraq War, and documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth, about the Earth’s climate crisis. “I don’t think all of them will change the world. But I think one out of five will have some impact,” he says.

Phaedra Boinodiris, serious games program manager at IBM — which has been producing such projects since 2007 — also banks on the games having an impact.

“Serious games are not the panacea to teach everything, but they’re extremely good to explain complex systems,” she says. It’s one thing, she says, to try to explain what a “smarter city” is to someone, but it’s much more powerful to allow someone to “experience it viscerally for themselves.”

Jesse Schell, game designer and assistant professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University and CEO of Schell Games, has no doubt that digital games can bring about significant social change.

“Games have the power … more than any other medium, to put you in the perspective of another, and most social change happens by having a fuller understanding of a point of view that was initially alien to you,” says Schell.

The company he started in 2002, after working as creative director at Disney Imagineering’s Virtual Reality Studio, is in the process of developing a Mummy game based on Universal Pictures’ film franchise. He feels strongly that developers have a responsibility to make their games do good even when creating a mass market entertainment game. With the Mummy game his company is developing, he says, there will be opportunities for players to help each other out. This “starts to become habitual,” he says. “There’s some possibility that that can transition into real life.”

Giving players choices that could change their habits or expand their perspectives, he adds, or modeling good decision making in story lines, give developers “ways to make their games improve the player in some way. If you do it right, people really respond favorably. Nothing feels better than the feeling that someone else cares what you become.”