Players Lend a Helping Hand—or, Thumb

Social games like FarmVille boost charitable causes—and burnish the reputations of blemished brands

When Japan was hit last year with one of the biggest earthquakes ever measured, Laura Hartman received a text from her brother. Hartman’s brother just happens to be Mark Pincus, CEO of social gaming behemoth Zynga. Considering that Zynga reaches around 230 million players a month on Facebook through games like FarmVille, CityVille and Mafia Wars, Pincus and Hartman—head of Zynga’s philanthropic arm, Zynga.org, and a professor of business ethics at DePaul University in Chicago—realized they had the potential to mobilize a vast number of people to make a real difference, and quickly.

While news of the subsequent tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown spread, Hartman got in touch with Save the Children and Direct Relief. Pincus got started with his team. By end of day, Zynga had released a virtual fan—to blow virtual air—in 10 of its games that players could buy for $5, with 100 percent of the proceeds (Facebook agreed to forgo its transaction fee) going to relief efforts.

“The campaign lasted a week and raised us $600,000,” says Kelley Kaufman of Direct Relief. “Honestly, we were shocked.”

All told—with some separate help from Lady Gaga of GagaVille—the fan campaign raised $3.5 million for relief efforts in Japan.

There’s nothing new about companies wanting to burnish their image with a little public do-gooding. As trust in corporations has gone down—according to Edelman’s 2011 Trust Barometer report, belief that companies would “do what is right” declined by 8 percent last year (56 percent of those surveyed, for example, don’t trust businesses “to do the right thing)—the number of firms that dabble in social marketing has gone up. But in an age when authenticity and transparency are paramount—and companies’ business practices are easily shared and discussed on the Web—it’s no longer enough to appear good. The time is fast approaching when companies will have to be good.

“Too much cause marketing is just tricking people,” says Brian Reich, svp at Edelman and author of Media Rules! and Shift & Reset: Strategies for Addressing Serious Issues in a Connected Society. “You tell people they’re going to cure cancer and they’ll jump in once. Maybe you’ll get a second chance. But the third time? The fourth? Forget about it.”

Paradigm shifts demand radical and creative new approaches. Companies, say industry strategists, need to think of themselves not only as producers of products, but as facilitators through which their customers can engage in the world in real and meaningful ways. Which is why an increasing number of companies, from Zynga to Pepsi to Master Lock to Dial, are looking beyond traditional cause-marketing campaigns and inviting consumers to do good via games.

“It’s a transition from ‘license to operate’ to ‘license to lead,’” says Reich. “The public wants to know you’re making decisions that benefit more than just you. You still have to make money, but you have to be trusted—and it’s trust that’s going to result in more sales.”

There are roughly 6.9 billion people in the world. Two billion of them are online. Eight-hundred million are on Facebook. Of those 800 million, 53 percent have played games on the site and 20 percent play them regularly, according to Lightspeed Research. According to a recent report from Saatchi & Saatchi, half of all Internet users in the U.S. aged 18-44 play social games at least once daily. Per eMarketer, 29 percent of all Web users in the U.S. will play social games in 2012. That’s 68.7 million people, an impressive 29.5 percent growth rate over the last two years.

“It’s where the audience is,” says Asi Burak, co-president of Games for Change, whose titles are intended to have a social impact. When the organization began in 2004, people were interested in games as a way to reach youth, Burak says. “Audience” meant teenagers and the young. But with the rise of social gaming—think FarmVille as opposed to Grand Theft Auto—the demographics have changed; according to a 2010 study by PopCap Games, 55 percent of all social gamers are women and, in the U.S., the average age is 48. (In the U.K., it’s 38.)

“This makes games very attractive to companies, NGOs and nonprofits,” Burak says. “Because this is the group that studies show makes household financial decisions.”

In other words, those statistics appeal to all kinds of entities looking to get their messages out and effect real change.

But it’s not just the demographics that have changed. The very nature of what a game is and how players use games has changed, too.

The first so-called cause-marketing game to catch the public’s attention was an effort in 2006 by mtvU in partnership with the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and the International Crisis Group. In Darfur Is Dying, players must get water for their refugee camps. Along the way they are attacked by machine-gun-toting militia and have other horrible things happen. At game’s end a link directed players to a website where they could learn more about the issue, write to Congress or donate money.

“This is how [serious games were] until about two years ago,” Burak says. “You made a Web game, people played it once, and you got your message across to however many people came to play it—it was just a really simple way of investing dollars in games instead of more traditional media.”

The big change with social media games is that as people play continuously, they have the opportunity to donate continuously. They also talk about what they’re doing with their online friends. Per the Saatchi report, social gamers don’t play a game once; they play daily. According to a recent study from Raptr, a social network for gamers, people playing a game like FarmVille play four times as often as those playing games like World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. They may only play briefly—about five minutes per session, Raptr says—but their relationship with the game may last for years. And when you consider loyalty—90 percent of players to new Zynga games like Treasure Isle came from old titles like FarmVille—the social gaming scene starts to look like a good model for brand connections.

Even better, people playing games on Facebook post about their achievements—like helping out in Japan by buying a fan—creating a multiplier effect through virtual word of mouth that is the dream of every marketer.

The work of Vitrue Games is a good example. When it created a game for Dial last year to drive traffic to its Facebook page and promote NutriSkin lotions, it saw a 301 percent increase in visitors in just over six months. Part of the lure of the game was Dial donated 10 cents for every minute played to the Endometriosis Foundation for America. Seven percent of players posted about the game on Facebook, and for every one of those messages there was a 1.3 percent response rate of friends commenting on or “liking” the post. When Vitrue created a Facebook game for Master Lock, also last year, it found that for every 1,000 people who participated, an additional 650 came aboard via players sharing the game with their friends. Master Lock contributed $25,000 to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, based on players donating $1 per level.

Or there are models like WeTopia, where the do-gooding is part of the point of the game. In WeTopia, launched on Facebook by Sojo Studios in November, players build villages and, much like the Zynga.org model, buy virtual goods, the proceeds of which go to nonprofit partners like Save the Children and Action for Healthy Kids. But in WeTopia, there’s another layer of partnerships. Players also get “joy” points for watching ads from for-profit partners like Clorox and Mattel, which in turn also make contributions. Sojo is a for-profit venture; it gives 50 percent of its profits to its nonprofit partners.

Burak of Games for Change says he’s been seeing more of this kind of complex arrangement. “It’s about partnerships between non-profits and for-profits,” he says. “The idea is to turn play into real-world actions.”

A recent study from trends research company PSFK helps explain the appeal of games—as opposed to just any social media application. Games, the report suggests, can “solve the unsolvable,” “leverage collective man power,” “imbed knowledge,” “teach new skills” and “spread the word.” The buzzword is “gamification.”

Think about it this way: from an anthropological perspective, play is how primates learn. When people play, they’re not only having fun, they’re being creative, experimenting, exploring new ideas and pushing back against established rule sets. Study after study show that people retain information better when it’s imbedded in a game and that they are engaged with their subject matter on a far deeper level when they’re playing than when they’re simply reading or watching a screen. They also are madly motivated to pursue the goals set forth in the game. The MacArthur Foundation was so interested by in-game behavior, it has bestowed grants worth more than $10 million through its digital media and learning initiative to designers and researchers to harness the power of games for educational purposes. MacArthur seed money has led to a New York City public school designed to bring the kind of engagement and learning into the classroom that happens in a videogame.

According to Reich of Edelman, however, for-profit companies need to start being as creative as nonprofits. The Mac-Arthur-funded school, for example, is changing the paradigm of education. Or consider Foldit, an app created at the University of Washington, which has players making 3-D models of protein molecules. Researchers challenged players to configure the structure of a retrovirus enzyme related to HIV/AIDS, which led in just a few weeks to a scientific breakthrough long eluding researchers.

Why isn’t the corporate sector offering customers opportunities like Foldit? Reich wants to know. “There are huge opportunities right now in this connected society to change the way people behave, and companies are not taking advantage of it,” he says. “If your company were actually advancing the needle solving problems people want to see solved, you’d be unstoppable.” By not innovating, he adds, companies can do harm to themselves.

In a time when relationships with customers need to be nurtured and transparency is paramount, companies are running out of time for shenanigans like, say, selling fast food while running a campaign to raise money for breast cancer research, as KFC did in 2010, Reich notes. (Its many critics included Barbara Brenner, then executive director of Breast Cancer Action, who reportedly said, “They are raising money for women’s health by selling a product that’s bad for your health.”)

The opportunities for using games and game mechanics to offer the kind of relationship and real change Reich advocates are huge, but not without their dangers. When playing games, people are motivated, engaged and persistent. In fact, a whole cottage industry has emerged, contending that companies should study the insights gleaned from game studies and use game mechanics in order to attract and retain customers. Badges, points, leaderboards are, of course, now common. But as the model of a successful business shifts in the 21st century, anything that rings false or smacks of manipulation is not going to fly in the long run.

And some gamification advocates walk the line a little too close for comfort. For example, one of gamification’s leading advocates, Gabe Zichermann, gave a Google Tech Talk last year in which he gushed about the low-cost opportunities afforded by virtual rewards like badges, points and leaderboards. In his PowerPoint presentation he brought up a picture of a casino table.

“There’s no way to beat the house,” he said. “So you have one choice in a more gamified world—either being the house or getting played.”

But this goes right to the heart of Reich’s warning about tricking people. For a company to think of its customers as people to be “played” is to foster the opposite of a meaningful relationship. Being manipulated leaves a bitter taste in the mouth—a taste about which people will immediately tell their 2,000 Facebook friends, who will then tell their 2,000 friends, and on and on and on. Making people feel as if they’re getting something may lead to short-term sales, but it won’t help with long-term sustainability.

Games are powerful. But like all powerful things, they need to be handled with care.