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Gaming Tree

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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 FreeRice.com 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 Ourcourts.org 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.

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