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.