Is Gamification the Future of Philanthropy?

Source: VFS Digital Design / Flickr

In recent years, gamification has emerged as a concept that promises to re-imagine how we conceive of and engage with the world around us.

Put in the most general of terms, gamification is the application of game design and game mechanics into different contexts to encourage a desired behavior. Structure things like a game, with a unique set of challenges and incentives, and you can capitalize on people’s penchant for entertainment and competition.

Gamification may not be so different from loyalty point programs or giveaways that businesses have long used to draw customers, but what makes it particularly appealing now is the proliferation of technologies, such as apps and social networks, that can serve as easily accessible platforms for gamification. Gamification is now found in everything from education (Khan Academy is a popular example that comes to mind) and employee recruitment strategies to software design and fitness programs.

With gamification growing in vogue in business and in the public sector, it’s no surprise that some have applied it to philanthropy as well. The thinking goes like this: if we can gamify philanthropy, we can get more people to donate to charities on a continual basis, create a more engaged citizen base, and reach a younger generation of philanthropists through the internet and their smart phones. So far, we’ve mainly observed gamification applied to philanthropy through two models:

  1. The Value Added Model

People spend countless hours building virtual fortresses and designing candy combinations on their smart phones and computers. Why not bring added value by combining time already spent playing games with philanthropy? A prime example of how this works is the site Freerice.com. Now a project of the UN World Food Programme, Freerice partners with sponsors to encourage people to play on their site, and the more people play on Freerice.com, the more sponsors donate to the cause.

Other organizations, like Games For Change or Decode Global, help develop social impact games that turn social issues into game narrative. So, for instance, instead of recovering stolen relics or vanquishing rogue robots, you might roleplay as a manager in a garment factory trying to balance client demands and labor regulations, or as a young girl in a small village tasked with retrieving water for her family. Often, there are donation opportunities incorporated into the gameplay.

  1. The Gamified Process

Many organizations apply gamification to the process of giving itself. Sites like CrowdRise.com, OneVietnam.org, or ikifu.org construct entire giving platforms with built-in incentive systems that go beyond printing donors’ names on a plaque or in an organization’s annual report. With real-time feedback, points, badges, and leadership boards, users are encouraged to give personally as well as tap into their peer networks to raise funds for organizations. The game is in the fundraising, and the reward is in both the knowledge that you’ve done good and the social recognition that comes with being a top fundraiser.

A number of organizations have applied gamification to philanthropy to great success. Half the Sky, a Facebook game produced as part of the movement for gender equality, reached over 700,000 players within 3 months and contributed over $300,000 to various nonprofits, while CrowdRise users have collectively raised millions for their causes. But it’s probably not yet time to trade in traditional philanthropic vehicles in favor of gamified applications alone.

Attempting to gamify giving can be a resource-intensive and risky undertaking. Technology consulting firm Gartner predicted, “By 2014, 80 percent of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives primarily because of poor design.” This undoubtedly pertains to gamified applications with charitable objectives as well. Even people with a vested interest in social causes won’t play social impact games or join fundraising platforms if the product isn’t well-designed. And this goes beyond just creating an attractive UI/UX, but developing a player experience with compelling enough incentives as well.

Nhat Vuong, the Swiss-Vietnamese social entrepreneur behind ikifu.org, a Tokyo-based social enterprise, related the challenges he faced developing the ikifu platform. In Japan, he explained, people tend to be much quieter in their philanthropy, but the culture of giving is still strong. As is their culture of gaming. So Vuong and his team came up with the idea to marry giving and gamification through ikifu, and while they are happy about the excitement for ikifu at its launch, it’s an ongoing challenge to convert enthusiasm for an idea into loyal players.

“We have to admit that ikifu is still a work in progress,” Vuong said. “The gamification aspects of ikifu are yet to be completed; we have many ideas about how to gamify, but we want to make sure to come up with the right features. What’s going to be the best balance with the point system, what’s going to be the relevant rewards—we’re still figuring this out. Since they are linked to human behaviors it is not always easy to predict how the users will react.”

Even if a product or platform launches successfully, there remain the challenges of game longevity and long-term engagement. To return to the example of Freerice, it was a game that came out to much momentum. But it’s a fairly static game, as users are essentially playing repeated rounds of matching words or numbers. Freerice has introduced some new elements of gameplay, but if Google trends are any indication, interest in the game has tapered off:

Graph1

The rate of growth in donations has begun leveling off after early exponential growth as well:

FreeRice_grain_totals
Source: Wikipedia

Platforms and applications with more dynamic gameplay may have greater longevity, but they are not immune to fickle player preferences either. We await to see how social impact games fare in the long-run, but in the meantime, the evanescent cycles of some their commercial cousins may help extrapolate.

So gamification may not be the answer to all of philanthropy’s fundraising and engagement woes, but it’s still a potent concept. The fact that Freerice has helped donate nearly ten billion grains of rice to help end world hunger is not to be dismissed, and the 4-week Farmville/Water.org campaign that brought permanent access to clean water to over 17,000 people is a boon to the cause. As developers continue to find harmony between social good and personal entertainment, we’re sure to see new projects that continually address the present challenges of gamification as well as create improved engagement mechanisms.

“We don’t have the magic bullet solution at this time,” Vuong said. “But we’re going to continue our journey, learn from our mistakes and continue to use gamification for good until we succeed.” Vuong is now working on creating a customized version for corporations that would like to see their employees contribute more to society and is aiming to launch it in 2014.

What are your thoughts on gamifying philanthropy?