Gaming With a Conscience: How Freemium Could Help Charity

There once was a time when I followed gaming with verve and passion, soaking up every out-of-ten score in the Official Playstation Magazine, and cursing Nintendo for somehow making the latest Mario Kart game even more irritating than the last. But time has passed, and I no longer have my finger quite on the pulse.

However, I still do hear about most of the latest releases, one way or another, and I pay special attention to game launches with something interesting, unusual, or notable about them. A recent example was the launch of Zoo Tycoon, of which I learned thanks to my AppStorm colleague, Marius Masalar, and his fine taste in tweeting.

Whilst the sight of yet another Zoo Tycoon game was not terribly striking, the initiatives that Microsoft has taken, alongside the production of the game, are.

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Performance-Related Perks

You’d hope that a game involving animals would make welfare a priority, and even more so when success in the game requires the use of animals as a financial commodity. With this release, however, Microsoft has gone a step further. The PC software giant has consulted real-world zoos as to how best to educate children in good animal husbandry, and the game even penalizes players for poor care.

Microsoft is doling out some tender loving care with the release of Zoo Tycoon.

Microsoft is doling out some tender loving care with the release of Zoo Tycoon.

Alongside this, Microsoft announced that it wanted to participate actively in conservation. Funds have been set aside, ready to be sent to a number of partner charities (including National Geographic) as and when the Zoo Tycoon-playing community reaches certain, collective, in-game goals. And those goals, by the way, relate to releasing in-game animals back into the wild.

Impressive work, Microsoft.

A Spin-Off Concept

Hold on. You’re on AppStorm, all of the above relates to a Xbox One release title, and this op-ed reads like a soppy PR release — what’s going on?

Zoo Tycoon is, obviously, a gleaming example to the rest of the gaming world in terms of social responsibility and laudable morality. But game developers are in the entertainment business to make a living, not to fund worthwhile causes around the world.

However, Zoo Tycoon’s announcement brought to my mind an idea that encompasses both mainstream gaming and charity.

“Freemium With a Conscience”

Casual, web-based gaming has, in recent years, become a multi-million dollar cash-cow — an apt term for a genre of gaming that has been dominated by FarmVille. These free-to-play games, which often reach viral popularity due to their Facebook connections, are finely tuned to make players feel compelled to keep playing, keep returning, and keep upgrading their in-game inventory…which is just when payment is required. It’s not a “pretty” way of generating income, but it is certainly effective — to the tune of $152 million in the last quarter, in the case of Zynga, FarmVille’s creator.

What if this were aiding third-world farmers to raise a crop?

What if this were aiding third-world farmers to raise a crop?

But what if such a game — which millions of folks enjoy — was dedicated to charity instead of profit? What if the hundreds of gleaming new FarmVille tractors paid for real tractors in developing nations? Or those weapon upgrades in Mafia Wars helped to pay for war veteran rehabilitation? And, at the same time, what if players were being educated as to why that revenue mattered? What you would have, as Marius beautifully encapsulated it, would be “freemium with a conscience.”

To some degree, it is already happening. Organizations like National Geographic and WWF are allowing developers to create mobile games that are associated with each charity’s “brand,” in exchange for a small share of revenue, or a licensing fee.

It would seem to me that the natural progression is for non-profits to start commissioning games themselves, both with the purpose of generating extra income, and educating the public at large. The viral nature of social games provides an outstanding platform for spreading the word, and the business model is a proven one. It seems like a no-brainer.

Except that it would require a risky investment, and games are, at the best of times, notoriously hit-and-miss. But my counter-argument is that large non-profits have been paying developers to produce edutainment titles for years, with no thoughts of a direct return on investment; adding purchasable extras to such a game would be easy, and would be well received by supporters, who want all of their spend to go to the charity.

Fun and philanthropy — what better combination?

Okay: who’s up for a game of Texas Hold’em — winnings to charity, yeah?