Can the Gaming Industry Save Foreign Aid From Looming Budget Cuts?

In the latest 2011 budget agreement, President Obama agreed to cut over $8 billion in foreign aid and assistance from the State Department and foreign operations budget. The money would have provided assistance in alleviating hunger, improving health and nutrition, and enhancing economic development in the poorest countries around the world. These measures have long been touted as effective tools for enhancing global stability, building goodwill, and averting pandemics and other mass health crises.
Despite composing less than a half of a percent of the federal budget, foreign aid sits on the short list for the chopping block in budget negotiations for 2011 and 2012. But that doesn’t mean foreign aid has to be obliterated; it simply puts more pressure in the hands of individual citizens and charities to solve global problems through creative methods, which are popping up all around the Web.
Philanthropic gaming — the process by which money is donated to charities through entertainment activities — is rapidly replacing traditional models of raising money for foreign assistance. In January, a Web-based political quiz called ‘Real or UnReal’ was launched by my media and technology firm, OhMyGov Inc. For each correct answer, OhMyGov donates a day’s worth of clean drinking water to an African village in need through their partnering charity, Blood:Water Mission. In the game’s first two months, over 50,000 days of fresh drinking water have been earned for Sub-Saharan Africans, where 2 in 5 people lack access to uncontaminated drinking water.
By playing Real or Unreal for a few minutes a day and sharing the link with friends, everyone can help to make safe drinking water a reality.
Real or UnReal earns money for its charity through Microsoft advertisements built around the game. The money donated to Blood:Water Mission is used to create clean drinking well projects throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Last month, the charity, founded by members of the Grammy-award winning band, Jars of Clay, celebrated its 1,000th well project.
In another gaming success story, former Microsoft executive Jodi Ropert and her husband Jacques created an iPhone game dedicated to global reforestation. Panda Hero, launched in April 2010, challenges 8-14 year-olds to navigate through a maze of Chinese forests to rescue endangered pandas. Each time a customer downloads the game, three trees are planted in the real world.
More than 20,000 trees were planted in its first month alone. By the second month, the game had nabbed the No. 4 kids’ game slot in the U.S.
Socially driven games, which are becoming more prolific as creators look for new ways to differentiate their products and make a difference, are rapidly evolving in their sophistication and footprint. The industry even has its own annual events held in New York and put on by the organization, Games for Change, which also boasts a website that lists over 40 different types of games mostly aimed at raising awareness for global problems and generating new ideas for combating social ills.
One such game is called Early Warning, Early Action. It is a card game commissioned by The Red Cross to obtain new ideas for flood preparedness. The pilot of this game was played in Doune Baba Dieye by Red Cross staff, climate scientists and villagers and helped generate over 300 new ideas about how to better help this small African community prevent easily identifiable disasters.
Whether for education or generating charitable contributions, online and smart phone games are rapidly becoming attractive and popular vehicles for social change. As budgets are tightened and foreign aid money streams from governments to poorer nations turn into trickles, it’s likely charities, media companies, and game developers will increase their use and marketing of these games to make up the shortfall of direct investment. Whether it will be enough, only time will tell. But at the least, it will be entertaining.

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