Social gaming: the new social media for philanthropy

publication date: Jan 3, 2012
author/source: Frankie Chow
Many charities are embracing social media as never before. Although social media is a relatively new tool, research such as the Convio Online Marketing Nonprofit Benchmark Index 2011 shows the growth and viability of social media. My research seeks to depict social gaming and gaming in general as viable tools for charities.Frankie Chow photo

What are social games?

Social games encourage social interaction between users on the social platforms for which they are created. Websites and social platforms have been using them for a few years now to attract and engage their communities. I believe that charities can utilize them to attract their constituents and supporters to their causes in a similar fashion.

Social gaming is becoming more available to a wider variety of people through devices such as smartphones and tablets. I could not find previous research conducted on how social gaming is viewed or can be utilized in the nonprofit sector. My research on social gaming was based on a few cause-related games developed mainly for advocacy purposes for various charitable organizations such as Free Rice. Another major trend in the last few years has seen game-based corporations partnering with charities to fundraise for various causes, mostly with children's charities.

Brief but impressive track record

The gaming industry and their audience have been quite active in philanthropic causes for the last few years with gaming marathons by individuals or third parties to raise money for nonprofits. Although these special events yield very little return compared to more traditional means, they have built the groundwork for a strong future relationship between games and doing good.

This trend could be seen especially during the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Within a few hours, leading social game designer Zynga, developer of popular social games like Farmville and Mafia Wars, introduced virtual products for users to purchase through micro-transactions, with all net proceeds going to Save the Children's Japan Earthquake Fund. Zynga was able to raise more than $2.5 million USD within two weeks.

After the success of Zynga, many game publishers began launching their own game campaigns benefiting other charities involved in Japanese relief efforts. Their success was mainly due to their low participation costs.

After Japan, what?

The Japanese relief was an excellent example of charities using a new medium to raise large amounts for a specific cause. But these opportunities are few, require massive media exposure, and are usually only available to the biggest charities.

On the other hand, game developers and individual gamers have been showing interest in doing more long-term philanthropic work. A world-wide community of more than 100,000 gamers have joined together to create Child's Play, a charity that provides games, toys, books, and cash to sick children in hospitals in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Egypt. Since 2003, Child's Play has raised more than US$7 million.

Game developers have also taken up the call. Nonprofit OneBigGame publishes games developed by many famous developers. Net game proceeds are donated to its partnered charities and nonprofits. Its first published game Chime, a musical puzzle, raised $100,000 for Save the Children, 96% by donation.

With the support of Mike Johnston, president of HJC New Media, two surveys were developed to measure the feasibility of the donor/gamer market for cause-related social games as well as charities' interest in long-term investing in social gaming. As we are still in the process of collecting data for these two surveys, this article analyses data collected by our NPO survey as well as current trends of collaborations between gaming corporations and the nonprofit sector.

What's in it for my charity?

According to donor profiles developed by CharityCan, the average donor is a 45-year-old-woman. According to the 2010 Social Gaming Research conducted by Information Solutions Group in the US and UK, the average gamer is a 43- to 48-year-old woman. Gamers may very well be your organization's donors!

We asked our participants what they hope to achieve with social gaming. 45.6% of the respondents wanted to attract users to their website, 43.9% said they wanted to collect user information for solicitation and stewardship purposes, 42.1% wanted a fundraising tool, and 8.8% wanted to use social gaming for advocacy.

We also asked participants for their view on partnering with individuals or corporations in game-based fundraising events. 47.2% of respondents said they would be interested in pledge-based gaming tournaments, 41.5% in charitable gift funds, 37.7% in micro-transaction sales, and 22.6% in gaming marathons. Some participants wanted to create a social game for their own community of donors and supporters.

When we looked at the responses, we realized that many organizations don't understand what social gaming is or how it is supposed to work. Our conclusion from this initial data is that many organizations cannot make an assessment based on their organization's strategies due to the lack of information and testing. However, comments from participants regarding social gaming and gaming events have been largely positive and organizations do show interest in the concept.

So what does all this mean?

First, it is important to understand that the data in both the Convio survey and the Social Gaming survey are based on US numbers. Many of the case studies referenced earlier are also based on the US market. The Canadian charitable and gaming sectors are smaller, so the donation amounts should not be taken out of context. In terms of donor and gamer behaviour, though, there are similarities between Canada and the US.

Second, although there is a lot of potential in social gaming, the cost of investing in this concept may inhibit smaller charities. However, if you have someone in your organization with the technical skills and imagination, free software such as Flash and Game Maker is available to play with. Remember that social gaming is built upon a social platform, so before deciding to invest in social gaming, make sure you have a strong social media network and community.

Third, a few of the game developers mentioned in this article have expressed interest in working with charities and nonprofits. So the trend, the incentive, and the connection to the audience are all there. All we need now is the raw data to show that social gaming and social media are the next steps in our industry's evolution. 

Lastly, social gaming is itself a growing sector within the gaming industry. There are many possibilities, not just with social gaming but with the entire gaming and interactive entertainment field. We need to further educate ourselves in new technology - it can help us advance our causes and not fall behind other industries.

Frankie Chow has a strong volunteer record in the Toronto Chinese community and at special events for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Canadian Red Cross, Royal Ontario Museum, Mon Sheong Foundation and World Vision.

After earning his honours BA in East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, he completed the Fundraising and Volunteer Management graduate program at Humber College. He's just begun a new role as events manager at the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Contact Frankie by email.

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