Philanthropic Gamification Becoming A Virtual Reality

May 24, 2016       Andy Segedin      

Bioluminescent life is on the decline at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It is up to museum visitors to travel to the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life to identify bioluminescent squid, photobacterium and pollutants. As participants remove the presence of pollutants, the squid are able to glow bright again.

The mission is part of the museum’s new MicroRangers offering, an interactive mobile game associated with more than a dozen exhibits. MicroRangers treats the museum like a board game and invites visitors to shrink down to its level to take on challenges, each about 20 minutes long, explained Barry Joseph, associate director for digital learning.

MicroRangers, like all of the museum’s games, started off as an educational tool for afterschool programs and was scaled up to meet institutional goals. The game took years of tinkering, but less-developed games such as Playing with Dinos, a mobile app that encourages users to be playful in the museum’s dinosaur exhibit, can achieve a similar effect in enriching the learning experience.

“We see going back a half decade ago many museums playing with games ­­– mobile games or playful experiences that tend to be one-offs and aren’t part of a strategic [initiative],” Joseph said. “What we’re doing now is part of the next phase. We’re trying to be more strategic and research-based about the efficacy of the types of games we develop.”

Organizations and design studios are seeing more opportunities to fundraise, advance missions and convey important information all while consumers are having fun. As technology advances and games increase in popularity, the short and long-term future of gaming might inform how an increasing number of organizations interact with constituencies and raise money.

SimCityEDU Pollution Challenge by GlassLab of Redwood City, Calif., was developed as a way to provide STEM learning and assessment in the classroom and at home, according to Jessica Lindl, former CEO of GlassLab. That focus hasn’t changed and success there has opened the door for fundraising opportunities. “The objective of the game is education impact resulting in both fundraising and advocacy benefits,” Lindl, who is now COO of LRNG in Redwood City, Calif., said via email.

Organizations have the capability to provide value to philanthropists by using games just as they provide value to users. The trick is customizing value to the needs of philanthropists. Foundations, for example, are most interested in learning impact and both foundations and government are interested in research and new approaches. Philanthropists have the opportunity to play a part by investing in a world that interests them, which, in GlassLab’s case, is one of learning and gaming.

“Organizations must focus on solving user challenges and providing unique value to use games as a fundraising mechanism,” Lindl said. “This value makes the ‘teaching job’ for parents and teachers more effective. As a result, we are able to generate revenue and fundraise from these games.”

Gaming as an educational tool is one particularly popular use, said Sara Cornish, project director for Games for Change, a New York City-based nonprofit co-founded by Joseph. Educational games might not possess a larger portion of the pie than in years past, but a bigger pie overall – filled with new studios and developers – has ripened the educational game market.

Increasing use of digital technology in the classroom has opened the door for the gamification of learning, Cornish said. Focus on STEM subjects and computer science has also fostered students’ interests in developing games – a process that requires a cross-discipline of skills including writing, programming, designing and, in the case of social-impact games, an understanding of targeted issues.

Games for Change regularly announces challenges to develop games for specific purposes, such as climate-change awareness. Through these challenges, Cornish saw firsthand a shift in those interested in game development. “We’re seeing more and more people have the skills and interest to make games,” she said. “It’s no longer the usual suspects. We are getting submissions from a wider range, university programs, high school students.”

Virtual reality has been cited as a potential empathy creator for organizations, something that video games can, too, achieve, Cornish said. 1979 Revolution, a game developed by Brooklyn, New York’s iNK Stories, is an example of such a game in action. The game places players in the perspective of a photojournalist navigating the Iranian Revolution.

Creating gaming experiences based on real-world events is a space iNK has wanted to enter, according to founder Navid Khonsari. A native of Iran, Khonsari said that he found the revolution to be the perfect event to create an interactive narrative where players are exposed to a world they are unfamiliar with and tested on their morality and decision-making.

A documentary might provide a good look at an event through another person’s eyes and a book might do well in highlighting the particulars of an event, but gaming is capable of placing an individual into a situation. “With 1979 being a real story, a real event, a monumental moment in history – all these things are embedded into the experience that we have created,” Khonsari said. “It becomes your story regardless of your backstory.”

Khonsari said that he sees opportunities for many different applications for the 1979 Revolution model, allowing first-person perspectives to stories ranging from millennia ago to the 1960s’ battle for civil rights to more recent turmoil in communities such as Ferguson, Mo.

Nonprofits’ capability to drive awareness and empathy toward causes with games will be interesting to watch, Khonsari said. Organization are not lacking for interesting stories and real-world narratives. Struggles have, instead, come from an inability to bridge those stories with tools to engage and entertain. Large gaming companies, on the other hand, have plenty of bells and whistles, but limited stories.

The key is to make sure that messaging doesn’t trump experience, as a message will never lead to impact if the individual isn’t entertained and engaged. If the goal is to raise funds, then the game should be treated no differently than a product being made for profit, meaning that an emphasis must be placed on design creativity and having the game standout from others.