Thursday, October 18, 2007

Game Friday: Vocabulary, Poverty, and Meaningful Score Keeping

This week, Free Rice, a very casual game that can allow you to use your erudite mastery of the English language to provide rice to hungry people via the United Nations World Food Program (UN WFP).

Here's how it works: define a word properly, and the site's sponsors will donate the equivalent of ten grains of rice to the UN WFP. There is no limit on how many words you can define, and the level changes dynamically based on your ability.

It's not rocket science--just another variation on the "click to donate" phenomena, which has debated value. Free Rice is linked to a sister site,, which disseminates information about world hunger and other issues. This is an interesting sort of hybrid--supporting a content site with a game that seems unrelated. Yes, you continually see your bowl of rice fill up, but it's not one of those games where the challenge is to figure out how to distribute the food. It's a simple vocabulary game, and fifty words in I haven't encountered any underlying thread of words associated with poverty or hunger. It's just a game.

It's also pretty addictive, especially if you're a word nut like me. Unlike click to donate, where the incentive is purely about charity, Free Rice gives you a strange secondary incentive to contribute: leveling up in play. When I read the comments on lazylaces (where I found this game), they're split about 50-50 between people wondering about the rice donation strategy and those celebrating their high scores. Many people do both in the same comment.

To me, this is a really clever application of meaning to addictive gaming. How long would I play a vocabulary game like this if there were no tie-in? The level, while compelling, isn't as exciting as the score--which is measured in grains of rice. Unlike click to donate, where you get a "win" for doing almost nothing, Free Rice only gives you rice to donate when you define words correctly. Each time you fail to do so, no more rice for the UN WFP, which, instead of disincentivizing me to play further, made me more committed to defining words properly.

How many games of pinball or pacman have you played without so much as a glance towards the score, constantly ticking up, seemingly inconsequential? Free Rice applies a simple, powerful consequence to scoring.

It's also a nice "put your money where your mouth is," not wholy unlike that at the Bronx Zoo's Congo Gorilla Forest, where you choose which gorilla advocacy group your admission fee will support. These kinds of games could be a great way to publicize and support advocacy that museums are already doing. Imagine a simple math game where high scores donated dollars to programs like the Girls Math and Science Partnership. Or a fish-identification game where scores related to work done to protect the marine protected areas. Particularly when sponsors are willing to foot the bill (as on Free Rice and many click to donate sites), this can be a win-win for the museum, the cause, and the player.

And it seems apropos here to mention Beth Kanter's current blog-based effort to collect $10 donations to send a Cambodian orphan to college. If you are interested in the leveraging of social media sites to raise money for charity causes, Beth's blog is a great resource.

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