Monday, April 28, 2008

Philanthropic gaming

Maybe the age of philanthropic reality shows is over. Why might I say this, other than wishful thinking? Because the age of philanthropic reality-based gaming is upon us. Per this announcement about an angel investment on TechCrunch (thanks Denise):

"Akoha, a startup working on a “new type of multiplayer online/offline social game”, has raised $1.9 Million in funding from angel investors. The company won’t release details about the exact nature of their game until this Fall, but they have stated that it was inspired by “elements of social entrepreneurship, massively multiplayer and reality-based games.” As far as we can tell, it will mix user-generated content with casual gaming elements, both online and in the real world (think geo-tagged photos taken on a cell phone). People will play for both fun and charity."
What is reality-based gaming? Well, it combines a game environment - clear goals, challenges that get harder as you get better, instant feedback, social interaction - with a virtual environment - an online world or a digital interface - and an offline world - like your neighborhood or community library.

Where does philanthropy fit in? As far as Akoha's model goes, I don't know. The tag lines on their website says "Play it forward" and "Karma's Kontagious" - which tell us nothing. Maybe you play the game for points and turn those into donations? Maybe you play at being good/doing good? Maybe the goal of the game is "systemic reform of institutionalized injustices" or "entrepreneurial solutions to global poverty" - but that seems likely only if the game is being created by the communications department of a major foundation.

This development is interesting beyond just the gaming of philanthropy. It may be another example of embedded giving. It shows significant interest ($1.9 million US worth of angel investment) in some kind of social-benefit oriented game, often called serious games or games for change.* There is growing philanthropic support for games as learning environments and/or as catalysts to action as seen in the program for the upcoming conference of Games For Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's investments in this area, the MacArthur Foundation's work on digital media and learning, and HopeLab's Ruckus Nation and Re:Mission.**

I'm particularly interested in how the commercial investments in Akoha's product might relate to /align with/ run counter to philanthropic investments in similar efforts. This is a confluence of funding streams - angel investment and charitable investment - that I believe we will see become more and more common. As the social enterprise movement and philanthropic endeavors have worked to define social return on investment and the balance between public purpose and private enterprise, so must we begin to look at how these various streams of capital - commercial, charitable, public - come together around issues and within certain enterprises. This is the essence of a philanthropic capital market - all of the various financial resources coming together in rational, related, and mutually reinforcing ways to advocate for and accelerate social solutions.

*, **Disclosures: I am on the board of Games4Change, which promotes the use of games for positive social good. My company advises the MacArthur initiative and I was a judge for Ruckus Nation.

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