Leveraging Virtual Goods for The Greater Social Good

Many people have been touched by the recent and ongoing tragedies following the 9.0 earthquake in Japan. Personally I have been shocked and saddened by the devastation with family members temporarily displaced due to the events and relatives in Japan impacted by the breakdown of transportation and communication there. While news of the Japan Earthquake, accompanying tsunami, and ongoing nuclear reactor disaster is in the forefront of the news I have seen an interesting trend of  virtual goods in games being used as charitable vehicles.

Virtual goods, those intangible items bought or earned in social games and virtual worlds, are one of the methods game makers use to increase the stickiness and retention of a game. They provide status and bragging rights to the players. They can also provide in-game or in-world advantages in battles, group activities, collections, and more.  In some places they’ve even become a form of currency with players spending real money to attain the goods. I’ve written about some of the crazy money spent on virtual goods, and it’s a major source of income for game companies like Zynga and Playdom.

Social Good in Games

Well, what if social good can come from social games? What if that $5 or $10 you spent on virtual goods could not only “up your game”, but could literally provide funds for a charity organization or relief to the victims in Japan or other catastrophe stricken areas? 2011 may be remembered as the year of social good games; when game companies used the attraction of virtual goods in games combined with the reach of those games to make a difference.

There are a number of examples where this is happening recently:

  • Farmville maker Zynga introduced a way for FarmVille players to donate money to help the children of Japan by offering a non-withering crop for virtual farms, where 100 percent of the purchase goes to Save the Children.
  • Car Town (on Facebook) creator Cie Games will donate 100 percent of the proceeds from sales of the virtual emergency vehicle to the American Red Cross and its Japan disaster relief efforts.
  • Mahjong Trails maker MegaZebra introduced a Japan Earthquake Relief tile set and background, where 100 percent of the proceeds from these items will go directly to the Red Cross in Japan.
  • Restaurant City and Pet Society maker Playfish  joined forces with Mercy Corps and their partner, Peace Winds Japan, to run a donation program where Playfish will give 100 percent of its proceeds from certain virtual goods to Mercy Corps to provide the Japanese with “balloon shelters to accommodate up to 600 people; large emergency tents; clean water, food and blankets”

The use of virtual goods for social good seems to having a real impact with Zynga leading the way raising over $1M in the first 36 hours of their effort to help Japan after the quake.

While social games may not seem like a socially conscious activity, it’s nice to see that the game publishers leverage their reach and pull the power of the players together to create real social good and change.

About Duane Kuroda

Business ninja, deal hunter, Internet marketer, and technology fiddler obsessed about growing companies and launching products. Currently at Peerspin, Duane’s past lives include Vice President of Marketing roles at companies leading micropayments, Internet video, and online communities as well as research and consulting for mobile advertising. Duane has spoken at conferences including Digital Hollywood and Digital Video Expo on topics covering monetizing online content and online video, has appeared on TechNowTV and KNTV, and has been quoted in various magazines. Follow Duane on Twitter: @dkuroda.

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