Virtual Goods to Actual Good: Gamers & Direct Relief


The following is an update from Direcet Relief CEO Thomas Tighe after he spoke at the annual Games for Change Festival in New York City:

As likely the only one at last week’s Games for Change festival in New York City who played “Pong” when it first came out (at a now long-closed arcade in Palo Alto, where I grew up), I was an unlikely speaker at the event.  But what a treat it was to glimpse the state of the art digital gaming industry, meet the astounding talent involved in it, and see the energy being harnessed for a broad range of great causes, including Direct Relief.

With the go-go digital gaming industry generating $20 billion in revenue and reportedly engaging 59 percent of Americans, it’s easy to overlook the industry’s current significant and potential profound contributions to social and humanitarian causes.  Direct Relief has been keenly aware of both since receiving an offer to help from Zynga three years ago following the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The excellent Abby Speight of, the charitable arm of the online gaming company and a sponsor of the festival, led a “Designing for Good” plenary panel (of which I was a panelist) discussing two basic tracks of gaming and social causes:

  • leveraging commercially successful games to support charitable causes, as Zynga has now done with Direct Relief on multiple occasions to support humanitarian health assistance in emergencies and Pixelberry has done with its “High School Story” to generate awareness and funds for important anti-bullying efforts;  and
  • designing games themselves as a means of educating, training, advocating for, or otherwise advancing something good (the Minecraft creators helping the United Nations engage communities so they can plan better public spaces, SIMS working with GlassLab to accelerate new educational tools for students) or avoiding something bad.

It’s impossible not to be impressed by the astounding creative, engineering, design, research, and analytical talent that goes into making a good game – and it seemed that most attendees had one or more in scary abundance – and all the business acumen obviously inherent in a $20 billion-and-growing industry.  But, it’s also refreshing to know that the current of insight into what makes people tick, engage, and have fun is being increasingly channeled to help people, issues, and causes that don’t lend themselves easily to games that are engaging and fun.

Zynga’s efforts have encouraged 250,000 people to support Direct Relief’s humanitarian health efforts through the purchase of low-cost virtual goods embedded in their games, and the nearly $1.3 million raised has translated directly into people who are sick, hurt, or at very high risk receiving medications they need and otherwise would not have received.  They’ve also made Direct Relief’s work visible to millions of players worldwide, in a soft-touch way that doesn’t interfere with either the company’s interests or the players’ enjoyment.

And, just this week, the good people at  Humble Bundle, which allows consumers to pay what they want and support charity for games developed by independent game creators, is channeling all such charitable donations to Direct Relief.

As online gaming evolves, it’s nice to see that the evolution of the virtual worlds being created have embedded within them an increasing recognition of the wonderful qualities of compassion and empathy and a desire to help people in the physical world, which they’re doing already in very creative ways.  It’s a cause for hope and, in Direct Relief’s case, for deep thanks.

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