Games for social good have received much optimism and attention in the past several years, as designers, academics and philanthropists turn their gaze on the possibility that games can engage people on humanitarian issues and motivate them to action.
With the rapid ascent of social gaming still fresh, the sector has seen incredible potential for connectivity of platforms like Facebook to take change games to brand new heights. New York-based Sojo Studios now makes a grand entrance onto the scene with Wetopia, a social game oriented around charitable giving -- and backed by a number of prominent partnerships.
Currently in beta, Wetopia has joined with an initial 13 major nonprofits like Save the Children, BuildOn and Children's Health Fund, whose charitable activities players will benefit. And the company promises some big stars will step up to approve the effort -- television host and comedian Ellen DeGeneres has already said she's proud to be involved.
"You know when you hear about an idea and you instantly fall in love with it? That’s how I felt when I heard about WeTopia spreading joy to people around the world," DeGeneres said in a statement.
Sojo Studios founder and CEO Lincoln Brown tells Gamasutra he was motivated to address global need through gaming after years of experience doing missions to Haiti. After the nation was ravaged by earthquakes, he says he saw first-hand just how "precarious" the giving experience could be for those who wanted to help.
"The inspiration for the company initially had very little to do with social games, and far more to do with allowing people to give back in a meaningful way," he explains. There is often a global response to international disasters, but often the process of gathering aid through donations is complicated by the fact many organizations operate with somewhat opaque feedback; individuals aren't usually sure how charities apply their donations or what the result is.
"The average person only gives to cause or charity once or twice a year," says Brown. "There had to be a way to allow people... to build a relationship that allows the charity to tell a story, which they don't do very well at all."
Nonprofits generally solicit empathy for their cause through heart-wrenching advertisements that seek to expose people to the horrific conditions that need their help. But that often makes people feel unhappy or guilty, rather than enabling them to experience the sense of empowerment that comes from helping others -- and that motivates them to keep doing it.
Through games, Brown believes Sojo Studios has the opportunity to help make giving part of people's everyday lives, pleasurable and pressure-free. It took him a while to wrap his head around how Facebook games could be the best avenue, though. While friends from business school were sharing fascinating studies on the growth of social games, this didn't initially grok with his experience of seeing farm help requests in his news feed continually.
But as he learned more, he saw the field in a new light. "I felt that if you really break down social gaming, it's a great form of digital storytelling. The idea occurred to me to merge, in a contextual way, social games with giving back, so we created Wetopia. You build a better world for children in the game, and the better it gets in the game, the better it gets in the real world."
From the start, Brown knew his studio would have to make Wetopia stand out in selective ways to attract interest. The team focused on higher art values, with everything rendered in 3D, but gameplay largely works with established standards for world simulation social games, with the concepts of growing, gifting and visiting.
"Our innovation is how we've integrated cause," Brown says.
Working within the proven mechanics of social games is advantageous in this case because it prevents Wetopia from feeling unnatural or heavy-handed, Brown believes. "People don't like being overwhelmed with cause; they like to sort of peel the onion, and if they're interested, they dig deeper."
The company is now about 16 months old, according to Brown, and the team is about 25 now. Nonetheless, "it's been really hard to achieve the delicate balance of gameplay that allows you to do good, but doesn't feel tacked on."
So how does it work, exactly? The world-builder's virtual currency is Joy, that users earn through play. Like many world-building games, players can choose to spend real money in pursuit of earning Joy in addition to gaining it through free play.
Players then allocate their Joy to causes with which Wetopia partners; players place it in a hot air balloon that they can watch take off, cementing visually the concept of "delivering" it to a given project.
But allocating individuals' microtransactions to separate charities was far too granular to work well, Brown explains. Since Wetopia earns money on impressions from players thanks to major advertisers like Clorox and Mattel, "the joy [players] give is really a vote," he says.
"It would never make sense if we tied a hard currency to it, and it would be too restrictive for game design," Brown adds. Instead, players' Joy allocations determine how Wetopia will distribute its earnings to charities.
"We give 50 percent of our profits back to our partners, not less than 20 percent of revenue. That's a company mandate," says Brown. "We feel like that in itself is unique, because no one has ever committed to that level of true philanthropy; it's not tacked on as a promotion or marketing message."
"The core concept is 'small acts of many,'" says Brown. "It makes the game truly social, in that you're working together toward something greater than themselves."
In the company's view, the best hook for Wetopia is that the game updates players on the material impact of their support for specific causes, with real-world impact charts, videos and images from the scenes of action that can be shared with friends so that people can make others aware of the causes they support as they invite others to join the game.
Further, Wetopia is working on integrating item donations that have a 1:1 correlation, with programs like Tom's Shoes, where earning or purchasing shoes will correspond to a real-world pair of shoes provided to a needy individual.
The game has been in beta for the last four months, live in six countries for the past four weeks. It's in a "preview launch" now, and Sojo will continue refining it and rolling things out slowly.
"What we learned is that social gaming as it is already works," states Brown. "Why try to reinvent the wheel? If we're able to integrate cause in a meaningful way, that in itself is a unique opportunity. Instead of redesigning what social games are -- or what any games are -- we thought that this was where the real opportunity was."