Games That Address Some of World's Greatest Challenges

We were on stage in front of a crowd of hard-core gamers and social entrepreneurs. It was an unusual pairing brought about by Games for Change, a non-profit group hosting its Eighth Annual Conference here down at the Skirball Center in New York. So let me ask you, dear reader, what I asked the two panelists, Laura Pincus Hartman from, and Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski, head of Web for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP): If we want to help alleviate poverty, does it make more sense to use games to engage people on serious topics, or to let hard-core gamers play the games they like and donate some amount to charity. Which is more effective?

It's a question that gets at the essence of the mission of Games for Change: trying to create games with a social purpose. My husband, Nick Kristof, and I wrote Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. From our point of view, we are trying to figure out whether games can be used effectively to raise awareness and promote action to help address the challenges that many women and girls face around the world, including here at home.

The answer from the panelists, not surprisingly, depends upon where you stand. For Mr. Wielezynski, there is no question that games helped promote awareness of hunger and gave a lift to WFP's efforts. FreeRice – the online vocabulary quiz game -- has been remarkably successful. For every correct answer they get, players end up donating grains of rice to people who are hungry. Rice donations are paid for by advertisers. The game created great awareness about world hunger, and the World Food Program has gone on to use more games in this fashion.

On a typical day, FreeRice receives approximately 8 million page views, sending 45 million grains of rice to people who are hungry around the world – about 2,500 meals that WFP distributes among its programs.

For Ms. Hartman, there is no question that Zynga will not create games around serious topics. Zynga wants to "connect the world through games," and it wants players to have fun playing Zynga games. Its game developers really know how to engage people through digital interactivity. If it were to use gaming techniques to create a social good, it would need the expertise of non-profit groups and other development experts who help create solutions for social challenges. "We don't have expertise in the issue," said Ms. Hartman, who happens to be a professor of ethics at DePaul University in Chicago. "We create play."

Well, there is one way both can play a role in creating a better society. As Ms. Hartman said, "We can partner with the issue experts."

It just so happens that sitting next to her was a perfect partner: The World Food Programme.

Indeed, they were very good partners. After the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, Zynga, which already had been looking into a charity project in Haiti, decided it wanted to do something to help Haiti's survivors. Together with WFP, Zynga created a side game inside Farmville that was integrated into the main game play. The side game allowed players to donate real money to Haiti and to receive in-game rewards as thanks for their donations. In three weeks, Zynga raised $1.5 million for the Haiti Relief Fund.

So now that you've heard from the experts, I put a question to you, dear reader, again. How would you use games to help address the challenges facing women and girls around the world? If you have a powerful game idea, we'll partner with you to help change the world.

Learn more about Games for Change here. Play a game today and help save a life.