On That New “Half the Sky” Game

The New York Times reports that Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half The Sky Foundation is coming out with a Facebook game:

The central character, an Indian woman named Radhika, faces various challenges with the assistance of players, who can help out with donations of virtual goods, for example. The players can then make equivalent real-world donations to seven nonprofit organizations woven into the game.

Ten dollars, for example, will help buy a goat for Heifer International; $20 will help support United Nations Foundation immunization efforts.

To further engage players, those who reach predesignated levels unlock donations from Johnson & Johnson and Pearson, which have each contributed $250,000 to buy real-world operations from the Fistula Foundation and books for Room to Read, respectively.


Asi Burak, also co-president of Games for Change, said the hope is to draw two million to five million players, persuading 5 percent or more to donate. Players can play at no charge, but they will make faster progress through donations.”

I will hold off of judging this specific game until I have a chance to play it. (It doesn’t come out until March 4th, so it’s not really clear to me why the PR push is beginning now, approximately 179 internet-years in advance of that date).

However, is it just me, or does it seem like using the game for both awareness-raising and fund-raising is a strategy that is kind of at war with itself?

To encourage people to donate, the slow, no-donation path through the game needs to be annoying enough to prompt people to pay for the quicker progression – except that will probably also mean that a substantial number of gamers will neither donate nor complete the game. They will just stop playing, and go back to a non-educational game that’s designed purely to maximize addictiveness and fun. (And which may also offer charitable donations, via the various Zynga.org efforts.)

Basically, charities who use these educational change-making games remind me of parents who sneak vegetables into their kids’ food. Is a brownie that contains spinach more delicious than spinach alone? Probably. Is it, therefore, a decent spinach-delivery device if your end goal is to increase total spinach consumption? Sure. But it’s still less delicious than a regular spinach-free brownie.

If the spinach brownie is free, and the regular brownie isn’t, there is probably some constituency of spinach-hating children who will be like “fuck it, still a brownie, I’ll take five of them please.”  (The imaginary children I know may swear like sailors when speaking to adults, but they never forget to say please.)

But if your theory is that kids can be convinced not only to eat the spinach brownies, but to first buy the spinach brownies from a bake sale that also offers delicious, non-spinach-smuggling regular brownies – then you’ve lost me.  What kid who has to be tricked into eating spinach in the first place is going to take you up on that?

That’s roughly where I stand on this game.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find myself a spinach-free brownie.

Amanda Taub


  1. Your analysis is true – that may well happen. But it isn’t out yet, so the possibility for success is there. And it may not be the best idea (let’s face it), but it’s an idea that can’t hurt anyone, and may raise money and awareness. And it is innovative – and as everyone knows it’s easier to critique than to try. Of course, the kind of people that will buy it, or even understand what it is in order to seek it out – will probably already be as aware as one can be, and will likely already donate, if that is what they feel helps best. So it may be a zero sum game (no pun intended) – but let’s wait and see.

    On a side note – I don’t think advertising is now for a March 4 release date is the same as it being “179 internet-years in advance of that date” – if the release date was March 4 Next year, Ok. But considering that March 4 is in 12 days that’s insane to make that kind of comparison. Come on.

  2. Amanda,

    Thank you so much for your write up on the game. We would love to hear your feedback as you play along. The points you’ve made here are really important, and we are always looking for ways to improve on the game.

    At the end of the day, we really want players to be inspired to take action, and that has to start with making them aware of these issues.

    You can email me directly at the email address on my comment.

    Thanks again!

  3. I think that the way the game is intended to work is that people initially play because they feel as though they’re doing something collective and positive. That gets them in and hooked, then eventually they realise that they’re not actually contributing any cash, which means that their bragging rights are diminished when they’re compared to those who do.

    My experience with community radio has been similar. I listen to a station that promotes “50% Australian music and half of that from Sydney” (http://www.fbiradio.com/). A lot of people claim to listen because they feel that it’s important to support the local music scene and I believe that genuinely makes them feel good. Although the financial supporters only constitute 5% of listeners, obviously the number of supporters grows if the number of listeners does.

    I suspect that the same psychology applies to the game. Even non-financial involvement is better than no involvement at all, as at least in theory, it can be converted.

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