We Farm, Tap Zoo and countless other similar apps have made tons of money by asking you to spend yours on virtual goods. A brand new iPhone app called Raise the Village wants to use the same model to benefit a charitable cause. And in an odd twist, virtual goods you purchase in Raise the Village actually end up paying for their real-world counterparts.
Raise the Village puts you in charge of managing and customizing a village, as its name implies. Unlike other virtual community management sims, however, the village in this app represents a real one in Uganda (Kapir Atiira, specifically). You purchase items in-game through Apple’s in-app purchasing iOS feature to improve the virtual village, and then the company behind the app uses those funds to purchase the same items in the real world for use in the actual Ugandan community. The relationship isn’t one-to-one, and uses a group-for-one giving model, but player choices influence real-world decisions.
Users (game players?) then get updates like photos of the items being delivered, and information about the village’s progress. Of course, the virtual village in your game changes as you build improvements and buy upgrades as well.
The freemium model is powerful, and makes a lot of money for iPhone developers. To see it being put to use for charitable purposes is refreshing in many ways, and I don’t begrudge these Ugandan communities any monetary benefit they might stand to gain from the use of the Raise the Village app. But all that said, the app strikes me as very weird, and risks crossing a line I’m not sure I’m comfortable going over just yet.
Think about it: You’re basically “playing” a real village. Unlike in the vast majority of video games to date (meaning all, really), the effects of your decisions in-game have an effect on real human beings living in a real community. It’s not at the point yet where you have as direct an effect as you might if you were playing a real-world version of The Sims, for example (you can’t control your villager’s actions), but your choices aren’t without consequence. When asked about how direct a player’s impact is on real-world infrastructure build in the Ugandan village, New Charity Era, L3C Director of American Operations Tracy Shank provided this response:
The items that we deliver are those that are purchased using our in-game currency: Florin. And those purchases directly represent what we will deliver, so it is the gamer’s choice on what he or she would like to have delivered to the villagers on his or her behalf. To go into more detail, most of the buildings within the game are free, becoming available at different levels for village points. It is the processes and items within those buildings that are purchasable. For instance, if you put a crop farm in your village, you can grow/harvest a multitude of crops needed by the villagers such as beans or maize.
So while you can’t determine whether or not a farm or building gets built, you do have a role in deciding what goes on at those facilities. According to Shank, ”[a]ll of the items were chosen based on a needs-assessment of the villagers and the game is optimized for users to make balanced giving decisions,” so it’s less of an ethical briar patch than it might be if you and other players were determining what gets built and what doesn’t. Still, users take on a degree of responsibility not often seen in the role of charitable donor, let alone that of gamer.
Gamification has been a huge trend this year, and it continues to influence all aspects of business. Seeing it appear in such a literal fashion in the not-for-profit sector isn’t surprising, but is “gaming” with a community’s future something we’re really comfortable with at this point? Isn’t this at least objectifying, and at worst, demeaning, the actual Ugandans involved? Shank doesn’t think so. Rather than playing with people, she sees it as “playing for people through a company dedicated to bringing villages (Kapir Atiira first) [...] to a sustainable level.”
Maybe I’m overreacting, but I think this has ethical implications that go well beyond those generally associated with your standard casual gaming fare, regardless of how direct an influence you have as a player. What do you think?
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