Virtual worlds and social good: a striking example

Over the years of covering the virtual worlds industry, one of the highlights has been seeing grass-roots fundraising efforts. Using my own country of Australia as an example, significant amounts of money have been raised for the 2009 Bushfires and this year’s series of calamities in Queensland. There’s already planning under way for events to support those affected by the horrendous events in Japan over the past week and Linden Lab are doing their bit as well.

Add to that ongoing initiatives such as Relay for Life and you have a well-established means of making a difference. All of these examples come from Second Life, but at a wider level some serious initiatives are starting to see the light of day.

One such initiative is being driven by a leader in the social gaming sphere, Zynga. Creators of the (in)famous game Farmville amongst others, is devoted to raising money for worthy causes, using Zynga’s worlds as the vehicle. It marries two very powerful forces: virtual goods and a desire to help others. Using the current Haiti disaster as an example, 1.5 million dollars was raised and significant amounts are expected for the current tragedy in Japan:

Twelve hours after the earthquake struck, on Friday, March 11th, 8pm pst, Zynga launched in-game initiatives that made donations possible across a number of our most popular games, including: CityVille, FarmVille, Zynga Poker, FrontierVille and Words with Friends. Vampire Wars is now live with a campaign, as well, and YoVille and FishVille will soon launch theirs.

The impetus for doing non-profit work is always multi-faceted. Aside from the obvious aspect of being community-minded, most companies also know the good PR such activities draw. The huge number of social virtual world users is an obvious area where demonstrating good corporate citizenship is increasingly important. Zynga because of its size has drawn some substantial criticism over some aspects of its games / worlds, and initiatives like this help balance the equation a little.

Virtual goods – endless growth?

farmville Over the past year, the hype around virtual goods as the next big thing has continued unabated. Like the hype surrounding virtual worlds, it’ll eventually ease off, but underneath that is the reality of the very significant growth that is continuing. Two recent announcements have really emphasised that growth.

The first comes Ning, who now claim to host more than 1.6 million social networks. They’ve launched Ning Virtual Gifts. Pretty much anyone can create their own gift and sell it or buy someone else’s to give as a gift. Nothing particularly new there, but Ning’s size makes it one of the more interesting market tests for monetised virtual goods.

The second interesting development comes from social game creator Zynga, who has confirmed that US $487,500 has been raised for the welfare of children living in Haiti, via the sale of virtual sweet potato seeds within the Farmville game for Facebook. More than 56 million Facebook users play Farmville each month, with 50 million users playing one of Zynga’s social games daily. For mine, the combination of fun and social good has always been one of the best hooks for involvement and Zynga are proving that in a big way.

What these two examples have in common is proof of the widespread adoption of virtual goods. Virtual environments like Second Life have demonstrated the power of virtual goods for years, but the social gaming sphere and upcoming worlds like Metaplace are speeding up the rate of adoption through simple, intuitive interfaces that in some cases are also doing good in the real world. Of course, nothing grows endlessly, but if anything is likely to exceed post-hype expectations, it’ll be the virtual goods you pay small amounts for, in the pursuit of some casual fun.

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