Live Aid for video games

A new charity project is aiming to get people donating to worthy causes while having fun. David Crookes investigates
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The Independent Tech

When you think about it, it's a slightly odd concept. There's a tragedy somewhere in the world so what do we do? Roll up our sleeves, get out there and start mucking in with a relief effort? Or go out and buy some music? The charity single – and in turn, the charity concert, has proved to be an easy way for the public to donate to worthy causes while extending their musical horizons.

But forget X Factor starlets helping heroes – now it's the turn of video games to do some good. Entrepreneur Martin de Ronde is set to be gaming's Bob Geldof, minus the swearing. He's a former PR manager who has worked in games development and his language is certainly more corporate than that of a pop star. However, his aim is the same – to rattle the virtual tin for charity by gathering together creative types to create something people want.

He describes the non-profitmaking publisher OneBigGame he's set up as "Live Aid for games".

"We've approached game developers and asked them to unleash their creativity to produce new games that will raise money for charity."

OneBigGame, which announced its plans earlier this month, will be releasing 15 casual titles, the majority of which will be web-based Flash games. Others will be available on consoles or the iPhone, but all are games which are set to appeal to the mass market to attract as many players – and donations – as possible. OneBigGame's first release, Chime – an addictive cross between Tetris and a music sequencer – will go on sale next month on the Xbox Live Arcade for just £5. "Games are becoming more popular year after year and gamers tend to be enthusiastic if they see something they like," says its creative director Ste Curran. "They are more likely to start spreading the word, using their blogs or social networking sites and that can only be good for charities."

Other titles being published by OneBigGame include a rhythm title called WINtA, written in Japan by Masaya Matsuura, the creator of PaRappa The Rappa, and Charles Cecil, who owns Revolution Software and produced point-and-click adventure games about the Knights Templar years before Dan Brown put pen to paper, is working on a makeover of the age-old classic, Minesweeper. Theres also a remake of a ZX Spectrum title by Northern Irish developer David Perry, who gave birth to the Earthworm Jim franchise "Who wouldn't want to get involved?" says Perry.

When he first came up with the idea for OneBigGame in 2007, Martin wanted the games developers to work on a single game but, earlier this year, he decided it would be better to produce many smaller titles.

"Working on a game is different to working on a song," he says. "You could put some of the world's best musicians in a room together for a weekend and you would end up with a tune. If you do the same with games developers then you end up with lots of wacky ideas, but no game. It takes a lot longer so we felt the best thing to do was let people work on their own ideas and we'll release them as and when they are complete."

It's not the first time games have been released to raise money for charity. In 1986, there was a game compilation supporting famine relief in Ethopia under the name Soft Aid. It carried the single, "Do They Know It's Christmas" on the reverse side of the cassette and 10 games on the other. It raised £350,000 for the Band Aid Trust.

There have been other initiatives too. In 1993, the game Sleepwalker raised money for Comic Relief and retailer GAME recently announced a two-year-long fundraising mission for Children's Hospices UK. Since 2003, gamers have been donating money and items to help sick children in hospitals across the world via the gaming charity, Child's Play (in July this year three men raised $5,000 for the charity by playing through every Super Mario title in full). Casual gaming company PopCap has raised thousands of pounds for Children In Need with its recent UK gaming tour.

And combining gaming with charity is a winning formula these days as the battle for our cash intensifies. If we're not dodging charity workers with clipboards in the street, we're wading through piles of mail urging us to support one good cause after another. Yet offering something people can spend a lot of time with while supporting a charity at the same time appears to work.

Martin wants the titles published by OneBigGame to be fun in their own right.

"These are games for charity, they are not about charity," he says. "Just as you wouldn't want to buy a song that was overly preachy, I don't think people would enjoy playing games that are issue-led. We want gamers to want these games and to have titles that people would pick up even if they weren't for charity."

More than 80 per cent of OneBigGame's profits will be handed to two charities: the Starlight Children's Foundation and Save The Children. The latter is no stranger to games. It became the first in Britain to turn to Second Life in its fund-raising efforts, allowing people to buy a pixellated yak for 1,000 of the game's Linden dollars.

One of the reasons charities have come to love video games is due to their ability to be directly shared. Word of mouth can ensure friends and family end up playing as well and the longer people spend with a game, the more the message sinks in. Little wonder, then, that sites such as Facebook are proving so popular for charity marketers.

One of the most popular games being played on the phenomenally successful social networking site is Zynga's FarmVille which has 62 million monthly users and has so far contributed $487,500 to the welfare of children in Haiti. Gamers are asked to tend to farm plots and they can buy in-game items using real-world currency to help them achieve their aims. The Sweet Seeds for Charity campaign allowed players to purchase a variety of sweet potato and half of the proceeds went to the non-profit organisations Fatem.org and Fonkoze.org.

"We didn't actually approach Zynga," says Fatem's president Jacky Poteau. "We received a call from its director who spoke to us about their interest in Haiti. It's obviously one of the most extraordinary responses that any non-profit charity has seen since we don't usually have access to millions of users like that over the course of a few weeks."

Other developers are also approaching charities. Controversial Rockstar Games which is well-known for violent titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Bully is sponsoring the Movember movement. Men are being encouraged to grow a moustache to raise money and awareness for prostate cancer. The bloke with the best 'tache will be immortalised with a cameo part in the Wild West game, Red Dead Redemption.

But many charities are working the other way around and actively courting developers to produce games for their websites, spotting the benefits of attracting people their way with a fun title that, in most cases, can be shared via email, Twitter or one of a pick of Facebook, MySpace and Bebo.

Cancer Research UK used a simple webgame called Heels'n'Wheels to support its annual run, Race for Life, earlier this year. "The game allowed us to convey that the event is a fun day out, giving women of all ages the chance to get together and raise money," says Natasha Dickinson, head of marketing and communications. "The game itself was a simple driving game where the player picked up people from the side of the road, avoided obstacles and gained bonus points for picking up coins. This gave cues to encourage potential Race for Life entrants to get their friends and family involved in the event and to help raise money."

It's fair to say that people in the UK are more accustomed to charity-raising entertainment than many other countries. After Band Aid, charity singles became incredibly popular in the UK, in particular for causes such as Comic Relief and Children In Need. But in America, the release of "We Are the World" in 1985 was essentially the peak and few charity records have been released Stateside since.

OneBigGame is hoping its initiative will go one better than charity music records and strike a chord across the world. "If we end up starting a global trend within gaming for decades to come, then it be an incredible bonus," says Martin. "Games have a great potential for good."

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