Altruism & Gaming


Altruistic Gaming

by Dana Klisanin, excerpted from Human Futures, a publication of World Futures Studies Federation

Would you like to generate 6,000 years worth of futures research via gaming? Altruist gaming may be just what you’re looking for. Early in my career, I became interested in the use of digital technologies to support human and planetary well-being, an interest that eventually led to research in the area of digital altruism. One of the most rewarding things about exploring digital altruism is watching its evolution. In the early days, websites that supported “altruism mediated by digital technology” were simple “click to donate” or “search to donate” sites, in which users were able to contribute to the needs of others via their digital action (rather than through personal monetary donations – an area more closely aligned with digital, or e-philanthropy). Today, some of the most sophisticated examples of digital altruism are found in games.

A large number of these games can be found at Games for Change, a nonprofit organization founded in 2004 to “facilitate the creation and distribution of social impact games that serve as critical
tools in humanitarian and educational efforts.” Two examples of altruistic games currently featured on the Games For Change website include: SeaHero Quest and Smorball. Rather than involving an exchange of money, these games use gameplay toward altruistic aims. In Sea Hero Quest, players help scientists fight dementia just by playing: Players navigate the high seas, swamps and rivers of lava while navigating buoys, setting flares and spotting aquatic mon- sters. The route that players take as they navigate the environment will be analyzed by scientists aiming to set a benchmark for “normal” navigation skills, against which they can examine those of patients showing signs of early dementia. By crowd-sourcing the research, scientists are accelerating the process of gathering navigation data and it is estimated that just two minutes of play time translates into an equivalent five hours of lab-based research. After being collected and compiled, the resulting database will be accessible and open to anyone studying dementia. (Sea Hero Quest, 2016)

Sea Hero Quest was funded by Deutsche Telekom and developed by Glitchers, in partnership with Alzheimer’s Research UK, University College London and University of East Anglia. “The game has been downloaded over 2 million times and players have generated more than 6,000 years of dementia research data just by playing” (Sea Hero Quest, 2016). The second example, Smorball, won the Best Serious Game award in 2015. Smorball is an altruistic game in which players help save scanned books from digital oblivion.
Smorball . . . asks players to correctly type the words they see on the screen–punc- tuation and all. The more words they type correctly, the quicker opposing teams  are defeated, and the closer the Eugene Melonballers get to the Dalahäst Trophy. ... Smorballtackles a majorchallenge for digital libraries: full-text searching of digitized material is significantly hampered by poor output from Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. When first scanned, the pages of digitized books and journals are merely image files, making the pages unsearchable and virtually unusable. Smorball presents players with phrases from scanned pages from cultural heritage institutions. After much verification, the words players
type are sent to the libraries that store the corresponding pages, allowing those pages to be searched and data mined and ultimately making historic literature more usable for institutions, scholars, ed- ucators, and the public. (Smorball, 2016). Smorball was created via partnerships between “the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Biodiversity Heritage Library, Missouri Botanical Garden, MuseumofComparativeZoology at Harvard University, The New York Botanical Garden, and Cornell Uni-versity Library” (Smorball, 2016).
Many altruistic games intersect with e-philanthropy, and while there are many examples, I’d like to highlight one that WFSF supports: Cyberhero League. Cyberhero League (2016) is a 21st century interactive “scout-like adventure” that enables youth to tackle global challenges through completing digital apprenticeships with participating NGOs. Designed to support and empower a new generation of civic activists, the locative gameplay is similar to Pokémon, however by visiting museums, parks, World Heritage Sites, and participating in community events, players earn contributions to NGO partners. As a direct outgrowth of research in digital altruism and the Cyberhero archetype, we are proudly “partnering for the goals” with the United Nations, as well as 15 inaugural NGOs. The game’s first beta test took place this year at the Tribe-
ca Family Festival in conjunction with Games for Change. You can read more about the Cyberhero Archetype in an article in Psychology Today (2016). 

Finally, two additional areas of altruistic gaming worthy of mention include marathon gaming and gamer mobili- zation. Extra Life (2016) is an example of the former, an initiative that “unites thousands of players around the world in a 24 hour gaming marathon
to support Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.” Extra Life began in 2008 and has raised more than $22 million for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Gamer mobilization refers to gamers unit- ed for a common purpose. AbleGamers is a nonprofit organization that “empowers children, adults and veterans with disabilities through the power of videogames.” They have the largest community for gamers with disabilities in the world” and in 2016 raised over $300,000.
“ Altruistic gaming provides some of the most imaginative, enjoyable, and successful examples of digital altruism—and is a novel way to conduct research, help others, or engage with students.”

These initiatives, and the altruistic games previously described, are but a small sample of many worthwhile endeav-ors. Altruistic gaming provides some of the most imaginative, enjoyable, and successful examples of digital altruism—and is a novel way to conduct research, help others, or engage with students. For questions or comments please feel free to contact me. WFSF members from the Hawai’i Re- search Center for Futures Studies, Jim Dator, John Sweeney and Aubrey Yee write about “Gaming Futures” in their book: Mutative Media: Communication technologies and power relations in the past, present, and future (Springer, 2015). It is a hybrid, mixed-reality game designed to enable players to experience the power and potential of new communication technologies within four very different environments and conditions.

• Able Gamers (2016). http://www.
• AmazonSmile (2016). com/gp/chpf/pd/ref=smi_se_saas_lpd_spd
• Cyberhero League (2016). http://
• Dator, J.A., Sweeney, J.A., & Yee, A.M. (2015). Mutative media: Communication technologies and power relations in the past, present, and future. Springer.
• Extra Life (2016). • Games for Change (2016). http://
• Klisanin, D. (2011). Is the Internet Giving
Rise to New Forms of Altruism? Media Psychology Review [Online]. 3, 1. http://
• Sea Hero Quest (2016). http://www.
• Smorball (2016).