Karma Tycoon: Philanthropy Video Game

Some people think of video games as junk food. I think that they are just early in their maturation process. When movies first came out, they were all trash. The idea of “film” as art took a long time to evolve. Same with novels.

Karma Tycoon is a new video game that tries to teach you how to be a philanthropist. From the Wall Street Journal:

The moody graphics and pulsing soundtrack of Karma Tycoon convey the look of your typical video game. Absent, however, are the M-16s, camouflage humvees and vampires that fill the screens of most of its competition. Karma Tycoon is all about another type of thrill-seeking: youth philanthropy.

Confused? Karma Tycoon is a joint venture between the Web-based youth volunteerism organization Do Something and corporate partner JPMorgan Chase. Their goal: to teach middle- and high-school kids about "fiscal responsibility and social entrepreneurship." Players are encouraged to support charitable causes, such as community centers and senior citizen homes. The greater the effect these initiatives have, the more a player’s "karma" increases. Along the way, players learn the mechanics of philanthropy, from soliciting grant applications to dolling out loans and reviewing the success of their projects. "We want to convert the time kids spend playing video games into time they spend learning how to help their communities through philanthropy," Nancy Lublin, CEO of Do Something, told me. "Karma Tycoon is like a vitamin in a Twinkee."

The game intrigues me. I think that video games hold a lot of promise as training modules for many aspects of life. But there is something about Karma Tycoon that doesn’t seem quite right to me. So I emailed my friend Dave Cerra, a video game producer at Lucas Arts, and asked his opinion. I share his email in its entirety below. As philanthropy begins to use social media tools and technology of all kinds let’s remember Dave’s comments.

I think (Karma Tycoon) a great idea and I want to play it. What I find interesting here is the way that Nancy Lublin, the CEO, talks about what they’re working on.

There’s been a lot of press about different uses of the tech behind gaming lately. To me, the use of the language is always so telling in the sense that we don’t fully understand what gaming is, so we don’t know how to talk about it. The CEO here says that she wants to “convert the time kids spend playing video games into time they spend learning how to help their communities.” My emphasis there, of course.

It’s my position that, so long as designers and developers who want to evolve the medium move forward from this position, they are doomed to fail. They are undermining the very thing that is attractive to interactive and storytelling experiences! It’s partly a framing issue, but it’s also a development issue because now all of the goals have to do with “learning” and “teaching” as opposed to, for example, “experiencing” and “affecting.” The road to hell is paved with the best of intentions and all that.

“Karma Tycoon is like a vitamin in a Twinkie,” says the CEO. It’s clear from her metaphor that she actually views gaming in a hostile light, something that is intrinsically bad that’s being used here as a Trojan horse.

This CEO would probably stick to her guns and tell me I was harping on semantics. I would then argue that cognitive linguistics continues to show how deeply our use of language affects our perception of reality, and that so long as we design from an intention of “tell” versus “show”, it will continue to color the user’s experience and they will continue to reject the content in favor of what we currently call “games.” This will happen for the same reasons that people reject attending psychology lectures on the effects of the Vietnam War in favor of watching “Apocalypse Now.” It’s not that the former doesn’t have enormous value, and there’s certainly a place for it. This is also not to say that Coppola’s film has the same functional intent as a lecture on the psychological effects of the Vietnam War. The power of film as a medium is to affect us emotionally. The same is true of games. Now drop the words “film” and “games” and replace them with “story” and we start to get to the heart of the matter.

This is Marshall McLuhan 101: the medium is the message. If media are extensions of ourselves, and if each different medium produces a different “massage” or effect on the psyche, then trying to force one medium to conform to another misses the point entirely.

Again, I haven’t played the game so I don’t know how it feels. Besides, I’m just riffing on my own professional agenda. I think it’s great that people are doing things like Karma Tycoon. I wonder about the depth of the game: a truly entertaining and “true” experience would allow you to subvert your community as well, rather than just telling one side of the story in order to enforce an agenda. There’s another group that has a strategy/decision game on the Israel/Palestine conflict that sounds incredible – you get to choose which side you’ll lead, and the goal is to achieve peace. You then try to get both sides to “100 points” (I guess that equates to peace) but doing one thing to raise points on one side will reduce them on the other. Tricky tricky … that’s interesting design, and that’s using the interactive medium.

Then there’s the other side of the equation from the designed experience: the production reality. Making ‘games’ isn’t cheap. Consumers are very savvy and they want slick, polished experiences. It’s really cool to see people like Lublin begin to figure out new models to get these endeavors funded. It’s a shame that she seems to view the medium she’s using as something that’s basically a waste of time, but perhaps her group’s projects will help us all learn how to apply it in new and different ways.