19 May 2009

ARGs : a new fundraising tool

I had the privilege recently of opening my email to the message "ARGs - what do they mean to you?" My funny bone immediately spotted that if I were to add an H after the G it would pretty nicely sum up my day so far. Argh! Quite early in the email ARG was expanded to mean Alternate Reality Game and I was intrigued. Not so much because I participate in computer games that simulate alternate realities but more because it was in the lunch hour and I had nothing better to do. Quite possibly the very reason you are reading this blog!

What are ARGs? Alternate reality games are ahem., not games. Well, they are games but they involve the participation of a community of gamers using lots of different technologies like mobile, internet, media and various platforms supported on those technologies like blogs, twitter, facebook, youtube etc. They can be used for marketing, awareness, education and fundraising or whatever you fancy you wanted to use it for.

How? One of the first ARGs was 'The Beast' designed to drum up interest for Steven Spielberg's movie, Artificial Intelligence. To read more about it visit this wikipedia page. Briefly, it was a 12 week plot spun around three entry points (rabbit holes in ARG-speak) in order to solve a mystery. Clues were spread across websites, blogs, phone numbers and puzzles. Once you were pumped up about the mystery, the marketers bet you would like to see the movie. I can't comment on what happened next because I didn't play the beast and I slept through AI.

I work for a biomedical charity and volunteer for education- centric charity so my ears perked up when one of the possible uses for ARGs was in charities and universities. Indiana University used an ARG called Skeleton Chase last year ( nice review here ) to introduce freshmen to healthy habits that they hoped, would last a lifetime. The mystery was tied into students performing physical activities and as the weeks wore on, it encouraged group activities. I suppose it's a bit early to know if these students did indeed make some lifetime healthy habits but you are beginning to get the drift?

There are two charities that have used ARGs. For awareness, the British Red Cross launched Traces of Hope. The plot revolved around an Ugandan teenager searching for his mother in a civil war. The idea was to increase awareness about the tragedies civilians face in the midst of strife and displacement due to civil wars that they had no hand in. For fundraising, Cancer Research UK, had an ARG called Operation: Sleeper Cell. Basically, you had to solve a puzzle in a grid and in order to release more people from the grid to help you solve the puzzle you had to donate money. They were able to raise £3,500 this way. I saw the number and started to do the math.

Marathon running is one of the fundraising events that I have directly participated in and trained others to do. It requires dedication and time, plus the occasional physical strength. Overall, it works wonders with the runners self esteem but running 26.2 miles to not every one's cup of tea. In contrast ARGs require usage of technology that is in hand ,to collectively solve a problem, all of which you could do from your couch. It has the potential also to encourage youngsters to donate: who may not necessarily think much about putting 20 bucks on a game as compared to a similar donation for some one's marathon endeavour. But ARGs require time and dedication. For e.g., the creators of Operation: Sleeper Cell were a pack of 20 volunteers who spend 8 months of their spare time to create the game. So the execution of this concept is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, I am pumped. Its like a treasure hunt on a global scale with the additional perks of raising awareness and fundraising. Sounds a bit too cool to be true, yeah?

Its a bit early to comment how successful this technology would eventually be or even in which area it would have the biggest impact. But, looking at the way people lap up wiis and Nintendo, I think it's a promising technology and if the amount of time and effort to make one could be reduced i.e., it became more practical, it would be handy for any charity to use as a fundraiser and awareness tool.

The Economist has a nice summary on ARGs.
Here's a link to a Q and A at a recent conference where one of the creators of Operation: Sleeper Cell was quizzed.



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