Developers provide gamers with charity videogames

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Videogames can be played to escape reality, but recently they've been used to impact it in tangible ways. Games don't have to be self-centered, and a few visionaries are making it possible to use gaming for giving.(Video story by Ben Wade)

By Ben Wade

With the mere tap of an iPhone screen, users can provide water, food and shelter to Kapir Atiira, a once thriving Ugandan village ransacked by war and struggling with the basic necessities of survival.

"Raise the Village," a simulation town-building game for the iPhone, allows users to build a virtual African village while simultaneously helping to build the real Ugandan village of Kapir Atiira through in-game donations. The gameplay is reminiscent of "Age of Empires" while the business model is similar to Facebook gaming sensation "FarmVille," which is free to play but has virtual items for sale.

Joey Sasvari, co-founder of New Charity Era, the Gainesville-based charity organization responsible for "Raise the Village," said he wanted to offer users a giving experience they couldn't achieve from blindly mailing off a check once a month.

"That's fulfilling to people. They could be playing 'FarmVille' or these other games and putting the same amount of time and effort into it," Sasvari said. "Yet, they're helping out real people in real life and seeing the results of their money."

The concept of charitable gaming doesn't end with New Charity Era's "Raise the Village." In the past few years, a number of videogame-centered organizations and games focused on charity have emerged, giving gamers a chance to become more philanthropic with their hobby.

After a deadly earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March, charity videogames became a part of the ongoing relief efforts.

One small way to make a difference in sending aid to Japan is by playing the browser-based game "Tsunami Fighter." The game lets players fight a mean-faced tsunami wave with a giant domo-kun avatar by mashing specific buttons on the keyboard. After losing a round, players are prompted with a "Donate Now" button that leads to the official AmeriCares website, an emergency response aid organization.

After a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, independent game studio The Behemoth held a four-day fundraiser. All the revenue from downloadable content for their games "Castle Crashers" and "Alien Hominid" went to American Red Cross Haiti Relief and Development. The studio matched all purchases made, effectively doubling their final donation to $58,000.

John Baez, game producer and co-founder of The Behemoth, said there wasn't really much of a thought process behind helping Haiti other than it just "feeling right."

"We've been successful," Baez said. "Why not give a substantial amount of money to some of these groups who really need it?"

The trend of charity gaming extends to unwanted or unplayed games. DonateGames, a nonprofit organization, accepts videogames as donations in exchange for tax-deductible receipts equal to the trade-in value the game might receive at retailers like GameStop.

According to Jake Hurst, volunteer business analyst for DonateGames, this business model empowers younger gamers with little to no funding the uncommon opportunity to get involved with charity. It also allows their parents to do a little spring-cleaning.

"It really appeals to the younger generation," Hurst said. "But at the same time, the moms and dads love being able to get rid of some of these games that are taking up space sitting in their houses."

However, gamers might want to hold on to a few of their older games to have something to play through the annual 24-hour gaming marathon held by Extra Life. Gamers find sponsors, just as they would for a running or biking marathon for charity, and all proceeds go toward children in local hospitals through Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.

Jeromy "Doc" Adams, founder of Extra Life, hopes to raise $1 million during this year's marathon on Oct. 15. While he's certainly happy about raising $760,000 throughout the past three years, he said he wants to raise even more by doing something he considers fun and easy.

"Who says that raising money for charity has to hurt or suck?" Adams said.

If you're a gamer, there are any number of charities you can begin to get involved with, and they're all contained within the hobby you love. If you want to help send another 17,600 pounds of beans to Kapir Atiira, help a child with cancer or provide emergency relief to a country, you'd better start playing.

For a more in-depth look at how you can use games for charity, visit playwisegaming.com/charity.