real money + virtual goods = potential to change the world

People have gone gaga for virtual goods lately and who can blame them? They’re fun, cheap, can increase your virtual status, enhance your online relationships and don’t need to be stored away in real space thereby adding to your sense of minmalistic zen. From elephant topiary in Sims Social to a resort spa in City of Wonder, the market for virtual goods is a booming industry to a tune of millions. But is this a case of something for nothing or is this new currency exchange providing an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of those less fortunate?

mig33: access all areas

Mig33 is a mobile social network aimed at the youth market. With over 40 million users worldwide, the app can be downloaded onto over 200 different types of mobile phone. This feature opens social networks to a wide audience in developing countries where the majority of people don’t own smart phones. Its service connects users via chat, photo sharing, games and the exchange of virtual gifts. In 2010 alone, their virtual market was worth 40 million. Online purchases of mig33 credits can be made by anyone with a credit card or bank account. However, many people in developing countries live off very small salaries and consequently have access to neither. Paypal and other financial transaction payment systems are often unavailable in developing countries which provides mig33 with a very unique opportunity.

A small percentage of people within developing countries do have access to a bank account or credit card. They are able to buy mig credits and then on sell them to people within their communities, with a small margin, and those people can then buy virtual items within the network. Here is an amazing example of real world money turning into virtual currency and then being exchanged for real money again. What’s more, its a legitimate source of income, with some merchants known to make several thousand dollars a month by acting as a conduit for mig credits purchasing. Although gold farming in WoW (World of Warcraft) is very lucrative and offers a solution for time-poor/cash-rich players in developed countries to support players in poorer nations its still an offense that developer Blizzard expressly forbids and can see players banned from the game for life.

Microfinance for maximum good

Championed by the Grameen Foundation, microfinance is the process of lending small amounts of money at very low interest to low-income individuals in developing countries. These loans can assist a farmer to hire an extra animal to harvest their crops, a woman selling dry goods at a tiny road side stall or a group of women working together to sell clothing. The aim is to support individuals or small groups with the capital they need to get started or continue earning an income that supports their families while distributing funds throughout the wider community.

Kiva is a US-based non-profit organisation that connects people in developed countries with organisations and individuals in developing countries who require loans from as low as US25. The power of small amounts of money passing between many, many people is demonstrated in the following amazing infographic courtesy of Kiva’s success: 62,000 lenders and 615,000 entrepreneurs over five years. (Make sure you have the sound turned on as the music is well chosen! Kicks in around 00:43)

I’ll leave you with this thought. Imagine if we could harness the power of micro-transactions utilised in virtual economies and gaming to support individuals and organisation in developing countries. What a powerful tool that would be.

Crowd sourcing solutions to real world problems through gamers

Haven’t we all thought that the precious minutes spent playing Plants vs Zombies for the third time could have been better spent doing something else? What if the time set aside playing Angry Birds waiting for the train each day could have contributed towards something worthwhile? Something that helped mankind? Well that something has happened.

Gamers have assisted scientists in solving a molecular puzzle related to a protein-cutting enzyme found in an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys. FoldIt is a collaborative online game established in 2008 with over 260,000 registered users. “The game is designed so that players can manipulate virtual molecular structures that look like multicolored, curled-up Tinkertoy sets. The virtual molecules follow the same chemical rules that are obeyed by real molecules. When someone playing the game comes up with a more elegant structure that reflects a lower energy state for the molecule, his or her score goes up. If the structure requires more energy to maintain, or if it doesn’t reflect real-life chemistry, then the score is lower.”

The monkey-virus enzyme was uploaded to FoldIt in the hope that gamers would be able to assist scientists. It was solved within ten days.

This kind of game demonstrates the potential of crowd sourcing solutions through the gaming community. Although it may have been some serious puzzle fans who solved this molecular puzzle its possible that casual gamers can also contribute. The challenge is for designers and programmers to develop games that (either explicitly or implicitly) solve real world problems by tapping into the vast and growing resource of casual gamers.