Beer and ping pong and Xbox Kinect — you don’t need a heck of a lot more to make for an epic Saturday. But those factors all combined to pit media giants including The New York Times, Gawker.TV, Aol Thrillist, and Foursquare in a tournament to support charity.
The tournament, BackSpin 2011, was a way to bring together the NY tech community and raise money for Child’s Play, a non-profit that provides books, games and consoles to hospitals across North America. The model — a little bit of fun with a whole lot of good — was cooked up by TechiesGiveBack, a New York-based non-profit aimed at getting the local tech community away from their desks and giving back. Part charity event, part networking opportunity, TechiesGiveBack is cutting out a niche of social good aimed at also having fun.
BackSpin was just the third event the group has held in its short history. The first event in 2009 was an ice-skating benefit for CampInteractive, followed by the 2010 “Webutante Ball” benefiting City Harvest.
For the digital ping pong tournament, TechiesGiveBack teamed up with Peter Ha to help co-organize. He took his experience with Wiimbledon – a tournament based on a Nintendo Wii tennis game — to help put together the necessaries for a charity event using Xbox Kinect Sports. Those necessaries included MCs from CollegeHumor, an open bar, silly costumes and a healthy does of humor.
“With real ping pong, there are people that are really, really good,” joked TechiesGiveBack co-founder Simon Kirk. “We wanted to have a fair competition, it sort of leveled the playing field.” The team made sure to extend its outreach using the hashtag #backspin2011 and promo videos playing up the faux-competition and connection to philanthropy.
Of course, playing virtual ping pong was a good way of promoting Child’s Play, which aims to show that a little bit of fun can go a long way. “I thought it was a perfect fit for the tech community. It was a tournament that required neither coordination nor esoteric sports knowledge, but brought people together in a fun, competitive environment,” said Sarah Kessler, a Mashable reporter, who played for the event’s All-Star Team. “Also, there was beer.”
Despite the silly get-ups and party atmosphere, BackSpin raised nearly $12,000 dollars for Child’s Play. In total, TechiesGiveBack has raised a little more than $50,000 for various charities in about 14 months of existence. Kirk hopes to expand TechiesGiveBack to other cities and to lead more hands-on projects: “I would imagine there are many tech communities around the world where there are smart, interesting, dynamic people who are interested in giving back.”
Having fun is one of the best ways to fight charity fatigue, an exhaustion at being asked too many times to give. However, it is a fine line between having fun and forgetting what cause you’re trying to support. So far, TechiesGiveBack has done a brilliant job landing on the right side of that divide. Sure, BackSpin was as much a party as a fundraiser, but it embodied the spirit of its target non-profit. Namely, that games can be a way to both let loose and to do some good. You can check out more pics here.
What do you make of adding fun to social good? Would you participate or donate to an event like BackSpin 2011? Let us know in the comments below.
The building for frog design in New York’s Greenwich Village sits in an innocuous patch of offices just by the Holland Tunnel. Inside and seven floors up, however, is a bustling hive of designers and creatives thinking in broad strokes and typing details on their sundry Macs. Off the large, open workroom is a small, dark alcove filled with sticky notes, charts and candy: the hard work of MTV’s latest social good campaign, “The Get Schooled College Affordability Challenge.”
While the firm deals with numerous ongoing projects, MTV’s campaign has been its focus for the past two weeks. MTV set out to create a crowdsourced, student-led, digital tool to help increase college completion rates by making it easier for students to navigate the financial aid maze. After vetting more than 200 submissions, MTV narrowed those down to three finalists who would work with frog to break apart, redesign and refine their ideas.
The winner will get $10,000 and see his or her idea brought to life by MTV, the CollegeBoard and the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, with a development budget of up to $100,000. Not too shabby but also not too easy. We sat down with one of those finalists, Larissa Simpson, to get a peak inside the intense design process at frog, and to find out what it takes to make a socially-minded digital tool.
Simpson came up with her idea — a video game that guides students through applying to schools and for grants and scholarships — while locked in a hotel room in South Korea. A part-time model and Brooklyn native, Simpson began modeling during her second year at Brooklyn College to make money while navigating her education. She spent much of last summer doing shoots in Milan, Germany and Korea as a way to build up her portfolio.
On one shoot in Korea, the models were asked not to leave their hotel rooms. Bored and searching for scholarship to help her pay for a new media program at the New School in New York, Simpson came across MTV’s challenge and began brainstorming. The game, nicknamed “The Avatar Project,” would function like a mix between Super Mario and the Sims, in which the challenges weren’t based on gold coins but actual funding and school applications. “You get to know yourself by applying to scholarships,” Simpson says.
Each of the three finalists have taken a unique approach to helping students pay for school. Dekunle Somade is building an SMS platform to serve as a college on-ramp for low-income students, while Devin Valencia is creating a Facebook app that will help students find and apply for FAFSA and other scholarships.
Simpson’s project draws from different parts of her background. “I did spend a lot of time doing computer games,” Simpson says, “Me and my sister used to sneak into the computer room secretly to play.” She was drawn by how games created their own space, a trait that could help educate students. “When I played games, what I really liked was being able to get into the world and tuning everything out and I think that environment could be really useful when people are learning,” she says.
She’s hoping to take that interactive element into her future studies and her future career: using video in an interactive, immersive way to improve people’s live.
Viacom tasked its channels to embrace the challenge in their own way. MTV, with its naturally younger (and presumably tech-savvy) audience, went directly for enrolled and would-be college-students. Rather than just build a digital tool and call it a day, MTV wanted the project to spark conversation and come from the people that needed it most. “We could have just made [a tool] ourselves but we thought it would be much more impactful if we went to college students who go through the process every year,” says Jason Rzepka, vice president of MTV Public Affairs.
To that end, the MTV audience plays a large role in selecting the winners. While MTV has a panel of judges pulled from the project partners, the public will get to weigh in on the finalists, Rzepka says. An open, crowdsourced vote will play a significant factor in which project wins. To help all three projects be as ready, useful and polished as possible, MTV has paid frog design to devote a team of specialists to each contestant for a one-week intensive session. The days may be long, but the process is anything but.
In the Trenches
Frog design is a place where people have titles like “interactive designer” and “technologist,” and meeting rooms are officially named “fish tank” or “grotto.” The seemingly vague descriptions are actually pretty spot-on for the kind of high-minded work that goes on at the design firm. A “technologist” doesn’t just code and program, he or she also has to understand what technologies best complement an idea or solve a grand, conceptual problem. Simpson was paired with technologist Elliot Winard, interactive designer Brandy Bora, a strategist and frog’s creative director JF Grossen, who also worked with Somade in New York (Valencia joined the Austin “frogs,” as they’re called).
Simpson’s work room is about the width and depth of a Hummer. Packed into that space are thousands of notes and sticky notes spread across two massive boards. At the center of the room is a faux-wood table, piled with three Macbook Pros, masking tap, pens and markers, bug-eye sunglasses, tea cups, coffee mugs and an untouched granny smith apple. The room is one of the only in frog without natural light, instead, a multi-bulbed floor-lamp and round wall lamp give off variable glow, depending on how many planning boards and flow charts are stacked in front of them.
Grossen, dressed in a dark grey, wool, shawl collar sweater, jeans and black leather shoes, explained the basic steps of any design process at frog. One board, measuring about three feet by six feet, is an “ecosystem map.” This is the first step and is essentially structured brainstorming. On it are references, ideas, inspirations and goals for the project. “Tell us everything,” Grossen says, “What space will the idea live in?”
Simpson’s ecosystem had pictures of Sims video games, a Super Mario over world map, the paperclip from Microsoft Word and a The Simpsons avatar creator, among many others.
The next step is a “journey map.” This deals more with the project’s narrative, taking all the references in the ecosystem and identifying what are starting points, end points, rewards, stages, challenges and so forth. The journey map is a flow chart of sticky notes, color coded to denote points (yellow), rewards (dark yellow), questions (pink), etc. A giant white board dominates an entire wall. It’s reserved for the project’s elevator pitch, revised and rehearsed every day. Simpson has to give the pitch to anyone that walks into the room. Still early in the process, there’s a lot of writing on the board. “It’s a pretty long elevator ride, right now,” Grossen muses.
Media training is a big part of this design boot-camp. Despite its charity-roots, MTV is still running a competition that requires Simpson to be able to present, speak and promote her idea in front of experts, camera crews and eventually her peers.
The inexperience of all the contestants is a blessing and a curse. It means that they bring a freshness and intimate knowledge of the problem they’re solving, but it can also mean that their ideas can get away from them. It’s a concern that everyone is aware of. “At the core, we’ve got three really powerful concepts,” Rzepka says. “This whole process is to refine that concept.” Frog’s mission is to make that a reality without steamrolling their young wards. Grossen says whenever Somade felt pressure, they would immediately re-adjust to make sure he was happy with the end project. Says Simpson: “I feel like the idea has remained pretty much what it’s supposed to be. Some things have been eliminated or put back in, but it’s still pretty much the idea I came up with in the first place.”
Where Does It Go From Here?
Since we spoke, Simpson has given a presentation to both a panel of frogs and project heads, she has been interviewed and filmed for MTV promos and longer pieces explaining her project. All this while working 9 to 5 days pulling her ideas apart and trying to put them back together. Voting begins soon.
If she wins, she’ll be given a budget of up to $100,000 to actually make her game. But the project doesn’t end there for MTV. Committed, via Viacom, to its partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rzepka says there are at least three more years of planned advocacy and support. The idea is to look beyond financial aid to other major hurdles in college completion, such as first-generation Americans, and developing other tools that can best help their young demographic get there, “This is a long term and sustained effort,” Rzepka says.
Regardless of whether she wins, Simpson has been inspired by the process. From a hotel room in Korea to a candy-strewn design studio in Greenwich, she has come a long way toward making her game — and the college dreams of young students — a reality.
In PopCap‘s research, more than half (52%) of 2,425 respondents said they had played a game on a mobile device, whether their own device or someone else’s, at some point in their lives. The percentage for U.K. respondents was significantly higher (73%) than the rate for U.S. respondents (44%).
Around one-third of all respondents had played a game on their own mobile phones within the past month, and one out of four respondents said they played games on a weekly basis. Still, some respondents admitted to only having played a mobile game once.
The biggest gaming group was smartphone users. A full 83% of smartphone-owning respondents said they had played at least one mobile game in the past week, putting them solidly in the “avid mobile gamer” category.
Interestingly, the male-to-female ratio in mobile gaming doesn’t show the pronounced gender gap seen in console and PC gaming. Men play slightly more than women by a slim margin of 2-10%. This fits pretty well with the current picture we have of the social gaming scene as a predominantly female market.
And mobile gamers aren’t just biding their time on mass transit; they’re also contributing to the bottom line of game manufacturers across the major mobile platforms. Around half of all mobile gamers in this survey said they had upgraded a free trial game to the full or paid version in the past year. And one out of four mobile gamers, or one out of three smartphone gamers, said they had bought “additional content” for a game within the past year.
Also, smartphone users are more likely to buy games than their feature phone-owning counterparts, for obvious reasons. The average smartphone-using mobile gamer bought 5.4 games in 2010, versus the 2.9 games bought by non-smartphone-owning gamers. Also, the smartphone crowd said they spent more money on games — $25.57 per user for the year, compared to $15.70 from feature phone owners.
Rango, the Johnny Depp-voiced chameleon whose self-titled movie is set to hit theaters this weekend, will have a cameo in Zynga’s FrontierVille to help promote the release.
Starting today, FrontierVille players will be challenged to find Rango, ask their friends for 10 water buckets and view the trailer for the film. If they complete that mission, players get a Rango statue to add to their homestead on FrontierVille.
Zynga has used its games to publicize movie openings before. Most recently, the company’s Mafia Warsplugged Sony Pictures’s The Green Hornet by offering collectibles within the game. Zynga also promoted DreamWorks Animation’s Megamind on FarmVille with Mega-Farm, a themed landmark within the game.
Manny Anekal, Zynga’s global director of brand advertising, says that while there are no figures linking activity on those games to increased box office receipts, some 19 million people are active FrontierVille users and 9 million interacted with the Megamind promo.
While such promos are effective at getting users to click play, it’s unclear if they’re actually watching the video or if they’re more apt to watch the advertised property. Chris Thilk, who runs the blog Movie Marketing Madness, says that while it’s hard to tell if the promos actually increase attendance, gameplayers at least don’t seem to mind. “The promotions add functionality to game play,” he says. “As long as it’s not just an ad, I think the audience will be more forgiving.”
In case you’re wondering precisely how likable those Angry Birds are, here’s the scoop from The Oatmeal, one of our favorite sources of infographics.
For Angry Birds aficionados, here are a couple of things left out: You’ve got to like that red bird a little more because of the useless call it bleats out if you tap the screen during its flight. Although it’s not exactly an effective pig crusher, look out for its big brother.
And of course, the white bird that drops the exploding eggs seems rather helpless; but a finer point of the game is if you can drop an egg when the bird’s almost hit the ground, it will fly upward with extreme velocity, perhaps knocking over something important. That ought to be good enough to move it up at least one place on this totem pole of shame.
Editor’s Note: While we appreciate the in-depth knowledge of the game that this post represents, perhaps our writers are devoting a bit too much time to Angry Birds “research.” What do you folks think?