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FarmVille's game players bring clean water to the real world

Items purchased on Zynga's popular Facebook games FarmVille and Mafia Wars raise money for Water.org, which provides safe water and sanitation for people in the real world.

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    Last year FarmVille players could receive a an item for their online game world with a contribution of $5 or more to the World Food Programme in a promotion sponsored by Pizza Hut. This month players can make donations to the charity Water.org when they buy certain items to use in their online game.
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Tilling virtual crops from their urban apartments and assembling criminal empires from the comfort of suburban homes, online gamers seem to live in worlds far removed from reality.

Zynga Inc., the provider of some of Facebook’s most popular games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars, projects a different picture. This month, the company has partnered with Water.org to raise money for a resource precious to both FarmVille 2 farmers and actual communities all over the world – water.

During the month long campaign, three branded items – sprinklers, water pumps, and jerry cans – are available for purchase within FarmVille 2. Zynga will donate 100 percent of the proceeds to Water.org.

Founded by Gary White and the actor Matt Damon, Water.org provides safe water and sanitation to communities in need. Funds support well-building, and toilet and microfinance initiatives.

This collaboration marks a growing trend in gaming for social impact. Nonprofits welcome the opportunity to raise awareness for their causes within vast player networks. FarmVille 2 has more than 56 million monthly active users, many who play the game several times per day.

“We try to catch them in the place where they’re enjoying themselves,” said Mike McCamon, chief community officer of Water.org. “It’s an interesting place to introduce them to the problem.”

Ken Weber, executive director of Zynga.org, believes that the immersive environments of social games attract passionate players who invest their time for months and even years.

“These games are contextual for them,” he said. “Water is important in farming and in the world – it is a naturally occurring relationship. We are connecting something in people’s lives. We are interested in creating a dynamic that makes it work.”

That donors are having fun, increasing the production of their online farms while supporting development in communities worldwide, creates a parallel less prominent in other campaigns such as Facebook Gifts. Released earlier this year, that Facebook feature allows users to donate to one of 11 charities (Water.org included) on behalf of their friends. Although this brings publicity to both the cause and the Facebook user, it doesn’t help the virtual grass grow.

Developers linking virtual challenges to real world results capitalize on gaming’s allure. Game designer Jane McGonigal created SuperBetter while she was bedridden after a concussion. The game allows players to become superheroes fighting their own health battles by accomplishing tasks in their everyday lives. Bad habits are more exciting to break when reframed as “bad guys” in the virtual environment.

But gamer goodwill for the physical world should not be discounted. More than just a fundraiser, the Water.org campaign aims to educate users about the world water crisis. By clicking on the Water.org items for sale, players are presented with information about the organization and given the option to visit the nonprofit’s website.

Many players are willing to step out of the game world to learn about the real one. According to McCamon, several of Water.org’s highest web traffic days have been due in large part to visitors redirected from FarmVille 2.

Weber echoes this sentiment about the interests of Zynga’s users. He says that Zynga.org, the company’s philanthropic division, was developed in 2009 in response to employee and player demand for a connection to real world issues. One of the first campaigns raised over $1 million for Haiti earthquake relief in 2010.

This success led Zynga to focus on everyday philanthropic causes beyond unpredictable natural disasters. To date, Zynga has raised more than $13 million for nonprofits such as Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity, and World Food Programme.

So there you have it, virtual farmers, mobsters, and superheroes: Keep gaming, and recruit your friends.

This article first appeared on Dowser.org.

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