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WeTepia Transforms Online Gaming Addiction Into Social Good

What if Farmville had a real-world impact? New game WeTopia will transform virtual trees into physical bark and leaves.

Know any Farmville addicts? About 30 million people spend time on the game every day, pruning digital trees or exchanging cash for virtual tractors.While social gaming may be fun, there's something absurd about buying fake goods. But what if all that energy and economic activity went to something productive in the real world instead?

That's the value proposition behind WeTopia, a new social game from Sojo Studios that lets gamers directly fund initiatives to improve the lives of children. When you sign in to the game, it may remind you of one of Zynga's creations: players manage a mini-civilization comprising cartoony buildings. The twist is that gamers earn "joy" from their properties, which they then pass on to nonprofits of their choice. WeTopia plans to make money off ads and corporate sponsorships, and pledges to donate at least 20 percent of revenue (or 50 percent of profits if they turn one) to its nonprofit partners, dividing it up proportionally by the amount of joy donated.

While users contribute to a cause just by playing for free, "We allow people to buy a virtual good in the game that has a one-to-one relationship with something in the world," says CEO Lincoln Brown. If you buy a tree or vitamins or medicine in the game, a partnered nonprofit will donate the item to the community they work with in Haiti or the United States. WeTopia's started with 12 different nonprofit partners including Save the Children, buildOn and Children’s Health Fund, and Brown says they're hoping to add more soon. Each nonprofit gets its own project page to tell the story of the direct impact each donation makes. Brown says this feedback loop, complete with images of dollars at work and blog posts, "feels more real than knowing that you gave money to Haiti” without seeing where it went.

Brown says he never wanted to get into the social gaming business, considering it a "bizarre phenomenon." But as a long-time backer and volunteer for Haitian causes, he began to see the potential of social games as a tool to keep supporters of a cause engaged, integrate giving into their daily lives, and avoid the constant, nagging fundraising 'ask' that can be the bane of a giver's existence. And it helps that the markets for philanthropy and social games are aligned: “The demographic that plays social gaming is the demographic most likely to engage with a cause," says Brown: women between 35 and 50.

WeTopia launched a preview version in the United States yesterday, but a beta version has already entertained 50,000 gamers in 20 countries worldwide. Funds raised thus far support the construction of a school in Haiti and a literacy program in Kentucky.

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