More Charities Should Use Games to Do Good in the World

By Julian Benson on at

War Child, a charity dedicated to raising funds for the protection and care of children affected by conflicts around the globe, has partnered with a group of developers to raise money from their games. It's one of the exceptions, though, some charities are even turning away the help of game developers, not wanting to be associated with video games.

War Child isn't just accepting donations from developers, it's worked with them to engage their players in supporting the charity. Some of the developers involved are selling a special in-game item or exclusive DLC. In some cases, like Positech Games, War Child has got developers to donate all the profits made from game sales within an agreed period. All the money Positech Games makes from Democracy 3 between November 21st and December 3rd will go to War Child.

I spoke with Cliff Harris, Positech Games' founder, about how too few charities are working with games developers and vice versa.

Harris got involved with War Child after meeting one of its representatives at a gaming event about democracy in gaming. Harris had actually been turned down by charities in the past when he tried to donate: “I'd had loads of games in a humble bundle and, back then, if you were running a humble bundle you could pick the charity. We tried to pick a charity to sponsor children in the developing world to give them a better education. We were turned down by the charity. They said they didn't want to be associated with video games.”

There are “concerns that games are too violent,” Harris say. And as soon as these charities knew he was a developer, they didn’t want to work with him. “I don't make violent games. I thought that's ridiculous but then loads of people, especially older people, don't know anything about games. [...] I would guess that a lot of charity money is from older people and also from people leaving money in their will and [the charities] worry that such people worry about games.”

The thinking being that, if a charity is seen to be linked to games (even non-violent ones), it could damage that charity’s reputation amongst its most reliable donors. “I can understand that they want to protect its brand,” Harris said.

War Child is one of the exceptions that is reaching out to developers. It worked with Wargaming, makers of World of Tanks, and the response from players was excellent, with a lot of money raised for the charity.

“It's quite a brave thing for the charity to do that,” Harris said.

While normally War Child would work with free-to-play developers who could sell an in-game item, that’s not the sort of game that Harris makes. The easiest thing for Harris to do was to simply donate profits from his games.

Harris pointed to an earlier War Child campaign where a series of developers partnered with the charity to make some small games for a bundle to be sold on Steam. “I thought that's okay but you're never going to get anything really good because people are going to knock it up in a day off,” Harris says. “I wondered if it made much money. The easiest way to make money is to convince developers to give it to you. Crudely, that's what it comes down to.”

Simply setting aside a period of time where all the profits are set aside for the charity is easier and less time intensive for the developer, and more immediately beneficial for the charity. It also, Harris says, has another effect: “I thought it might be a good way to shame some bigger companies.”

“If I knock up some crappy game at the weekend and say 'Have that' that's one thing but I'd like to think somewhere on some message board somewhere there's someone going 'Why don't EA do this for 12 days,'” Harris continued. “That would make a staggering amount of money.”

It’s not just the big publishers who could make a difference. “There's a whole swathe of indie developers that got lucky and suddenly made tens of millions of dollars and I'd like to think that they should do some good stuff with it,” Harris says. “You can buy a nice car, PC, or house but some of these people are in their twenties and have made £10 million from their video game and you just think 'Give one per cent away to charity for fuck's sake'”.

A few years ago Harris got interested in the economics of being charitable and found out just how much further your money could go if you donated to charities working in places like Africa - “You can build a primary school in Cameroon for £18,000, which is not a lot is it?”

So Harris did it, donating the money for a primary school to be built in Cameroon. “You basically pay for a school to be designed and all the technical people to come in with the materials and do it but they use the people in the village to carry stuff about and do the easy labour part,” he explains.

One of Harris’s motivations is simply being aware of his own situation. “I live in a very well off Conservative Party village in rural England,” Harris says. “Occasionally you hear about people raising money for the local school - the local school is bloody Eton. It's ridiculous" Harris told me about his own local school, Dauntsey, that has its own tall ship. "The standard thing for people who are doing well in business to say is 'Oh, I've donated to a local school'. What, so you've bought an extra mast for their tall ship? For the same amount of money you could do a lot more good for people who really need it.”

Bringing it back to gaming, Harris broke down the numbers for me.

“Civ VI has been out three weeks,” Harris said. “It hasn't been discounted yet, it's sold a million copies on Steam. It's $60, 1.1 million copies, that's gross $66 million. That's $42 million they've made in three weeks” - after Valve takes its cut. “I've worked on big games at Lionhead and things like that. Civ VI doesn't cost $100 million to make. Even if it costs $30 million, it’s made $12 million in three weeks.”

£1 million of that would build 200 schools.

“It's crazy but people don't think like that. It's one of my pet hates that if you read about someone famous who says they support a charity and they're asked why and it's always that their father had it or their brother had it or people in their local community are affected by it. I think that is why people in the developing world struggle, because we don't see them every day. I've never been to Cameroon, I've never even been to Africa but I like to think rationally 'Am I just going to donate to something because I heard about it in the pub' or am I going to think I can do some good here, where does my money go furthest.”

The gaming industry enjoys - frankly - boasting about how moneyed it has become. This is the entertainment industry of the present and future, and the number of people it has made rich is countless. It is any individual’s choice what to do with their own money: to buy an ivory backscratcher, or build a school in Africa? But players can make their own contribution too.

To buy Democracy 3 for £18.99, with all profits going to War Child, click here. If you buy the game direct from Positech's site it's a bit more expensive but it means much more money from the sale goes to War Child as Valve won't take its cut of the profits.