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Nonprofits Should Use Online Games to Connect Viscerally With People

Front-page headlines announced the dramatic capture last month of the Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, head of the vast and violent Sinaloa Cartel. But this was an exception. Outside of the occasional mass killing of Mexican victims or the isolated murder of an American tourist, Mexico’s running war with drug traffickers rarely makes headlines in America.

But for reporters and editors in Mexico, the violence of the drug industry is a staple of their reporting, as chronicled in the gripping PBS documentary Reportero.

The film follows the veteran journalist Sergio Haro and his colleagues at the weekly newspaper Zeta, and the attempted assassination of Zeta’s founder.

Reportero was broadcast last year as part of PBS’s POV documentary film series. But as powerful as the film was, POV wanted to help viewers appreciate the difficult choices faced by reporters and editors in a country where dozens of journalists have been slain or disappeared at the hands of drug traffickers.

Viewers were invited to take the Reportero Challenge, which asks the question, “Do you have what it takes to be a Mexican newspaper editor?”

The online interactive game developed by POV poses the daily dilemmas faced by journalists who have to balance their need to maintain credibility and increase circulation with the desire to maintain safety and security for reporters working in dangerous terrain.

The Reportero Challenge helps viewers engage more deeply in the issues and empathize more fully with the subjects introduced by the film.

This is just one example of a growing nexus of documentary films and the burgeoning field of interactive games. Such examples offer an important lesson for how foundations and nonprofits increasingly need to think about harnessing games to provoke serious thinking about social issues involving the environment, education, and other topics.

Documentary filmmakers have a special ability to harness audience interactions by blending their works with gaming efforts.

One of the largest such projects is the online game associated with another PBS documentary, “Half the Sky,” a film about the role of women in the developing world that was created by the leading nonprofit gaming hub, Games for Change, with production assistance from one of the leading commercial gaming companies, Zynga.

Developed for Facebook, the online game from Half the Sky has reached over a million registered users.

The increasingly dynamic intersection of games and documentary films may become even more fertile this spring, when the annual Games for Change conference takes place for the first time in conjunction with the Tribeca Film Festival.

Gaming has rapidly eclipsed many other forms of communications, with some of the leading games taking in revenues exceeding the largest Hollywood blockbusters. It’s a $66-billion industry in which one game alone, Grand Theft Auto, reaped more than $1-billion in revenue within three days of its release.

I am not suggesting that the world is a better place because of the popularity of Grand Theft Auto. But just as nonprofits and foundations spend a lot of effort trying to influence Hollywood to include social messages in movies and television, it may be smart to think about gaming the same way.

Games developed for learning and other positive social purposes are growing quite rapidly, with funding from government agencies, for-profit businesses and investors, and a relative handful of foundations.

By the year 2012, global demand for game-based learning products rose to $1.5-billion, and the market is projected to grow by more than 8 percent a year until 2017, when it is expected to reach $2.3-billion.

So far, few large grant makers outside of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations have made substantial commitments to promote gaming. But grant makers should appreciate that this type of media delivers particularly deep impact.

At Zynga, which makes the wildly popular FarmVille game, the company estimates that 24 million people are now active players of FarmVille, and the game has been installed some 400 million times.

Most important for nonprofits, Zynga reports that 60 percent of FarmVille players have given to charity through FarmVille, donating $7-million, and 32 percent said they learned about a new cause by playing the game.

For grant makers and media makers alike, the power of games may be the deeper engagement they deliver.

According to Ken Weber, executive director of, the nonprofit social-purpose arm of the game developer, game users spend an average of 40 minutes per session, versus 15 minutes per visit watching YouTube and just five minutes viewing a news site.

Online games will never replace the vital content created by documentary filmmakers, journalists, and other media creators.

But in some cases adding an online-game element may help deepen the impact of the content. And perhaps the next time you see a headline about the capture of a Mexican drug lord, you will have a deeper appreciation of what it took to get that story because you took the Reportero Challenge.


Vince Stehle is Executive Director of Media Impact Funders. Links added to this version. Originally posted on