Can Virtual Worlds Promote Social Activism?

Haiti If you're one of FarmVille's 60 million active players, you've probably seen the option to invest your farm bucks into some truly special sprouts.

Zynga, the owner of addictive Facebook games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars, launched the "Sweet Seeds for Haiti" with the goal of lifting hundreds of impoverished Haitian families from destitution. It may just be working.

By channeling the power of its hundreds of millions of active players across multiple browser-based games, Zynga hopes to be the first major success story in the field of "virtual awareness." Pixels and Policy investigates.

Collecting Digital Dollars for Real Relief

Zynga's FarmVille isn't the first virtual world to put its weight behind promoting social change, but its effort counts as one of the largest, most coordinated initiatives in recent memory. A report from VentureBeat explains:

With Sweet Seeds, users buy sweet potato seeds with their virtual
currency, which they earn in the game or pay for with real money. About
50 percent of the proceeds are donated to nonprofits in Haiti: FATEM.org and FONKOZE.org.

San Francisco-based Zynga also has a similar program in its YoVille virtual town simulation game with 140 million inhabitants.


Between YoVille and FarmVille, Zynga has captured over 200 million potential donors and a total of over $487,000 in donations to Haiti's most vulnerable citizens. The seeds cost 25 "Farm Dollars," the equivalent of just $5 USD, with the catch that they can only be planted for a week. After that, players must re-purchase the "license" to plant these super spuds.

Zynga's bet on virtual potatoes isn't as risky as it might seem – players are willing to shell out money for seeds despite the availability of free crops because the "profit margin" of the Haiti seeds is higher than most "free" crops. Players rush to get an edge over millions of their friends in the race for ever-higher "farm levels" despite the fact that the money gained from the Haiti seeds has no real value.

By mixing fun and social responsibility, Zynga has helped lift over 500 Haitian children and families from poverty, according to FATEM charity president Jacky Poteau.

The Meaning of Social Action in the Metaverse

Zynga isn't the first to leap into the fray of social activism. Back in August, thousands of Second Lifers donated over L$250,000 to United 4 Iran, an activist group committed to promoting democracy after what many regarded as a sham election.

After violence in the streets made real-world protesting a death wish for Iranians, hundreds moved into the virtual world to hold protests and stage candlelight vigils. The impact of these rallies was so great that it attracted the attention of CNN and other world media outlets, providing Second Life a new burst of publicity and further condemning Iranian violence.

Pixels and Policy asks: Do virtual worlds have the capacity to create measurable change in the world by promoting social activism as a core tenet of the Metaverse?

4 thoughts on “Can Virtual Worlds Promote Social Activism?”

  1. Of course virtual worlds can promote social activism. Take Relay for Life in second life for example. Virtual worlds may not always be the best platform for each specific situation… and mostly it depends on the people that are the driving force behind it. The platform itself is not the sole initiator of activism, but can be used in so many valuable ways to get people enrolled in concepts that need real world attention

  2. Doubledown is correct, and there’s another aspect to consider, as well: the population of SL is global. The only borders are at the edges of sims. No passports, no visas, no immigration quotas, no standing in line with your shoes off in order to be permitted to pass from one to another.
    The only hurdles to cooperation among like-minded SL Residents from anywhere on the real Earth are (1) language, and there are workarounds available for that; (2) time zones, which many of us are already accustomed to dealing with in our social “second” lives, to judge from the international couples one meets in-world.

  3. To continue off of what Lalo mentioned, virtual platforms are a great was to not only just speak in text to people globally, but to also demonstrate.
    A good example of this was the activism that occurred as Obama and McCain were in mid-race for the US presidency. The Obama and McCain people each set up areas, and we able to not only just communicate, but to also watch live video feed & comment. Also the ability for creating actual objects and visualizations to demonstrate is a vital aspect.
    However, sometimes virtual worlds may not be the most effective approach. For example, the Iran election. Twitter was the most valuable resource. Short, sweet, and unable to be blocked.
    Finally, as a footnote… keep in mind there is an owner/company that runs each virtual world. A certain platform and company may allow, disallow, or askew the truth of the purpose of the cause.

  4. Virtual worlds provide a way to connect creatively and synchronously with like minded individuals/activists from across the world. Used with other social media they can become an even more powerful medium. And not just for fundraising.
    A number of social justice groups in Second Life (including 4 bridges, the rings, amnesty e and sl left unity feminist network) are currently working together to organise a series of events, discussions and performances for the 16 days of activism against violence against women.
    Using SL we can reach an international audience, have discussions, show video and presentations, host exhibits.. Using other social media we can continue to connect offline and network with those currently not using SL to raise awareness and make useful links.
    http://slactivists.ning.com/
    http://slleftunity.blogspot.com/

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