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A Cause To Play For

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Granted, one wouldn't typically expect a diehard, compulsive Mafia Wars (a social game available on Facebook) fan to be lured by a game called Karma Kingdom; a name that clearly doesn't promise the kind of adrenaline rush guaranteed by the former. Yet, rooted in Indian (Hindu) mythology — one is greeted by a genial Ganesha once you enter Karma Kingdom — the game focuses on teaching people the value of good deeds and supporting charitable causes in more ways than one.  Also, it allows certain privileges that can be traded in the real world. No wonder the game has found quite a few takers.  

Developed by the Singapore headquartered (with subsidiary offices in Santa Monica, US and New Delhi) entertainment and transmedia, company Asvathaa, Karma Kingdom was introduced on Facebook about three months ago (a beta version which will be upgraded soon) and launched on this May, where it has managed to attract over 2,000 players.

Although the game is based on the noble principle of earning game points for good deeds, creating healthy island communities with adequate social infrastructure required to create 'happy citizens', it isn't enough to effect a radical transformation in people's mindsets and gaming preferences, overnight. To achieve a virtual-to-real world impact, it takes more than good intentions: an optimum game plan, design and a variegated business model. To their advantage, with Karma Kingdom, Asvathaa has positioned itself to enter at that juncture in gaming where profitability is married to social awareness in what clearly seems to be a mutually beneficial process.

Ashok Desai, CEO and Founder, Asvathaa

Within the dynamics of the game, players earn karma points for every good deed they do. Plus, there are certain privileges that come which can be traded in the real world, for example, for discounts on a new tablet, much like credit card mileage points, reward points and discount vouchers that are availed for on the purchase of products/services. Fuelling consumerism doesn't hurt anybody. "We all are materialistic at the end of the day and want some reward, but through karma Kingdom you can do so in a way that allows you to support charities," says Ashok Desai, CEO and Founder of Asvathaa. "In our agreement with Cybermedia, for example, whenever a new subscriber member comes (through Karma Kingdom) and avails a 25 per cent discount, they (Cybermedia) will also set aside some money for charity. Thus, a player is not only getting something in return but also enabling a charitable cause," Desai explains. Following a diversified revenue stream, the money from the paid virtual goods purchased by players such as hospitals, libraries, schools etc. (out of choice rather than any mandatory requirement within the framework of the game) 100 per cent of that goes to charities such as the Sankara Eye Foundation, the Salaam Bombay foundation and others. In addition 10 per cent of all profit — from the cross portal, in game advertising revenues — also goes towards charity. The focus on social RoI as an operative strategy drives them beyond tradition CSR activities.

Desai states that a big task for them lies in trying to convince charitable foundations to invest in the game. "We want to encourage foundations to put money here because karma points need to be converted into some charitable contribution, Players can vote as to which charity they want to go to; this way they are encouraging hundreds of people to play, think positive and think about other. Even if they give us hundred dollars and if players know that their karma points will convert to, they are more motivated to play, he says. In order to fins a wider reach in India, some of the virtual goods have been reasonable subsidised. Building a Sankara Eye Hospital, which costs $4 in the US costs only $1 in India. Currently over 25 hospitals have been purchased and established by players in their island communities on

The use of mythological characters, albeit in a manner that doesn't suggest any religious predispositions,  is a somewhat deliberate medium to reach out to the Indian diaspora. The idea is that Karma kingdom should soon become a platform where we bring in other cultures since every diaspora wants to deal with its own charity, in their own geography. "With Facebook, we need to provide a menu of charities which they can choose from in their geography. We are a hardcore 'for profit business' but we want to be able to bring together individual businesses and non profit organisations to be able to work with them together" states Desai.

Preparing For A Changeover
In the gaming industry, overall, the impact of socially responsible, educative, online games is becoming palpable. Games for Change, a New York based non profit organisation, has been playing an instrumental role, since 2004, in the creation and distribution of games that support humanitarian causes: international conflict resolution, human rights, saving the environment, health and labour issues, among others. Some of their games such as Food Force (based on the UN's World Food Programme) and We Topia are available on Facebook.  Their rise to prominence can be estimated by the fact that at this year's Game Developers Conference, held in March in the US, for the first time, Games for change made its debut while administering a day long summit on their projects.

In India, however, the trend of leveraging games for social cause - especially when considering the gamut of issues which could be easily transposed into virtual game play- remains vastly underexplored. "We had launched a game called Yes Prime Minister last year on ibibo. It was about building a corruption free India and was launched at the height of the Anna Hazare movement, when there was a lot of angst and outrage among people," says Rahul Razdan, President - Products & Operations at ibibo web. The game captured that essence and met with a lot of traction in those couple of months, says Razdan which proves that the youth is likely to be mobilised by such experiments.  The challenge however is that while a lot of games (such as Yes PM) catch the fancy of gamers for a short period, they haven't quite converted into long term engagements where people would want to play on a sustained basis. ibibo is therefore optimistic about the fate of Karma Kingdom as it is designed in a way that makes people want to do good deeds on for a relatively long term and follows a layered, free flowing architecture that would keep players interested.

A few months ago, matrimonial company, launched an online game called Angry Brides; an anti-dowry game with a simple enough structure where players can choose from a range of weapons: broomstick, red stiletto, football etc. and hurl them at greedy, prospective grooms. It received a lot of attention and Facebook 'likes' (around 2,72,000) initially. At the moment the game has about 8,000 monthly users on Facebook and its popularity on ibibo is clearly dwindling. Angry Brides is a classic case where people were attracted to the core issue but because of its one dimensional interaction, they participated for a while but eventually moved on, Razdan opines. "(With social games) there is a fine balance between entertainment- where people want to play games because they enjoy them- and promoting a social cause where people are left with an elevation of self esteem. They (social causes) need to be woven beautifully into the game because if that doesn't happen, only committed activists and not people at large will end up playing the game," he says. In that respect game developers in India still have a long way to go and there is a wide arena to survey.

According to Facebook statistics, in India there are about 40 million people who use Facebook among whom about 4 million people play social games. The target demographic is between the ages of 18-30 with two third of the population being male. Approximately 3 million people among this group have expressed an interest in contributing towards charities, which gives Asvathaa a lot to look forward to.

Even as multiplayer games such as Teen Patti, Rummy and cricket games, for instance, Howzzat continue to be the most popular choices on ibibo, one of their top social games has been Mumbai Underworld; where players assume dark characters in a crime infested city's underbelly. The standard joke in ibibo these days is that Karma Kingdom can help balance out the 'bad karma' acquired from Mumbai Underworld with the emphasis on good deeds. Perhaps, forgoing the commission earned from the sale of virtual charitable goods on Karma Kingdom is ibibo's first step in that direction.