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Paying To Save the World

When given the chance, consumers will even spend more on a "red" or "green" product. So why is there an aversion to people profiting from positive work?
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How did you spend your money over the holidays? As those cute Chia Pets gather dust in the closet, my company, which sells a video game about peace, received this anonymous email: "If you want people to save the world, why charge them? Or is this actually a model of capitalism?" Well... yes, actually it is. But, is that wrong?

As CEO of ImpactGames, the creator of PeaceMaker, I have a unique perspective on this. PeaceMaker is a video game about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, one of the first in the movement of Games for Change or what we like to call "Playing the News" or "Documentary Gaming," and one of an even smaller subset that sells their product. Our company's mission is to use interactivity to engage people in current events and social issues. Our product is similar to other video games, but because of our company's social emphasis, we seem to be held to a different standard.

We knew when starting ImpactGames as an independent company promoting a new genre in a multi-million dollar industry that we were going to face many challenges, but we are still surprised by critics who question why our game costs money. Do Al Gore and Participant Productions receive requests for free copies of An Inconvenient Truth? Or do Farrar, Straus and Giroux give out copies of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier? I think it is great that these products compete right along side of other commercial products.

When we started our company, we debated whether to be for-profit or non-profit. The reality was that it was easier and faster to find funding as a for-profit venture, but just as important was our desire to lead by example and initiate change in our industry by showing that this type of game is viable in the marketplace. In the end, paying for products that encourage social change comes down to sustainability. Beyond the traditional corporate or non-profit paths, there is a growing trend of social entrepreneurs, self-sustaining businesses that promote positive change through for-profit ventures. Last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mouhammad Yunus, is one of these "double bottom line" leaders.

As I write this, I am listening to my iPod RED and drinking coffee that supports a family-run farm. When given the chance, consumers will even spend more on a "red" or "green" product. So where does the root of the psychological difference lie when assessing the value and cost of a product that is directly related to a cause? Why is there an aversion to people profiting from positive work? Why does it call in to question the creators' motivation?

Companies like ours might avoid these questions by donating 10% of the proceeds to a charity. Or even 100%. But doesn't that just give money to the same groups that people are suggesting should be funding the work in the first place? We recently distributed 100,000 free games in Israel and the Palestinian Territories in conjunction with the Peres Center for Peace. This was a great opportunity to promote our mission and reach an audience where cost might be a barrier, but it was not the answer to all our funding needs.

Social entrepreneurialism works because it empowers the innovator, rewards the right types of values, and engages the consumer. It is a model of capitalism, yes, but one that looks at more than just the bottom line and has enabled great advancements in society. Thanks to people like Bill Drayton (Ashoka) there are now more ways for people to affect change than just counting on others to take care of it for them. I think the motives behind this are something to be admired, not questioned; now we just need the consumer to keep buying into the idea that doing good has a (fair) cost. You might even fund the next breakthrough.

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