ARGs in Charity and Education Conference

Despite the real and growing interest in ‘serious’ ARGs from companies and broadcasters, there hasn’t yet been a conference dedicated to the subject where people can share knowledge. There’s so much potential for what serious ARGs can do that I’ve worked with the guys at Law 37 to organise ARGs in Charity and Education, a conference being held in London on Friday 5th December.

This one-day conference will be the first in the world to explore the use of ARGs for educational purposes and to aid charities. With speakers from the BBC, Channel 4, Oil Productions, Six to Start, Leicester University, Open University and more, commissioners, developers, academics and educators will all be represented.

ARGs in Charity and Education is a great opportunity to learn about the latest serious ARGs around the world, gain behind-the-scenes insights from developers, and also find out what the two biggest commissioners of ARGs in the UK have planned for the future.

Channel 4 have kindly donated a very nice venue at their headquarters for the conference, and all profits will be going to Cancer Research UK. Tickets cost £70 (£35 for students).

‘ARGs in Charity and Education’ is run by Let’s Change the Game and Law 37.

Future Selves, Other Selves

There’s a fascinating series of articles at the New York Times Magazine this week about charitable giving. While many of the articles tend to cover the same ground (e.g. the move towards measuring the effectiveness of donations) there are some real gems there:

Consider Mr. Improvident, who is just like us except that he is not wired to care about his future. (There’s one in every family.) Mr. Improvident gets no neural kick from saving for tomorrow. Yet we can see that he has an objective reason to do so. He is, after all, a person extended in time, not a series of disconnected selves.

We ought to be able to see a similarly objective reason for altruism, one rooted, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel observed, in “the conception of oneself as merely a person among others equally real.” My reason for taking steps to relieve the suffering of others is, in this way of thinking, as valid as my reason for taking steps to avert my own future suffering. Both reasons arise from our understanding of what sort of beings we are, not from the vagaries of natural selection.

This was from an article about the nature of altruism, the discussion of which tends to concentrate on genetic reasons like kin selection and reciprocity. The suggestion that there is an objective reason for altruism – or at least, as objective and valid as saving for ourselves in the future – is interesting. There is of course an argument that we are more likely to save for ourselves, because we are going to be ourselves in the future – but the problem with this is the existence of Mr. Improvident. If the corollary or Mr. Provident exists, then why can’t a Mr. Altruist? Anyway…

Another great article is What Makes People Give? To me, the article is misnamed, since it’s more about ‘how can we use psychology to make people donate more?’ – which is the reason why I recommended it to the Let’s Change the Game winning team. There are some fascinating discoveries listed in the article, and while they can’t be used for all fundraising projects, I’m sure some will prove very useful, e.g.:

A matching gift effectively reduces the cost of making a donation. Without a match, you would have to spend $400 to make your favorite charity $400 richer. With a three-to-one match in place, it would cost you only $100 to add $400 to the charity’s coffers.

… But the size of the match in the experiment didn’t have any effect on giving. Donors who received the offer of a one-to-one match gave just as often, and just as much, as those responding to the three-to-one offer. That was surprising, because a larger match is effectively a deeper discount on a person’s gift. Yet in this case, the deeper discount didn’t make an impact. It was as if Starbucks had cut the price of a latte to $2 and sales didn’t increase.


List set out to see whether donors cared about so-called seed money. Fund-raisers generally like to have raised a large portion of their ultimate goal, sometimes as much as 50 percent, before officially announcing a new campaign. This makes the goal, as well as the cause, seem legitimate.

To see whether the strategy made sense, List and Reiley wrote letters to potential donors saying that the university wanted to buy computers for a new environmental-research center. They varied the amount of money that supposedly had already been raised. In some letters, they put the amount in hand at $2,000, out of the $3,000 they needed for a given computer; in others, they said they had raised only $300 and still needed $2,700. The results were overwhelming. The more upfront money Central Florida claimed to have on hand, the more additional money it raised. When paired with the matching-gift research, the study suggests that seed money is a better investment for charities than generous matches.

Let’s Change the Game – First Round

The first round of Let’s Change the Game closed last Friday, and we received nine entries that I thought were worth sending to the judges. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but we’re all very happy with the number. The competition deliberately set a high bar for entrants, requiring not merely a game description, but a concise game description. Given the emails I received from teams asking whether they could write more than 500 words, I’m certain that a lot of effort was spent on figuring out what their core idea was, and how to express it best.

I haven’t looked through the entries yet in detail, but from what I’ve seen so far, they’re all well thought out and some have some genuinely original and interesting ideas. The wide variety of team members, from all professions and all over the world, is also heartening, and I think that quite a few of the nine will be shortlisted.

The worst thing that could’ve happened with the competition is if we received no entries, or at least no good entries. It’s clear that we’re going to have a very different problem: deciding which of several good entries should be the winner.

Let’s Change the Game


One of the most startling things about alternate reality games is what their players can achieve. When you have tens of thousands of highly motivated and tightly-knit players who urgently want to get to the next scene, even the most obscure puzzle can be solved, no matter what language it’s written in, or what specialised field it relates to; one of the players, one one of their friends, will know the answer.

Faced with this, ARG designers have become engaged in a deeper and more subtle game with their players, always testing to see how much they can challenge them while keeping things fun. In Perplex City, I saw players come together to write and publish a book in a matter of weeks, and contribute millions of computer hours to crack a desperately complex code. In other games, players have formed cross-country networks to communicate and analyse information with incredible speed, and travelled thousands of miles to help each other.

Given the right game and the right challenges, there are few limits to what players can achieve. And if people will give so much for something that is ‘merely’ a game, what more might they give for a game that also has a serious purpose?

A Game to Cure Cancer

Today, together with Cancer Research UK, I’m launching a new project, Let’s Change the Game, that will develop an ARG whose aim is to raise money for cancer research. Like other serious games, the ARG will also educate people about cancer and raise awareness of it, but unlike other serious games, its success will be measured directly on how much real change it can cause, through fundraising. Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading independent organisation dedicated to cancer research. Last year, it spent over £250 million purely on scientific research, supporting over 3000 scientists, doctors and nurses. That research benefits everyone in the world, not just those in the UK. Yet even that sum is just not enough compared to the task it faces.

Cancer Research UK receives almost all of its fundings from donations from the public. Through its TV ads, mailings, billboards, races and stores, it manages to send its message to millions of people across the UK. However, that message isn’t reaching young people as well as it used to. It’s not just broadcasters and advertisers that are suffering from young people moving away from the TV and traditional media – it’s charities as well.

Alternate reality games are a solution that combine every form of media into a powerful, distributed game, something that can reach young people, and everyone else who is familiar with new media. That’s why we think an ARG can help Cancer Research UK raise its profile among the youth, and raise funds from them.

An Opportunity

I am not going to be designing this ARG.

A Catch-22 situation currently exists in the ARG genre. There are precious few opportunities for aspiring game designers to gain experience in creating ARGs, and the ARG companies out there all tend to require experience. That leaves grassroots games as one of the only avenues available. While there have been some excellent grassroots games developed in the past, they demand vast quantities of time for development – which their creators willingly give – but also at least some money – which their creators often cannot spare. We want to help change this situation.

Let’s Change the Game is a competition where teams from anywhere in the world can submit their own game designs. The team behind the winning design, as chosen by judges who include Sean Stewart, Rhianna Pratchett and James Wallis, will then be invited to develop the game. They’ll have guidance and advice from the judges, plus the full resources of Cancer Research UK; that’s over 600 stores, monthly TV ads, hundreds of races and live events, and mailings going out to over 20 million people. It could be the biggest ARG, ever – and we’re giving new designers the chance to create it.

As for funding, I’m donating £1000 ($2000) towards the development of the ARG. It may not be enough, and hopefully we’ll get in-kind donations from other sources, but it’s my belief that this £1000 will be multiplied many times by the ARG into a much larger donation for Cancer Research UK.

A Scientific Experiment

Let’s Change the Game is an experiment. We don’t know how it’ll turn out. Much will depend on the quality of the game designs we receive and the dedication of the winning team. But if it does work, if it does raise money for cancer research, then this experiment will prove that games aren’t just distractions for the young or just a popular new form of entertainment – they’re a way to truly and unequivocally change the world for the better.

Visit for more information. The deadline for the first round of 500-word game designs is November 16th.