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Mar. 4 2010 - 12:09 pm | 756 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Newspaper stands by criticisms of social game’s Haiti campaign

Screen Shot 1 (Folha de São Paulo)

Screen Shot 1 (Folha de São Paulo)

Did Zynga, dominant maker of social games like FarmVille for Facebook, make important errors in the design of its innovative Haiti earthquake relief campaign?

That’s the contention of one of South America’s most prestigious newspapers, Folha de São Paulo, which has posted several pointed criticisms of Zynga on its website.

Folha alleges that the design of Zynga’s January campaign on FarmVille was confusing and poorly communicated. So much so, that the newspaper is asking whether or not some users might have felt that what they thought was a charitable donation ended up being locked in the game.

Zynga has responded with a long letter (also sent in reply to my last post, and appended to it), which Folha has also translated and posted in Portuguese.

Zynga says it merely provided gamers with a way to help Haiti while playing the game, and that the few steps required to help Haiti were clear and easy to follow. But the paper is insisting in its criticisms.

As I said, I posted on this issue Tuesday, but felt compelled to give both sides a chance to explain their positions to me and follow up with more detail since I was made responsible for introducing this story to the U.S media-sphere.

Context first: the World Food Programme in Rome has confirmed that Zynga gave it $1.5 million for its post-earthquake Haiti programs. This is money raised during the five day campaign via FarmVille and a few of the company’s other ultra-popular games.

So Zynga clearly helped Haiti out, and they deserve credit for that. Also, as websites raced to roll out Haiti relief campaigns in the days after the Jan. 16 earthquake, it was certain that kinks in digital campaigns would exist. It was inevitable that such campaigns cobbled together in a few days would be imperfect.

Finally, it’s also important to keep in mind that in Brazil, Internet companies, particularly foreign ones, are subject to tremendous scrutiny from Brazilian media and government.

The back-and-forth between Zynga and Folha needs to be understood through that lens.

However, Folha does raise interesting questions about the way the campaign was designed and whether more transparency and explanation was needed. And the paper is perfectly justified in asking questions about a charity campaign. Natural disasters are becoming more and more deadly and costly in our urbanized, hyper-populated and interconnected world. Digital and social media will continue to play a major role in global response efforts.

Zynga’s generous pioneering is commendable, but the company shouldn’t earn some sort of immunity from media scrutiny solely on the basis of its unimpeachable goals. Social and digital media needs to understand that as a player in politics and aid efforts, it will be held to the same standards as a Red Cross or foreign government.

In other words, this is an early test case for the manner in which social media charity campaigns should be constructed and communicated to users, who inevitably will be spread out around the world, and have varying sensitivities.

Now for the outlines of the story. After the Haiti earthquake, Zynga, maker of FarmVille and other popular social games, launched a campaign to help victims of Haiti’s earthquake.

FarmVille, a kind of farming simulation popular with tens of millions of Facebook users, was one of the platforms used for this charity campaign (and, as Zynga’s most popular game, it was the one that raised the most money).

The novelty of this charity effort, and past ones deployed by Zynga in its games, is that FarmVille virtual currency was used as the means to “donate,” through users’ purchase of a virtual product.

In other words, users had to buy FarmVille currency first, not just access their credit cards or Paypal accounts, in order to donate.

What’s more, they had to buy what Zynga calls a “social product” in order to make their donation effective. In the case of the Haiti earthquake campaign, which Zynga says lasted five days in January, they had to buy “white corn” to plant in their FarmVille plots.

This is where Folha de São Paulo’s reporting begins to run into friction with Zygna’s stance.

Ricardo Feltrin, editorial head of Folha Online who was one of the Zynga investigation’s co-writers, says he considered it at least confusing for FarmVille users to be invited to participate in a Haiti relief campaign, and then have to buy virtual currency within the game to join. And not only that, but have to buy “white corn,” within the game, to make their donation effective.

Shernaz Daver, a spokeswoman for Zynga, confirmed that players had to buy white corn for money to go to Haiti. She said this made the donation process easy to understand and allowed “people who use the game to work within the mechanics of the game.” Daver suggested that Folha misunderstood how the campaign was supposed to work and mistook the game’s own rules for lack of clarity.

Feltrin defends his reporting, and disagrees that the “white corn” mechanism was well explained.

Feltrin says he is familiar with Farmville, and that he, his family, and friends play it often. “I do think it’s an ingenious game.”

But he also thinks that when dealing with a Haiti charity campaign, FarmVille should have been clearer in communicating to users how it worked and more sensitive to any semblance of murkiness.

Folha’s follow-up article yesterday in response to Zynga’s letter, with screen shots included and reprinted here, shows that users were asked to “donate,” but if they bought FarmVille currency for this purpose (say 40$ worth), they were sent to another screen where it became apparent that another step was needed.

They had a “license” to buy white corn, but they still had to buy the white corn– worth 10 FarmVille currency units according to the screen shot– within the game in order for part of their purchase to go to Haiti.

Since so many steps were needed to actually donate, it’s not a leap to think that some of the FarmVille currency bought through a Haiti relief-branded screen, might have stayed locked in the game (where users can buy tractors, trees and other crops with it) instead of going to Haiti, according to Feltrin.

For example, a user may have purchased 240 units of FarmVille currency, then, realizing she had to buy and plant white corn again and again to help Haiti, might have done so only a few times, meaning only a small percentage of that money actually went to Haiti.

“Whatever the reason, it has to be better explained,” he says.

Screen Shot 2 (Folha)

Screen Shot 2 (Folha)

In fact, because of the mechanics of how white corn had to be purchased (its price and growing time), Feltrin says, it would have been difficult if not impossible for Zynga users who bought a large amount of currency (e.g. 40$ worth) for Haiti relief purposes to spend all of it on white corn for Haiti. Feltrin said he and many of his friends ran into this problem and were frustrated by it.

“Here in Brazil people are really up in arms,” he adds.

However, so far, neither Zynga nor Folha has offered proof, via screen-shots or other data, that this was or was not a problem (that 40$ worth of FarmVille currency would have been difficult or impossible to convert into “white corn,” and thus a Haiti donation, in the time-frame of the campaign).

Zynga was well-positioned to carry out its Haiti earthquake campaign. In a previous charity drive for Haiti last year, Zynga urged FarmVille users to buy sweet potato seeds for Haitian charities: a tech-oriented NGO and a micro-finance organization. It donated 50 percent of the proceeds to these charities.

Folha also criticized Zynga for this previous campaign, but as Zynga rightly points out, it announced the 50% number through its website. And that’s far more generous a percentage than other corporations set aside when linking sales of a product to a charity cause.

And other knowledgeable users have reported on their experience buying white corn for earthquake relief without seeing any problems with the campaign’s design. On GamesBeat, Dean Takahashi wrote with praise about his experiences on FarmVille after the earthquake:

Now, whenever I plant white corn seeds on my farm, I’ll remember the Haiti relief fund. Hopefully, this kind of donation will be popular not only in a time of disaster, but during relative calm as well. It’s a blessing for Haiti that it has become so much easier to make donations online.

However, the Folha story, and the ensuing anger in Brazil, on its own is evidence that the campaign was at the very least confusing in other parts of the world where people are perhaps more suspicious about the fusion of for-profit game products and charity.

Zynga’s ability to tap into gamers to raise money for worthwhile causes through virtual social products is a brilliant use of entertainment for a good purpose. Zynga has been rightly praised for its innovative fund-raising.

But as cutting-edge as it may be, the company seems so far to have shown limitations in its capacity to respond to the doubts and worries of its considerable Brazilian fan base, and has so far has not allayed all the concerns aired by the Folha newspaper.

In any case, readers of this blog can look at the screen shots in this post and go to these links to inform themselves:

Zynga releases:

1, 2, 3


Folha coverage:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Other relevant coverage:

1, 2, 3


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    Readers, thanks for your eyeball time, please send tips, corrections, complaints, rants, etc. My email is ballve [at] gmail.com. I was born in Buenos Aires and raised there and in Atlanta, Mexico City and Caracas. I've written and reported on Latin America for almost a dozen years. I started out as an Associated Press reporter and editor in the agency’s Brazil and Caribbean bureaus. In 2007 I co-founded El Sol de San Telmo, a community newspaper in Buenos Aires. I am now a contributing editor for the nonprofit New America Media, Americas correspondent for Amsterdam-based Research World magazine (publication of the international association of market and public opinion researchers), and a 2010-2011 Lemann Fellow at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

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