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How one charity is using games to bring bicycles to those in need

After some tough lessons in being a new publisher, Global Gaming Initiative has regrouped with a unique proposition to fund games whose proceeds will tangibly benefit real-world charities.
Two years ago, Elizabeth Sarquis gave up everything in her life to become a game publisher, even though her background was in political science, child development and psychology. As a passionate early tech adopter and the mother of three children, she felt games had the potential to make a difference. "You're going to think I'm a little bit crazy," she says over the phone, laughing. "I really didn't know about game development, or the App Store, but I knew that smartphones were really cool, and I knew I wanted to effect social change." Sarquis hardly had any acquaintance with game publishing, but she did know that she wanted to go beyond traditional initiatives to connect the prevalence of smartphones with charitable organizations. For example, text message-oriented donations-gathering campaigns, as followed the catastrophic Haiti earthquake, yielded a lot of participation, but how and whether the funds raised reached their intended recipients was, as with many nonprofit relief efforts, nearly impossible for participants to know. Sarquis did know that most efforts she'd seen to connect games with charity resulted in intentionally-educational or traditional "serious" games, which have a hard time attracting and maintaining engagement in cases where entertainment's secondary. "I thought, wouldn't it be cool if we could design games that were fast, fun and easy, and yet while doing that, we could give a tangible donation to a nonprofit that actually provides feedback to the players?"

Enter the Global Gaming Initiative

She founded the Global Gaming Initiative in 2010 with private funding, and the publisher's first game, Sidekick Cycle developed by It Matters, is set to release next month. Fifty percent of the profits from the .99 cent app will benefit World Bicycle Relief, a non-profit group that provides bikes to people in need in Africa, to help them facilitate relief, education and entrepreneurship. That means for approximately every 387 downloads of the .99 cent app, one bike will go directly to someone in Africa, and half the proceeds from further content and in-app purchases for Sidekick Cycle will continue funding World Bicycle Relief. The rest of the game's profits will be used by the publisher to fund future game projects that may have a similar tangible, real-world charity object tie-in to the game. "People don't just want to give money to a black hole," Sarquis says. "We wanted to be able to deliver to our consumer a clean, visible way to give, and to be as transparent as possible." The plan is that downloaded games will offer ongoing feedback about how many bikes have been donated through user activity, allowing players to remain engaged with the benefit effort.

The most important thing

Though the publisher's about to make its first release, it actually represents a re-grouping of sorts after Global Gaming Initiative's first effort comprised a sort of what not to-do list for a new, charity-oriented publisher without prior industry experience: "I met a game designer and we decided to build our own in-house development team," says Sarquis. "You have to laugh. That's the only thing you can do. I licensed the Unreal Engine, and as you can imagine, I was not an Infinity Blade-level game designer." Plus, the designer she hired was from a hardcore background and was disinterested in developing the types of social elements that would be necessary to do group-oriented charity games. Sarquis quickly learned it'd be better for her team to fund and publish games that were being developed by other studios and were a good fit for the fundraising objectives. With more experienced folks joining the steerage, like development directors Scott Balaban and Erik Stein, GGI is now ready to launch Sidekick Cycle. It took time for GGI to decide on the beneficiary of its launch, meeting with World Bicycle Relief and participating in its programs over the past two years. After a certain number of bikes are donated to a particular village, they hope to livestream the donation to the player community. "We select the nonprofit first, and then design the game so it's congruent with that tangible good." "The most important thing to me is that by buying one of our games, you could make a difference," Sarquis adds. "We're providing you a great place to feel like you know where your contribution is going."

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