The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Playing Nice: 5 Pro-Social Web Games

In their quest for a share of our increasingly strained attention capacity, many charities and nonprofits have resorted to some rather atypical methods. Including online games, which let people contribute to a good cause simply by playing. Here’s our pick of the 5 coolest, smartest and funnest charity-benefiting games.


You may recall this project from a while back. You may even have a slight FreeRice problem — the thing is positively addictive.

“The thing” being a neat little web game that tests your knowledge of various “advanced vocabulary” words SAT-style and donates 20 grains of rice to third-world countries for every right answer you get. Just yesterday, 72,724,400 grains were donated thanks to vocab junkies like ourselves, with over 50 million grains donated since the game’s inception a little over a year ago.

And the “game” is no joke either. Composed by professional lexicographers, it ensures maximum benefits for your vocabulary and aims to benefit people in the developed world as well by helping us sound smarter, formulate ideas better, make greater impact with our speech, score better on tests, and give better job interviews. The game even remembers your vocab level as you play, so it automatically adjusts the difficulty level to ensure you’re making tangible progress. There are 50 levels total, but getting above 48 is Shakespearean.

Help end world hungerFreeRice is a sister site to and donations go through the UN World Food Program. And while 20 grains of rice may not seem like much, there are millions of people playing. Together, it’s a chip at the world’s enormous hunger problem that causes 25,000 deaths per day, most of them children.

The idea, needless to say, is pure genius. Talk about symbiotic benefit. Not to mention it’s certainly a better (as in funner and gooder) timesuck than watching random people’s cats fall into toilets on YouTube.

Go, be all smart and humanitarian. And check out FreeRice’s extended web presence on Facebook, MySpace and Think MTV.

Word up.


Hooked on House, Scrubs or Grey’s Anatomy? Here’s your chance to make your contribution to medicine without the drama.

fold.itfold.It is a brilliant game that lets your inner puzzle geek help advance key scientific research. How? You’re given a cool 3D model (which happens to be an actual protein structure) and you have to figure out the most compact way to fold it, competing against other players. That 3D model is actually scientists’ best guess as to how that protein may be shaped. Because proteins naturally take the most compact shape possible, finding an even more compact way to fold one completely changes any previous understanding of that protein.

Protein Structure Model

Why is this important? A protein’s shape determines its function. So by helping discover the shape, you’re essentially helping scientist understand how a protein works, which enables them to target it with drugs.

Plus, it sure beats poring over grandma’s Manhattan skyline puzzle.

via GOOD


Okay, so this one isn’t really a game. CAPTCHA, the ubiquitous anti-spam human filter, is more of an annoyance, really — spammers get annoyed that they can’t get their bots past it, and non-spammers get annoyed because, well, we’re not spammers and we have to waste time on it.

reCAPTCHAThat’s exactly what inspired the guys at Carnegie Mellon University and the Internet Archive to put that colossal waste of humanity’s time — 150,000 hours of work each day, to be exact — to use. reCAPTCHA was born, a project that capitalizes on this human effort by helping digitize books written in the pre-computer (yikes!) age.

Here’s the tricky part about digitizing books the usual way — they’re first scanned, which turns each page into an image, and computer software attempts to turn the shapes of the letters into actual digital text. That’s called “Optical Character Recognition.” Which is cool, but it’s incredibly inaccurate.

OCR error

That’s where reCAPTCHA comes in. It takes words that can’t be read by a computer and places them in those annoying little spam puzzles, so that actual humans help decode the text. It’s called human computation, and it’s absolutely awesome.

Like any large-scale wisdom-of-the-crowds approach, the average of millions of people’s guesses amounts to a virtually error-free result. (There are, after all, 60 million CAPTCHAs solved by humans around the world every day, just in the normal course of web-dwelling.)

The project is currently helping digitize books from the Internet Archive and old editions of the New York Times.

So if you run a website, especially a blog, grab reCAPTCHA for your site. And check out this interview with reCAPTCHA founder Luis von Ahn on Wired.


When Boubacar Bah, a Guinean tailor detained for overstaying his visa, died in a New Jersey jail last year, human rights organization Break Through jumped on it with a rather unusual effort to raise awareness about the inhumane conditions of immigrant detention in the U.S. (We’re talking pregnant women being forced to give birth in shackles and HIV-positive patients being denied medication.)

Homeland Gitmo, a web-based video game, casts the player as a reporter seeking clues in the death of Mr. Bah.

It may sound hum-drum, but the investigation, the plot and the interface actually make for a pretty thrilling game. The reporter takes an undercover job as a detention guard and discovers things backed by links to real newspaper articles, court documents and other factual material.

This kind of first-person appeal brilliantly taps basic psychological principles for impact much greater than a mere article about the incident could have. To take it a step further, the site offers multiple ways to take action — finding your local Gitmo, speaking up online, and donating.

via The New York Times


The web has its fair share of funny-sounding names (Squidoo and Google, we’re looking at you), but GWAP actually stands for something, literally: Games With A Purpose.

The outfit, out of Carnegie Mellon University, designs games for humans that help make computers a little more intelligent. It’s like that “human computation” thing we mentioned about reCAPTCHA, which is no surprise since reCAPTCHA mastermind Louis von Ahn is actually one of GWAP’s founders.

Currently, they offer 5 different games, all based on a pairing principle that randomly matches players up and gives each partner various tasks. Check them out:

  • The ESP Game, which shows both partners the same image and asks each to guess what words the other is using to describe the image. Players win points for correct guesses. It’s essentially an image tagging effort, designed to make image search richer and more efficient.
  • Tag a Tune, which is similar to ESP in structure, but obviously uses tunes instead of images and asks players to decide whether their partner is listening to the same tune based on words he or she is using to describe it.
  • Verbosity, a Taboo-style game in which one partner, the Describer, has to describe a word giving clues to its meaning and the other, the Guesser, has to — duh — guess it. The game, surprisingly fun and addictive, aims to collect common-sense facts about words, stuff that’s strongly associated with a certain concept but wouldn’t be found in the word’s dictionary definition.
  • Squigl, another image-based initiative, in which players are shown the same image and each holds down the mouse to trace an object their partner is describing. They get points if their traces match. It’s a genius concept that aims to help computers recognize objects more easily by their shape.
  • Matchin, which simply shows players two images and asks them which one they like better. This one was the foundation of GWAP’s Gender Test, which promises to correctly guess your gender based on images you pick out of image pairs. (We regret to say it failed miserably on us, telling us with 70% certainty that we were the other gender.)

Tag a Tune is probably our favorite, party because we consider ourselves rather the musicologist types, and partly because music search is the least developed of the tag-based search genres and needs the most grassroots help.

So start playing nice and pick up a new favorite timesuck that scores you some karma points to offset the should-be-working guilt.

Published November 17, 2008




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