Justin Li

Playing for the Greater Good


The website FreeRice.com was launched only a month and some ago, aiming to provide food for the hungry. The way it works is, when you go to the site and play the vocabulary game, the site earns money through its banner ads. When you get a question right, some of that money will be directed to the UN to buy food. Besides being charity (which is not too powerful a motivator), the site draws visitors because it helps people learn new words, and people can boast about how many grains they raised and what vocab level they're at.

After playing for a while (and donating 600+ grains of rice, at an average vocab level of 32-34 out of 50), I thought about the structure and purpose of the site, and found it similar to Google's Image Labeler. The Labeler is another web based game, this time with the purpose of correctly labeling items which appears in images in Google's database. This time, the motivation for visitors is only the points you get for playing the game, the top ten or so of which is listed on the front page.

The similarity between these two sites is obviously, but somewhat hard to define. It's a high level concept, that both sites are somehow transforming an otherwise boring activity into a game, which people will spontaneously play. They are taking advantage of human nature and social dynamics to push forward a different goal, whether it's a global hunger campaign or simply for that company's benefit.

There are of course other examples of sites using social dynamics to further a cause. Example: the many Facebook Darfur groups that say for every so many members they will donate some money. Google recently had a DonorsChoose event, where netizens can challenge the readers of their blogs and websites to fund teachers with their classroom needs. There was also Blog Action Day, where bloggers take one day to reflect on environmental issues. On the political side, this year presidential candidates have used Facebook, Youtube, and other social websites to help with their campaign as well, although of course their cause is not as, say we say, universal as Darfur and world hunger.

If we look at this from a wider perspective, these ideas are good because it is taking advantage of what is otherwise wasted energy and finding a use for it. If there is no FreeRice.com, or no Darfur Facebook group, we would probably still be on Facebook or the internet checking up on our friends and doing other mundane things. Instead of letting us procrastinate aimlessly, these sites give a cause for us to be on the internet (and make us feel better about not working).

Examples of turning waste into resource is actually a common theme in engineering. Ideas about using the greenhouse effect as a wind turbine, tidal power plants, these are all using what is otherwise wasted energy to do some work (in the physics sense of the word). In the vocabulary of green (environmental) engineering, these ideas are taking the natural system dynamics into account, so they don't have to do any extra work.

I will leave you with one last example. I'm sure as netizens you've all experienced CAPTCHAs, the combination of letters and numbers you have to type to verify to a website that you are human. There is a project called reCAPTCHA, which uses scanned words from books as the image shown to you. This way, users of the website is not only identifying themselves as human, but also helping the digitalization of books. Clever huh?