Video Games & Philanthropy: Bad for the Brain and for Giving?

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August 5, 2013; Calgary Herald

The Purposeful Planning Collaborative Rendezvous gathered in Broomfield, Colorado, recently to discuss holistic financial strategies that increase the overall well-being of the individual and families. The wealth management and legal professionals who gathered discussed charity, volunteerism, social impact investing, community engagement, and other ways that doing good can add to a family’s total experience of wealth.

Gena Rotstein of Dexterity Consulting presented on the next generation of donors. She also attended a session by Dr. Stephen Post, bioethicist and researcher, on the effects of kindness and philanthropy on the brain. Post’s research demonstrates that youth who volunteer and are civically engaged experience positive health outcomes later in life. This was juxtaposed with research about youth who played (mostly violent) video games, which were shown to negatively affect brain development.

Rotstein asks, “By gamifying philanthropy (through mobile apps and websites) are we negatively affecting the way that children/youth brains develop? And by incentivizing giving through these same platforms, are we risking the possibility of removing the overall health benefits that voluntary (i.e., non-rewarded) community engagement provides in the long run?”

Big questions.

The term gamification refers to the use of game-thinking in contexts outside of actual games. For example, consider donor reward systems, including points, progress bars, badges, or levels. PETA’s free iPhone and Android app is a prime example of the gamification of philanthropy. Users receive breaking news on issues related to the organization’s mission and are encouraged to take actions such as sending letters to elected officials and donating directly via the app. Every action taken increases the users’ profiles and enables them to reach levels such as “Private Penguin,” “Captain Cow,” and “Admiral Ape.” These levels may appear silly to an outsider, but can be remarkably incentivizing to users. In fact, some users are even posting screen shots of their ranking on Twitter.

Another example of philanthropic gamification is the 48-hour Charity App Challenge led by the Calgary Herald, Digital Alberta, and Place2Give. The challenge was posed to forty local developers, working in eight teams, to develop “top-notch apps and brilliant tech solutions that launch worthy organizations into the mobile technology space.” The winning team, selected by a panel of judges, received a $37,000 contract to further develop and refine their ideas for use by local charities.

Rotstein wonders if these types of rewards (“Captain Cow” or a paid contract) actually decrease the positive effects of philanthropy. Is the focus on the personal reward, or on the mission involved? Does that change brain architecture? Does it decrease the aspects of philanthropy that Post’s research demonstrates promote positive health outcomes?

The brain is remarkably plastic. The first few years of life are a period of high brain growth, but experiences throughout our lives affect our brain architecture. The structures of modern life—mobile technology, big data, video games—are undoubtedly changing the brain in ways not yet clear. What do you think?—Jennifer Amanda Jones

  • Deb

    I think its a reflection of a society that is disconnecting and of people who don’t get the attention required for human growth in other areas. Seems the need to announce everything to the world via social media is supposedly full filing everybody’s 15 mins of fame desires, the need to be noticed because we aren’t getting noticed or being valued via human contact/interaction. Is this affecting our brain architecture? Probably not since it’s not violent in nature. Is it hurting us as a society? Probably because we have less and less face to face time with others, everything is done via the internet and aps. We need to get back to basics and teach each other how to give for the sake of giving to help others not for the sake of gaining recognition, getting something in return or ‘points’ on an ap.

  • Frances Heussenstamm, Ph.D.

    All the data I’ve seen indicates that violent video game interaction has dire consequences for young users. However this data comes at the problem in a way I didn’t anticipate or could not have predicted.