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FREE RICE: FEED YOUR BRAIN, FEED THE WORLD

 

 

By C. Antonio Romero

SAN FRANCISCO, 17 DECEMBER 2007—"Feed hungry minds, feed hungry mouths." That seems to be the goal of John Breen, creator of Poverty.com, whose new web site, FreeRice.com , cannily leverages this moment in Web technology and economics to make a difference for world hunger.

Most of us prosperous Western web surfers have advertising-sponsored, YouTube-powered visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads, and bellies already growling for upcoming helpings of Christmas cheer; and indeed, many in American have barely finished picking the last bits of turkey from the Thanksgiving carcass. But our brains, alas... what has YouTube done for (or to) them lately?

What Breen has done is pure internet genius: create a simple yet compelling word game, where each round lasts only a few seconds, and where donors contribute 20 grains of rice for each round played. The game adapts itself quickly to the players' skill level, only asking questions that the player is likely to answer correctly, encouraging people to play longer. (On the Web, this is called "stickiness"-- a good property for a site about rice.)

The game itself learns the difficulty of words based on how many people incorrectly identify their meanings. The player learns vocabulary, as the game quickly figures out the user's level and steers them to words of appropriate difficulty. Advertising runs alongside the game, which is how the donors benefit.  And, of course, the hungry get... rice. Definitely a lifesaver, and better than "no rice".

Is it working? We are entertained (and, one hopes, a bit more educated); and no doubt the World Food Program and the UN are getting some useful visibility out of this for their poverty elimination programs. But the most important measure is hard to argue with: in its first two months, freerice.com raised enough free rice to give one grain, at least, to every person on earth, and at this point, they're buying nearly two billion grains of rice a week.

Now if only we can get people to play ad-supported games for peace, prosperity, functioning economies, sustainable development, access to healthcare, education and credit, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, a free press... or, perhaps, safe water, to cook all that rice.

C. Antonio Romero is the Nouveau editor of Culturekiosque.com. He last wrote on the Senator Larry Craig Talking Action Figure.



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