Can nonprofits spark new civic fandoms? This is a case study with an institutional emphasis, where civic content is built into a videogame, and launched by well-funded organizations. NetAid is the organization at the center – born of the United Nations in 1999 with a charge to fight extreme poverty using the Internet. This study reveals some of the practical and cultural barriers facing proactive institutions as they consider reinventing youth programs using participatory media.
NetAid’s online civic initiative was built around a custom game called Peter Packet, launched in 2004 in collaboration with technology giant Cisco Systems. The collaboration with Cisco (depicted in the stylized image at right) provided both the funds but also stretched the civic narrative. Yet the results were noteworthy: middle school students fighting poverty in Peter Packet’s name, raising awareness and U.S. dollars. Unlike traditional learning games, the Peter Packet final scoreboard indicated real-world civic participation. After describing the evolution of the game, this case study will explore several underlying practical and ethical dilemmas. In particular, it will especially consider the limits of civic institutions, youth participants, and games as motivational bridges to civic programming.
This is a story of shifting strategy, and the necessary opportunism of nonprofits. Originally, there was no nonprofit or civic voice: the Peter Packet game was first conceived to teach youth how the internet works as a technology. Any focus on civics was off the radar. Cisco began by setting aside more than $100,000 to build the game, with the requirement that it launch on their spring 2004 “take your kids to work” day. This sum may seem an incredible indulgence to many civic nonprofits, especially given that Cisco’s target audience was only their employees’ children. But consider the return for corporate culture that Cisco envisioned: children admiring their parents’ jobs -- as depicted in a videogame, no less -- increased employee pride and retention with implications for the bottom line.
In fact, Cisco employees grew excited about the game before it even launched. This premature traction raised ambitions, and gave space for introducing civic content. The game’s goals were modified and expanded from teaching how the Internet works to teaching how the Internet helps fight global poverty. In search of content, Cisco turned to NetAid, a nonprofit it had initially helped to spin out of the United Nations five years earlier. As a result, the Peter Packet game included three separate narratives of extreme poverty from NetAid’s field sites in India, Mexico and Haiti -- each told from the perspective of a local child. In a follow up interview with an 11-year old player, some of this content seemed to stick, from geography to basic poverty: “One of the countries I had never heard about before. I think it was Haiti. I learned that lots of kids there don’t go to school and that some of them don’t have water.”
The Peter Packet integration of game with traditional civic infrastructure is unusual. It was only possible because NetAid programmers agreed to create a backdoor into their e-advocacy software. For example, Peter Packet could access the door to query “how many donations has child X secured?” and NetAid’s databases would provide a number for game-like display. nonprofits could have theoretically been given similar access at relatively low cost. Yet providing such open web services is rare in the nonprofit sector, in part because most civic organizations zealously guard their brand and the messaging around civic action. Today, many nonprofits outsource their civic action functionality to companies like Convio, retaining the nonprofit’s brand and look, but losing direct control over the software. As a result, narratives cannot extend like Peter Packet into online civic action; the post-donation “thank you” email, for example, almost never incorporates external mythologies.
Most Peter Packet players did not ultimately take civic action. Of those who played, only a portion signed up to take action, and even fewer actually participated. For the first ten-day “take action challenge,” roughly 700 played the game, 90 signed up for action (about 13%), and 35 of those participated (40%). In the words of one 11-year old girl interviewed afterward, “I emailed pretty much my whole class which was 17, and those that did it were five or six. All of them said they liked it, and a couple said they actually joined and started doing it.” Of course, a vital goal is to maximize the throughput for this funnel, just as traditional community organizers struggle to migrate petition signers into becoming volunteers, and volunteers into leaders and organizers.
What’s unusual with Peter Packet from an organizational perspective is that the burden of first conversion falls to a videogame, rather than a human recruiter. This case study establishes that games can succeed as a motivation bridge to deeper civic action. As one 12-year old said, “If I hadn’t played the game, I probably wouldn’t go find [the Challenge] on my own.” But is the trajectory somehow qualitatively different for those who complete the process?
One important difference is the mechanism for self-reflection in civic engagement. Reflection is often considered critical for experiential learning, especially when civics is involved (e.g., in the burgeoning service learning sector). In the Peter Packet Challenge, when kids sent emails to raise awareness, the system embedded some additional text for the adult recipient. who might be a relative or a family friend, to start a reflective conversation offline with the youth -- asking why they want to fight poverty, and what it had to do with the game. Peter Packet thereby situates reflection within the child’s existing social network, providing an opportunity for dialogue that adult relatives may not otherwise initiate, beyond the reach of most schools. I refer to this as “embedded reflection.” Its application to an existing social network aligns with emerging research on student commitment to civic participation, showing that discussing civic issues with one’s parents is particularly powerful (Kahne and Sporte, 2008). Given the prevalence of games, it is worth considering their potential to start new conversations with parents, relatives and peers.
This case study also challenges some assumptions about the minimum age of youth participation in civics online. Most participants in the Peter Packet Challenge were between the ages of 9 and 11 – too young themselves for the credit cards necessary to donate online. U.S. privacy law prevents organizations from contacting youth under 13 directly by email without signed permission from their parents. This is a substantial burden especially at scale, and leads to frequent exclusion since email is so often the critical “trigger” for recurring engagement. The workaround for NetAid was to only ask for their parents’ email address. Instead of emailing youth with updates on their points, emails went to the parents asking them to tell their children about the points. Clearly this has substantial implications for the volume of email, the tone, etc. – but it has the side benefit of spurring dialogue between parents and youth around civic engagement. Additionally, this workaround introduces a novel social accountability for civic email spam, since youth who seek points by sending outreach email to strangers risk blacklisting their parent’s email address, or prompting irritated replies from the recipients of civic spam.
Are different youth participating civically, since the initial draw is a game, and not an existing offline social structure like a church youth group, volunteering club, or classroom activity? One of the most remarkable findings from the 2008 Pew survey on games and civics is that games are more equitably distributed to youth than many civic opportunities in schools and online (Kahne, Middaugh & Evans, 2008). The youth for Peter Packet were initially all children of Cisco employees, predominantly around the city of San Jose, California. Yet the participant pool expanded when youth began inviting their friends to play. This distribution pattern is unusual for civic organizations, especially for youth, and may spur unusual “enclave deliberation” (as discussed by Sunstein, 2000) – for both good and ill. For example, do games attract an enclave of “players” who expect real-life civic challenges to be as solvable as those in games?
Despite the success and innovations of the 10-day pilot, NetAid decided it needed to develop a new game, rather than to invest in supporting or modifying Peter Packet. This decision is telling. In large part, NetAid executives felt that their anti-poverty goals were obscured by the game’s content on how the Internet works.also represents a profound ambivalence in the nonprofit sector around the purity of branding partnership opportunism that is often necessary to fund games. A focus on the game’s message further undermined NetAid’s ability to independently consider the follow-up Challenge, where all the civic action took place. NetAid struggled to evaluate what “success” meant with the game – seeing how the game taught few facts on civics (compared to how many it taught about the Internet); by contrast, the follow-on “challenge” taught activist skills experientially, but these were typically overlooked by a focus on the initial game. It was simplest for NetAid to treat Peter Packet as a recruiting tool (the transfer of people and facts), and harder to consider the value of offering an alternative narrative for guiding civic engagement (the transfer of narrative, sense of participant agency and development of civic identity).
Clearly, this case study embodies some different civic goals than others in this collection. For one thing, NetAid sought to teach civic skills and foster longer-term participation, and thus taking action became a means to authentic learning rather than the primary end goal. Second, the substantial upfront investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in building a game limits the ability of other organizations to try similar experiments – but increases the ability to massively scale at low cost. On the plus side, that scale is unusually experiential in nature, both through the game and the take-action Challenge (by contrast, most participatory civic media is limited to discourse). Importantly, the discourse from Peter Packet is pushed from online to offline, into preexisting networks between players, their friends and family.
The downsides of NetAid’s approach begin with the limited ability to generate a coherent fandom. Conventional wisdom holds that fans either emerge organically around games, or they don’t. Here, NetAid made significant investments to foster fan-like participation around the Peter Packet narrative, but the result may be more akin to building a political constituency than building true fans of culture.
Controversially, the value for different forms of civic participation was set quantitatively by NetAid through its point system, rather than allowing the community to determine the issues or actions they wanted to pursue. Overall, the nonprofit exercised unusual control over the entire process – which is partly justified by the need to scaffold the participation of youth, and by the desire to extend the game world into the civic actions, but is partly unjustified and reflects the tendency of nonprofits to direct participation.
Ethically, this case study also raises several concerns. By forcing a singular connection between the narrative world and civic action, NetAid undermines the community’s ability to democratically choose between possible actions. Of course, this may be the price to pay for greater throughput on the motivation funnel, but it undermines the grassroots nature of most fan participation. By claiming the entire process, from media creation to civic action, NetAid also eliminates the independent stability of the community – demonstrated in this case by the disappearance of the community when NetAid shut down the Challenge after the 10-day trial, even though the game remained available. Finally, games inevitably represent biased worldviews. What obligation does the nonprofit sector (and its funders) have to offer multiple games on particular social issues? If a character like Peter Packet becomes successful, are they obligated to make the copyright open so that others can develop alternative games? Or to allow other nonprofits to plug the game into their advocacy toolset?
Ultimately, the more that fans organize for civic action, the more traditional organization will consider building properties like Peter Packet. There are both practical and ethical barriers, both embedded in the culture and ecology of the nonprofit sector. This case study demonstrates some of the possibilities of extending game narratives and mechanics into real-world civic action, including with relatively young children. When nonprofits take the lead, they inherently limitations some participation modes, but can also offer direct access to the infrastructure for civic action.
 Peter Packet was developed by Cisco through a contract with e-learning vendor A.S.K. Learning. The full cost of the game is not public, but several games industry experts told me that the game’s assets probably cost $200-400,000 to develop. For NetAid, the partnership was an opportunity to retell its success stories in a new medium, using professional animators and voice actors, for almost no cost.
 This investment only makes sense at scale: at the time, Cisco had more than 30,000 thousand employees (CNET News, 2004); the budget for the game was on the order of ten dollars per employee. By 2010, Cisco had surpassed 60,000 employees worldwide (according to their website, http://newsroom.cisco.com/dlls/corpinfo/factsheet.html ; retrieved on January 11, 2010).
 Cisco provided half the initial ten million dollars in funding for NetAid, matching dollars with the United Nations Development Programme. NetAid’s origin story is especially worth note here given its fan focus. Specifically, the NetAid launch in 1999 featured a series of high profile rock concerts against extreme poverty in London, Geneva and New York. At that time, the rock concerts were the largest ever streamed live – a technical feat made possible with Cisco’s engineering. The concerts drew on the existing fan bases of several major rock stars, from the Eurythmics to David Bowie, Sheryl Crow, Wyclef Jean and Sting. There were more than 2.4 million streams of the concert, according to Cisco (Guothro, 1999). Yet NetAid struggled to retain and translate fans’ enthusiasm into civic action. In some ways, games represented a return to working with fans for NetAid, but with a shifted focus from tapping celebrities to building a new fan base.
 The author of this paper was a primary designer for the Peter Packet civic action system, and oversaw its ten-day trial run. Much of this description is based on the author’s own notes from phone calls and design meetings while he was employed at NetAid. The author is not currently employed or partnered with NetAid; NetAid itself has subsequently been acquired by Mercy Corps.
 Fundraising for this new game was substantially aided by the existence of Peter Packet as a model. While NetAid was unable to raise sufficient funds for the new game before it merged with Mercy Corps in 2007, its efforts to collaboratively raise awareness about social issue games led it to co-found the Games for Change movement, which has held annual conferences since 2004.
 The image of Cisco headquarters is courtesy of The Howling Phaedrus, and is available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/densaer/410784652/
Gouthro, L. (October 19, 1999). NetAid: Connecting with a conscience. PC World, Retrieved from http://www.pcworld.com/article/13358/netaid_connecting_with_a_conscience.html
Kahne, J., Middaugh, E., & Evans, C. (2008). The civic potential of video games. Whitepaper Series from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Retrieved from http://www.civicsurvey.org/White_paper_link_text.pdf
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