I was thinking about that this afternoon while I was out walking my dog around the Denver Country Club. Then I had an epiphany about virtual goods.
From the time I received my first VG a few years ago (a roll of toilet paper from a friend on Facebook) until just a few short hours ago, I thought virtual goods were idiotic. I have never played Farmville or Mafia Wars. Even at the Girls in Tech Catalyst conference, I ducked out of the Social Gaming / Virtual Goods panel to take a restroom break and then tweet on my phone the lobby until the panel concluded.
Now I see that the real idiot is me, not the millions of people around the world forking over a few bucks each a month to Zynga.
First off - here is a little background to frame the story:
My two biggest passions in life are 1) Figuring out how to bridge the gap between meaningful online and offline experiences both in my personal and professional life and 2) cultivating a healthy and happy life for myself and teaching others how to do the same.
So I'm walking the dog and thinking about how kids don't know what vegetables are or how they grow and how sad that is. I start to think - "what can I do about that?" - I'm no farmer.
But millions of people are farmers - facebook farmers that is. According to Mashable, 11 millions users a day log on to tend their Farmville farms. So I wondered - what would happen if all of these virtual farmers started to care about farms in real life?
My epiphany rests on two basic assumptions:
1) Social games and virtual goods aren't going away. These new commodities of the global web economy have a potential marketshare of billions of dollars. Check out this Charlie Rose interview with guest Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga:
2) Learning about social issues is boring for most average adults and the issues are too complex for most average children.
Epiphany: Fuck Farmville. Let's create a social game where kids and adults can learn about the food system and food related issues for real. Let's have them sell their produce through virtual farmers markets and be rewarded for their hard work. I know that Farmville already lets users harvest and sell with the click of the button, but what would happen if farmers had to mix the soil with the correct nitrogen content? Or what if they could earn bonus points for preparing a virtual farm to table meal during harvest season - users would learn how to cook the vegetables that they harvest. There seems to be an enlightened class of people in the US who realize that paying more for organic is just something that we should do to support local farmers, while everyone else is chowing down on Whoppers and thinking that "organic" is a sham created by evil tax-happy elitists (I'm looking at you, Tea Party fanatics!).
The winners of the new web economy are going to be the companies who can leverage the financial power of virtual goods by giving them meaning and value. Some companies are going to try to make money from VGs, period. Some companies are going to try to raise awareness about social issues. I want to see a social entrepreneur jump all over this shit and make a difference in a space that is clearly gonna be huge. I want to see non-profit fundraising with VGs! Zynga is already doing it. OMG, the sky is the limit! Virtual goods have the power to change the world if social entrepreneurs would just step up and create something meaningful - don't let Zynga control the market. Quick, someone do this!