Farmville-Like Game Will Provide Instant Hurricane Sandy Relief

New York ad agency Mother, develops interactive experience that uses game mechanics to raise funds.

Following the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy this past October, the New York office of award-winning advertising agency, Mother, called on its employees, many of whom were directly impacted by the storm, to come up with innovative ideas on how they might be able help the relief effort. One of the initiatives that grew out of that call to action was Repair the Rockaways, an interactive experience and social game that aims to raise awareness and collect donations for the badly damaged Rockaways, an area of New York that has largely been ignored in the aftermath of Sandy.

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Shortly following the storm, media outlet and Mother publishing arm, Animal New York, was on the ground in The Rockaways documenting the situation in the area. Inspired in part by Rockaway Needs Us, a short film by New York production company, Everyone and Company, depicting the underreported damage in the area, Animal New York and Mother made it their mission to bring to light the shocking lack of provisions and general failings of major organizations like FEMA and The Red Cross.

The natural disaster is the least of our problems at this point, it’s really about the human disaster that comes right after it. The human disaster of government negligence, incompetence, and bureaucracy of these big organizations

says Sofia Gallisa Muriente, an early member of Occupy Sandy, a volunteer organization that has spent the last 6 months working to restore The Rockaways. She, along with representatives from Mother, Animal, and Everyone and Company, spoke on a panel discussing game mechanics and social activism at Internet Week New York on Thursday.

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Frustrated by the red tape, excessive overhead costs, and empty gestures like, The Red Cross’ proposal of “digital hugs”, as noted by Animal founder, Bucky Turco, the panelists agreed that there had to be a better way to empower local communities and circumvent large organizations. As Gallisa Muriente points out:

There’s a million ways to make helping and donating and volunteering simple. And If you can make it simple enough, people will be really attracted to it.

This goal of simplicity was the foundation behind the idea of Repair the Rockaways. Noting the archaic, convoluted, and emotionally disconnected donation methods that are often utilized for fundraising, Mother creatives Stacey Smith and Andy Dao designed an easy and quick alternative for people to get involved that was not only low friction, but would also leave a lasting connection.

Smith and Dao, who are also the creative team behind the noteworthy pseudo-social life art project, Instasham, worked closely with design and development company Casserole Labs to come up with a concept that was familiar, fun, and easy to grasp. The final product is based on immensely popular social games, where participants can put their efforts toward rebuilding actual homes rather than virtual simulations.

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Modeled closely on the prominent social game, Farmville, Repair The Rockaways presents an approximate digital map of Rockaway with devastated plots that need to be rebuilt. People donate money in exchange for virtual bricks they then place on a parcel of land. When 400 bricks have been donated, a house appears in the simulation. Mother producer Heather Huestis points out that by recreating that social game experience, players’ virtual activities have real world benefits.

In keeping with the mission of empowering grass roots organizations, donations will go to Respond and Rebuild, a non-profit volunteer organization working in conjunction with Occupy Sandy, whose progress will be tracked and updated on the site.

According to Heustis, the consistent updates and personal connections, linking real faces to the tragedy, are vital to the success of the campaign. But how do you accomplish that when so many collection methods are passive and emotionless?

The idea of raising money after a disaster still hasn’t really changed. It’s still concerts, it’s still 800 numbers and it’s still checking out when you buy groceries and donating a few dollars there.

The aim was to create something more effective and interesting than simply an 800 number, while at the same time fostering real connections between the donors, recipients, and volunteers, an element that’s missing from the detachment of simply texting a donation. That’s why a major part of the campaign involves collecting the data and documenting the stories. As the rebuild progresses, the site will be continually populated with photos, videos, and stories chronicling the entire process. The issue needs to remain at the forefront of people’s minds, “if we all think it’s taken care of”, continues Huestis, “then no one does anything”.

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During the talk, much of the panel echoed the sentiment of simplicity and the importance of local grass roots organization avoiding, as Mother partner Tom Webster put it, “the bureaucratic morass”. And that’s specifically where a project like Repair The Rockaways shines; it focuses on cutting through the hurdles that might normally stand in the way of donations. The site requires no account creating, no approval process, no exorbitant processing and overhead costs, just donations going directly to where they’re needed most. And it’s wrapped in a captivating user interface that keeps the conversation going.

Watch below to catch the panel discussion in its entirety as well as the catalyst behind the project, “The Rockaways Needs Us”:

Repair the Rockaways

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