Online Game feeds thousands


The United Nations says millions of online wordsmiths have translated their vocabulary prowess into more than one billion grains of rice — enough to feed 50,000 hungry people for one day.

FreeRice.com, the brainchild of 50-year-old U.S. computer programmer John Breen, was launched on Oct. 7 and has produced a mountain of rice for the United Nations’ World Food Programme in little more than a month.

On its inaugural day, the online game totalled 830 grains of donated rice. The Internet community quickly caught on and donated more than 77 million grains of rice on Nov. 8 alone — equivalent to more than seven million online clicks.

“Every grain of rice is essential in the fight against hunger,” Josette Sheeran, WFP executive director said in a statement.

“FreeRice really hits home how the Web can be harnessed to raise awareness and funds for the world’s number one emergency. The site is a viral marketing success story with more than one billion grains of rice donated in just one month to help tackle hunger worldwide.”

The site contains a custom-built database comprising thousands of words at varying degrees of difficulty: venom, insomnia, formidable, arborescent, incognizant, cronyism, fitful, etc.

Each time users choose the correct definition of the word, the site’s sponsors — which include Macy’s, American Express, Apple, Toshiba and Office Depot — donate funds to WFP to pay for 10 grains of rice.

Harnessing the online community

Natalie Vaupel, private donations officer for WFP, told CTV.ca that Breen’s online game has demonstrated the vast reach and scope of the Internet in promoting awareness for global causes.

“It’s the best word of mouth possible because it doesn’t just stop at country borders, it’s really international,” Vaupel said in a telephone interview from Rome.

“There’s so much more available out there now that it’s easier for people around the world to spread the word, and not just spread the word in their own neighbourhood or community, but they can expose it to the world.”

Breen’s commitment to poverty awareness has left a resounding impact online. He also created Poverty.com and thehungersite.com.

Both websites were conceived in order “to focus the power of the Internet on a specific humanitarian need” and encourage online users to click their way to eradicating hunger.

Vaupel said FreeRice was Breen’s way of promoting poverty awareness by entertaining and engaging the online community through the web’s interactive capabilities.

“I think the beauty of the site is its simplicity,” Vaupel said.

“People find that it’s engaging and they find that they can do something that’s constructive for them and is also raising funds for a very worthy cause.”

Building vocabulary, fighting hunger

FreeRice automatically adjusts to a player’s vocabulary level. When a player gets a word wrong, the next word provided is from an easier level.

When a player gets three consecutive words right, he or she moves to a higher degree of difficulty. There are 50 levels in total, but FreeRice staff contends it’s rare for people to advance past level 48.

The idea was partially inspired by Breen’s son, who was studying vocabulary in preparation for his SAT exams. The site boasts the game will improve a player’s effectiveness at work and school through improved communication, persuasion, comprehension and interview skills.

“It’s addictive,” Vaupel said. “You can set targets, whether that is how many grains of rice you want to get to, how many bowls you want to fill or what level you want to keep.”

Hunger claims more lives every year than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

Vaupel pointed out that first-world charity is generally motivated by devastating crisis, leaving on-going emergencies desperate for funds.

She explained that the only restriction on funds raised by the website is that WFP must purchase rice instead of other foods. The organization is then free to choose who receives the rice and when.

The program also allows WFP to purchase rice from local farmers, which stimulates the local economy and contributes to agricultural sustainability in the region.

WFP is currently working with 1,000 organizations in more than 75 countries to provide the rice to those in need. In 2006, WFP provided 4 million tons of food for 87.8 million people — 58.8 million of those were children.

Poverty, a global reality:

* An estimated 25,000 people die everyday from hunger, according to WFP. Across the world, one child dies every five seconds from malnutrition or hunger.
* Iron deficiency accounts for 22 per cent of all maternal deaths and is the most prevalent form of malnutrition worldwide, affecting an estimated 2 billion people.
* According to International Food Policy Research Group, more than 1 billion people live on less than US$1 per day.