How FarmVille Players Raised $1.5 Million for Haiti

The online world's biggest time-waster isn’t so pointless after all.

The World Food Program (WFP) has publicly thanked the virtual farmers on the wildly popular Facebook game FarmVille after they raised well over a million in aid for distressed communities in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

Over the course of a year, FarmVille developer Zynga has collected over $1.5 million to help rebuild schools destroyed in the disaster. A video released by the WFP last week showed happy children finally back in the classroom. All in all, Zynga has already helped raise in excess of $4 million in Haiti relief funds.

The $1.5 million given to the WFP will go towards rebuilding a destroyed school in Mirebalais, Haiti, as well as helping students pay for food, supplies and other necessities. Over $1 million of the donations came from actual users, while the rest came from a generous contribution from Facebook Credits as well as a corporate gift from Zynga.

Last January, Zynga began creating limited edition items in many of its popular online games including FarmVille, FishVille and Mafia Wars that were purchased by users across the world, with Zynga agreeing to donate all proceeds to charity.

It’s a testament to the power of social gaming and exemplifies the potential for real-world change through humble virtual beginnings.

Often lambasted for being a waste of time and designed to exploit naturally addictive human tendencies, the game has generally been viewed in a negative light -- in part because of its immense popularity. Critics scold the game for its drain on human capital while in turn giving little back.

That Zynga has been able to leverage FarmVille’s huge user base towards humanitarian efforts is a boost for social-media advocates whose plights have at times been met with skepticism. For example, Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers, questioned the actual impact of social media on activist causes in a much talked about piece in the New Yorker entitled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.”

Gladwell criticized social-media activism because of its purported “weak” social ties and low barriers of entry. How much impact could a bunch of people clicking on pixels in front of their computer screen actually have?

Apparently, about $4 million worth.