A social game that pays people to meet one another could help strengthen communities, and local economies
THE ties that bind the 92,000 residents of Macon, Georgia, are a little tighter these days. Since October, the locals – college students and senior citizens alike – have been playing Macon Money, a “social impact game” that uses a currency of the same name to overcome socioeconomic barriers in the small city by encouraging people from all backgrounds to meet and collaborate.
The game has turned heads with its high level of participation and use of technology to promote social cohesion. Macon (pronounced “make-in”) is one of America's poorest cities, and the game's designers targeted it because diverse groups, from the unemployed and elderly to the relatively affluent students of Mercer University, exist in close proximity but rarely venture out of their social bubbles.
In the game, players receive “bonds”, which are imprinted with Macon-inspired icons and symbols, such as peaches, guitars and butterflies. They can then redeem these bonds for notes of Macon Money, imprinted with the face of the town's most famous son, the late soul singer Otis Redding. These notes can be spent at participating local businesses, which the game's organisers reimburse with US dollars.
But there's a twist. Each person receives just half a bond and must locate the person with the other half – identified by its matching symbols – in order to redeem it. Often turning to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, matching players then meet in person to redeem the bond and get their Macon Money. The bonds range in value from $10 to $100.
Pairs might spend their money separately, or do something together like share a meal or give the money to someone who needs it more, says Beverly Blake of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the non-profit group based in Miami, Florida, that funded the game. “These are meetings and conversations that might not happen naturally at all,” she said. The game's designers are hoping Macon Money will bring disparate members of the community together.
A 2008 Gallup survey funded by the Knight Foundation found a significant correlation between residents' love for their community and an area's economic growth. Perhaps unexpectedly, the study found that such fondness has little to do with economic indicators and the availability of jobs, says Jessica Goldfin of the Knight Foundation.
More important were factors like “whether there are fun things to do and how welcoming the people are to each other. Macon Money addresses those things,” she says.
The first round of the game will come to an end on 30 June, with $65,000-worth of bonds dispersed and 2688 participants so far spending $48,000 in Macon Money.
Sociologist Aaron Shaw at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society is encouraged by the game's success. “[Macon Money] is really one of the early generation attempts that I've seen to use social media technology to bridge the gaps that exist in the real world between races, classes, or economic groups,” he says, adding that such games have the potential to improve the social fabric of communities wherever they are adopted.
Whether such a game can bring lasting economic growth remains to be seen, however. An independent research firm will now evaluate how much economic activity and social interaction the game has stimulated, with results due later this year.