For years, charities have been providing incentives to donors. My first recollection of this was the boy scout apple. Next came the $60 This Old House coffee cup on PBS television. More recently, pledge-based events like runs and walks have offered t-shirts, jackets and even things like televisions if individuals achieve particular fundraising targets. Meanwhile, organizations with membership programs, such as arts centres, often provide benefits such as advanced seat selection or discounts.

While donor benefits can generate significant support, they can also be very expensive. This makes donor benefits a controversial subject in some fundraising circles. Today, charities have a new, more affordable option — virtual rewards.

Outside of fundraising, perhaps the first well known virtual rewards were high scores and free games on pinball and then video games. People will play a game for hours just to be atop a leader board. Clearly, playing a game to get a high score in a game is self-referential. The game changer (pardon the expression) occurred when game rewards started to be used to affect behavior outside a game. When Alternate Reality Games came along in the middle of last decade, people started to interact outside of games for the sake of rewards. For example, the game World Without Oil rewarded participants for coming up with real world solutions to a fictitious global energy crisis. The site Second Life became so popular that it developed a currency exchange where people paid real money in exchange for virtual currency that others had earned. Next, services that are not games themselves started to add game mechanics. Attaining achievements in Foursquare became so important to some people that many would go visit favourite businesses just to collect mayorships or badges. Meanwhile, on the cause-related front, sites like Crowdrise reward people for how much money they raise encouraging people to raise millions of dollars to date.

This brings me to a site that I have followed called Empire Avenue. Empire Avenue rewards people for being more active on social media. As an example, the more comments one gets on a social network, the better the score. This includes sites like the photo sharing service Flickr. So, I and others became active in the pursuit of photography because of the extra impetus provided by the game rewards.

You do not have to have your own game service to take advantage of game mechanics. Companies, charities and others can take advantage of sites like Empire Avenue to drive an audience to real world action. In October, I ran an experiment where I offered virtual rewards on Empire Avenue for anyone that supported the micro-lending charity Kiva. My goal was to secure 100 loans by Christmas — a target that was actually achieved by Halloween.

Now, Empire Avenue has officially joined the effort to reward charitable support with virtual rewards via their initiative Empire Avenue Cares (EAvCares). The first EAvCares project will reward participants that donate to the organization Charity Water. (Learn more or Donate here.) Donors will receive an achievement badge and virtual game currency. The goal is to raise $5,000 in just under three months. This is not a huge some of money, but it is an impressive start. If all goes well, the opportunity will likely be open to any charity that wishes to use Empire Avenue rewards to raise money.

I believe we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg and that a charity will come along that develops its own game and raises truly significant amounts of money from the initiative. Furthermore, I think game mechanics will be used to solve more real world challenges. If you have a cause you actively support, you owe it to yourself to look at how game mechanics could help you change the world. Let me know if I can help. Change is coming — will you be a part of it?