Some have argued it isn’t worth it.
Online entertainment improves on older forms, like television, by way of its activeness. For example, watching a presidential debate on TV is passive. Hunting for, commenting on, remixing and forwarding a YouTube video of someone being Tasered at a political event is active. Despite the unassailable nature of this popular critique, engagement can be judged in other ways. For example, among the many time-killing activities the World Wide Web makes available is FreeRice.com. While it is surely a diverting time killer, it is more than that: it’s a self-improvement time killer on behalf of a greater good. Let’s break it down.
FreeRice.com presents the visitor with a word and four choices as to what that word means. Click, learn the right answer and get another word. Correct answers lead to a higher score and harder words. It is, then, a “casual game,” the name given to a wide variety of electronic, computer or online games with a relatively simple structure and set of rules — a genre of diversion, not immersion. With tens of millions of regular players, “casual games are among the stickiest, most-sought-after content online,” according to a white paper posted on the site of the International Game Developers Association. The core texts of casual gaming are solitaire and Tetris. It’s a safe bet that a great deal of casual gaming occurs in the workplace, where it’s more discreet than paddle ball.
Because it is structured as a sort of rolling SAT vocabulary quiz, FreeRice.com laces your time-wasting with fresh knowledge. For example: “hircine” means “goatlike,” and “omphaloskepsis” means “navel contemplation.” Thus: self-improvement.
This brings us to the greater good. The site promises that every time you give a correct answer — that, say, “rubicund” doesn’t mean “hairless,” it means “ruddy” — you donate 20 grains of rice to feed the hungry by way of the United Nations’ World Food Program. It’s easy to forget that a world with such wonders as a diversity of Tasering videos could also contain significant numbers of individuals starving to death. But according to the U.N., about 25,000 people die of hunger or related causes every day. Twenty grains of rice seem meaningless, but a cacophony of clicks has added up to more than 20 billion grains — or more than 400 metric tons. (Some 300,000 to 500,000 people now play FreeRice daily — traffic spikes during work hours — including scores of college-student groups that compete against one another on Facebook.) On FreeRice.com, you can watch a video of an early shipment being delivered to feed Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh. Subsequent FreeRice-financed aid has gone to Uganda and Cambodia.
The rice is paid for by advertisers: banner ads for Regent International Hotels, Alibris books, Shutterfly and others accompany every click, courtesy of a largely automated ad-serving technology that hooks up online marketers and Web sites. In its first three months, this system generated $250,000 for the W.F.P. All in all, FreeRice is a triumph of converting passivity into engagement. And in a stunning rebuke to those who say one person can’t do much to change the world, FreeRice.com was created not by a team of expert tech-marketing consultants, but by a guy in his spare time.”