Virtual farms on Facebook are raising real food for the needy this holiday season, with "FarmVille " charity drive. Players looking to light up their imaginary homestead with seasonal decorations by purchasing FarmVille's "Holiday Lights" expansion pack had the option of earmarking the amount for hunger relief charities such as Feeding America and Heifer International. And with more than $1 million raised via the "farm coins" players earn within the game or purchase with real money, it's been a very bountiful harvest.
Zynga, the company behind "FarmVille," had a less ambitious goal in mind when it launched the charity in November — $500,000 total. But after achieving that amount in less than seven days, the company raised the goal to $1 million ... which it then reached in 20 days.
This isn't the first time that Zynga has put on a charitable campaign in one of its games — the company has raised some $17 million across all its different games to date, $7 million of which comes from the original "FarmVille" alone, a company representative told NBC News. But as one of the most successful, it's an interesting example of how one of the oldest social games out there can still rally a group of highly dedicated players behind a cause.
The original "FarmVille" was first released in 2009, after all. By 2010, the game boasted some 84 million monthly active users. According to AppData's latest figures, that number has now dwindled to 5 million. But that hasn't stopped loyal players like Mary Beth Duncan Wilson, 68, from playing the game on a daily basis and giving to charity events whenever they pop up.
"They do something for other people every so often and I always try to help how I can," Wilson, who lives in Odessa, Texas, told NBC News. She admits she's something of "an addict" for the game, saying that, since she's retired, the first thing she does every morning is "go to 'FarmVille.'" Having played the game regularly "almost since the very first day it came out in 2009," she said that she's come to trust Zynga more than other organizations when it comes to philanthropic work.
"I want to make sure I know where my money's going, and I trust Zynga that they're going to do the right thing," Wilson said.
Katie Jozwik, who manages corporate partnerships at Feeding America, told NBC News that the nice part about working with a company like Zynga is it gives the non-profit a "chance to access a demographic" of people like Wilson who might not be accustomed to the idea of donating to charity otherwise.
Hearing from some like Wilson — who said she's never given to charity outside of "FarmVille" — you can see what she means. As one of the most popular Facebook games ever made, "FarmVille" has a unique ability among its peers to attract players from all walks of life — even people who might consider themselves unable to donate to charity otherwise.
"It's not like I can give on a monthly basis, so when they do these charities I try to help because that's my way to pay it forward," Wilson said. "I've been helped: I'm very low income, I'm on social security."
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.