Leveling Up: Socially Responsible Digital Media

This week, with business news abuzz about the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, The Wall Street Journal reported that video game company Nintendo is on the defensive after issuing a health warning that young children shouldn’t play its new portable game console, the 3DS, because the 3D imaging may negatively affect visual development. Nintendo’s president is quoted in the article as saying, "We are being proactive about informing our customer, even though it may not necessarily be positive for our sales."

Okay – proactive is good. It helps avoid lawsuits and, if you assume anyone takes the message seriously despite the lack of a research base, perhaps it raises awareness that digital technology should be used responsibly by young people. But the unfortunate takeaway of Iwata’s statement is ultimately: Responsibility comes at a financial cost.  This attitude is far too common in the world of corporate social responsibility, an argument made in the recent Porter and Kramer article in HBR. As a fan of Nintendo (maker of Wii), and a believer in the potential of digital media to create social transformation, I think it’s time for some bolder thinking about how leading digital media companies can create corporate shared value.


What Companies Do Today

Nintendo proactively issues a health warning. Violence ratings on video game packaging have been the norm for years. Corporate philanthropy in the industry tends toward support for digital literacy and creativity skills.

With the advent of the kinetic video game, systems such as Wii and Kinect can more credibly overcome the “video games create couch potatoes” critique, with games that help consumers exercise more and cook healthier meals at home. This is starting to get interesting, but what can be done to create greater value for society?

What If…

… More games were developed to help solve real world problems? Last month, James Tierney in the New York Times wrote about games that are being played for real-world problem solving, such as testing possible outcomes of various emergency management policies, in a post-Katrina New Orleans. These games-for-good developers are the social entrepreneurs of today’s virtual world, but they are also largely disconnected from market leaders like Nintendo that hold significant market share among mainstream consumers. This untapped potential market for social and business benefit needs more innovation and forward-thinking champions.

How We Can Make It Happen

Digital media companies are full of creative individuals that excel at imagining fantastic worlds and experiences. Why not unleash their creativity to help solve real social problems? They will not have to do it alone – Good examples of how to DIWO (“do it with others,” as opposed to DIY, “do it yourself”) already exist.

  • Establish cross-industry partnerships. Education companies like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are partnering with leading consumer platforms to find new ways to engage students in the classroom with their educational content. (With apologies to my colleague, Mike, Apple gets credit for this.) Furthermore, they are funding research to learn whether the new format leads to better academic achievement and improved student engagement. For both companies, that research should inform their product development cycle and create further opportunity to generate shared value.
  • Leverage investments made in the philanthropic sector. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has invested $50M in digital media and learning. One pillar of the Foundation’s strategy supports research and field-building to understand how digital media affects the way young people, learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life. MacArthur and AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) are both putting philanthropic dollars toward efforts such as E-Line Ventures, a start-up that develops games with social impact and lets young people design them too. Could E-Line compete with Nintendo for market share someday?

Take it to the Next Level

As Mr. Iwata says in the same WSJ article, in response to whether mobile applications are a credible threat to the traditional console-based video game business: "A threat is often the flip side of an opportunity."  Agreed. As a shared value approach begins to take hold among more leading corporations, I look forward to seeing companies allow a convergence of business and social concerns to drive innovation and business strategy.



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