Gaming initiative helps students win funds for school and charities

Words with Friends, Farmville and Tetris Battle: Chances are you’re either hopelessly addicted to playing these games with your friends, or you’ve at least heard of them in passing.

Social gaming is a booming industry with  a $653 million revenue in 2011 and a projected 68.7 million users in 2012. Because of the ease of access for users — games are available either by logging into Facebook or picking up a smartphone — it’s easy to understand why social gaming has taken off so quickly.

Dynamic duo · Dimitri Sillam (left) and Mikhael Naayem (right) merged gaming with college funding via Grantoo, a program that offers an innovative approach to scholarships. - Photo courtesy of Grantoo

But who knew that playing social games could help you score college tuition?

Enter Grantoo, a tournament game platform with the novel idea of combining social gaming with financial aid. The startup company has partnered with colleges across the nation, including USC, to host tournaments where students play trivia, poker and Scrabble-like games to compete for prizes such as college tuition grants and donations toward causes of their choice.

Various sponsors, including WePay and Verizon, fund the winnings for each tournament. Through its unique business model, Grantoo hopes to attract companies looking to increase their brand notability and gain recognition with the college demographic, while also communicating the importance of tuition to students.

Grantoo’s founder, Dimitri Sillam, came up with the idea of connecting games to helping students pay for college when he was struggling to pay his own college bills. He partnered with his best friend, Mikhael Naayem, who took the idea further and suggested the opportunity for students to also donate to charities.

According to Caroline Blavet, head of business development at Grantoo, the response from colleges has been positive. Grantoo’s launch tournament on April 8 attracted several hundred participants from more than 21 universities, including USC, where nine winners received a total of $2,000 in grant winnings and charities were given $216.

“Students are already playing a lot of social games,” Blavet said. “We want students to play the games for something good, which is tuition. It’s absolutely ridiculous that tuitions have doubled in recent years, but it’s unfortunately the reality.”

Grantoo is just one of a number of socially responsible games that have cropped up in recent years, indicating a new trend of games that are designed to do social good.

For example, the Facebook game Wetopia from Sojo Studios allows users to donate to charity by building a virtual village. As users progress through the game, they accumulate points that turn into monetary donations to specific charities and social improvement projects.

Laird Malamed, an adjunct professor in interactive media at the School of Cinematic Arts and former Senior Vice President at Activision, noted that there is a definite trend toward using and designing games to benefit students and the community.

“Because of the rise of social media and social games, we’re going to see it spread into other areas that gaming touches,” Malamed said. “There’s also usually a high correlation of social responsibility with college students as well. What’s great about Grantoo’s model is not only do students win tuition, but they also give to charity — it’s a more powerful social motivator.”

Malamed also noted that while student interest in socially responsible games might not be a huge concern now, it could change in the near future.

“There’s growing interest, but it’s still small,” Malamed said. “Until it’s more obvious that you can start a social gaming company for a good cause, and that it can be a viable concern, you can only get a handful of people interested. But I think this will flip in the next [few] years.”

Providing students with the opportunity to explore socially responsible gaming is a great way to spur their interest in this niche area. Collegeology, a project led by the Game Innovation Lab under the Interactive Media Lab, the Rossier School of Education and the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, brings together faculty and students to develop games such as “Mission: Admission,” a Facebook game that teaches high school students strategies and skills they need to apply to college.

For people who are simply interested in playing games and seeing what the socially responsible gaming trend is all about, Grantoo will be holding large-scale tournaments every two weeks with smaller tournaments hosted throughout the week. Users can easily view the tournament countdown on Grantoo’s sign-in page on to see when the next tournament will be, and the company will expand to mobile and smartphones as well.

If you’re going to spend time playing games, why not spend it doing something good?