By John Harley

It started with “horseplay.”

The computer then proceeded to ask the definitions of “motile,” “tatting,” “hoarfrost,” and a slew of other imposing words.

More than a vocabulary test, the online game is actually a collision of dictionary-stumping lexicography and nutritional philanthropy. Each correct answer is rewarded with 20 grains of virtual rice, symbolizing the amount that will be donated to its sponsored countries.

It’s called Free Rice, and is — for some — one of the most productive ways to waste time on the Internet.

Free Rice and Then Some is one of a handful of Internet applications that enable visitors to donate aid through simply frequenting the website. The aid, in turn, goes to providing food and water to impoverished communities around the world that suffer from malnourishment and hunger.

“The amount of fundraising online has skyrocketed,” said Joy Portella, spokesperson for Mercy Corps, an organization that has provided $1.3 billion in assistance to over 100 countries since 1979.

Humanitarian and computer programmer John Breen launched Free Rice in October of last year. Since then, vocabulary-savvy users have donated over 24 billion grains of rice, averaging over 100 million per day. Operating under the auspices of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), the website has mostly set its humanitarian sites on Bangladesh, and plans to donate to Nicaragua, Cambodia and Uganda in the near future.

Free Rice parallels other online humanitarian efforts such as The Hunger Site, which aims to eradicate a lofty number of societal ails — among them breast cancer, literacy and the destruction of the rainforest.

The Hunger Site, which requires no vocabulary expertise, is funded by sponsors who claim they will donate enough to provide a woman with a mammogram, help a child obtain literacy and save 11.4 square feet of rainforest through every click of a mouse.

Online Aid: Boom or Bust?

Hunger is the primary cause of death for children in the developing world, according to Jennifer Stapleton, a media associate from Bread for the World, an organization that aims to end global hunger through the distribution of food worldwide.

Someone in the world dies of hunger every three-and-a-half seconds, according to Stapleton. By U.N. estimates, that adds up to approximately 25,000 people every day.

For many world hunger organizations, the Internet has made outreach even easier, allowing them to utilize digital activism to spread their messages and rally support. Chandler Smith of the ONE Campaign, an organization currently combating global poverty, believes that the campaign’s Internet presence has increased the involvement of their most valuable asset: students.

“Students are absolutely fundamental to the fight against poverty,” Smith said. “Just like students drove the Civil Rights Movement, they are now driving the movement to fight poverty. Students are right now creating the world that we will inherit.”

From the Free Rice homepage, the process for creating that world is neatly laid out. First-time players will notice the short sidebar titled “How to Play,” which explains the rules of the vocabulary game. The game has a database of thousands of words of varying difficulty, and it automatically adjusts to fit varying vocabulary levels. Players are given words, one at a time, and asked to select a definition from four that best fits the word above.

Correct answers are rewarded with 20 grains of rice, gradually filling a polished virtual wooden bowl. There is no limit to play time, or to the amount of rice that can be donated.

Funds donated from Free Rice and other organizations are given to the WFP. In 2006, the WFP delivered food to 87.8 million people in 78 countries, making them one of the largest food distribution groups in the world.

“Soon we will have enough rice grains donated to feed one million people for a day,” said Bettina Luescher, chief spokesperson for the WFP in North America, of’s success. “An amazing result for such a simple game.”

But some — like Ben Crow, an associate professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz — believe that donating rice is only a temporary solution to the hunger problem.

“It’s a Band-Aid [solution] because it doesn’t change anything very much,” Crow said. “But it might help people get through very difficult times.”

Crow believes that employment and education are the two key factors necessary to improve the livelihood of people in the developing world. The countries’ governments, he said, are the ones that need to take responsibility for improving these conditions.

“It’d be much better to organize to get the government to provide better support for poor people,” Crow said. “I think cash aid and social reform, such as providing transfers to poor people, are much more likely to be effective than providing food aid.”

Shipments of rice to Bangladesh in October of last year were among the first to be delivered by the WFP from the funds donated by Free Rice. The refugees living there fled their homes in Burma for fear of religious and ethnic persecution more than 15 years ago. While some have returned to their homes, many have elected to remain in the cramped and often unsanitary refugee camps. But thanks to the efforts of Internet users everywhere, the 27,000 refugees in Bangladesh are now able to have three meals a day.

In addition to putting steaming bowls of rice into hungry hands of refugees in Bangladesh, the WFP has its sights set on reaching many other points on the map. For example, the WFP will soon be purchasing rice rations from farmers in Uganda, Cambodia and Nicaragua. Not only will this provide food for impoverished communities, but by paying local farmers to grow the rice that will be donated, the WFP will also be stimulating the local economy.

The Hunger Site

The Hunger Site, which operates similarly to Free Rice, collects funds from daily clicks, as well as proceeds from an online store. Its operators donate the funds to two food distribution organizations: the internationally focused Mercy Corps, and nationally focused America’s Second Harvest.

“I think our contributions from The Hunger Site are critical to our charity partners,” said Lisa Halstead, representative of The Hunger Site. “We’re a source for not only direct funds, but also a resource for them to find new donors and increased web traffic. So, the relationship goes far beyond just sending them money.”

Another newcomer to the online charity scene is, which has made quite an impact with its goal to provide drinking water for people who do not have access to a clean source. It is similar to Free Rice, but rather than testing vocabulary, Free Poverty’s game calls upon geographical skills, asking visitors to pinpoint cities and landmarks on a map of the world.

Like Free Rice and The Hunger Site, Free Poverty is counting on fierce devotees to gain support for their grassroots startups.

“We rely very much on its popularity increasing by word of mouth between people,” said spokesperson Rubina Singhsachathet. “When this happens, the site will be considered a success.”

Crow remained optimistic about humanitarian websites, whether they donate food or other needed resources to people in the developing world.

As he put it: “Internet activism is a tremendously good force and a way of making links with poor people and poor people’s organizations.”

_Additional reporting and writing by Rachel Stern_