“I never imagined that things would move this fast or that it would be such a success,” said FreeRice creator John Breen, who says between 300,000 and 500,000 people are currently playing the game every day.
“Quite apart from the actual amount of rice generated, FreeRice is a fantastic way of spreading the message about world hunger,” he added.
On the back of the continuing enthusiasm, especially among students and teachers, the word-learning game has been enhanced so that even more school children can expand their vocabulary as they help feed the world’s hungry.
FreeRice, in which players donate 20 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Programme every time they get a right answer, now has an audio function allowing players to hear how words are pronounced.
In order to increase FreeRice’s appeal for younger and non-native English speakers, another innovation allows visitors to the site to select the difficulty level they start at. Breen has also called in a team of lexographers to expand the game’s database of 10,000 words.
“Wow this is so great! You prepare for English tests AND help out others. My total count so far is 6,100 grains,” said a student at a high school in New York State in a comment on Facebook.
The game’s appeal is such that FreeRice ‘communities’ have mushroomed on Facebook and MySpace and now number over 500. Many participants are college students competing for the highest score.
Teachers are thrilled. They use FreeRice to give students vocabulary practice and say the kids rapidly become “addicted”.
“You cannot imagine the joy in my heart when I look out and see 25 kids doing vocabulary homework and enjoying it,” said one teacher from California, speaking to the School Library Journal.
Breen, an US online fundraising pioneer who developed FreeRice in October 2007, says pupils at American schools are giving up morning recess to stay in class and play the game.
One school at Orlando in Florida has started a “Ricebuddies” project in which 6th and 8th grade students team up with elementary students to work on FreeRice activities.
Since it started, the initiative has paid for over 21 billion grains of rice, enough to feed 1.1 million hungry people for a day. Using the money it receives from private companies in return for advertising space, FreeRice underwrites donations to WFP.
The first donations paid for rice which went to refugees from Myanmar sheltering in Bangladesh. One of the grateful recipients was Gool Bahar, a 39-year-old widow who tries to feed her family in the Nayapara refugee camp by growing vegetables.
“This rice I receive from WFP allows me to feed my family adequately,” she said.
Later consignments went to schoolchildren in Uganda and pregnant and nursing women in Cambodia. The next one is destined for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.
The idea behind FreeRice has excited many on the Web, not only school kids and teachers. Baidu, China’s biggest internet search engine, plans to promote FreeRice on the homepage of its charity section and Firefox, the popular web browser, has also launched an initiative to promote the game.