In Bed With Branding: Virtual Worlds Pair With Children’s Hospitals

sick2May 3, 2009 What’s with all the children’s hospitals partnering and news-making so much as of late?

This spring, “Operation Teen Book Drop” gave bed bound kids across the country over 8000 titles from young adult book publishers to support Teen Literature Day, sponsored by YALSA, readergirlz, and GuysLitWire.

A tad earlier, Dell Children’s Medical Center in Texas became the first hospital in the world to ‘go green’ in a big way and earn Leed Platinum Certification. (note naming/bragging rights)

NOW, virtual world Elf Island announces a strategic partnership with Nationwide Children’s Hospital, offering access to their Gaming for Good via annual gift memberships to patients. (yes, the same Elf Island where S.Y. is pilot testing soon)

In a rather sophisticated branding move, Elf Island is also immersing the hospital into the game play itself to further close the branding loop. That means the various kids empowerment GoodQuests will now incorporate the needs of the hospital itself…helping to fund the purchase of laptop or tablet computers for hospitalized kids, allowing them to play Elf Island during their treatment. (upcoming in the game by December 2009)

Right now, there’s currently only one computer for every 20-25 NCH patients, so this is another one of those marketing and philanthropy mashups where commercial drivers and benign sponsors can come together for a win-win…BUT…Since you don’t come here for puff pieces, this is an overview portion of a multi-part piece focusing on:

a.) the positive, therapeutic precedents of using virtual worlds in the hospital/health 2.0 arena

b.) the negative, ramifications of less than altruistic commercial ideals if larger/licensed character entities gain a foothold in hospitals and

c.) a dialog about the existing ‘brand influence’ via institutions like schools, hospital and pediatric wings as it currently exists via trial sizes, curricula, ad creep and more…

wheelchair-girlHere’s today’s  interview with the entrepreneurial Elf Island creators fresh from the Sunday Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Here’s the official news release about the hospital partnership/alliance itself, and a backgrounder about Elf Island before we get into the latest  launch updates…

Per co-founder Liz Kronenberger:

“For many of the patients, treatment can result in weeks or month of hospital care due to transplants, cancer care and major surgeries.  Recognizing the strong synergy between empowerment and healing, Elf Island and Nationwide Children’s Hospital have formed a strategic partnership to reach beyond the hospital beds and the illnesses to give these kids an opportunity to have fun, interact with other kids and do good by bringing real results to other people, animals and our Earth.”

I’ll start out by admitting I think virtual worlds have considerable merit and logic for the hospital bound; therapeutic and otherwise…

Here’s why:

Imparting ‘real hope in a virtual world’ is worthy anywhere, and a good dose of escapism and friendship could come in quite handy in hospital environs.

Plus, the usual media conundrums simply don’t apply:

“You could be outside playing instead of gaming’ (wrong) “It adds to kids’ already excessive screen time” (not when TV drones on in most every room but the ICU) “Virtual friends are not the same as real life” (yah, but visiting hours are limited and loneliness lingers on)

Why not lift kids’ spirits to goof around underwater, exploring digital oceans and reefs, fantasy lands and forests, and nourish themselves via creative, content-rich, environs?

prestoI recall discussing this with Kirsten Arpajian of Dizzywood when her own child was very sick awhile back. (Dizzywood is also ad-free, quest-driven and subscriber based like Elf Island;  screenshot shows Presto’s suggestion for kids to continue their online learning into offline actions: blog is updated here to get a feel for the elaborate storyline)

Anyway, similar to Elf Island’s concept, we’d talked about laptops being wheeled to bed-bound patients like those bookcarts with candy stripers…sort of a ‘new media’ twist on an old favorite.

Kirstin discussed the vast possibilities of story-driven play, a way to give kids a cheerful distraction, bring the outdoors inside, and give mobility to the immobile. Shortly thereafter, Dizzywood launched their ongoing Quests for Change, (Red Cross Youth initiatives, reading to sick kids, and charity involvement that dates way back to when Dizzywood pioneered planting real trees from virtual ones)

Clearly, the parental and mass media stereotypes of virtual worlds being screen-sucking time-sinks or funky digital paper doll playgrounds with inane chat are long gone…

Next, Elf Island broke new ground, quite literally, building real houses in Honduras via Habitat for Humanity.

They created ongoing nonprofit action bridges for kids within the game play itself for immediate gratification so they could SEE the difference they could make in the worldand use the goal-setting and competitive drivers and motivators toward positive pay-offs in ‘gaming for good.’


They’re empowering kids who are passionate about doing GOOD in the world (e.g. shark preservation with WildAid, kids empowerment for climate change via Polar Bears International, the recent Plant-It 2020 program for tree planting in Niger, etc)…

Sure beats coinage and consumption cues. I have high hopes for both of these virtual worlds, as Max Lerner said, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist but a possibilist.”


I love that gift-givers can feel sanguine about the learning and philanthropy being imparted…In fact, the Elf Island/NCH gifting program is a convenient way to pool with others to send a gift that keeps on giving all year long, instilling altruism and social change…

But make no mistake, this is entertainment marketing and business acumen at its finest.

As their virtual world grows, other elements could come into play, i.e. merchandising, retail, cross-promotions with other media channels down the line etc.

Right now, Elf Island is echoing the philanthropic theory of the ‘buy one get one’ One laptop per child mindset. This tonality is smart brand-building AND subscriber-based expansion without outside advertising. Specifically:

Elf Island gives people two options:

* Buy an annual membership for a child in your family and Elf Island will gift an annual membership to a patient at Nationwide Children’s Hospital

* For those who don’t have kids but are supporters, people have the ability to gift an annual membership to a patient at Nationwide Children’s Hospital that is 100 % tax deductible

I’ll get into the therapeutic joy potential among these pediatric patients in the next post, but first, as we flip the focus to the ‘other side’ of the branding equation, history reveals plenty of bones needing splinting at NCH, Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Recall NCH was formerly known as Columbus Children’s Hospital?


Oh yeah, THAT one.

The $50 million donation from Nationwide Insurance shifted the name to NCH and no one blinked…

But when they made a very public gaffe by selling $10 million worth of naming rights to Abercrombie & Fitch for an E&T department, many of us in the child advocacy realm cried foul from the rooftops.

I know I certainly did.

Hospitals are businesses with high profile accountability, and A&F and ‘kids health’ are a branding disconnect, so they’ve come a long way in circumspect selection of healthier partners.

Elf Island should help NCH recover well in the court of public opinion, as it’s a much more credible ally and comfy fit in the kids’ health and well-being arena.

So here we are again, same song second verse…or in this case, same hospital, different product.

Which uncorks a familiar, unresolved dialog:

Where do we draw the line in media and marketing partnerships?

Are some product pairings and strategic partnerships with revered institutions ‘okay’ while others are not?

Does it depend on who or what the brand IS that’s partnering?

What constitutes a perception of ad creep or branding proliferation and what is considered a ‘value-add’ or a ‘convenient service?’

Do we hand-select by motivation or say ‘as long as there’s a positive outcome?’

Hmnn…that’s discordant to me, since there’s brandwashing going on with large entities like Coke sponsoring school sit-ups with their LiveIt program, McDonalds marketing nutrition, and sugary cereals like General Mills and Kellogg’s using their Foundation arms to team with diabetes and heart health patient education.

As I mentioned in my Ypulse post about ‘strange bedfellows’ yesterday, using the Disneynature Earth analogy of lions and elephants drinking from the same watering hole, it all depends on who you ask for that line in the sand on branding boundaries.

Different organizations and individuals will find a different level of fair vs. foul…

I’d love to hear YOUR views.

Be thinking on it, sound off, and we’ll be back with more on this tomorrow…

Visual Credits: For A&F NYT photo: Kiichiro Sato, Associated Press


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