FreeRice.com is the latest in Hunger Site clones, and is making headlines all over for one simple reason: it's actually fun. When you visit FreeRice, you're not presented with a million ads and a 'click here' button. Instead, you're presented with a multiple choice question asking you to define an English word:

glimmer means:
  1. thug
  2. wooden boards
  3. unhappiness
  4. faint light

'Ooh, ooh, I know that!' So you click the correct answer and BOOM! You're told you've just donated twenty grains of rice, and here's another word to try for another twenty grains. Ooh, educational!

Update 2008-08-29: You can now choose from other topics, such as elements (match the symbol), German (something I've wanted for ages), grammar, world capitols...

Twenty grains? The Hunger Site gives 1.1 cups.

Actually, until November 28, 2007, it was only ten grains per correct answer.

Okay, sure, twenty grains of rice is nothing. It takes around 30 000 grains of polished long-grain rice to equal one pound1. (Though rootbeer277 makes the excellent point that this is uncooked rice. A pound of uncooked rice is a lot of food after cooking.) What gives?

Here's the thing: The Hunger Site lets you donate once a day, and it's a chore. FreeRice lets you play (yes, I said 'play'. It's a game, I tell you!) as often as you'd like. I donated 10 000 grains my first day, and I'm fast approaching that 30 000 sum. It took the site just 34 days to reach one billion grains of rice2 (and in fact they've gotten that many in the past eight days alone). No doubt this is largely thanks to publicity from the Washington Post, Digg, Reuters, and countless smaller news sources. The big question is whether it will continue to thrive after the initial publicity. I'm suspect it will decline some, but it has an advantage over most donation sites.

Staying power

I very rarely visit The Hunger Site any more. It's boring, has way too many ads, is boring, has pop-up ads (I think--I block pop-ups, but that means they get less revenue so I feel guilty), and--oh, yeah: it's boring. FreeRice isn't about clicking a button (though there are, of course, three small ads). It's a trivia game where the prizes are rice for the poor. Get three words right (in a row) and you go up a level (= harder words). Get one wrong and you go down a level. The FAQ says very few people get above level 48. I've only reached level 45 and I intend to keep playing until I reach 60 (the highest level), and probably long after. Compare your level to that of your friends. Prove yourself better than everyone else! After all, that's what's really important, right? Oh, yeah, that and feeding the poor. But feeding the poor is usually boring, as is learning new vocabulary. Playing a game is fun. Yay!

Once the meme-like spread of it dies down, so too might the daily donation totals, but I suspect it will hold interest better than the traditional 'click this button' donation site.

Where the rice goes

The rice is distributed by the United Nations World Food Programme. They're a good lot. The rice really goes to people in need, not the local showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Update: gnarl helpfully points out that some bloggers are questioning the math3
However, I don't see any cause for alarm. The official WFP site lists FreeRice as a way to donate4, and surely the hundreds of newspapers (and the advertisers) took some time verifying that it's not a scam before giving it all that publicity.
For that it's worth, the FreeRice FAQ states 'FreeRice and its sister site Poverty.com have not made a penny from this. Nor does it cost us much, as our only significant expense is our servers.'

1 http://www.producersrice.com/rice/facts.html

2 http://freerice.com/totals.html

3 http://perigee.livejournal.com/414894.html
http://lancewiggs.com/2007/11/12/free-rice-addictive-but-is-it-a-scam/
http://www.thepcspy.com/read/is_freericecom_making_150k_each_day_in_profits
http://reddit.com/info/60ftm/comments/

4 http://www.wfp.org/how_to_help/Ways_to_Donate/freerice.asp?section=4&sub_section=5

The Discovery

Whilst perusing the livejournal page of another esteemed noder, I came across the reference to www.freerice.com. Figuring that since I had at least three other things that I really ought to be doing, I happily clicked over to the FreeRice site and started playing. I loved the graphic to the right of the screen: a lovely polished wooden bowl that slowly fills and empties and fills again. The words themselves intrigued me; I know my way around the SAT and the GRE, and I recognized several right answers and several attractive but wrong answers. Then too, the skill level counter wakened the sleeping dragon that is my competitive side. I would -- would, do you hear me? -- reach level 50 if I had to sit and click till my laptop became obsolete.

On my first session, I donated 3,450 grains of rice before I stopped myself. Dang thing is addictive, I told myself. Gotta tell Mom and Dad.

 Come on, try it. All the cool kids are doing it.

So I emailed mom. I told her it was fun, and that it was doing the world good, and that at the very least she and dad would learn lots of nifty new words to use in crossword puzzles. She emailed me back three hours later telling me that after an hour she made herself stop. Dang thing.

I went back on and did another 1,160 grains. I told myself I could quit any time, but I knew I was hooked, and being hooked is fine if everyone else is hooked, too.

I knew what I had to do next.

How FreeRice Teaches

I cannot think of a skill that is less connected to real world problem solving than reading a word and picking its synonym, but nevertheless there are several standardized tests that require you to do just that very thing. I tutor those very tests. Huh.

"Well, darling," says I, to my poor innocent student "how about you do a little something for practice? Tell you what. You go to this website and you play this for a while. You tell me what level you get to next time I see you, mmmkay?"

And off darling goes to become another FreeRice addict.

One little girl, a fifth grader of no small talent, got to level 35 on her first try. She has found that the answer choices that are correct for one word are often the wrong answers for another word. She practices process of elimination.

 Another girl, this time a sixth grader, has discovered that the roots we study in session can help her decide which answers are likelier than others. She has learned to decode words.

My GRE student has learned that if she takes down the words she misses and puts them on flash cards and studies them on the treadmill, she gets more answers right on her practice GRE tests. She has learned to learn from her mistakes.

 And another fifth grade girl, a lovely, kind hearted girl, has persuaded her teachers to count her time on FreeRice toward her quota of Community Service Hours. She has learned to play the system.

But the hungry? What about the hungry?

I figure that amongst the lot of us obsessively clicking synonym after synonym, we've reached a pound of rice. That's enough for one hungry person to eat for a week. That's one less week of worrying where the next meal is going to come from. I like to think that makes a difference.

And your sleeping dragon? Did you hit level 50?

Yes. I did hit level 50.

And promptly dropped to level 46.

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