Hello! I'm Tom. I'm a game designer, writer, and programmer on Gunpoint, Heat Signature, and Tactical Breach Wizards. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here are the videos I make on YouTube, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
When Gunpoint did well, in 2013, I thought: “I should give some money to charity. But this might have to last me the rest of my life. So I should wait til I have a second game out, and see how that does.”
When Heat Signature did well in, 2017, I thought: “It’s doing great so far! But how fast will it trail off? This has to cover the budget of the next game. What if Steam’s algorithm changes and all our revenue stops? Maybe after the third game I’ll know more about-”
I see what my brain is doing. There’ll always be enough uncertainty in my life that I can delay a donation in the name of caution. But I don’t think that loop ends on iteration 3 or 4, so I’m cutting it short now. I’m giving $25,000 to the Against Malaria Foundation and another $25,000 to GiveDirectly.
Malaria prevention is a cause that is not at all close to my heart. To my knowledge it hasn’t affected anyone I know. But only giving to causes close to you contributes to a global injustice with charity. The people with the most money to give are geographically and culturally distant from the people who most desperately need it. Of the $410 billion donated by Americans in 2017, only 6% went to international charities.
Everything else I do with my money is about me, my family, or people I individually care about. For charity, I just want to know “Where is this most needed?”
From the Atlantic, quoting the Against Malaria Foundation:
Every day, more than 500 people die from malaria in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the majority of these deaths are children under the age of five. AMF offers a shattering metaphor: Imagine a fully booked 747 airplane and infants strapped into seats A through K of every row of the economy section; their feet cannot reach the floor. Every day, this plane disappears into the Congo River, killing every soul on board. That is malaria — in one country.
There are known, proven ways to help prevent infection, they’re incredibly cheap. Long-lasting insecticide-treated nets have been proven effective in over 20 randomized controlled trials, and they cost less than $5 each – and yet their distribution is still constrained by funding. In other words, malaria prevention charities really do need money, and they can make incredibly impactful use of everything they get.
GiveDirectly are a charity that just gives your money directly to the extreme poor in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, no strings attached, so they can spend it on whatever they need.
There’s sometimes scepticism about what this kind of donation ends up being spent on, but it’s not supported by the evidence. Charity assessor GiveWell say:
Cash transfers also happen to be the most extensively studied non-health intervention we know of. In a large number of high-quality studies, researchers have looked to see whether cash transfers have indeed increased consumption, what sorts of consumption they’ve increased, and whether common concerns about them are supported by evidence. The consistent picture that emerges from these studies is that cash transfers generally do increase consumption, particularly on food, and that evidence to support common concerns has not emerged despite being looked for.
There is a smaller set of studies implying that people get significant return on investment from cash transfers, even over the long run; the case for longer-term impacts of cash transfers is broadly comparable to the case for longer-term life improvement impacts of our other top charities’ health interventions, and the cost-effectiveness according to our best estimates is in the same ballpark as well.
An example that surprised GiveWell was that the money is often spent on buying a metal roof. Mud and thatch rooves leak and have an ongoing cost in repair and maintenance – a metal one doesn’t. But GiveWell don’t know of any charity that provides people with metal rooves. Sometimes the most pressing problems in people’s lives can’t be foreseen and solved at scale by external bodies.
Giving directly also partly avoids the paternalism of dictating to poor people what’s best for them, when we have only the most abstract notion of what their lives and problems are like.
I mentioned GiveWell – they’re an independent charity that takes a scientific approach to evaluating the effectiveness of other charities. Against Malaria Foundation and GiveDirectly are both consistently in their top picks for the most demonstrably effective charities in the world. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best or that the others are bad – when GiveWell can’t recommend a charity they’re not saying it’s not effective, they’re just saying the information they’d need to say it’s effective is not available. There are many types of charities whose effectiveness is hard to measure because it’s hard to measure, not because it isn’t there – research is especially hard to predict and rate.
But I still think it’s really valuable to have that little island of knowledge in a sea of uncertainty. To say, “we don’t know if another charity might be more effective, but we do know for sure that these ones have an extraordinary positive effect on people who desperately need it.”
Yeah, a bit. But there are some good arguments why the distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets is a problem that needs to be fought at scale. For one, there are multiplicative benefits if everyone in a community is protected. And the main recipients are children under 5, where the ‘decide for themselves’ argument doesn’t really apply. There’s a very fair-minded comparison of these two kinds of charity on GiveWell’s blog, that concedes the virtues and downsides of both approaches.
I only have a normal amount of time to give, but a larger-than-normal amount of money. I could give both, of course, but I’m not that good a person. I would also stop making money if I did that, so the cause would lose out on a future donation like this and only get the services of a nervous game designer in exchange – not a great trade.
It is! Thanks.
True, I could potentially benefit from posting about this! But I don’t care whether this is altruism or not. I’m more interested in potentially helping to normalise it, and keeping it secret to be more virtuous doesn’t help with that. If you have two hits on Steam, it should be normal to give something significnat to some kind of charity. It should be normal to give more, but I haven’t entirely overcome my cautious instincts.
I have the smaller of those things!
Some technical details: