Online games can be educational and build essential tech skills, but what if they could do even more?

That's the idea behind a game called Tree Story developed by Los Angeles game publisher Zig Zag Zoom. Players have fun growing virtual pet trees to maturity and the company plants real trees wherever they're needed with the help of their partner groups.

"Our company motto is have fun and do good," says Zig Zag Zoom CEO Tom Kang. "We're a double bottom line company. We measure ourselves both in our ability to entertain and our ability to have a meaningful impact. Our games and platform are designed to do that."

World-changing inspiration

Kang and Zig Zag Zoom Chairman John Pleasants, both former Disney Interactive executives, were in South Korea seeking startup capital when they were introduced to three 20-somethings who had developed a game called Tree Planet. The game was responsible for more than 500,000 real trees being planted throughout Asia to help curb the devastating impact of deforestation.

The proverbial light bulb went off for Kang and Pleasants. With nearly 165 million Americans playing mobile games — and that number expected to grow to 209 million by 2019 — the concept was a way to not only provide the kind of safe family entertainment they'd spent their careers promoting but also put gamers' skills and all their mobile play time (an average of 50 minutes a day) to good use. They decided to develop a similar tree game for the U.S. market as their first offering and focus entirely on creating more social-impact games.

"Because mobile devices are so ubiquitous and everybody has one, there's a way for everybody to get involved with their phones in making a difference," says Kang. "We actually created the entire company around this thesis — that we can create super fun entertaining games that also have the secondary mission of doing good."

Treehugging for gamers

Tree Story (available on both Android and iOS) is a Tamagotchi-style virtual pet-nurturing game aimed at all ages. In fact, Tree Story's biggest player demographic is young female adults (though plenty of kids, teens and older gamers — both female and male — are also devotees).

To play, you first choose the type of location where your real tree will be planted (park, forest, urban grove, etc.) and the type of tree you want to grow. Zig Zag Zoom's newest sapling addition — based on player voting — is the rainbow eucalyptus.

Next, you grow your seedling to adulthood by feeding, watering and pruning it. As it grows, you play mini-games, protect your tree from threats such as the Asian longhorned beetle, dress it in stylish outfits, talk to it and learn cool tree facts.

When your tree is mature, you plant it in a virtual grove. Once enough players have planted trees in that grove, Zig Zag Zoom's partners plant real trees in your designated location to help reforest areas ravaged by wildfires and deforestation, generate more habitat for birds and other animals and repopulate endangered tree species. Worldwide, the total number of trees — currently 3 trillion — has dropped by almost half since the start of human civilization.

The company's tree-planting partners include the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy, ACTrees, Arbor Day Foundation and Project Learning Tree. Players who want to step away from the virtual world and get their real hands dirty can participate in a planting near them by clicking here.

Since Tree Story was launched in April, players have helped plant 10,000 trees in the U.S. The company's goal is to plant a million trees around the globe.

Fostering forest stewardship

Tree Story team at its fruit tree adoption in Los Angeles offered through City PlantsTree Story team at its fruit tree adoption in Los Angeles offered through City Plants. Zig Zag Zoom CEO Tom Kang is in the red plaid shirt. (Photo: Nafeeza Hassan)

Interestingly, gamers aren't the only ones reaping greater tree consciousness. The Zig Zag Zoom team — as well as their families — have also gained a newfound respect for the planetary contributions of trees, which go well beyond pumping out oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide.

"My kids play Tree Story and definitely notice trees more," says Darcy Troy Pollack, Zig Zag Zoom's vice president of strategic partnerships. "From a personal perspective I've been really inspired by working with our tree-planting partners and seeing the passion they have. As connected as I've been to environmental issues throughout my life, I didn't fully appreciate what trees do for our health, environment and communities. This has made me want to do more."

Adds Kang, "This initiative is personally changing our lives. It's made me more optimistic that I can have a personal impact. Hopefully, we can get this to millions of users and have a really meaningful effect by inspiring the next generation of conservationists and forest stewards."

Help real trees while playing this game
With Tree Story, players cultivate pet trees, and when they grow enough trees in the game, Zig Zag Zoom will plant trees in the real world.