Games have long helped people on a personal level by providing entertainment, mental exercises, exposure to different ideas, and even new connections. But as social consciousness grows across the world, some are looking to the unique interaction games offer to build awareness, activism, and relationships on a variety of issues.
Among those who are attempting to use games for more altruistic ends are studios like Bandura Games, Moocho Brain Interactive and Neopix. While they hail from different parts of the world and have different goals, all three are seeking to use games to improve the world around them in significant ways.
The main premise behind Bandura Games is to create fun mobile games that require cooperation between strangers all over the world – creating connections and empathy between players from different cultures, races, and creeds. The studio is the brainchild of Justin Hefter, an American, Etay Furman, an Israeli, and Ammoun Dissi, a Palestinian.
Justin – who has a background in business and conflict resolution, having advised Fortune500 companies and helped with business agreements between Israelis and Palestinians – says violence is able to perpetuate when people don’t come together to overcome their differences and find common ground.
“In order to live in a less violent world,” Justin says, “it’s important to help people find common ground. We’re using our games to create connections for people around the world in order to show players from various backgrounds that they actually have a lot in common!”
Education in POVERTY
In the Pacific, Moocho Brain is using video games to help out the Philippines on a couple different fronts. Moocho Brain co-founder and game designer Khail Santia notes that since Moocho Brain is in a third-world country, poverty and the tragedies surrounding it are a big part of the team’s lives.
In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the region in 2013, Moocho Brain added prominent “donate” buttons for GlobalGiving.org to their games in order to help aid typhoon victims. Moocho Brain is also the mastermind of The Bamboard Game Project – a piece of game design created to help fight the dropout crisis in education.
“The top reasons given for the dropout crisis are lack of interest in school and poverty,” Khail says. “The Bamboard Game Project addresses the first by harnessing game design to make learning more engaging for kids. The second, by using bamboo to make the game accessible to the economically disadvantaged and by setting up a livelihood program based on the game’s production.”
Fighting for the Environment
Neopix is tackling environmental issues with their game They Mean Well. The game puts players in the shoes of Earth itself – depicting the planet as a maternal figure trying to protect humans while not being destroyed by their hubris and short-sightedness. At the end of every play session, users are shown a donation screen that allows them to donate to an environmental cause.
Neopix game designer Milan Andrejevic notes that the studio is trying to use the game to educate people via empathy on the dire issues facing Earth. Having the donation screen at the end of the game is a way to provide an opportunity for people to act on what they’ve learned and make a positive change.
Additionally, the studio – which is based in Serbia – donates to various local and global causes. “It is a terrible thing for someone to suffer because of the circumstances out of their control … It shouldn’t be happening,” Milan says. “It’s blatantly obvious that it’s up to us to correct them. There are some values a human being should uphold.”
The business of Charity
While a studio devoted to a charitable cause or social endeavor is certainly noble, is it sustainable? Justin believes that, in strictly business terms, it has to be – and studios should make it a priority to figure out how to do so. “The next generation of consumers care about social impact. Those that don’t try to make the world a better place in some way will fail. Major corporations like CocaCola, Cisco, Google, etc., have recognized this fact and are spending millions on corporate social responsibility.”
As for how a studio can make a living while dedicated to charitable causes, Khail offers a couple suggestions. The first is to find a team who has faith in the studio’s mission, the skills to propel the company forward, and the ability to play well with others – and, perhaps most importantly, you have to believe in the cause yourself. The second is to make sure a game’s quality is never compromised simply because it is made for charity. If it is to help as many people as possible, it must stand on its own as a legitimate game.
Milan believes that the relationship between the studio, the charity, and the player must also never be muddled, saying that transparency is paramount at all times – especially when it comes to player monetization. “We think that it’s really fair if the user has complete control over what they want to donate and to whom. If the player is offered to make a donation, he should be given an option to decide if they want a part of that to go to the developer, and exactly how big that part is.”
While Neopix is currently using a donation screen that allows players to pay specific amounts to the developer and the charitable organization, Bandura Games and Moocho Brain have their own angles for monetization.
Justin says that leveraging in-app purchases to promote causes is a great way to monetize games, noting that Zynga saw a huge rise in the number of people who spent money in their games when it ran a campaign for Haiti’s earthquake relief in 2010. Justin also notes that it is important for games to remain fun, whatever the cause. “Games are powerful because of their ability to reach millions and because they can convey an important message through an enjoyable medium.”
Since Moocho Brain essentially runs its own charitable organization via The Bamboard Game Project, their take on monetization is very different. While they do use part of their game profits to subsidize donations to those in need, they also reach out to the social responsibility arms of companies – and they are even looking into creating a Bamboard Game Festival, which would raise money through registration fees and sponsorships.
One additional aspect of monetization that Neopix is looking at is the need to sync up charitable organizations and game developers. The studio is currently mulling over ideas for a platform that would allow game developers to connect to causes they are interested in and work with them to raise funds.
Milan and Justin also have a word of advice for those who are looking to build an entire studio off of a single cause: Make the cause broad. Both say that a cause that is too narrowly focused could limit the types and amount of games your studio is able to produce, while a broader focus could offer more game opportunities and stories to tell.
Despite the different places Justin, Khail, and Milan come from – and the different ways their studios are going about their social work – all three agree on the transformative power of games. They can be seen in much the same way as movies and books have been for years – highlighting truths, spreading ideas, and spurring people to act.
Khail notes that, while games are not a panacea to the world’s problems, “the empathy that game design cultivates in both its practitioners and audience, when properly utilized and nurtured, will lead to a greater understanding of and more effective solutions to human problems.”