Across the planet, every day, we spend billions of hours playing commercial video games. A key question for those interested in investing in the arts, culture and media: Can some of these immersive, ‘lean-forward’ hours be focused on video games that make a positive social impact?
Over the past two decades, there has been a growing body of research highlighting the potential for video games to make learning, health and social impact. Well-designed games empower players to step into diverse roles, confront challenges, make choices, get feedback and explore the consequences in a rich, engaging and, often, social context. They enable players to advance at their own pace and fail in a safe environment. Video game are interactive, they give players agency—the ability to make a difference in virtual and potentially real-world environments.
Despite the promising research and pilot initiatives, there are still few impact-focused video games that are succeeding in the commercial market. In linear media, there is a robust subsector of television and feature films that explore meaningful themes, bring diverse perspectives and tackle pressing social issues. In this same spirit, an increasing number of foundations, government agencies and social entrepreneurs are eager to harness the power of commercial video games to further their impact objectives.
And yet, there are significant challenges. The game business is complex and dynamic, with a wide range of legacy, current and emerging platforms, diverse genres, new and emerging business models as well as publishing strategies. Finding the organic alignment of engaging game design, commercial viability and impact objectives requires deep domain expertise and cross-sector partnerships.
The Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), a leading Alaska Native social service nonprofit, and E-Line Media, a double-bottom-line video game publisher, have forged such a partnership to help grow this emerging commercial social impact game sector. CITC’s mission is to connect Alaska Native individuals to their potential and increase self-sufficiency. Historically, CITC was heavily reliant on federal funding. To increase the organization’s self-sufficiency, in 2010 CITC decided to pursue mission-aligned investments as a form of self-determination. CITC sought out investments that aligned with their values and met the following objectives: create unrestricted revenue sources to feed CITC’s mission; share Alaska Native culture with audiences around the world; and empower their youth, stewards of their future. CITC spent two years exploring investments ranging from culturally appropriate burial services to traditional real estate investments, but nothing felt right. Finally, in 2012, CITC decided to take the bold step of forming the first indigenous video game company, Upper One Games.
Investing in Commercial Video Games for Social Impact
After much exploration and internal discussion, CITC determined that creating an impact video game based on Alaska Native people and culture had the potential to successfully accomplish all of these goals. Given that CITC had no experience in video games, they had to start by finding the right partners. As they researched the space, one name kept coming up—E-Line Media. E-Line’s management team had extensive experience in both the commercial video game business as well as the emerging impact game sector.
CITC invited E-Line’s founders to Anchorage to explore the possibility. The E-Line leadership provided an overview of the video game business as well as the development process. They made it clear that investing a few million dollars in a single video game had great potential but was also an extremely high-risk investment. Through the initial discussions CITC and E-Line found they had aligned goals, so they agreed to collaboratively explore approaches to de-risking the investment. This process started with a thorough landscape and opportunity analysis.
The organizations researched indigenous representation in commercial video games (mostly examples of appropriation, caricature and sampling without context) as well as other media such as music, graphic novels and movies (including successful projects like the movie Whale Rider). They also researched the market potential of independent video games exploring meaningful themes and new perspectives, and spoke with e-store curators (e.g., STEAM, XBLA, PlayStation Network) and influencers (e.g., YouTube personalities) to gauge their interest in an Alaska Native game. The feedback was clear: There was interest in bringing new perspectives to the medium, but it needed to be done at a high-quality level—good intentions would not be enough.
Together, CITC and E-Line concluded that if they could attract a team of experienced, passionate game developers with previous commercial success to collaborate with Alaska Native Elders, writers, storytellers and community members, and engage key distribution partners and influencers, the project could be significantly de-risked. CITC decided to greenlight investment in the first game, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), through a partnership with E-Line Media.
Creating Never Alone
The E-Line and CITC teams spent two years making Never Alone through an ‘inclusive’ development process. There were many challenges along the way. The game is based on a story that has been passed down for thousands of years. Securing the rights to the story needed to happen through both indigenous and Western processes. The game is a two-player cooperative game (reinforcing the theme of interdependence) and there was much debate over choosing a boy or girl as protagonist, a wolf or fox companion.
The process required constant community feedback, transparent communication and a continual balancing of creative, cultural and commercial needs. The finished game is in the Inupiaq language and features 26 mini-documentary interviews with Inupiaq community members, which get unlocked through gameplay.
Released on November 18, 2014, Never Alone has touched a nerve globally. It has been featured in over 1,000 publications, downloaded by over 3 million players, selected for over 75 “Best of 2014” Game Lists and won multiple awards including a BAFTA (British Academy Award) and Game of the Year at Games for Change. The game has been released across nearly every major gaming platform, most recently on Android and IOS mobile devices, where it was selected by Apple as Editor’s Choice in the App Store.
Never Alone is not a game made about the Alaska Native people, it is a game made with the Alaska Native community.
CITC and E-Line began their relationship by “dating”—and then got “married.”
Initially, Upper One Games signed a co-development deal for a single game with E-Line, and each organization took a small financial position in the other’s company. This ensured both organizations had aligned interests, so they could be “in the same shoes,” collaboratively problem-solving toward shared goals. Together they formed a “greenlight committee” to review each phase of the game development before unlocking funding for the following phase—often debating and troubleshooting a blend of creative, cultural and commercial challenges.
During the development and launch process for Never Alone, CITC and E-Line built a very strong working relationship. It became apparent through the process of developing and publishing the game inclusively, that the partnership fed both organizations’ missions and that each entity brought complementary skills, networks and approaches to the partnership. In June 2014 CITC merged its interest in Upper One Games into E-Line Media, becoming E-Line’s largest equity investor. They also merged their management teams; CITC’s President/CEO is now serving as the Executive Chair of E-Line and Amy Fredeen (co-author of this article) is E-Line’s CFO.
Going into this investment, CITC wanted to make money and impact. Since the launch of the game, CITC has realized greater than 25% appreciation in the investment. Although the game has had its peak earning phase, it continues to sell across all platforms. Equally important but harder to quantify is the ongoing social and cultural impact of the game.
In addition to the millions of gamers who have played the game (and watched the embedded documentaries), an independent marketing analyst concluded the game has been exposed to over a half a billion people worldwide—all reinforcing the original impact objective of sharing, celebrating and extending Alaska Native culture with a global audience.
The impact has also been deepened through use of the game in educational and other cultural contexts. Never Alone has been distributed with a classroom guide to all school districts in Alaska. Classrooms throughout the world, from grade school to graduate school, have incorporated the game into their curricula. The game has been showcased in many museums (currently in the Denver Art Museum, the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the China Academy of Fine Arts) and hundreds of conferences, from small workshops on cultural storytelling to the World Economic Forum at Davos. There have been multiple films about the making of Never Alone, including those by the New Yorker and the Future of StoryTelling.
Both CITC and E-Line continue to receive weekly inquiries about the game and the inclusive development process. Probably most impactful, though, are the emails, phone calls and in-person feedback we get from individuals who have been deeply touched by Never Alone, as well as those who have been inspired by the game to share, celebrate and extend their own cultures through video games and other media.
The impact goes beyond the game itself. CITC and E-Line continue to deepen their reciprocal partnership. The two organizations are now developing more impact games together, including a potential sequel to Never Alone and possible movie based on the game. Together, they are also exploring developing an impact game investment vehicle for impact investors interesting in bringing new voices and perspectives to the medium.
Further, the partnership has now extended beyond games to collaborations on other impact initiatives such as creating “fab labs,” community facilities with powerful digital fabrication tools, and “world building,” creating research-informed aspirational but achievable futures for their community. Both organizations are leveraging their diverse backgrounds, skills and networks, grounded in their shared values and impact objectives, to continue to make money and impact.
Advice for Others
For other organizations interested in developing impact games we recommend creating partnerships that ensure both strong domain expertise in the area of desired impact and game industry partners who are not only passionate about the impact area, but also have expertise in development (game-making) and publishing (game business models, marketing and publishing).
It is also essential that all of the key stakeholders are aligned on the impact and financial objectives, have a shared risk tolerance and a clearly defined process of decisionmaking (playing to each partner’s strengths) and conflict resolution. Alignment allows for the time, commitment and resiliency needed to make games that are both fun and impactful.