Why charities, social enterprises, and churches need to become more like game development studios…

As I’ve been working with different people from Matryoshka Haus, I’ve been thinking a lot about how game design translates to the social sector, and how the medium of games can be used to have a greater impact on the world.

To give some background about myself, I actually major in “arts & technology” at university back in Texas. Majoring in “arts & technology” essentially means that I study interactive media development and video game design. I also duel major in history with a minor in business entrepreneurship. I will return to school this fall and be in my 3rd year of undergraduate studies (4 years total).

In recent years we’ve seen both the social sector & games industry grow immensely. Mobile phone games are becoming ever more popular. PC gaming continues to break boundaries. Last year, Grand Theft Auto V broke 6 world records, generating the highest grossing revenue ever produced by an entertainment product in history… all in just 24 hours for over 1 billion dollars. The average gamer is now 35 years old, and 45% of them are female. You can’t go anywhere now-a-days without seeing some sign of how games are affecting culture.

So with all the craze and hype surrounding games and digital media, why aren’t we seeing more charities and social enterprises getting in on the action? Plenty of charities write books to advocate solutions for their cause. Entire films are made to educate the public about different issues. Even traditional art and photography are used to reveal injustice in the world. Surely you’d think we’d be able to leverage this new medium of games to do the same?

If we can make films, why not games??

If we can make films, why not games?

Well… unfortunately, it’s not quite as easy as that.

Charities tend to go wrong making games because they vastly underestimate the sheer amount of time, money, and talent needed to make a game of impact worth playing. To give some perspective from the games industry, the average high-profile game takes at least 20 million dollars, 3-5 years, and a couple hundred people on staff in order to be successful. Even low-end games require hundreds of thousands of dollars and a couple years of development time. While charities are obviously not trying to compete with the commercial games industry, there’s still a huge disparity between what charities hope to accomplish, and what they’re actually capable of over the short term. It’s not that charities can’t make games; it’s just that they have to know what they’re getting into before they start.

Now, as I’ve been working with Matryoshka Haus over the past month, I’ve had the privilege of working on the Transformational Index project. For those who might be new to the MH blog or don’t know, the Transformational Index (TI) is essentially a tool that can be applied to any organization or project, for the purpose of identifying metrics that lead to a true measure of real impact and social change. The long term goal is to create a transformative index that allows social enterprises to collaborate and iterate on their ideas more effectively, while giving them the language & tools to meaningfully quantify real-world impact to investors. The Transformational Index also happens to be a game.

While I’m not going to get into hardcore game & systems design in this blog post, I believe the TI actually works incredibly well as a game. When the TI is played out, there many different indicator cards that list off potential core values and indicators of success for any given organization. The leadership team then needs to go through the game, and will eventually get a set of specific indicators that reflect the values of the company or project. After playing the game, there’s a second workshop stage where specific metrics of change are identified and given a context, and a storyboard is generated to illustrate the narrative of the emergent gameplay from the 1st stage.  Eventually differing organizations will be able to collaborate and learn from each other’s projects with regard to respective metrics of social impact.


I think part of what makes the TI so great, is that in terms of development, the TI doesn’t really differ that much from a traditional game. The TI has been in development for several years now, and has gone through much iteration to bring it to the point it’s at today. Obviously it can be quite difficult to create something that has a truly transformative impact on charities and social enterprises; partnering with other people/organizations, developing our theory of change, creating the game cards, designing the actual game process itself, graphic design, workshop facilitation, demoing the TI, physically manufacturing the cards, etc. That’s just a fraction of what I’ve seen go into development of the TI over the past month I’ve been with MH in London. In a sense the game is really only the front-end of the TI; there’s a ton of development and infrastructure behind it that has to come together to make the TI successful and sustainable over the long term.

I believe this is how the Transformational Index is different from when other charities and social enterprises try to create games. Game development isn’t this one-off thing charities can pull together over a few months, run a campaign, and then shut down once they’re done. Now-a-days, the best games are actually their own business model; World of WarCraft, League of Legends, and Hearthstone are just a few multi-billion dollar examples. Like the TI, those games are reciprocally supported by a larger system that makes them more meaningful and sustainable.  Even though they require continuous development and support, most of the value these systems create are crowd-sourced from the community surrounding it. As a result, these games can punch far above their weight, so to speak, and have a disproportionally large social impact. That’s what we’re hoping to accomplish with the Transformational Index, and why so much has gone into development.

In contrast, I haven’t seen many other charities, social enterprises, or churches actually thinking this way about their own projects. Part of what makes game development so brutally tough is that you need to align the efforts of (sometimes) hundreds of uniquely talented individuals for one common purpose; in this case, creating a game.  These larger studios (called “AAA”) engage in extremely detailed game design work before they start a project, typically planning out a realistic timeline, considering costs relative to their business model, doing market research, minimizing risk, etc. Individual roles and hierarchal structures then tend to become very closely associated, sometimes stifling systemic innovation as a result of wanting to be safe and comfortable.

Sounds familiar?

Now in the games industry, we’ve actually seen a huge decline of large scale, corporate style studios. The ones that still exist are extremely good at what they do, but increasingly more and more people are leaving to form their own smaller, independent ensembles. They work in small, flexible, and highly relational teams that actually go to the specific community they want to reach. This is typically far more effective and economically viable than spending millions on a single project that may or may not reach the intended audience and have a meaningful impact.

"Journey" (2012). The first game developed by a small studio to win "Game of the Year" from IGN.

“Journey” (2012). The first game developed by a small studio to win “Game of the Year” from IGN.

Frankly, both models have merit. Large scale studios are potentially able to reach a much wider audience and accomplish incredible feats because of their knowledge and professionalism. Smaller, independent studios are much more flexible and can iterate on innovative ideas much more effectively, thus having a greater impact on their specific community.

In other words, charities, social enterprises, and churches need to become more like game development studios.

– Brenden Palmer

4 thoughts on “Why charities, social enterprises, and churches need to become more like game development studios…

  1. Thanks for your intriguing concepts and details in your post, Brenden. I’ve come to see from studies of learning styles over the years that different sorts of games appeal to various ways people process information. So there will always be some kind of game that can make learning more engaging for someone out there. And that could be incredibly helpful to the work of charities, as so much of their work deals with strategizing, creating, relating, and integrating — as do games.

    I was raised on many kinds of interactive games as a kid. We had stacks of board games and card games that we played with family members and friends. So they’ve long been on my radar as a way to combine learning, with fun and creative experimentation, with developing friendships.

    I first encountered immersion learning teamwork games and simulations (like mock political conventions) in leadership trainings during high school. I saw – and experienced – a kind of learning that just wasn’t possible from reading a book, acting out a script, sitting around a gameboard. It required talking and negotiating with others, thinking up creative solutions within a specific set of parameters or game rules, asking questions of game facilitators, moving around in an environment that was completely set up to amplify learning. And as I’ve discovered over the years, those all turned out to be very practical skills for on-the-ground work in social transformation projects and processes.

    Somewhere along the line, I switched from participating to creating. I developed a “cultural recon” simulation situation and also in-the-field exercises for how to explore the contours of a host culture for a social endeavor. Then, during a training in strategic foresight, I found out that, in their work, futurists use a lot of game-related techniques. For instance, there are scenarios (like figuring out key issues and options for how leadership and legacies could be transferred to next generations) and simulations (such as teams figuring out how to set up colonies on Mars). Playing to learn – that’s part of how I knew I’d ended up in the right vocation!

    Learning through games made it all the more fun, while still being creative and cooperative. (Okay, and sometimes competitive, depending on the point of the game or simulation.) And I do think social enterprises could greatly benefit from the kind of teamwork you described for independent studio type game developers. From all you’ve said, and bits I’ve picked up elsewhere, it requires a blend of creative catalyzing and rigorous follow-through. Such agility, flexibility, and sustainability are indispensable! Plus game products themselves represent intriguing potential for non-profits. It would be great to come up with something that embodies the charity’s values, vision, and mission – and models the kind of IRL interactions that happen in its real-world projects.

    Looking forward to hearing more about how your time at MHaus and working with The Transformational Index go, Brenden!

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