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

A fortnight with Vocari

The main purpose for Shannon’s return to San Francisco was to work with Vocari – a community of Christian business people who work in the Bay Area. Having met them in May, and talked about the TI, they wanted to hear more and see for themselves how it worked, so this trip was an opportunity to do just that.

Over a period of two weeks, the Matryoshka Haus team met with different elements of Vocari at a series of gatherings, meetings and workshops. Many of these took place at the Vocari Hub in Pleasant Hill – a new space where community events take place, but also a working space for a range of businesses and organisations.

Our first interaction was at their regular Friday evening drinks, where we were able to tell a little of the Matryoshka Haus story and give a small taste of what the TI involved. We also learnt that Vocari know a lot about good wine (there’s even a wine storage centre next door) and good food – both are valuable qualities in business and community!

At their monthly hub lunch the following week, we had the opportunity to present the TI to a whole range of business people, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs. Thanks to a conversation the previous Friday, we were able to put our words into action immediately afterwards, by running a TI with one of the Hub’s tenants – the Center for Bio Ethics and Culture. It was a fun, but intense afternoon. Discussion was fuelled with Cadbury’s chocolate all the way from London, and some more of the excellent wine that Vocari seems to have an endless supply of!


A few days later, we were back at the Hub to conduct a ‘fishbowl’ of the TI with the Vocari team – ‘fishbowl’ in that the first phase of the process could be observed by anyone who was interested. If the level of noise was anything to go by, the team had a great time engaging with the TI! Cadbury’s chocolate came in handy again, as a prize for whichever team chose their indicators the quickest (which proved to be an amazing motivator). It was particularly exceptional to see so much energy, given as the exercise had begun at 9am on a Saturday morning.

Vocari TI

The work didn’t end even after Cathers and I returned to London. Shannon met with other groups based at the Hub, ending her Californian trip with another Friday evening event there, entitled: ‘Making Stuff Happen’. The idea was to share some of what Shannon and Matryoshka Haus have learnt about making ideas tangible and getting them off the ground – and judging by some of the feedback I’ve seen, it went pretty well!

Working with the people who make up Vocari was a real privilege for us. Not only did we connect with lots of different businesses and organisations on a professional level, we also made new friendships – there are even two couples who have already paid their deposits to join the next Chateau Duffy trip! Being hosted by Brad and Lynn Smith was a joy, they made us so welcome in their home and it was great having the opportunity to get to know them – we’d be happy to return the favour in London one day! Massive thanks also need to go to Wayne, Jesse and Rod for all their hard work on the programme too. (Jesse needs to be particularly thanked for his awesome Downton Abbey impressions!)

Thanks Vocari! We look forward to working with you again very soon!

A Poem Involving Sheep… I must be in Devon!

Greetings one and all! Lauren reporting to you here from Devon, one of the most stunning pockets of the world I have ever seen. I’m here with the Transformational Index team, as they seek and discern what the next steps are for the TI tool, and it has been a lovely two days spent meeting, praying, and exploring the countryside.


Jacob riding in style on the beach!

I must admit that whilest doing aforementioned exploring, I may have made the inevitable comment to poor souls around me that I have felt a bit like I’m ambling through a Jane Austen novel… (Surely Mr. Darcy will pop by soon, eh?) And just to be even more sappy and typical about it all, in the land of dairy, I have written a poem inspired by sheep. Yes, I know.. It’s a bit unreal how cheesy (ah, dairy!) this is getting. But I daresay you would fall prey to the rolling hills and charming little creatures yourselves if you were here, and soon enough you’d be pretending to be Elizabeth Bennett right alongside of me!

So whilest marveling in the glory of our location today, I felt very much like Psalm 23 in the Bible was written just for me: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want/He makes me rest in fields of green, by quiet streams…” You see, in the midst of talking TI, we’ve been thinking a lot about big questions and big issues, and other quite business-y things like that. Which is such a beautiful and necessary thing! However, I mentioned to Becca on the team earlier today, I feel like Devon is the perfect place to have these intense planning sessions and analytical conversations, because we’re in such a peaceful and natural environment, away from the business and buzz of London… So the temptation to try to make things perfect or becomed stressed is tempered with the simplicity of sheep, if you will! And it’s in that very English, sheepy environment that I felt at home in Psalm 23, that I was being made to rest in fields of green, and I jotted down a little diddy I thought I would share:

My purpose is unknown, and yet I love all that I see

I’m one of the sheep grazing aimlessly in a pasture of most vivid green

and it’s then that I hear His voice; so gentle, sure, and unique-

And He tells me that today is today, and that is all I need.

He tells me that the sun will rise, whether I’m awake or whether I’m asleep

and He asks me to sing Him a song and simply sit and be.

I cannot convey the joy He gives, my Shepherd sweetly tending to me

Just to hear Him say, “Be here today” somehow sets my whole life free.

Old and New

Hello there! As Liz mentioned, my name is Lauren and I will be interning with the community this summer. I am so pumped for what’s in store, and can officially say that it’s been one whole week here in London and I’ve cherished each day!

While I have had time to experience some typical London adventuring (Shout out to Liz for the grand tour!), we have pretty much hit the ground running as the summer is such a busy time for MH. Monday marks the beginning of a trip to Devon with the TI (Transformational Index) team, where they will brainstorm and discern what the next steps are for that project. At the end of the week, a charming group of new American friends (whoop!) will be joining us for a Learning Lab—and they are in for quite the treat! We’ll keep you posted on these goodies so you can feel informed or pray alongside of us!

Perhaps I will share with you some “highlights” from week one… Though I daresay distinguishing them is quite difficult as there are no low ones! The first day I arrived, my friend Shannon McLaughlin (she and Shannon Hopkins have endured many a name confusion like champs) and I got off the plane from studying in Ireland, expecting to say goodbye to one another as I was beginning this internship and she was going for a holiday jaunt. However, Shannon H. welcomed her to join us for the week at any point she wanted, and I am so thankful for having a familiar face around my first week here! Below is a picture of Shannon M. and Liz as our “royal racontour” (Not sure if she would appreciate the pun, but she can always punish me I suppose!)

Liz giving Shannon and I the classic London tour

Liz giving Shannon and I the classic London tour.

That same first day, Shannon H. pointed us in the direction of “The Wapping Project,” a lovely restaurant and art exhibit down the corner from her flat in Wapping! Some ridiculously sumptuous chai ice cream was consumed and the first English cup of tea sipped, and then we explored the re-purposed building (it used to be an old factory, and cogs and wheels are everywhere!) and the art within. I sat at the top of the building and looked out over the Thames River, noticing a Tennyson poem someone had hung on the wall next to me. It became so apparent that London is a fascinating, unapologetic blend of the old and the new, married and yet distinct, like the sea and the shore brought together by some greater Tide.

The theme of old and new continued to abound as I went to aid Andy S. and T with their new home- weeding the garden of seemingly-plant-like green to make room for true plants… Washing windows that many have peered out of, that their darling son Jacob will now see some of his first sights through.

Another afternoon was spent with the Shannon(s) pilgrimmaging to Shannon H’s old flats and hearing the stories of each, what dreams were held within, what glories were seen. Something I noticed about her first flat in Bow, is that it was the home for the London Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888, a serious incident of justice in the city. This flat for Shannon was another incident of justice, for women in particular: the birthplace of The Truth Isnt’ Sexy campaign to change the conversation around human trafficking. This flat in Bow had held both old and new… with dreams for match girls and prostitutes. The Lord is so evident to me in this city through little details like this to the big, beautiful things that result.

Shannon H. explaining the Match Girls' Strike at her first flat in Bo.

Shannon H. explaining the Match Girls’ Strike at her first flat in Bo.

I believe that God is a God of old and a God of new, that He sees our pasts fully and yet invites us each day into something more fresh and beautiful, made for that day alone. It is my prayer that while I’m in this old-and-new kingdom of sorts that I and Matryoshka Haus as a whole will recognize His story among it all, and live it, and love all the sweet souls along the way. I wish you all a happy day, and stay tuned!

Matryoshka Haus goes to Boston

Hi!  My name is Regina Gordon and my family and I are looking to join the Matryoshka Haus family in London sometime later this year.  We are excited about working with MH and the numerous projects that are going on now and in the future.  If you are interested in learning more about our journey, please follow us at www.londonlens.blogspot.com.

Carl & Regina visiting London this time last year. 

Recently, Shannon, Cathers, and I had the opportunity to go to Boston to participate in a SOCAP SOUL Conference held at the MIT campus.  There is no better way to learn about the world of social enterprise than to jump into a conference about it!  We had a stimulating day of presentations, panels, and discussions that focused on the intersection of money and meaning.  What a joy it was to be amongst others who have a similar heart and mission of Matryoshka Haus!  Of course, Shannon and Cathers took advantage of every opportunity to network with others and the Transformational Index quickly became a hot topic in those discussions!  We are excited that this trip to Boston and attending this conference resulted in several exciting contacts for MH and the TI.

Of course, last weekend was not all work and no play!  Shannon, Cathers, and I enjoyed taking in a few of the sites in and around Boston.  It was an interesting place for two Americans and a Brit to visit together… and the conversations were interesting as we tried to explain the Boston Tea Party to Cathers.  We enjoyed seeing Downtown Boston and the Harbor, visiting Salem, and taking a drive out to Gloucester, MA for Cathers to compare with Gloucester, England.  She seemed delighted with the quaint seaside town and we all vowed to return when it is warmer!

Cathers finds a taste of home in Boston.