Building Games With Impact: How to Push the Boundaries of Digital and Physical

Developing games is a visually pleasing form of problem-solving. But what happens when the problems to be solved through the game are big and hairy societal ones? How does one develop a game that continues beyond the digital into the real world? Can “just a game” really make an impact on people’s life?

I’m a Lead Game Developer at Wondershop, and perhaps because there are not too many female developers in lead positions in the gaming industry, I get asked a lot what led me to do what I do.

I’ve always been looking to do things no one has done before. I am not the person with a lot of new ideas, but the one who makes the ideas come to life. I’m a bit of a solutions junkie — finding ways around problems that at first seem impossible to solve, gives me a rush. At the university, I started studying electrical engineering but soon realised it wasn’t for me. I found a programming course and was curious to try. Soon, I felt I had found my thing there. Programming became my tool to make things happen, to give form and function to ideas that previously only existed in someone’s imagination.

For me, game development is a beautiful mix of visual expression and logic — I love both and wouldn’t want to give up on either.

Diversity is competitive advantage

At Wondershop, we make games that have a positive impact on kids who come from a variety of backgrounds. This really tickles my inner problem-solver. The society is diverse and to be successful in my job, I need to build games that engage, entertain and help all kids, regardless of their gender identity, physical abilities, social status or cultural background. Building a diverse game team at Wondershop is a competitive advantage. We are on a good path, well above the game industry average, and it has made it easier for us to think about new audiences for our game. We are challenged every day to know our players and how to build a game that is inclusive and accessible for all.

Kids are a tough audience for any game developer. We think a lot about what motivates them, things that catch their eye, and how much we can express in writing, for example. How kids consume the game is different than teenagers or adults as they focus on different things. Usually, developers struggle to fit everything in one screen on one device, because that’s where the game takes place. In the case of Wonderworld, we have spread the game across multiple screens to enable focus on different parts of the game.

That’s why the game we are developing is on the next level. I do build structures from the game configuration data and player data like in any game dev project, but in addition to the few screens where the game is played, it extends to the activities the players do outside of them. The goal is to get kids to create their adventure together, and to keep the digital part balanced in order to give space for the physical, real-life activities.

Traditional ingredients, different outcome

Wonderworld is a simple game from a traditional game developer’s point of view. We are not riding on features, the kick comes from mixing digital and physical realms. It’s a massive challenge, yet highly motivating, that what I build in digital needs to continue seamlessly in the minds of the players in the real world.

The digital Wonderworld exists in the shared game screen and player console, and from there it’s pushed to be experienced in a live location. The players are not wandering around glued to their individual screens and chasing collectibles. We are developing a wristband controller for the players to access the game with, so that it keeps their focus on the real world. The more tasks the players complete in real life and together with other kids, the more collectibles they have to bring back to the non-player characters in the game screen, Wonderworld’s friendly inhabitants. All collectibles add up for the common good and help the digital representation of the community evolve to the next level.

It’s the first time I’m building a game where the goal is not to maximize the time spent in it. Considering the target audience, it is highly important to leave room for imagination and feeling. We limit the time spent in the digital part of the game to enhance the feeling of doing things together for the community and leaving room for the real-life activities.

We believe that Wonderworld will make the kids more engaged with their community, more interested in coming back to play, and in the end, more exposed to the positive effects that different activities in their community bring to their life. It’s all about making an impact and not just cashing out.

Era of playing together

I believe that we are on the peak of a new era in the gaming industry, the era of playing together again. Like in any other industry, the trends here are cyclical. We have come a long way, from smashing the buttons of a machine alone in an arcade hall, to investing in our own consoles and computer screens to enjoy great graphics and effects from the commodity of our couches, to the recent rise of mobile platforms that allowed access to games to everyone with a cellphone.

Now, with the success of games like Pokemon Go, it looks like the sense of togetherness is again becoming more important for the players. The ongoing global pandemic has shown us even more tangibly how people miss the company of others and doing things together in real life and not just online.

However, in spite of the visible demand, there are not many companies responding to the call. Maybe it’s because the traditional industry players do not understand how to make business out of it. This new era of community games will require new platforms, additional targets and metrics, talent with different skill sets and most importantly, inclusiveness and diversity in the level of the decision-makers.

For us developers, this is the time to take a more holistic approach to our work. I’m currently studying to become a math teacher in addition to my engineering degree. I might never actually be a teacher in the traditional sense, but understanding pedagogy and how people learn has proven to be a skill set that is highly useful in developing a game that has impact on us as humans and members of society. Diversity at all levels will be golden in the most interesting game companies, like Wondershop.