How I Got to Reimagining Games for Societal Good

If you are an avid gamer you can probably relate to strong feelings caused by an intense LoL match or with a deceitful yet hilarious encounter in space with Among Us. If not, you might have still encountered a mysterious group of kids glued to their screen at random places around the city, flicking red and white balls towards weird monsters. Discovering the strong emotions and sense of togetherness in games like Pokemon Go, Fortnite or Clash of Clans got me thinking the strong positive feelings and sense of belonging games can incite. What if we’d expand these experiences to improving well-being or social inclusion?

As a kid, I was really into games. If you asked my mother, she would tell you I might have benefited from screen time (luckily, no such a concept existed in the 90’s). I really enjoyed the bright colors, challenges and stories of Crash and Spyro, and was most of the time glued to my grey PS one controller. I was also really into drawing, which led me to dream of a career in architecture, but plans do not always pan out and I ended up in electrical engineering. I still had an itch for a career in gaming and arts and remained connected to gaming by practicing 3D modeling. Pretty soon however, I got mesmerized by the world of software development and changed my major to computer science.

With a design background, I felt I had something unique to give to software development, and quickly realized that it is a rather creative endeavor on its own. I love the problem-solving aspect in product development, but have always also had a strong calling in doing something good and meaningful. I’ve been lucky to work in ambitious, phenomena-like organizations, like Slush and actually even founded my own startup that disrupted the real-estate market. However, startups are somewhat straight-forward profit and growth-driven, and I always knew my character longed for something more profound and meaningful. Oftentimes I found myself wondering — how could I combine my skills in software and product design with positive societal change? Luckily in 2019, I found what I was looking for at We Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Mikko Kodisoja and Ilkka Paananen, the Supercell entrepreneurs, delivering impact solutions to fight social exclusion.

Oftentimes I found myself wondering — how could I combine my skills in software and product design with positive societal change?

In October 2020 our games and tech strategy took a more shaped form, and we launched an impact-driven game studio Wondershop alongside the foundation. Together they form a unique combination of a startup and a foundation. For me, it means that I’m exactly where I need to be.

Impact, but with a twist

At Wondershop, we are building a community game of its own genre and aiming at macro level changes through micro-level work — supporting local communities and combining the physical and the digital world in meaningful gaming experiences. Creating a long-lasting impact is our underlying value and cornerstone. What connects our team across all the functions is the passion and the hunger to do good. We know that games and entertainment have an important role in our lives and society as is but there’s still a lot of untapped potential in using them for doing good and creating experiences that are purposefully designed to help you. In other words, we are doing something impactful yet fun.

Impact however, is a broad word. Societal problems are complex and measuring impact is extremely challenging. It’s hard to find just one way to follow and find solutions for. However, at Wondershop we have discovered an interesting approach to advance social inclusion among kids and youth with ways that games and other tech enabled products can nurture. We have also taken a strong quantitative approach to find correlations between activities and how they help our players. In the beginning, it can be challenging to isolate a single activity and its effect from all the noise, but with volume and more locations, we believe that we can start identifying patterns and activities that actually do make a difference, and work on them even further.

We know that games and entertainment have an important role in our lives and society as is but there’s still a lot of untapped potential in using them for doing good

New game genre, new platform

Our flagship game project, Wonderworld, is a new kind of community game that combines the magic of the digital realm with the real world. It’s a game played exclusively in physical locations — kids access the game world using their own individual physical wristband, specifically designed for a gaming experience, and different open community spaces act as physical hubs where players can carry out various tasks and complete quests individually or as a team.

At this point I usually get asked the question, why use a wristband? Why not just use smartphones as a platform? My answer is that our values and core mission is driving social inclusion among all kids and youth. Not everyone has a smartphone or a data plan. Even if 90% of the kids would have a phone, I believe that the remaining 10% are the ones we should focus on. We wanted to make the game as accessible as possible, providing a more equal starting point and level of gaming experience regardless of your background. In addition, the wristband actually allows the players to focus on what’s around them instead of constantly checking the latest WhatsApp messages, TikTok or Instagram. Not having these constant distractions can help enjoy the actual task at hand.

We will test Wonderworld in We Foundation’s own kids community house in Eastern Helsinki, where the game is sewn into the daily activities and quests have a strong connection with the surrounding community’s everyday life. The link to the real world is paramount. What we aim to create are gamified, meaningful community experiences without players getting too lost in the digital world.

We’re here for good

We realize that there’s still a long way to go. Wondershop’s aim is to create a scalable, lasting, positive impact among kids, youth and families and measure that societal impact. It does not only mean our games will have to be long-living and excellent games in a genre that’s just peaking but that we have a lot to learn and to find out what’s truly meaningful and impactful for our players. Yet, while we dream big, when trying to do good it is really important not to get lost in the process and remember that you cannot help everyone at once. Making a positive impact can start from one individual. Hell, who would have guessed that all those hours in front of a CRT tv would come to use?