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Global Gaming Initiative seeks to deliver games that effect social change

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

When one of Elizabeth Sarquis' sons traveled to Ecuador at age 14 to work with Free the Children, he came back a different person. What he saw there changed him, and sparked an idea within his mother that — a few years later — is finally on the cusp of bearing fruit, in the form of her video game company.

Sarquis' son met a 10-year-old Ecuadorian boy named Javier. It took Javier three hours to travel to and from school — each way — and by the time he got home in the afternoon, he had to help his mother take care of her younger children, because their father was away working in the city to earn money for the family. The arduous commute discouraged Javier from attending school.

"It had a huge impact on him," said Sarquis, speaking of her son in a recent interview with Polygon. "I'm originally from Colombia," she added, "so I knew that there [were] a lot of Javiers in the world, and all over the world."

Sarquis had always played a lot of games, starting with Ms. Pac-Man in the 1980s and continuing through today with popular mobile games such as Angry Birds and Tiny Wings. She eventually hit on the idea of using video games to connect people with charitable causes, and that was the genesis of her company, the Global Gaming Initiative. The for-profit, privately funded video game publisher releases mobile games tied to specific charities, with 50 percent of a game's proceeds going directly to the associated charity.

"We want to be the place where people go to play games that effect social change," said Sarquis, founder and CEO of the Global Gaming Initiative. "We want to be the place where people understand that micro-giving is done at its best within the game world. So you can play a game, and you can make a difference."

"We want to be the place where people go to play games that effect social change"

The Global Gaming Initiative is set to release its first game, Sidekick Cycle, next month, but the company has had a long road to get to this point. Sarquis originally attempted to have the company's games made in-house: She hired a team of eight developers who were working on an iOS racing title using the Unreal Engine. But when she contacted a public relations company to promote the game, a representative for the agency told her, "This is the worst game I've ever played, and my 14-year-old son could program better than this."

The company advised Sarquis to scrap the unfinished project and start over with an external development team. Sarquis and the agency attended the Game Developers Conference and began to meet with developers around the globe, including the Finnish studios Remedy Entertainment (Max Payne, Alan Wake), Housemarque (Super Stardust, Outland) and Rovio Entertainment (Angry Birds).

Sarquis spoke with 17 companies in all, and according to the PR rep, they all showed interest. But Sarquis said the developer that really understood her program was It Matters Games, a small studio in Berlin that was founded in January 2012 and focuses on making so-called serious games. In tandem with its part-owner, the Munich-based incubator Remote Control Productions, It Matters has been working on Sidekick Cycle for about four months, with development being overseen by the North Carolina-based casual-game company Gameblend Studios.

The defining element of the Global Gaming Initiative's approach to charitable games is that the company first selects a charitable organization to support, and then finds a team to develop a game that's specifically designed to incorporate that charity's work.

"They've got to be congruent," said Sarquis, explaining the link between the charity being sponsored and the design of the game related to it.

Another key factor is that the organization's work must be quantifiable in more concrete terms than financial ones. "It can't be a black hole [for donations]," she said. "It has to be a charity that produces a tangible good."

Sidekick Cycle is an endless runner-type game. The player navigates a bicycle rider through 50 levels in a variety of environments, including dirt roads set against a backdrop of straw huts and the umbrella thorn trees that define the African savanna. It also includes a cutscene of the rider handing his bike to African villagers.

The setting and design are based on the charitable organization Sidekick Cycle supports: World Bicycle Relief, which has distributed nearly 128,000 sturdy bicycles to people in impoverished African nations. A bike can greatly improve life in rural Africa, providing access to education, health care, economic opportunities and other vital services.

Sarquis acknowledged that Sidekick Cycle is a simple game, but said the company didn't want or need it to be a particularly innovative experience — it's more important that its mechanics are familiar to mobile game players, and that they're tied directly to World Bicycle Relief.

Sidekick Cycle costs $0.99, and offers in-app purchases for elements like sidekick animals that provide multipliers for the coins earned in the game, as well as customization options for the bike and its rider. Half of the proceeds from all those purchases go to World Bicycle Relief, and 387 downloads contribute enough money for the organization to deliver one bike. At that rate, 1 million downloads would translate to more than 2,500 bikes.

1 million downloads would translate to more than 2,500 bikes

We asked Sarquis why she chose to run the Global Gaming Initiative as a for-profit company rather than a nonprofit organization. She explained that aside from certain limitations that non-profit status entails, she didn't want to have to ask for donations to the company in order for it to continue existing; the charities should be the focus, she said. In addition, Sarquis subscribes to the economic views of Muhammad Yunus, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 along with the Grameen Bank, his microfinance corporation in Bangladesh.

"You can't effect social change without capitalism," she said, giving her interpretation of Yunus' philosophy. "We have to make money in order to give money."

As soon as players load up Sidekick Cycle, they'll see a thank-you note from the Global Gaming Initiative, and the game's home screen displays a bar that keeps track of how many bikes the community has produced — that's why it's important for the charity's output to be a tangible good. Sarquis hopes that practice, as well as future titles the company publishes, will build a community of giving gamers, and ultimately, a generation of young people who see games not just as entertainment products, but as tools through which they can make the world a better place.

"There's a huge audience of people out there [who want] to connect to causes by actually seeing how their money's making a difference," said Sarquis.

Sidekick Cycle is set for release on iOS in June, and the Global Gaming Initiative expects to launch an Android version four to six weeks afterward.