Giving Back

A few days ago, a friend of mine shared a link to this New York Times article on the value of giving back. It struck me as true, on many levels. As I have mentioned before, when Martin and I stated Funomena last fall, one of our major goals was to dedicate 20% of our time for projects that expand the reach and positive impact of games. That could be working on a project with a friend whose idea we really respect, volunteering time to lecture about games at a local school or even organizing events like Experimental Gameplay Workshop. Our goal was to structure the company so that everyone who works here feels comfortable spending at least 1 day a week working on things to improve our community, expand dialog about game design or just make the world a more playful and enjoyable place.


Shortly after our first conversations about this, a friend reached out to inform us that a grant I'd help write in 2010 had finally been approved! They were looking for a developer to partner with UC Davis and the NSF to build a pedometer-based game for kids in Sacramento. The goal of the project was to explore how a game involving step data could make kids more aware of their activity. That day, "the pedometer game" became our 20% time project!

In the months that followed, Martin and I began working with Chelsea and Charlie to create a web-based game that takes data from the FitBit pedometer and turns it into action points for exploring & terraforming a foreign planet. I've always wanted to make a game in tribute to my love of M.U.L.E. - and as we began designing it, we got more and more excited. Especially to see how we could design a low-spec, easily-accessible game to introduce the the concept of "staying active" without focusing on exercise as a theme for the game itself.


Working on a part-time, not-for-profit project may seem crazy for a small start-up. After all, shouldn't we be spending all our time hacking away on our core prototype, so that we can bootstrap more quickly? Perhaps that's a recipe for success in other companies. But for us, it's actually proved to be one of the most fulfilling parts of working at Funomena - energizing and uplifting us in ways we never expected.

We began by just meeting the kids - which has been so inspiring. Their love of games, their passion for the program, and interest in participating in the design was obvious from day one. On multiple visits to the school, we saw what their environment was like, heard from them about their experiences and expectations. And then we began paper prototyping.


We needed the game to be highly portable: these kids don't have smartphones, necessarily - and will often be playing on older, lower-end machines. We wanted kids to feel a sense of ownership over their individual games, while providing incentives for them to talk to one another about their level of activity. That meant we also needed to develop mechanics for solo, asynchronous play as well as some elements of collaboration (say, working together as part of small teams).

It took a while to get things ... playable. Early versions of the game were too math-intensive, and then our prototype got too simple and boring. But by continuing to push on the rules and iterating on the game - we found something that we wanted to commit to code.

Yesterday afternoon, we travelled out to the school to demo the first digital prototype. It was nerve wracking! Would the kids enjoy it? Would they find it boring or slow? How would they feel about the idea of exploring this planet, and would the systems we'd put in place resonate with them? After about 15 minutes of watching (and listening) to them play - it was clear we were heading in the right direction. Relief! Happiness! Excitement!

Prepping the Game

In the post-play discussion, the kids came up with over 45 awesome ideas for improving the game, from systems for trading to mechanics involving creatures, crop discovery and character customization. We were able to discuss the game with them as a *team*, choose some next steps on the feature path and outline our goals for the next playtest. Best day in a 7th grade classroom I can ever recall.

We're so excited to be working on this project that we just wanted to share an update. The weather here in SF looks to be sunny and we'll be basking in the glow, both literally and figuratively. Here's to a fantastic weekend!