Dagmawi Bedilu is the Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Efuye Gela a game publishing company and startup aggregator based in Ethiopia. He is also the president of the Blue Nile Toastmasters.

In a recent public session titledCase Study Serious Games: Local Perspective, Dagmawi ran through the value of collaborative thinking rather than the problematic focus on individualism.

Ecosystems over Egosystems: The Case of Ethiopia

Dagmawi highlighted a shared observation of the fact that the video game ecosystem is plagued by a lot of I’s. For instance, people say look I made the first games for change product or look I started the first studio in my country.

“There’s a bunch of I’s that are very common and honestly speaking if you go and look into the bank account of these people, there’s no money there. This is by far the biggest challenge we face. We have a lot of people doing small things and the ecosystem is completely being forgotten.

That’s what we’ve been working on for the past 5 years. I’m here representing the Ethiopian Games Association and the only local game publisher called Efuye Gela. We are trying to create this one synergized ecosystem that can actually survive by itself first and then contribute to the continental ecosystem. This is because we believe we can’t have an African ecosystem if we don’t have an Ethiopian ecosystem or a Nigerian or South African ecosystem. We can’t go from top to bottom we have to start from the bottom.” Dagmawi added.

He went on to explain what he called the ego way. “It usually starts with the kid that has a dream of making this AAA game. He wakes up and passionately starts coding. He is very committed so sometimes he self-finances and sometimes he gets a grant then he continues working on it. He then showcases it and probably gets another grant then repeats the whole process once again until either the funding stops or he starts a family and starts doing serious business.”

In order to illustrate how inefficient this method was Dagmawi pointed out the fact that most of the initial game developers in Ethiopia were currently working in banks and in other serious professions. As a result, these people completely stopped working on games.

“This is the typical ego mindset; you start working on something but it does not go a long way. And as we always say it is not what you know that matters it’s who you know that matters. So, this has been and still is the prominent way of doing things in the gaming scene.”

In order to solve this issue Ethiopians used their music ecosystem as their local benchmark. The Ethiopian music industry is a big industry, and a lot of people’s lives are sustained through it.

What makes the industry thrive is the fact that they have local consumers. The demand also comes from the right side of the ecosystem map i.e from the consumers to the creators.

The Ethiopian artistes start by asking themselves which is the most popular music genre. Starting from this premise they actually create for the consumer. Whereas when you look at the gaming ecosystem (aka egosystem) the creator says I have this amazing idea for a game, I will make it and hope people will buy it.

To solve this the Ethiopian approach is transforming into the following.

  • Since the word gaming is loaded with a lot of stigmas they decided to start by redefining what games are. In order to make them of importance to the community they decided to change the term to game thinking. This transformed the concept into a lifestyle, a way of thinking as well as a process.
  • The next thing they did was reach out to everyone who was working in the industry and brought them to a neutral ground where everyone could work together.
  • Finally, they decided that before starting any production the demand had to first come from the community. Since their focus was on games for impact, then people needed to understand the use of the product, process, or capacity initiative as well as like it. In that way, they were able to counter the stigma around such initiatives.

Ecosystem Mapping

In order to map the Ethiopian ecosystem, they reached out to studios with a promise to highlight them and showcase what they were doing in the events they organized. When they started the mapping there were no studios that were legally licenced and registered. However, five years later they have five licenced studios and around 15 indie studios.

The beauty of the ecosystem map is that it enabled them and continues to enable them to see gaps. Once these gaps were identified different stakeholders that were interested in filling them were assigned different roles.

Driving Demand

The Ethiopian Games Association for half a decade has been running the following initiatives to drive demand.

  • They started running game jam sessions quarterly which contributed to the developer ecosystem (more than 60% of game developers in Ethiopia emerged from the game jams)
  • They started an initiative that specialized in the understanding of design. This helped to solve the problem of what Dagmawi called translator games (this is the situation where you take a game like Temple Run you make the guy black, and you consider that an African game.) and it doesn’t work that way.
  • Game mechanics are all about philosophies meaning there is an African way.  If you come to Africa and you see the mancala game, you will be introduced to the human culture as well as the communal lifestyle within it.
  • Due to the fact that mechanics are important yet very hard to teach they established a startup that focused on designing African philosophies.
  • They established the Ethiopian Games Association and Efuye Gela publisher as enablers. This way indie game studios could get access to a licence for free and create with ease.
  • Under the facilitator category in the ecosystem map, they started the first gaming festival dubbed ChewataCon.
  • They run a series of competitions so that whenever a local company/ startup makes a very good game they would run a tournament around it to build a local community and fan base around it. In addition, they have a TV show that airs the whole competition.
  • To capture the consumers, they partnered with all the music concerts in Ethiopia and introduced gaming stations. They showcase both foreign and local games so that in addition to listening to great Ethiopian music you also get a chance to have some fun playing games. In this way, they are tapping into an already existing community and infusing gaming into it.

The Ethiopian Ecosystem Projects

  • Mela
  • Mela in Amharic means a solution. It is a serious game that was developed for vocational education colleges. It is a solution that was designed to be a self-educating tool for instructors to address Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV)
  • Gebeta
  • Gebeta is an analog interactive role-playing simulator (board game) that was developed to help solve the land-centric conflict in the Southern side of Ethiopia between the government and the inhabitants. It simulates an integrated land use planning scenario and mitigates conflicts of interest and power plays amongst farmers, investors, local administrations and experts while guaranteeing maximum collaboration
  • Watershed Simulator
  • The 3D Watershed Simulator is an initiative that aims to develop a series of blended learning content that simulates natural landscapes and phenomena. It was designed and developed like a game and it simulates very complex topics like erosion thus helping development agents understand the factors affecting them better.
  • ChewataCon
  • It is the first-ever festival of its kind that aims to celebrate the Ethiopian gaming culture as well as explore the dimensions of games and play in the local context and beyond. It introduces all the stakeholders in the field to each other for the period of one whole month. They get to play and make games. Each year it focuses on a unique theme and in 2022 the theme was Game Meets Vocation.
  • Frameworks
  • Whenever people talk about games it’s all about the science and art of engagement. As a result, you can actually redesign your whole process. For instance, as a company, if your employees are bored you can induce games into it to make them motivated. It doesn’t matter what you call it as long as at the end of the day your employees are motivated. That is one application area they use these frameworks.
  • Yene Bitae
  • Dagmawi called this project near and dear and started by pointing out the fact that in Addis Ababa they have 100,000+ street children. Yene Bitae is a social initiative that organizes and mobilizes young unemployed youth volunteers that can provide street children with tools/games that will teach them basic life skills. The idea was to help them battle their glue-sniffing addiction with a new and better addiction to gaming where they’d get completely immersed but leave the experience with some acquired life skills. They observed a significant difference as the children started to think and behave in a positively different way.
  • D5Gamejam
  • They run hackathons and game jams quarterly with the aim of creating a skilled community. The participants get to upskill in storytelling, game design, game/app development, game production, project management and ecosystem/community building. They bring in different people from different walks of life.
  • Kazagames
  • Kazagames is a gaming community. They run two community events every week. They use this as a platform to test when people make local games. The gamers in the community give the game developers immediate feedback. If the gamers really like the game they are likely to share it with their families and their family members will take it to their friends thus bringing about organic growth. If people really like it and demand it then they prepare a place where they can get it.

In conclusion, Dagmawi said, “In a way, the eco way works when you rename terms like gaming to more relatable terms like game thinking, when you think of the ecosystem rather than  individuals and companies. And when you start from the community side, a lot of miraculous things can happen.”