Helmed by Glenn Gillis, South African Sea Monster Entertainment have been vocal advocates of the social impact genre of gaming since their formation in 2011. In an interview helmed by GIA writer, Lewis Chege SME founder opens up about the studios inner mechanisms.
From environmental pollution to human rights issues, communities globally constantly face many complex problems that call for new alliances and an inflow of ideas to tackle these problems. As a result, organizations and their local partners have turned to innovation in other industries to find new approaches to resolving long-standing issues. Here’s where impact games come into play.
Scholarly research suggests that social impact games may fall under the umbrella term persuasive games. Ian Bogost of the Georgia University of Technology created the phrase “persuasive games” to describe video games that aim to affect the player’s perspective about a particular subject, topic, or issue.
Persuasive games are designed to maximize the ability of gameplay to impart knowledge or raise awareness of social issues. Consequently, processes and procedures for developing social-impact games can affect the game’s design and user experience.
Moreover, impact games can combine fundamental aspects of psychology, sociology and technology to engage people in social change. In general, video games and other forms of digital media have the potential to develop participatory cultures with minimal barriers to artistic expression and civic involvement.
Games encourage creative problem-solving while using elements of competition and teamwork. Games are also entertaining and quickly capture people’s interest. The million-dollar question, however, remains. How exactly can games lead to social impact?
In this regard, GIA sought to contextualize social impact games by engaging with one of the leading global pioneers that continue to master and perfect the art of creating original games that challenge players to think about ethical issues, learn about societal issues and initiate societal change.
Sea Monster Entertainment is an impact game, animation and augmented/virtual reality business based in Cape Town. Sea Monster’s maxim is to shift mindsets and inspire behaviour change by creating impact-driven games geared towards achieving, amongst other goals, social change and brand engagement. One of their greatest success stories, Capitec Bank in South Africa, wanted to assist its consumers in better managing their finances, so they approached Sea Monster Entertainment. The resulting collaboration yielded Livin’ it up, a gamified solution that teaches clients the essentials of money management while having fun
By using unharnessed imagination, powerful digital technology and a fierce passion for storytelling Sea Monster has taken up the challenge to specialize in game development that can produce a wide range of bespoke business solutions, from mini-games to more complex strategic games and branded experiences under the guidance of CEO and Founder, Glenn Gillis.
Glenn Gillis’s business experience shaped his dream of establishing Sea Monster entertainment as Africa’s leading impact gaming company. He holds a Business Science degree and has a significant part of his life as an entrepreneur and consultant developing knowledge-intensive enterprises worldwide. Glenn formerly worked as the General Manager of Clockwork Zoo, one of South Africa’s major animation and live TV production firms. He created 2D animated TV shows for Disney, the BBC, and others. He was previously the General Manager of Moonlighting Film Services, Africa’s largest film and commercial services firm.
His journey has seen him make valuable business connections for different organizations while advocating using impact games to inspire societal change. With many other notable achievements and career highlights to his name, GIA had the privilege of speaking to Glenn; this is how it went.
GIA: Hey, Glenn. Please tell us a little bit more about your relationship with video games. What made you want to get into video games specifically? And when did it all start?
Glenn: We (Sea Monster Entertainment) are an impact gaming studio that drives business and social outcomes using the power of games. We know that brands are looking for new ways to engage audiences. Additionally, we know that Africa has some of the biggest social challenges in the world. Yet, we feel that Africa is also well placed to solve some of these challenges and bring innovation into marketing through games.
Sea Monster has been in existence for 11 years and we have 37 full-time people in the organization and about 25 engineers who work with us. So much of our work is with big banks, insurance companies and entrepreneurs to provide quality financial education. We have also built games for Kids in South Africa and the world to influence social and behavioural change. We have also created games in the health sector to educate people, for example, on how much money has been poured into fighting diseases such as Malaria and HIV and, until recently, Covid-19.
Additionally, many of the Triple AAA games, such as Roblox and Fortnite, are eager to get into the impact games space to raise awareness on environmental conservation. We at Sea Monster Entertainment aim to facilitate that process.
GIA: Great Answer! Well, there is much information about games video games, but to new audiences, would you please explain how you interpret what impact-gaming is and why Sea Monster has chosen games to tell stories over other forms of entertainment?
Glenn: I love how you asked that question over the top. The way I see it, impact gaming can mean interrupting our gameplay during a game session to watch an ad inviting you to take action for a particular cause, e.g., planting trees. After watching the entire ad and depending on what game you are playing, you might get extra lives or tries as a reward to continue playing the game or whatever it might be. That’s one way brands and retailers can get involved in gaming, but we feel there’s a massive opportunity for them to engage with the users more directly.
We at Sea Monster help organizations do exactly that. Let us know your message as a brand. Please tell us what’s important to you. Tell us about your brand equity. Let us know your view on the environment and what you’re doing to reduce plastic waste. You know, these are the things that we want to know. Sea Monster works with this information that brands give us to construct games that cleverly address these objectives.
Games provide a perfect environment to do so. From an information aspect, social impact games are knowledge presentations to enlighten players about societal problems. These games deliver information in an interactive fashion that allows players to participate in the game’s problem and discover solutions to either survive or fix it, hence fostering advocacy through gameplay. This type of social impact game promotes exploring a topic integrated into gameplay.
GIA: Prior research on your game development process shows you develop games in three stages: concept development, solution design, and production. Using a successful Sea Monster game as a reference, please explain how you applied those three stages in its development.
Glenn: Any creative process, not only in gaming, requires a team to think of those steps. You must figure out how to build your idea and brainstorm possible steps and setups to actualize it to reach its final goal. That’s the concept development and funding phase. From that, you must envision what the game shall look like through solution design. So, How does the game work? What shall the mechanics, level and world design look like? After figuring out all these technicalities, you must implement those ideas and begin building the game. Then and of course, the last part is that we’ve got to sell it and build the community. The community has to be the centre of the experience. The game must have an entertainment value driving the marketing, learning, or social goal.
One of the games we have made through this process is Fish Force, a project funded by the Danish government. The game is built to raise awareness about protecting marine species and ecosystems in oceans and seas worldwide from human activities, notably over-exploitation of fish and other resources, poaching of marine life, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change.
The game puts you in charge of a fisheries control officer posted at the docks. The games educate you on the permits a ship should have while transporting cargo or traversing the ocean for any reason. The game puts you in the mindset of an officer of the law fighting criminal syndicates committing marine life illegalities. Covid-19 had made in-person training difficult, so Sea Monster made a game about proper bridge inspection protocols. Players get scored on critical thinking, diligence and curiosity. You must also be very vigilant as a player to handle the different challenges the game will throw at you. Those were our goals and we believe we made a game that was fun to play and informative at the same time
GIA: After a game’s launch, in this case, Fish Force, what are its success indicators, and how do you measure them?
Glenn: That’s a great question and a tricky one to answer. All games are often judged on how well they have penetrated the market and the subsequent distribution. These indicators are out of our control as developers. You have to remember that games are media and people have different gratifications that they seek from media. However, we have internal controls that indicate to us whether the game is a success. Are people having fun playing the game? Are they coming back to the game? Are they spending time in the game?
Then, are we delivering the learning outcomes we set out during the development phase? To test whether our games resonate with people, we do so in the game by checking whether you have passed the challenges in the game or completed it entirely. This means you learned crucial information from the game and can apply that knowledge in real-life world scenarios. That is the modern definition of successful gamified learning. You can only achieve success in these games by ensuring they are easily accessible to the people and potential partners that might want to seek your services to build a social impact game for them
GIA: One of the many issues development studios have is that they don’t know how to market their game. Sea Monster has worked with various global brands, and this is definitely an indicator of the success of your marketing efforts. Is video game marketing different from other forms of marketing, and are there some pointers you might have to run a successful marketing campaign?
Glenn: The best question ever, the only one we need to solve. Because until we can understand how to market our games properly, we shall never get the flywheel of value going that we described earlier. So to answer your first question, The answer can be Yes and No. On the one hand, I think marketing a game is precisely like marketing any other product in many respects. There’s got to be a target audience, a route to the market and many other touch points that define a successful marketing campaign. Yet we see that when brands and their marketing agencies do this, they don’t understand or, at least, they seem reluctant to apply the rules, laws, and experience they already have to market games.
On the other hand, Yes, video game marketing is different from other forms of marketing. There is a science behind the acquisition cost, a client’s lifetime value, and how you monetize that. That’s the area where Africa has the least knowledge and understanding. It costs a lot of money because you’re going to compete with the biggest titles in the world, so acquiring that customer is expensive, particularly if you’re paying in dollars. People assume that if you build a game, the target audience shall immediately love and buy it. No. Studios must strive to build communities and branch out to other marketing tactics, such as merchandising, if possible.
As a continent, we must ask ourselves why we cannot attract big funders for a fraction of at least ten million dollars in investment. That’s a tier 2 game. Tripple A games command ten times that. If we can build three ten-million-dollar games, we can create an ecosystem that benefits developers and consumers. The key to unlocking these potential investments is the collaboration among different development studios to show a unified front.
GIA: Sea Monster also offers other services and products. VR, AR, Animation. I am, however, curious about the product, Lighthouse. Would you please describe what it entails?
Glenn: Lighthouse is one project that keeps our house (sea monster) running. It is a digital treasure hunt that links things you do in the digital world and the real world around a brand. Think of Pokemon Go but with a purpose or a message. It works by incentivizing people to play that game. We see it as a way to gamify customer engagement by combining quiz mechanics, mini-games, vouchers and other check-in functionality to reward and connect customers to a business. Awards may include data or airtime.
Lighthouse is a platform allowing brands to take a first step into the gaming space. It’s accessible for anyone with a smartphone, even those cheaper affordable smartphones that we know Africa has plenty of.
GIA: What are some initiatives Sea Monster has undertaken as gaming innovators to push for the acceptance of video games in contemporary African society?
Glenn: Another great question, Lewis.Sea Monster exists because of impact games. People have preconceived attitudes about games. They say they are childish and time wasters and all sorts of stuff. Games are also seen from the viewpoint of only console gaming. That’s not true. There are different types of games and Sea Monster specializes in impact gaming. From our discussion above, serious work goes into developing and launching these games. Additionally, We have 37 full-time employees.
We are also working in London to teach credit committees that are made up of very conservative members better financial management techniques. I genuinely believe there is no challenge in the world that can’t be made better by using a game.
GIA: What a conversation this has been! I have to ask as we conclude. A background check of your professional experience shows you have worked in different industries worldwide. Tv and animation production, FMCG, and you are presently a chairperson of Relate trust. How was the transition to making games via Sea Monster, and how do you balance these roles?
Glenn: Well, Lewis, I stick to my lane. I am not a frustrated animator or developer. I am what you would call the business guy. I fundamentally believe in Africa’s creative economy and our ability to compete with the best in the world. So my life work has been working in different industries, all with the same big idea: how can I empower other people to essentially tell their stories, to make their games, to make that a career, not just a hobby or something that they’ve driven with passion.
As I conclude, I hope businesses can be much more mindful of their impact on the world. You know it’s no longer possible for us to pursue runaway capitalism and close our eyes to what’s happening to people and the planet. And so it’s evident to me that it is in business interests to think about their impact on the world. Yeah. And at the same time, I think charities and nonprofits need to be much more business minded.
We should find commercial models that allow us to solve environmental, health and financial education challenges.
GIA: Well, this has been nothing short of an educational experience. Thank you, Glenn, for scheduling the time to meet.
Glenn: Sure thing! Thanks, Lewis lovely to meet you. We’ll be in touch soon. Cheers.
To learn more about the company, Visit the Sea Monster Entertainment website.