As video games mature as an art form, as well as a medium, we are seeing more developers looking to do social good through their works.
Such is the case with Pixelberry Studios, the makers of the free-to-play iOS game “High School Story” (App Store link), who announced a partnership to combat cyberbullying with the non-profit Cybersmile this week.
I spoke over the phone with Pixelberry CEO Oliver Miao about the game and the partnership.
“High School Story” is a simulation game in the vein of “Farmville” and “The Sims”. The twist here is that players are building their dream high school, taking into account the needs of the various cliques in the school.
This isn’t the first time the members of Pixelberry Studios have worked on a high school themed game. Miao and co-founders Winston She and Keith Emnett previously worked together at Electronic Arts, where they worked on the game “Surviving High School”.
The attraction to high school said Miao, is about more than the lucrative high school gamer demographic.
“We like high school as a theme,” said Miao, “because it’s a place where people are really forming who they are.”
As a setting high school has all the drama a game creator could want: romance, campus politics, identity crises, and on and on. As a reality high school can be brutal. Miao and the other developers found themselves concerned with the wave of suicides that have been linked with cyberbullying. Miao, who endured bullying in middle school, was particularly attuned to the subject.
Miao told the story of being contacted by one of the game’s players who was having suicidal thoughts. She was, he said, reaching out to the makers of the game wondering what to do. It was then that they realized the impact the game was having with some players.
“We were scared. We didn’t want to say the wrong thing and make things worse. So we contacted the National Suicide Hotline.”
They guided the player to proper help, and this fuel their desire to weave the subject of cyberbullying into one of the narrative threads of the game.
Pixelberry connected with Playmob, a group that connects game developers with non-profits. Playmob in turn hooked the studio up with Cybersmile a charity devoted to fighting cyberbullying on multiple fronts.
The studio has pledged over $100,000 to the charity, which they are financing through the sale of Cybersmile themed items available as in-app purchases.
The money is earmarked for Cybersmile’s 24-hour helpline.
The game has also added a storyline that tackles the issue directly, one that aims to show the effects of cyberbullying on both the victim and the bully.
This specially themed content was developed with the help of experts on the issue, in order to help teach players of the game about the recommended ways to deal with cyberbullying.
It was clear from our conversation that Miao is passionate about the cause, and that Pixelberry is taking pains to get the details right when it comes to
this sensitive issue. He’s a true believer in the ability of games to create real change.
Our conversation also turned for a moment to the nature of free-to-play games, seen by some hardcore gamers as a creeping threat to the quality of games. Miao, naturally, sees things differently. He makes free-to-play games, after all.
Miao noted that developing a free-to-play title, in his view, keeps studios on their toes. They have to make games that players want to keep coming back to and spending money on. Pixelberry’s approach includes adding narrative content to the game after launch, and providing a more diverse cast of characters than your average “AAA” game, in order to appeal to a broader audience.