Gaming for good: the company changing the way we think of gaming
By Brian Guserwa | September 22nd 2021
If you own a smartphone, chances are you are also a ‘gamer’, occasionally passing time by speeding through digital jungles or solving quick problems or even challenging online opponents to word games or classic battles like Chess and Pool.
Most people hear the word ‘gamer’ and immediately picture a young man sitting in front of a giant monitor, with headphones wrapped around their head, fingers tapping away at a blinking controller. Most people think of sports gaming and the evergreen, immensely popular EA FIFA franchise. Or they think of multiplayer titles like Call of Duty.
In reality, the gamer is increasingly going mobile. With the exponential advances in smartphone technology, not only is it possible for everyone to have one, it is easier than ever to purchase a very good device at a relatively low price.
It is this realization that drew Jay Shapiro, a business savant with several years’ experience, into the mobile gaming industry, and it is what attracted him to the gaming scene in Africa.
“Kenya has one of the highest smartphone penetrations of any country in Africa,” he explains. “We also have a young, well-educated population. Every one of those smartphones has at least one game on it. EVERYBODY has some game that they like to play, even if that is Snake on their feature phone, or playing cards with their grandmother in the evenings. We all love to play.”
Jay started Usiku Games in 2018. Usiku is a social impact gaming company, through which Jay hopes to kickstart the multi-billion dollar gaming industry across the continent.
“When we started, the game development industry in Kenya was almost non-existent,” he says. “So, a big part of what we have been up to has just been creating new career opportunities for super talented people from many different walks of life like animators, rappers, writers, etc. None of those people were working in gaming jobs before, because there were none. We built the Nairobi Game Development Centre as a huge community coworking space to give this industry a place to grow. It’s been a very busy three years.”
It was the latest move in a career that has spanned over 20 years. The 49-year-old has been at the heart of some high-profile companies such as BLUE, a digital marketing agency, and AppMakr, a drag-and-drop mobile app publishing platform that helped over 3 million businesses around the world launch their mobile apps.
He has now set his eye on the growing gaming scene in Africa.
Usiku Games has already put out several titles. A key component of the games, in addition to their ease of play, is the social message embedded within the narrative of the game.
BeYoutiFuL, for instance, is a game targeted at the young African woman who sees only white, Barbie-esque women in media and a primarily white industry. Instead, the game puts users in the designer chair, allowing them to pick out unique looks; clothes, accessories and enhancers that fit their body size and complexion. Yes, there are kitenges available.
Then there is Seedballs, a tree-planting game developed in partnership with Seedball Kenya Limited, in which players fly a plane and try to plant trees by dropping seed balls. At the end of the day, they have the option of turning those virtual trees into real ones by donating One shilling for every tree planted. The game is aimed at encouraging reforestation of areas that have been logged.
The numbers are a source of pride for Jay, whose ultimate goal is to bring out the full potential of gaming in the region.
“We have published more than 30 games already,” he says. “I believe that’s more than any other studio in Africa and it’s something I’m super proud of our team for. Each game has a story. We have created games about the arid North in Turkana and we’ve created games boosting self-confidence for girls growing up in urban cities. We’ve dealt with climate change, deforestation, and civic engagement. We’re just getting started!”
There is definitely an unmistakable ‘Africanness’ to Usiku Games’ titles. Everything from the animation to the titles feels like it was designed with the local youth in mind. In Chukua Mbuzi, for example, the goal is to help a butcher catch a goat. You get to answer quick trivia questions in Beat a Boda-Boda. And in Maasai Mkali, you get to learn meet Mario and Luigi’s brother from a Kenyan mother in a SuperMario inspired game.
The games are designed for quick fun on the fly. Ideally, sitting in traffic.
“Gaming is about having fun,” says Jay Shapiro. “If it’s not fun, there’s no point in playing. However at Usiku Games, we believe that games can be about more than just fun, they can have a serious side as well. It’s kind of like playing football with your friends on the local pitch. You’re out having fun, and may not even be thinking about the fact that it’s good for your health as well.”
There has been some real impact, too. At the beginning of 2020, when Covid-19 was starting to emerge, Usiku Games came out with a game teaching and encouraging people to wash their hands.
“We reached over 5 million youth with messages about hygiene during the critical time at the start of Covid. We’ve facilitated the planting of thousands of trees in Northern Kenya. We’ve connected 100,000 smallholder farmers with meteorological data to help their crops. There are loads of examples of the good that gaming can create.”
It has not all been smooth sailing, though. Most notably, the company had to adjust on the fly as, barely a year after its launch, the world ground to a standstill thanks to a pandemic. But Jay and his team used it as a springboard for growth, and did some good in the process.
“We responded by converting our in-game video chatting functions into Gumzo.com; the first full video conferencing platform made in Africa, for Africa. We hosted over 1 million meeting minutes, bring distant families back together, and connecting students with their teachers outside the classroom. We donated 50% of our revenues from that product to Covid response NGO’s in Kenya. Winston Churchill famously said: “Never waste a crisis” - and we have certainly tried to convert our challenges into real opportunities.”
The new gamer can now change the world while sitting in traffic, all from his mobile phone.
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