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Gaming for a Greener Future

Photo of asian woman in a blue puffer coat with spring cherry blossoms in the background
Jane Li, founder of Springbay Studios. Photo by Springbay Studios.

Jane Ji hopes for a better future.

In efforts to make her hope a reality, Ji works with an eco-focused mindset that includes educating young people through gamification. Her feminist enterprise, Springbay Studios, develops interactive children’s games and experiences that aim to engage kids with environmental science. The climate crisis belongs to everyone. But it’s the youth of today whose future is at stake. Ji’s goal is to empower young people to take action toward building a world where humans and nature live in harmony.

Where It All Began

Ji grew up in mainland China and when she entered the job market in the 1990s she found work with a Taiwanese gaming company that was hiring anyone with an engineering background.

It’s rare that a feminist biomedical engineer ends up in the gaming industry but that’s what happened to Jane Ji. Her first job in the video game industry was a programmer, writing code. Through experimenting with software development, Jane discovered her passion for digital storytelling and that video games were an ideal tool for learning.

“It was kind of an accident, but fortunate for me to find something I really love,” says Ji. “I think a lot of people who have an engineering or science background are also interested in art.”

Back then, Ji was chosen for the job because of her skills and qualifications, not her gender. She remembers the fairness of not being judged as a female in a male-dominated industry and went on to use the same equal opportunity hiring practices years later within her own enterprise.

Ji became the lead game designer at the company and worked on a game that was based on the classic Chinese novel and love story, Dream of the Red Chamber. Being the lead gave her the opportunity to design with a feminist lens where she fostered a collaborative and inclusive environment with the other programmers and artists. She worked with another female engineer who led the software design and they were the only female-led team within the company. While the men focused on traditional time-based strategy games, Ji took a new approach to gameplay  that included simulation plus role play about emotion.

However, the gaming industry faced many challenges in China. Software piracy and illegal licensing was a big problem in this country. Ji couldn’t see a future in her home country as a game developer and decided to immigrate to Canada in 2000.

The Path to Springbay

Her sister Grace was already in Toronto so Ontario was the obvious choice. Once Ji was settled, she sought out work at companies which were making games that aligned with her feminist mindset and values of learning and caring for others. She attended conferences like the Game Developers Conference to network and meet people in the gaming industry. Ji worked as a freelance consultant before co-founding Springbay Studio in the early 2000s with her business partner—also her sister—who had a degree in computer science as well as managerial experience.  

Springbay’s original tagline was: Create Fun Gameplay From a Feminine Perspective.

Original Springbay business card. Photo provided.

This perspective was – and is – how Ji sees the world. Her perspective includes nurturing and supporting people and preservation of the natural environment in which we live. Springbay projects reflect and promote the creators’ feminist values of equality and inclusion. They benefit women, men and youth, because players come in many shapes and sizes.  

Springbay’s early projects included games like the Living Garden at a time when Facebook games were gaining popularity. The game reflected feminist values “I always think, when we play something, I hope that we learn something,” Ji says.

Another early Springbay project was inspired by the book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. The game, Mark and Mandi’s Love Story was distributed by Big Fish Games and is still available for purchase. Ji worked with a team of artists, programmers and developers to create the game. Ji enjoyed the challenge of using game design to present the different ways that men and women view certain subjects in a fun and lighthearted way.

New Perspectives, Bigger Impact

After Ji had children—who are now both young adults who have attended university—she was motivated to create more meaningful gaming experiences that had a bigger impact. She had always been aware of climate issues but her research was an eye opener and as a mother felt a responsibility to take action to care for the future, for her kids. “We are biological creatures. If this biosphere is messed up, we do not get a chance.”

When Springbay looked at who their audience was and the content they were building, it became clear they should start with children. Screen time is an ongoing issue for young people growing up in today’s digital work and Ji is well aware of the pros and cons of what online learning can offer. “If we are developing a game, we’re not going to glue them to the screen, because this is not how you are going to build a foundation,” she says.

Springbay’s mission is to use gamification as a way to encourage young people to learn about and take action toward sustainable lifestyles. The innovative products are on a scalable, gamified platform for global educators to inspire greenhouse gas emission reductions.

The beauty and benefit of gamification is that it provides the feeling that you are playing a video game, but it’s not truly a game. Players are earning badges and points in a structured way that involves user interaction. The iBiome-Wetland game and app and the iBiome-Ocean school editions offer resources for students to build and explore natural habitats in virtual settings. The blend of virtual learning with real life field trips is a winning combination in that nature doesn’t necessarily guarantee results such as spotting a specific type of wildlife. But you can count on the online version to deliver. Educators have told Ji how the gaming components keep students engaged and complement their teaching units on the ecosystem and natural habitats.

Springbay’s recent endeavour is the League for Green Leaders.

Springbay Studios video that features youth talking about their experience with the games.

The goal of the League for Green Leaders is to give young people an opportunity to build a virtual ecosystem where they can learn about biodiversity. Including ‘leaders’ in the name was a deliberate choice says Ji: “We’re trying to make our children become the leaders rather than be the sufferers for the eco side.”

It’s Not Easy Being Green

What’s missing? What would help?

In addition to building sustainable lifestyles, sustainable funding is what Springbay needs develop their learning products. Ji says that guaranteed monthly income from donations or ongoing matching funds from accelerator or government programs would be a step in the right direction. 

But funding is hard to come by. Some days are more discouraging than others. In some cases, it has come down to a matter of semantics where Springbay has been excluded from government funding because they don’t meet the criteria requirements of ‘clean technology’. The term ‘clean technology’ is limited to tech such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars. Ji isn’t arguing that these sectors aren’t important but insists that environmental education needs to be part of the equation if we are going to limit global warming in the near future

Still, she has hope.

“Our games are not all gloom and doom,” says Ji. “I think people are trying different ways to convince people that if we work together, there is hope. We cannot change this by ourselves.” 

If people think that the younger generation aren’t mature enough to tackle these complex issues we need only look to examples such as Greta Thunberg, the origin of Earth Day or the success that Springbay has seen.

My fourth graders really enjoyed tracking their CO2 footprint by participating in the League for Green Leaders Pilot Program.”  – Lynne Caffee, Pennsylvania, USA

“This smartly designed environmental sim lets kids explore three wetland habitats. By drawing connections between different species and creating a web, kids learn about producers and consumers, and about predator/prey relationships.” Common Sense Education, Best Learning Apps

“See what happens when you add extra of one species to your biome. Students will see right away how species depend on one another and how easy it is for an ecosystem to get off-balance.” American Association of School Librarians, Best Teaching and Learning App

 


Publishers Note: Springbay Studios is part of the Fifth Wave  Initiative, a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to minimum of 50% participation per cohort by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth ally sponsor at the Lighthouse levelApplications for Cohort 5 are open. Apply here

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Categories
Our Voices

Sticking it to Sexism in Gaming

Sasha Boersma, Co-Founder, Sticky Brains Studios

Sasha Boersma grew up playing video games.

Both her parents played. Her mother was especially interested in ones based on stories and puzzles, recently testing out one that Boersma is developing. Boersma was a fan of games made by Sierra Entertainment, a woman-owned and led company co-founded by Roberta Williams.

So, she never understood the perception that women don’t enjoy video games. She co-founded her own company, Sticky Brain Studios, in 2013. But a year later, the GamerGate controversy exploded and Boersma saw indie women game developers and critics horribly harassed online, some even leaving the sector because of it.

That’s when Boersma determined that video games are not the problem—the toxic masculinity within the community is. She recognized a lot of things needed to change—and that she could lead that change, making the digital content company she founded with colleague Ted Brunt a feminist antidote to an often sexist industry.

Building a diverse team

The cofounders met while working together at Marble Media in 2008, Boersma in business affairs and Brunt in content strategy. Both were helping create interactive digital content for TV with a strong focus on kids. While each of them ended up leaving Marble for their own reasons, around 2012 they found themselves getting hired onto the same projects as freelancers, with Boersma in business development and funding, and Brunt in content strategy and development.

They soon realized they had complementary skill sets to run their own studio and combined their 30 years of experience to start Sticky Brain, focusing on creating family-friendly digital content primarily for young Canadians.

Having worked together before helped the partners hit the ground running. Neither wanted a hierarchical structure for their organization, a primary reason they decided to employ people on a freelance and contract basis. It has freed them from having to manage a full-time staff and given them flexibility to work from home and on their own time. As a result, Boersma, who is neurodiverse, and Brunt, who is an active dad, are able to plan their days in the way that works best for them.

That strategy has also enabled them to work with a wide range of people, including other stay-at-home dads. Says Boersma: “In the digital and tech sector in a heterosexual relationship, the women take the year off and have a kid but, often, they’re highly educated and they want to get back to work. And then the dads are like, ‘I want my time with my kid.’”

Boersma and Brunt both knew a slate of stay-at-home dads eager to work around their kids’ daycare and nap times. “It’s funny,” Boersma adds, “because sometimes we think about feminist business practices as all about supporting women with kids. But I think of the fact that we can support dads’ engagement with kids, in a way that supports women too … to me it’s about supporting what a family unit needs.”

Cutie Pugs: Games for a Preschool Television Series

Working with a diverse group of people has also helped Sticky Brain create diverse digital content, including the award-winning Bath Time and Peekaboo Pugs video games for kids based on the Cutie Pugs live-action TV series; and The Restricted Adventures of Raja, a digital graphic novel and game created for RedRover, a US charity that helps animals rescued from disasters or neglect as well as animals with life-threatening illnesses. The aim of the Raja project is to teach children aged 7-11 empathy for animals and how caring for them will mean fewer animals suffering in shelters.  

Most recently, Sticky Brain launched Kimono, an app that enables users to design kimonos and dress up kimono dolls—while they learn about Asian culture and the role clothing plays. Created by a team of Southeast Asian developers, Kimono is the brainchild of Sticky Brains artist and animator Connie Choi.

Creating feminist content  

When taking on projects, Boersma says the Sticky Brain team considers two things: is the content is family friendly; and does the organization employing Sticky Brain want to work collaboratively? “Are the clients our partners? Are they wanting to be engaged? We’ve worked with a number of small independent studios in Toronto who love working with us because they enjoy the fact that we’re collaborative. We don’t just take the idea and go away and say, ‘Here’s the final thing, approve it.”

Cheesy is seeking to visit the 7 Wonders of the World!

Sticky Brain is currently collaborating with Bloom Digital, a Toronto-based feminist narrative gaming company led by independent game designer Miriam Verburg. Their first game, LongStory, is an LGBTQ+ friendly dating sim (think simulation) designed to foster stronger relationships and inclusivity. Sticky Brain is also turning LongStory into a web series about queer teenagers that Boersma hopes will encourage conversations about different gender identities and sexualities amongst teenagers and the gaming industry as a whole.

Brunt sees such projects as a way to tell and share stories that mainstream gaming companies don’t. “We love doing work that we think supports positive change in the world and that helps people who are underserved. Those are the things that are not necessarily financially hugely rewarding because that’s how pop culture works. But that’s okay with us because we’re fine making a reasonable living by making good things.” He adds that building diverse creative teams has, over the years, “brought certain people together who seem to make something greater than their individual skills.”

Implementing feminist business practices

This summer, Boersma participated in Fifth Wave Labs, Canada’s first feminist accelerator for women in digital media. Created by the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) Media Lab, the program helps accelerate and sustain the growth of women-owned and led enterprises in southern Ontario’s digital media sector.

Boersma says interacting with other feminist entrepreneurs prompted her to think through critical questions: Can a profit-seeking business be considered feminist? What does it mean to give back to the community?

For Boersma, the answer to the first question is “yes”—if the vision and mission of the company is feminist. For her, a feminist business must uphold certain ethical values—paying its employees properly, minimizing impact on the environment.

“There’s a whole lot of movement around people to be like, ‘No, we’re going to shake up how we do business and how we participate in the economy,’ and I find it all really fascinating. So, I’d like to have the label of “feminist business practices” for what we’re doing. And I like that there’s other companies that are trying to do this as well.”

In an industry that is ripe with toxic masculinity patriarchal practices, Boersma says that changing the industry also requires upending institutions, beginning with digital funds and investors. “For a lot of us who are women or femme identifying, when we’re trying to get the funding, it feels like it’s much harder.”

Boersma recently applied for funding for a project with two Black Canadian filmmakers, telling the stories of enslaved African Canadians through virtual reality. The feedback she received for the proposal? Women don’t enjoy VR games.

“We have to work extra hard to show that there is a potential audience for what we’re doing because people see this work as niche,” says Boersma. “And yet study after study shows that 50 per cent of gamers are women.”

But she is not deterred. She believes the only way to change things in the industry is to stay in the industry.  

“I think in video games in Canada, we have an opportunity to grab all these stories and experiences that are not currently being told by the mainstream gaming industry and create them to serve specific audiences.”


Publishers Note:  Sticky Brains Studios is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner. Apply here today.

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