Philly’s Skyless designs games to impact change | Crain's Philadelphia

Philly’s Skyless designs games to impact change

Skyless Game Studios CEO and Co-founder Chris Bennett | Photo courtesy of Skyless Game Studios

By gamifying their messaging, Philadelphia’s Skyless Game Studios is helping a number of organizations attempt to engage consumers in a way that inspires social change.

This year, the nearly five-year-old tech company will be releasing two new mobile games, one of which is centered on politics, while the other is focused on cross-cultural communications. The first, called “Political Rush,” is expected to pop off the virtual assembly line in the coming weeks.  

“It’s a puzzle game that’s a little more lighthearted than some of our other projects, but with the hope that people will learn a little bit more about some of the political characters [in the U.S.] and ideas that affect all of us right now,” said CEO Chris Bennett.

The game was created for Ga Ga Games, and takes a more comical approach to politics — a tone that Bennett says might help to diffuse some the tension that’s built up around the space in the last two years.

Philly-based entrepreneur Rick Stoddard, who created Ga Ga Games specifically for the venture, said his aim for “Political Rush” was to fill a void in the casual puzzle game category, which was dominated by bubbly, cartoony games like “Candy Crush” and “Bejeweled.”

“This version is a little more geared towards adults and more intellectual,” Stoddard said. 

The second game — a collaboration between Skyless and the Eurasia Foundation, a publicly- and privately-funded partnership that works to help people around the world take responsibility for their own civic and economic well-being — is one of the company’s biggest projects because it aims to take virtual exchanges to a new level. Virtual exchanges are programs used by various organizations to immerse young people across different cultures in collaborative, educational experiences.

Currently referred to as Generation 7.0, the game will expose players to cultural symbols, values, and traditions from the U.S. and Middle East, and require them to work together in “cross-region pairs” to solve puzzles.

“It’s kind of unchartered territory in the virtual exchange field,” Bennett said.

Its broad release is set for the end of this year.

Sara Shirzad, program director with the Eurasia Foundation, said the purpose of the game was to engage youths who had no other way to take part in a cultural exchange besides through their mobile phones.

“I’ve also worked on many curriculums, and with games, I see more engagement and quality results,” Shirzad said. 

As is the case with Political Rush and Generation 7.0, Skyless primarily develops games for outside organizations, tailored to their clients' needs. The company's strategic goal is to continue its work on a “significantly larger scale.”

“There are a lot of great initiatives out there that we want to support by creating these types of games,” Bennett said.

The business has come a long way since 2012, when it was co-founded by Bennett and fellow Drexel University grads Arad Malhotra and Oleks Levtchenko.

Prior to that, Bennett, Malhotra and Levtchenko had worked on a small app together, and were looking to collaborate again — this time, on a product they could feel passionate about.

“We were all into games and had a connection to philanthropy in some way, so we thought: Why not put those two areas together?” Bennett said.

Believing that games were the ultimate education tool, the three agreed that they should create games to teach people about causes that mattered.

The result, initially, was “Project Empathy,” a first-person game exploring the psychology behind radicalization. A better understanding of why people to turn terrorism, they believed, would lead to a stronger push for more proactive solutions.

But “Project Empathy” fell by the wayside after the three realized they didn’t have the resources to fully complete the project. They had a different idea, anyway, after meeting two anti-corruption experts with Repatriation Group International, a Philly-based nonprofit that helps developing countries understand and combat government corruption.

So they came up with a game called “Follow the Money,” which aims to train law enforcement how to better detect, investigate and prosecute financial crimes in the public sector. While the project is still in the works, it helped form the foundation upon which Skyless Game Studios is currently built.

“There are many socially conscious businesses, groups and government agencies who understand that games are becoming an increasingly effective way to engage people, but they don’t know how to make them,” Bennett said.

Skyless set out to fill that void, and has since developed a number of games that push out messaging for a number of organizations.

LifeLeap,” for example, is an infinite runner game where players must pick up medical supplies as their health declines. The game, developed for a nonprofit called Aahana, was designed to express the need for proper healthcare in developing nations. A portion of the game’s proceeds also help to buy healthcare supplies and procedures for people in need.

Through a grant from the Social Entrepreneurship Initiative, a program created to tackle corruption and governance issues in different communities, Skyless created “City Hall,” which exposes players to the intricacies of managing the cities they live in.

“Political Rush” and the Eurasia Foundation’s Generation 7.0 will soon be part of that socially minded portfolio. 

Meanwhile, business is good. Last year, Bennett said Skyless did $300,000 in contracts.

“We are just about in the black. We’re pretty much at the tipping point,” Bennett said.

Not all tech companies can say as much.

February 28, 2017 - 12:20pm