How this West Philly startup drives change with video games - Generocity Philly

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Feb. 2, 2016 11:50 am

How this West Philly startup drives change with video games

Skyless Game Studios works with socially conscious businesses and nonprofits to make video games centered around philanthropy and civics.

Skyless cofounder Chris Bennett.

(Photo by Tony Abraham)

If you’ve got problems with the way your city is managed, why don’t you do it yourself? An upcoming game from Skyless Game Studios will let you do just that — virtually.

City Hall will be the second official game release from Skyless, a video game startup in West Philly that specializes in creating games for social impact. City Hall places players at the helm of their city government using realistic scenarios.

“You’re not building a city from nothing,” said cofounder Chris Bennett. “You start with a city you want to help expand and there’s very limited resources.”

The game, funded in part by a grant from government watchdog organization Transparency International last year, draws real data from real city governments, starting with Philadelphia. The game will be released in March for mobile, PC and Mac.

Bennett and his fellow cofounders Aradhya Malhotra and Oleksandr Levtchenko founded Skyless in 2012 after graduating from Drexel University. The first project they started working on was a game on radicalization.

“A lot of people who typically live in the U.S. and Europe who are physically withdrawn from issues happening in the Middle East right now have this misunderstanding that Islam is really a driving force [behind radicalism],” Bennett said. “Certainly it’s being used as the context, but people don’t kill other people for religion — they kill other people because they’re being manipulated into it.”

In the game, which has been placed on the backburner for now — Bennett said it was a bit too ambitious for a first project, but the team is anxious to get back to developing it — the player follows a narrative that helps them understand the psychological underpinnings and government corruption that lead to radicalism.

A look at City Hall. (Courtesy photo)

A look at City Hall. (Courtesy photo)

That particular game might be in limbo, but it lead the cofounders to the model they’re currently in: partnering with socially conscious organizations and developing games that help them execute their mission. Follow the Money, an investigative game set for release this year, is a product of a partnership with a Media-based non-government organization hoping to use the game to train law enforcement agents across the world.

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The only game the company currently has available on the market is LifeLeap, a collaboration with local nonprofit Aahana that raises awareness about health in developing countries. Users can donations to the nonprofit through the game and receive in-game rewards.

Enterprising in the video game industry is challenging enough without adding a social component: Bennett said most video game releases have a one-in-50 shot of landing some sort of success.

“The odds of entertainment games succeeding is marginal,” he said. “Large, established studios still strikeout more times than they get a hit. It’s a tumultuous business at best.”

Still, the company is churning out games (including an upcoming game for children with autism) with the help of two full-time employees, a handful of contractors and a cohort of interns from their alma mater.

“We all had some sort of interest for our own purposes in trying to do something good,” Bennett said of himself and his fellow cofounders, who were all active volunteers in college. “We know how significant even a small amount of time and effort can be for other people.”

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Tony Abraham

Tony Abraham is Technically Media's special projects reporter, where he currently edits Technical.ly's Grow PA series. He reports for both Technical.ly and Generocity and was a Philly News Award winner for Community Reporting of the Year in 2016. A proud native of Allentown, Pa., the Temple University alumnus calls Fishtown home.

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