FOR A LONG TIME, the stereotype of a “gamer” — someone who plays a large amount of video games (video or mobile) and is generally involved in video game culture — has been synonymous with the image of a male slacker tucked away in a dark basement with only a bag of Cheetos for company. But with people from all walks of life proudly affirming their love of video games and increasingly-vocal female gamers trying to stake their claim in what used to be a boys’ club, that perception is just about the only thing from the ’90s that’s not making a comeback. And Elizabeth Sarquis, CEO of Global Gaming Initiative, is doing her part in trying to change the perception and direction of video game culture by impacting social change through the power of play. GGI’s premier game, SideKick Cycle, donates bikes to needy children throughout the world just by having people download the game — which is free! While a bike may sound like a big deal, it can provide necessary transportation for children trying to get an education. This is pretty much the furthest from Kim Kardashian: Hollywood you can get. While you may become addicted to GGI’s games, their causes will make you feel good about the time you spend gaming. Sarquis spoke to Lady Clever about her belief that gaming can have a positive social impact and about being a woman in the male-dominated gaming industry.
What inspired you to start Global Gaming Initiative?
When my youngest son, Alejandro, returned from a service trip in Ecuador, he was forever changed. He had visited developing countries previously, but this time was different. He met a boy named Javier [whose] father worked in the city, and Javier chose to forgo school in order to work and help provide for his younger siblings. This decision was made because the nearest school was a two-hour journey (each way) by foot. Alejandro saw that accessible transportation was a barrier to education and he wanted to get Javier a bike! We knew that this challenge involved creating solutions for all the children around the world who are like Javier. Thus, Global Gaming Initiative was born out of the desire to reach the masses through entertainment and empower them as change-makers to improve lives globally.
Why was it important for you to create games that give back and have a philanthropic aspect to them?
Games are a universal language and something that everyone loves to do! Imagine a world in which playing games also helps unlock change for children all over the world.
How do you choose the causes that your games support and benefit? Does the cause dictate the game you create?
The causes we work with can all be characterized as life-sustaining or creating opportunity for education worldwide. We believe that these issues exist both overseas and in our own backyard. Our giving partners always share our values in transparency and communication. We want those who enable the change to see the change in action. As far as what comes first, we look for the right match and listen to the world’s needs.
Is Global Gaming Initiative your first entrepreneurial endeavor? What lessons did you bring with you from previous experiences?
No, I started a company in 2009 that helped teens have the conversations they were not having with their parents. The yearlong project resulted in a short film, which premiered before a peer-moderated talk-back session that elicited the thoughts and opinions of a teen audience. I learned that young people need to have an outlet to express the challenges they are facing in this era of fast-paced technology. I found that working in the media and technology field, the biggest challenge is exposure. The distribution channels are very crowded and small companies have an uphill battle to gain more visibility.
What has been the biggest challenge starting and running Global Gaming Initiative?
The biggest challenge in starting GGI has been that prior to this I had never developed mobile games. I was proficient in coding, I knew that I loved technology, and my goal was to use the power of smartphones to effect world change. I did not know that making games is really complex. Luckily, I have developed many amazing friends who are true artists in the field. I’m learning as I go, but I have the right people around me to make sure our products are of competitive quality.
On the other hand, what would you consider to be one of Global Gaming Initiative’s biggest successes?
Without a doubt it would be the day we gave away our first bike. I will always remember writing that first check to World Bicycle Relief for $134.00 for that bike. It was the day we knew that our model worked. We have had over 500,000 downloads of our game SideKick Cycle, which was inspired by Javier, and continues to attract new players.
What are your current goals for Global Gaming Initiative?
We are creating a platform that will serve as the matchmaker for games and causes. We value transparency and want our games to be the entertainment that converts casual players into active and engaged social ambassadors. We want them to play our games and decide how they can utilize the “change in their pocket” to make the world better for future generations.
How do you balance your creative duties with the business side of your company?
As a CEO, the business brain is essential. We must maintain operational efficiencies and make smart decisions if we are going to survive in this highly competitive market. For me, the business has to succeed in order for us to fulfill our mission. With that, the creative duties are a part of my daily life. They are why I wake up mid-REM cycle to write down an idea, they are the treat that I get to collaborate on with my teams around the world, who I respect so much. The balancing act is difficult, but one that I do well, because I know that the creativity lies in the platform we are creating and not in every detail of our games. In the early stages of the company the creative side was more important. After the release of our first product, SideKick Cycle, which launched 12 months ago, I have spent most of my time working on the business. Some-days the creative side is stronger and other days the business side takes focus.
Have you encountered challenges running a business as a female CEO in the male-dominated gaming industry?
The gaming industry is no different from other industries [in which] CEOs are mostly male. In the gaming industry, the gap is just a bit larger! My team has always been amazing, and the challenges I’ve had come from being a leader in a new space — we are creating a category for games that have a social impact. Starting a mobile game company and being a female CEO is no small ambition. I have hit many roadblocks but they have been mostly industry challenges. When we designed female characters in SideKick Cycle, it was exhausting because so many female characters in the gaming world are overtly feminine. The challenge I faced was to ensure that we didn’t convey any misrepresentation of the female characters.
Do you think it’s important for more women to become involved in the video game world, either behind the scenes or by becoming avid gamers?
I think that more women are joining the video game world. I believe it is important that we create opportunities for women to grow in this field. Women love to play games and the smartphone has revolutionized the way we play games. There is no gender gap in “play.”
What is the best piece of advice you received when starting Global Gaming Initiative?
The greatest lesson I can pay forward is: believe in yourself, your idea, and live your passion for your work. No one is going to come on board if they do not see you fully excited and committed to your vision. Find other people that see the road you have created. You need strong and motivated people on your team. They have to love what they are doing as much as you do. Essential must-haves include a great accountant and bookkeeper as well as a defined budget.
Doing good while sitting on your couch? Yes, now there’s an app for that. Sign us up! Keep an eye out for Global Gaming Initiative’s new games that benefit different causes coming soon.
SideKick Cycle is available (for free!) for download for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. Check out Global Gaming Initiative’s website and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to stay up-to-date on the latest games to take the social-gaming world by storm.