Interviews | 06/08/19: Emily Ludolph

E-Line Media’s Alan Gershenfeld Explains the Power of Social Impact Games and Stories

Alan Gershenfeld started out telling stories as a filmmaker, but moved on from the world of linear narratives when he discovered gaming. Now Co-Founder and President of E-Line Media, a game developer that helps players understand and change the world, and boasting past partnerships with everyone from the White House to Sesame Workshop, Gershenfeld is a leader in the world of games designed for impact. 

Endless and E-Line are co-producers on the Endless Mission, which, at its heart, carries forward E-Line’s goal of putting kids on a path to shaping technology versus being shaped by it.

We sat down with Gershenfeld to talk about how he discovered the medium of games, what drives his work at E-Line, and what makes for a great collaboration that has impact.

Q. You started out as a filmmaker and then you got the call to join Activision, the company behind franchises like Call of Duty and Guitar Hero, as head of creative affairs. What attracted you to the medium of games?

A. I was not actually a gamer. I played coin ops and I had an Atari 2600, but I wouldn’t have called myself a gamer. But, my girlfriend at the time, now my wife of many years, was a gamer. And before I did the interview at Activision she had me play a bunch of the adventure games, like King’s Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, It Came From the Desert. I was fascinated by the idea of interactive, player driven narratives: I saw characters, worlds, compelling stories. But I also saw player agency in driving these stories. It was fascinating.

Q. When did you realize that games were a channel for impact?

A. I was seeing the millions of hours that people were spending, leaning forward, immersed in our game worlds. I was fascinated by the potential of the medium. At that time, in the mid-to-late 1990s, there was a growing body of research around how games could create a positive impact. Games invite you to step into a character, go into a problem space, you have agency to make decisions, you get feedback from the game, peers, and mentors, you can iterate and level up and develop mastery as defined by the game. It cultivates all of the key twenty-first century skills and literacies. So, along with a colleague, Michael Angst, we founded E-Line Media to help bring the rigor of an Activision-style developing and publishing methodology to the impact game space.

Q. What drives your work at E-Line?

A. We want to develop and publish games that help players understand and shape the world, to bring diverse new voices and perspectives to the medium, and make games that explore the big issues of the day. So, for example, we’re doing a game now with BBC Blue Planet, the beautiful ocean documentary. They said, “We would like to partners on a game exploring the important themes of the ocean.”

Q. You’ve partnered with dozens of organizations: MIT, Gates, MacArthur, USAID, and now the BBC. What makes for the best kind of collaboration when developing a game?

A. One of the things that is undervalued and is absolutely critical is simply identifying and aligning stakeholders. Since our projects all involve multiple stakeholders, often from very different backgrounds and sectors, ensuring that we are aligned at the highest level on financial objectives, risk tolerance, and impact objectives is absolutely critical.

Also, there can be crazy twists and turns, and many slings and arrows in game development. Working with folks that you get along with and with whom you can collaboratively problem solve under a lot of pressure is essential.

Q. How does Endless fit into your perspective on the gaming landscape?

A. We have many shared objectives with Matt and his team at Endless. We believe passionately that we want kids to harness the power of games and entertainment in order to inspire them to shape the technology versus being shaped by it. We recognize the unique power of games to help do that.

We’re aligning our initiatives around games that help cultivate foundational computational and design thinking skills, interest-driven creation pathways—because kids like to make things they are interested in. And we’re cultivating communities where, once kids make things, they can get feedback from peers and mentors. We’re even taking it all the way to, potentially, setting up kids for professional certification and building portfolios that will help them get into college and get a job.

Q. Having seen so many shifts in public, nonprofit, and private interest and investment in impact games, what would you say the landscape looks like now?

A. I would say: significant improvements. There are now quite a few projects in the games for learning, health, and social impact side that are both rigorously researched and also financially successful. They’re competing for discretionary time in the consumer space and replacing time or money in the classroom. These are now viable businesses and projects. It’s a sector that is becoming more self-sustaining and is growing. And that’s exciting.