Jess Murrey's love of storytelling has taken her on a path from a job in television news to peacebuilding in Myanmar, Burundi, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, and Columbia and now to the game industry. Learn how Jess is applying the strategies she developed in her peacebuilding work to create a fantasy world where game players build character and develop strengths that can be deployed for the common good in the real world.
Q: Tell us about your interest in storytelling and how it led to your work in peace building.
Jess: I've always had a love for stories – I was that kid whose nose was always in a book. After graduating from college in 2010 with degrees in journalism and international relations, I got my first job at a local television station in Medford, Oregon, working on awareness campaigns on issues like anti-child abuse, anti-domestic abuse, and anti-sexual abuse. For that work, I won a Northwest Regional Emmy and an Oregon Association Broadcasters Award. Telling stories about horrible situations after they happen made me think that there had to be a way to prevent these things from happening in the first place. That led me to Washington D.C. and to Search for Common Good which is the world's largest dedicated peacebuilding organization and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Search for Common Good's approach recognizes that while conflict is normal, it means there is a problem waiting to be solved. Instead of focusing on differences of opinion, Search for Common Good focuses on getting people to coalesce around their shared interests, goals, and values and to seek common ground. To address really big issues, like those around race, poverty, and climate, we have to be able to problem solve collaboratively. Through Search for Common Good, I found the answer to my question how to stop bad things before they happen.
I was hired by Search for Common Good as a social media coordinator, but I quickly discovered that the organization, which had offices in 35 countries and over 800 staff worldwide, had a one-person coms department and I was it. In order to educate people on the ground how to execute on our mission, I needed good stories from the field but there was no process in place to collect them. I began by training the country directors how to tell stories and how to improve the messaging for their in-country campaigns. Before long the country directors invited me out to the field to start training their people in person. Instead of the typical top-down approach where you are trying to sell the concept of change to people who are often distrustful of the message and the messenger, I adopted a more grass roots process which I call the tattoo method framework. A person gets a tattoo because they identify with something and then claim it as their own by getting a tattoo. I think that method works really well promoting a social cause – to get buy-in to your mission, you need to identify what people care about and let them take ownership of the cause. That's the way you build trust.
Q: How did you make the leap from peacebuilding to gameplaying?
Jess: I worked with young movement leaders in countries like Myanmar, Burundi, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, and Columbia where people had suffered years of genocide, coups, and civil wars. And to complicate things, I didn't speak the language of any of these countries. I needed to think of creative ways to execute on Search for Common Ground's mission of common ground activism, working collaboratively with adversaries to solve problems affecting everyone. So, I ended up using gameplay to communicate with these movement leaders and help them look beyond the incredible hardships they experienced and unlock a new world of possibilities. And it worked.
I realized just how powerful gameplaying could be and I wanted to scale this approach in the U.S. and beyond. When I returned to the U.S., I started working with teens and saw that many young people felt very small in a big world that was out of control. But games created a world where they could take some control and possibly create a better outcome.
Games are built with a core game loop, so every time you go around it you get a little better and, as you begin to master the game, you start to feel powerful. We believe that's why Gen Z spends 40% more time in game environments than any other form of media – to feel powerful and in control. But the problem is that when you stop playing, reality comes crashing back down. So, we asked ourselves whether the power that comes from playing a game could bleed over into real life, empowering players with the self-confidence to make real change in their communities and in their own lives.
Q: You are working on your first game – World Reborn. How does that game aim to use some of the same strategies you used in your peace-building efforts?
Jess: In very simple terms, the game takes place in a graphic novel style story world where there has been a cataclysmic event. A player is encouraged to exercise their core character strengths – like discipline, inquisitiveness, optimism, social intelligence, or civility – and join with other players from around the world to crowdsource missions to save the world. With every step of the mission, the player builds her character and becomes stronger. The stronger she becomes, the more successful she is at navigating social conflicts and repairing communities. The objective is that by practicing difficult conversations, conflict resolution, and character-building in a safe, fantasy space, the player can apply the lessons learned to real life.
What's unique about what we're building – and how it leverages what I learned from Search for Common Good – is that the player can't win unless she actually takes positive actions in her life outside the fantasy world of the game. There are a number of ways we are looking to track this. Some will be simple tasks we ask a player to complete on our platform, like answering a question, reading an article, or watching a video. Others will ask the player to provide evidence of the action she has taken, for example, by making a TikTok style video that documents the action, like handing out meals to the homeless or creating an anti-bullying campaign at their school. We will also be working with brands in ways that help us track positive actions. For instance, we could work with a retailer that recycles used clothing to develop a verification code that a player is given when she donates her used coat. Those are just some of the ways we are looking to verify that a player has translated her learning in the game to a good deed in real life.
Q: Building a game is much more complex than building a software product. What is the timeline for the launch of World Reborn?
Jess: We are about to announce our Seed funding and will use those funds to build our beta and expand our community, which we expect to take about six months. We're aiming for a soft launch in 12 months and our grand launch in 18 months.
Any young people who would like to play a demo now and contribute to the game can join our Discord. Using the feedback we get we'll continue to put out new builds for our fans and our players at least every month.
Q: Your life's work has been identifying challenges and using storytelling to help people overcome those challenges. As a Black woman in a largely male dominated industry, what obstacles have you faced and how have you tackled them?
Jess: The game industry is predominantly white, male, and only 2% Black. I encountered two big obstacles when I was raising my seed round. Many funders who typically focus on investing in unrepresented founders or on social impact do not understand the game industry and don't invest in games. So many of those funders wouldn't even take meetings with me. That left the men who invest in the gaming space, and they look for founders who have spent years at an established gaming company like Riot Games or EA. That wasn't me. Yet I felt this was the perfect time for what my team and I are building. While most game developers are still using the same formula that has worked for the last 10 to 15 years, with my background in movement building, I'm not beholden to those rules. We believe we can achieve user acquisition organically onto our platform, tapping into players' sense of identity, power, and belonging in super sticky ways that will make them lifetime customers. So, in raising capital for my company, I had to overcome two big hurdles: investors' bias towards me and their bias towards games. Fortunately, there were a few investors who were able to see the vision and understand that we are building something really innovative.
Q: What advice do you have for women founders who are in the early stages of building their companies?
Jess: First, don't stop. Don't give up too soon. Whenever you feel like throwing in the towel, just give it another couple of months. I've learned that lesson from personal experience – even if you think you're not going to make it, you have a small win and that keeps you going until the next one. Second, your people are more important than your product. Startup founders tend to fall in love with their idea and become convinced their product is great. But the product will never be perfect. You need really great people who are willing to work with you to iterate, change, pivot, and continue to improve your product. I believe that investors ultimately decided to invest in my company because I had a phenomenal team – a behavioral scientist, a narrative director, a mobile game designer, and a senior engineer – all best in class with high-level experience at some of the biggest names in the game industry. Even if our product is not there yet, I'm confident that my team will get us there. So, I would say to any other young founder who thinks their idea is going to change the world: it's the people. It's the people who will change the world.
Learn more about Wicked Saints Studio: Wicked Saints Studios
Hear from Jess directly about her pre-seed raise and what's she's building: Black and women-owned gaming company in Medford makes history with new venture funds - KOBI-TV NBC5 / KOTI-TV NBC2 (kobi5.com)