In 1999, when game developer Francesco Cavallari finished his studies at the Università degli Studi di Milano, he landed a coveted job as a programmer at Ubisoft Milan. This job would kick off a fifteen-year career in the videogame industry where he would rise through the ranks and work on titles like Beyond Good & Evil and Rainbow Six 3 Black Arrow among many others. As 2014 rolled around though, Cavallari was itching for a change. He wanted a new challenge. He wanted to make a difference.
“I’m not the kind of guy who has always been volunteering,” confessed Cavallari. “I don’t have the kind of profile that people might expect from those doing this sort of thing.”
What inspired him though was his girlfriend’s commitment to charitable works. Working as a hospital clown, she was in the midst of organizing a project with malnourished kids in Africa. Seeing her go as part of Clowns Without Borders, Cavallari joked that he would also go as part of Video Games Without Borders. Although said jokingly, this sparked his interest in seeing how video games can help especially how he could “maximize” their positive contributions to society.
“I feel like [we in the video game industry] have to do something different,” explained Cavallari.
He likened his motivation to an experience he had visiting an elephant farm run by locals. Its business model relied on tourists who helped in taking care of the elephants for a week. Given the world’s decreasing elephant population, the model not only provided visitors with a greater appreciation of the animals but also funding to sustain this sanctuary for the elephants.
“The [farm’s] founder told us, ‘You might think that we’re here because we love animals but that’s not really the case. We did this because we just realized that someone had to do it,’” recalled Cavallari. “[Similarly] I feel like that’s my mission at this moment of my life…to do something different [in games].”
That feeling would lead Cavallari to the West African country of Burkina Faso. For the organization’s first project, he wanted to see whether they could provide mentorship, promote local culture, and finance charity projects all while making a game in one of the poorest countries in the world. Thus, the idea for One World, a Million Stories was born where they recruited and mentored local people to create interactive stories based on their own culture and traditions. Profit from the project will then be used to support other non-governmental organizations.
As with any nascent organization though, the first project didn’t go smoothly. Cavallari’s unfamiliarity with Burkina Faso would prove daunting as he wrestled with many infrastructure challenges including power cuts, unstable internet connection, as well as few locals having computer access. It would take three months (out of the six he spent there) to get familiar with the country and build enough local connections (including partnerships with local schools and running workshops about game development tools like Unity).
Ultimately, Cavallari found that under these conditions, concept and pre-production (story, script, visuals) can be done locally but the production side (such as animation) required professional help in order to fully finish a project in time. To this day, balancing all these goals (of mentoring emerging developers, supporting the local community, and completing projects) is something the organization continues to fine-tune. Looking back, Cavallari admits that the six month stint was an extreme test to see whether a game can be done under challenging conditions. The answer was undeniable: though difficult, it was certainly possible.
Following on the heels of One World, a Million Stories, Cavallari entered 2016 with the goal of expanding Video Game Without Borders’ community. After giving more and more talks about the organization and meeting potential collaborators, the non-profit has grown from a solo operation into a community of over 100 people involved in giving back through the medium of games.
The momentum from this growing interest carried forward to the projects they tackled including their most recent one in Antura and the Letters. Securing funds from EduApp4Syria, a NORAD initiative aimed at providing educational tools to Syrian children, the game looks to be their largest project to date.
Seeing how over 2.8 million children have been denied of schooling because of the ongoing conflict in Syria, Video Game Without Borders partnered up with Cologne Game Lab and Wixel Studios to create a game aimed at building literacy skills for refugee children between the ages of five to ten. Currently in development, Cavallari sees the game as one of the best examples why he and his colleagues are doing what they are doing.
“Now in the news with what’s happening in Syria, we’re trying to make the best game we can to help those kids,” explained Cavallari. “I’m not a doctor, I’m not a teacher, and so I cannot help directly in that way. But, what I do know is how to make games.”