Often associated with antisocial behaviors like violence and aggression, video games are not typically viewed as vehicles for positive social change.
A Cleveland entrepreneur is among a pioneering contingent of game developers seeking to change that narrative.
Justin Bastian is founder and CEO of Cleveland-based Socent Studios, a 4-year-old digital production startup that aims to mobilize players into joining the fight for conflict-free consumer electronics. Bastian said his video game — tentatively titled “The Deadliest War: A World Game of Peace” — is “production-ready” and will educate gamers on the link between conflict minerals found in their tech gadgets and the brutal war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Late in February, the nascent company went live as one of 21 featured on Opportunity CLE’s project exchange, which is designed to highlight promising early-stage investments that bring with them potential tax incentives. According to Bastian, it soon may also be featured on a platform focused on social impact investing and is in serious funding talks with the foundation of a prominent media publisher.
“I can’t say as of right now when I will get the funding, but I know this: I am never giving up on this project,” he said. “This game will happen, and it will influence the world toward peace in Congo.”
It was 2016 when a “Navy SEAL friend” first exposed Bastian to a film about conflict minerals, which are extracted from militia- controlled mines in eastern Congo and then sold for use in consumer electronics such as cellphones, laptops and game consoles. The trade of these minerals finances rebel armies in the African nation and contributes to widespread human-rights abuses.
At the time, Bastian said he was producing “H-Hour,” a video game to succeed Sony’s popular “SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs” as part of his first indie game startup, SOF Studios. The longtime techie hadn’t heard about conflict minerals, nor could he locate Congo on a map, but the documentary struck a nerve.
“I immediately recognized that my passion for electronics and games was directly financing and fueling the world’s deadliest war since World War II, that I was a direct contributor to the greatest humanitarian crisis on our planet. It was absolutely crushing,” Bastian said.
He soon surmised, however, that video-game enthusiasts like him represent a largely untapped change agent in conflict electronics. Bastian claimed there are 153 million “highly politically active” online gamers in the U.S., including roughly 50 million who are “prosocial,” meaning they are inclined to act — politically or otherwise — when they know it will benefit others. He added that gamers also happen to be “the most passionate electronics consumers in the world.”
“So, we decided to build a video game to share the hope, story and beauty of Congo with millions of passionate, prosocial, politically active online gamers,” he said.
Armed with $175,000 from two early Socent investors, Bastian and Netflix-distributed filmmaker Mike Ramsdell journeyed overseas in 2017 to immerse themselves in the peace effort. The duo built relationships with prominent local leaders and generated several short films based on their monthlong visit, including one that was screened at The Oxford Union by American actress Robin Wright and Congolese nonviolence activist Fred Bauma.
In addition to the films, Socent has produced graphic novels in four languages to both inform freedom fighters in eastern Congo and develop a prerelease “Deadliest War” audience here in the U.S., Bastian said. He’s also recruited writers, game developers and franchise creators from the likes of Sony, Marvel and DC Comics and completed the video game’s preproduction designs, storylines and intellectual-property protection.
“Now, we are just awaiting funding,” he said.
Socent is seeking $500,000 in seed financing to produce a “playable” PC-based prototype, according to Bastian, and cultivate an engaged community of 30,000-50,000 early users. After that, he estimated the company will need another $3.5 million to fully build out its PC release and scale “Deadliest War” for Xbox and PlayStation systems, which could be available as soon as 18 months after the seed round.
“Deadliest War,” a narrative-driven, first-person game, will put players in the shoes of a young Congolese boy who has witnessed violence at the hands of armed militants and must fight inner demons that threaten to consume his goodness. Along the way, vignettes and other game features will open players’ eyes to the “unbelievable beauty” of the African nation and its people, Bastian said, and educate them about the mining and trade of conflict minerals.
Players also will be linked to a petition demanding electronic manufacturers stop using conflict minerals, and Socent’s online gaming platform will enable gamers to connect directly to government websites at the local, state and federal level, giving them easy access to their representatives. Bastian said geolocation features will enable users to identify likeminded gamers in their community and beyond, ideally to spark peaceful political actions such as discussions, protests and assemblies.
Ultimately, Bastian said he hopes to leverage the game into a “World Game of Peace” franchise, which will script follow-up installments on humanitarian crises in other countries. While the $138 billion video-game market is highly competitive, he said “Deadliest War” and its successors will fall into the fledgling, culture-focused “world game” space, which is sparsely populated but not untested.
World game pioneer “Never Alone,” inspired by Alaskan Native communities, brought in $40 million on a $3 million production budget even before being ported over from PCs to consoles, according to Bastian.
“We know the market is there,” he said. “We know that there are 50 million gamers in the U.S. alone who are going to care a great deal about our cause and want to take political action with us to put an end to conflict electronics in our supply chain.”