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June 17, 2024
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Sea Monster: “Play with a purpose can change the world”

Sea Monster: “Play with a purpose can change the world”

You can read all our South Africa Games Week articles on this page.

A pillar of the South African video games industry, Sea Monster Entertainment occupies a different space compared to some of its counterparts, as a work-for-hire studio specialising in games for marketing and ‘serious gaming’.

CEO Glenn Gillis describes the studio as an “impact gaming company.”

“We believe that play with a purpose can change the world, and so we work with big brands to find ways for them to show up authentically in games,” he explains. “Harder than it sounds, but it’s possible. And then, of course, game-based learning is how humans prefer to learn, and it’s got huge applications. So [we’re] really an impact gaming business through and through. We’ve been around for [over] 12 years. We’ve got 38 people in the core team, and we employ about 14 developers in addition to that, so I think it makes us one of the larger studios on the continent. And [we’re] massively passionate about things that we can do for the continent, but also from the continent.”

Sea Monster works across animation, apps, games, AR/VR, and more – it’s quite a versatile studio, from its roots in animation all the way to making games in Roblox for instance.

“Visual storytelling really cuts across cultures in a way that very few media do,” Gillis continues. “And of course, what’s better than a story is a story that you have agency in. [We] sometimes work with large public benefit organisations, NGOs, or corporates, to really bring the power of game and visual design to some of the world’s most wicked challenges.”

A lot of Sea Monster’s projects tackle topics such as mental health and education, such as Swipa (a game that teaches children about how their actions impact others, made in partnership with non-profit Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading) or The Last Maestro (a VR project looking to help those suffering from PTSD).

“It’s an amazing project,” Gillis says of The Last Maestro. “A partner in LA has done extensive work around the therapeutic benefits of classical music, and it is proven to actually, physiologically change the brain. And so the question then is how do you take that to the world? This is a brilliant application of VR because you’re getting a truly immersive effect, the benefits of that classical music, and you are conducting the orchestra. But it’s more toy than game – there’s no win state. It’s not Guitar Hero. It’s very relaxing, it stimulates the movement, and the world becomes more interactive.”

“[We’re] massively passionate about things that we can do for the continent, but also from the continent”

He continues: “[The Last Maestro] has undergone trials at the children’s cancer hospital in Oakland, and it reduces stress in nurses and other first responders. The use cases are perfect, the [VR] technology is mature, and we think it’s a business that can scale massively.”

Sea Monster is a founding member of Games for Change Africa, established in 2021 as a regional chapter of the non-profit organisation promoting games as a tool for social change, with Gillis as its chairperson. His links to Games for Change date back to the studio’s early days and its mission to shift behaviour around some social issues.

“We identified that we needed to promote the credibility of our industry generally, raise its profile, and build on the work that others have done,” Gillis says, adding that he appreciates Games for Change’s approach, which believes that there isn’t one global way to do things.

“Diversity is a real strength, isn’t it? So, we’ve got representation on our advisory board from eight African countries. We have studios, we have academics, we have all the sectors represented in some form. And then, we’re figuring out how to grow and scale and make it sustainable, because really the idea isn’t to take away from what’s already happening, but rather to add to it.”

Gillis acknowledges that running a games business anywhere is challenging, but adds with a smile that doing so in Africa is “fully insane,” hence the importance of strong support systems.

The lack of government support is mentioned among the reasons why running a games business in South Africa is challenging, though Gillis says that’s not the side he wants to focus on.

“Traditionally, any forward-thinking government sees the potential of the creative industries generally, and the gaming industry specifically. The UK [and France] have certainly embraced this in a massive way and have delivered the economic benefits, but also the cultural benefits. Those are things we can’t control. But it’s useful to think about: What is a game? What is an African game? A South African game?”

He explains he thinks about this through four lenses, namely what is inspired by Africa, made in Africa, sold in Africa, and owned by Africa.

“And that’s really the value chain simplified, and each of those has got its own issues,” he continues. “We believe that a supply push approach is just fatally flawed. So, game jams, all of these things in isolation actually make the problem worse, not better. They need to be demand-led. So, what we need is projects, offtake agreements, partnerships, co-productions, because unless you are growing the industry from the middle, then what you keep doing is adding hackathons and coming up with prototypes, but you don’t really get to a benefit unlocking. So, our [challenge] is really about what we call the missing middle, which is about production capacity, industrial creative capacity, which is the ‘made in Africa’ piece.”

“A supply push approach is just fatally flawed.. Game jams, all of these things in isolation actually make the problem worse, not better. They need to be demand-led”

This idea of ‘missing middle’ also applies to talent, with people entering the games industry in South Africa often finding their career progression stunted by a lack of available senior roles to grow into.

Then comes projects inspired by Africa, Gillis continues, explaining the two sides of the idea.

“One is above the waterline, so the art, the music, the incredible stories that we have to tell but also, below the waterline, the way that we use technology, for example. We were at the forefront of mobile, web-based gaming, which is a massive growth driver everywhere around the world. And we had to be there out of necessity. So, we’re also using technology in very innovative ways. But perhaps the most important thing ultimately is the ‘owned by Africa’, because until you get annuity income, whether that’s royalties or licensing fees or whatever, you really are just selling your time and your ideas.

“And one could argue that that’s largely extractive, not necessarily a bad thing on its own, but it needs to be part of something bigger. And then, you get that real flywheel working, where you’re taking the dividends of your previous project, and you’re reinvesting that to make better prototypes, better ideas, so that you can ultimately benefit from those further down the line.”

Games for Change president Susanna Pollack and Sea Monster Entertainement CEO Glenn Gillis at Africa Games Week 2023

Despite these challenges, Gillis highlights what makes South Africa special for making games, saying there’s “no greater joy than giving people a means for them to tell their own story.”

“At its highest purpose, games and what we do really allows people to find their voices. And, in the long game of colonialism, we think it’s really important. Building careers in the industry is important, so there’s a business and industrial development piece of it, and giving decent work. Being able to earn your way in the world through your creativity and your technical skills is something that’s really important too.

“And around the world, diversity and inclusion is a topic. It’s a way of life. It’s embedded. There’s not just a diversity in a gender sense or the racial sense, but there’s a true diversity in the way that we think about the world. And of course, the science of how diversity creates better results is proven, and so I think our biggest gift to the world is actually our ability to unlock that diversity and bring that out.”

“At its highest purpose, games and what we do really allows people to find their voices. And, in the long game of colonialism, we think it’s really important”

On a practical level, the South African games industry also benefits from being an English speaking country on the same timezone as Europe, with strong work ethics, Gillis says. This has certainly contributed to the ascension of its work-for-hire studios, like Sea Monster or 24 Bit Games, recently acquired by Annapurna.

More generally, Gillis adds there’s no more doubt possible about why the African continent represents an opportunity for games (as also highlighted in the Africa Games Industry Report we recently published, and this research from Game Hub Senegal) – “it really is just about the how” now, Gillis says, also pointing out to newly established organisations like Pan Africa Gaming Group.

“There’s really been a maturing, but it’s all ‘phase one’ kind of stuff. We’re at least out of the starting blocks,” he continues. “And now, what’s next? How do we bring together to really unlock the potential of, not just inspired in Africa, but also made in Africa? Cape Town is one of the top service destinations in the world [for creative industries]. Netflix is filming series here, movies are being shot, commercials are being shot on every corner. And yet we know that the gaming industry is bigger than the media, music, and publishing industries all put together. So, really, it’s only a matter of time before people realise that there are a huge number of opportunities here.”

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