‘Like’ It If You Like It: Studio Cypher’s Share-Worthy Games

The game designers at the Bloomington, Indiana tech company Studio Cypher are working to make fundraising online a bit more interactive.

screenshot of the Tiger Trackers Facebook game

Photo: Mia Partlow/WFIU

Facebook users can play Tiger Trackers, donate money, and share facts about Amur tigers with their Facebook friends.

Online fundraising isn’t just common for today’s nonprofits—it’s crucial. The game designers at the Bloomington, Indiana tech company Studio Cypher are working to make fundraising online a bit more interactive.

Free, Unless You Want To Pay

Nathan Mishler is a game designer and Fictioneer at Studio Cypher. He’s got a relaxed, work-from-home style, but he works hard to bring nonprofit messages to the digital realm.

Studio Cypher recently released a Facebook game called Tiger Trackers in partnership with the Indianapolis Zoo. Their goal is to attract communities of online game players, to get people talking about the zoo’s conservation message. And they hope to bring in a little cash along the way.

Mishler says that Tiger Trackers is “really an experiment in both game play and how to make money.” The model Studio Cypher uses is called free-to-play, which means anyone can start playing the game for free, but if you want to play for a long time, or play extra levels, you’ll have to pay for the privilege.

Facebook users may recognize the free-to-play model; it’s the same one Farmville uses. This fundraising model is relatively new for nonprofits, so a lot of what Studio Cypher does is trial and error to see how people play, and what they’ll pay for.

Compared to other art forms, online games themselves are also pretty new. As Mishler says,

Part of it is that we change software every few years so everyone has to relearn it…there’s wild experimentation but a lot of it disappears after a while. So it’s very much in flux, it’s a really exciting time really. It’s really in the [vein] of ‘what is this thing we’re doing and how do we do it better, and how do we make money off of it?

Sharing The Conservation Message

Tiger Trackers educates players about endangered Amur tigers and raises money for tiger conservation. In the game, players look for tigers by seeking out clues like bits of fur and paw prints.

Along the way, users are taught lessons about tigers and their habitats, and are encouraged to share these facts with their Facebook friends. Tolly Foster, program specialist with the Indianapolis Zoo, says this type of interactive, educational play fits right into the organization’s mission.

“If your actions matter, if you’re doing something, even if it’s in a simulated environment that you know is not real, our goal is to make it personal, to make the plight of the tigers personal to the player, so they feel a connection with these tigers,” Says Mishler.

Although organizations may be trying to reach a new audience—young people, for instance—Mishler says people of all ages play these games and contrary to popular belief, many are women.

“When I say ‘are you a gamer?’ most people say no, because they have the view that the gamer is the fifteen to thirty-five year-old male who doesn’t have a lot of friends and is sitting alone playing their video games. And that’s really never been true,” Mishler explains. “Playing games is really a part of human culture. It’s how children learn, and it’s really how adults can learn as well. We just have a tendency to be like, well, it’s fun, so it’s frivolous.”

Humans find games fun because our brains send out pleasure signals when we learn new patterns and rules, and all the variations within those patterns. Game designers work hard to create rules and patterns that take a while to learn, because once we figure out the pattern, it’s not fun anymore.

The Art Of Fun

For Mishler, the link between the creativity of the game designers and the community of gamers makes games undeniably a form of art. “Are games art?” Mishler poses. “The answer is yes. I mean, from what little art training I have, and knowing about art history, I actually feel like that is the worst question to ask.”

He adds that, for him, games are a form of public art. “[A game] exists to better the space around it, to get people to think, to stop and talk about it to each other, be a centerpiece…which is what a lot of games are. They build communities.”

Game designers have a ways to go before their medium is widely accepted as art. But video games were recently declared an art form by the Supreme Court, which means they are subject to First Amendment protection. And considering film wasn’t declared an art form until 1952, games still have time to come into their own.

Mia Partlow

Mia moved to Bloomington from Louisville, Kentucky in 2002. After completing her BA at Indiana University, she lived briefly in New Orleans, and then moved to NYC to get a master's in American Studies. Now settled in Bloomington, Mia loves working with area organizations in her role as a Corporate Development associate for WFIU and WTIU. She spends most of her free time sewing and trying to tire out her energetic dog.

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