Lewis Carter & Alexandra Coghlan On Putting The Fun Back Into Fundraising With Engaging Games
Dr. Alexandra Coghlan is an Associate Professor in Tourism at Griffith University, a marine and environmental biologist with a graduate diploma in environmental education and a Scuba Dive Master.
Ali has worked in nature-based tourism attractions and conservation for nearly two decades, striving to make conservation fun and interesting to everyone.
Lewis Carter is PhD Candidate at Griffith University, Software Engineer and Game Developer. His PhD work looks at the process of taking a complex ecosystems like the Great barrier reef and turning them into fun but accurate video games, and how different features affect a player’s connection to that ecosystem.
Together, they formed EcoGames, a social enterprise creating fun and exciting video games that link players back to conservation to create real world impact for the environments their games portray.
Ali and Lewis discuss an innovative new social enterprise they’ve created to engage, educate and inspire people, while funding important conservation of world heritage sites such as The Great Barrier Reef.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Tom Allen] - To start things off, could you please share a bit about your backgrounds and what led you both down the path of social enterprise and a passion for helping our marine life?
[Alexandra Coghlan] - My background is in the marine biology and environmental science space. My first job out of uni was actually being a marine tour guide. And that's when I discovered a real passion for sharing the marine environment with other people. And I went to them to work on the reef. I started working on the Great Barrier Reef back in 2002 and since then it's been really eating away at me: how can we make people better understand what is a big and complex ecosystem in situations where people are already trying to deal with, [and are unfamiliar with], being seasick on a boat and having lots of information coming at them? So really trying to unpack a nice, neat, fun, engaging way of allowing people to explore that ecosystem a little bit better. And that's how I met Lewis.
Fantastic. So Lewis, tell us a little bit about your background.
[Lewis Carter] - So I've known I've always wanted to make games, but I have this inkling in me, and I think most millennials have this where they want to do something good, but they don't quite know how to do that. I wasn't sure how I would do that by making games. But when I started my PhD, Ali and I were working on a precursor to what we're doing now, but the first time we went to Cairns out in the boats, I got into the water. I'd never been to the Great Barrier Reef. And then I thought a jellyfish had touched me and I went back to shore. I couldn't do it. Went back to the boat. It scared me too much. I think the next time I went up, I didn't end up getting in the water at all.
But the third time we went up, when we were working on ResilientReef, Ali was like, ‘look, listen, you need to actually see the reef. You need to go down, get into a dive suit, go for a dive proper and see what the reef looks like actually from that perspective.’ And I was like, ‘that's a fair call. I should probably do that.’ But when I did, I fell in love instantly. It's such a beautiful ecosystem. And from there I've just been driven to make sure that it exists for generations to come.
You spoke about ResilientReef now, so can you tell us a little bit more about EcoGames, and your vision of using gaming and games such as ResilientReef to help drive this change? Where are you at on this journey?
[Alexandra] - We're at a point where hopefully we can have the game out into the public domain by the end of the year. So by December 2019. The vision for it was, to help people better understand the reef, and also because conservation tends to get a bit of a short stick when it comes to funding and often relies on that kind of heart wrenching ‘look at these images,’ you know, fear based messaging around, ‘it's all going terribly wrong.’ And we really wanted to bring it back into a fun space where people reconnected with nature. So I know it's virtual reality and I know people will say, ‘oh, but you're not really in nature.’
But it's a way for people to connect with nature at their own pace, through a game. And that was super important to me. And so by then building on this fundraising mechanism, our tagline is ‘putting the fun back into fundraising.’ So really that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to circumvent this begging for funds for conservation because we all depend on healthy ecosystems. At the end of the day without a healthy ecosystem we're in trouble. So trying to circumvent that and really bring fundraising to conservation back to the fore and making it fun, engaging and something that people want to be part of.
Fantastic. You're both academics at Griffith University as well, so how have you found balancing academic life with starting a social enterprise?
[Lewis] - Look, to be completely honest, we're probably not doing a fantastic job of balancing both because they're essentially two full time jobs. But I think the important part that doing that is to make sure that you always keep all the plates spinning. You can't let one fall down one way and then try and pick it up later. Every week you're doing both of them consistently so that both are moving forward. One can't be left behind, otherwise that's going to ruin the whole system essentially. One thing I did realise though, is having a background in designing research protocols and data collection has actually become super useful when it comes to measuring impact in the social enterprise. And putting that into practise. So it appears to be one of the things that social enterprises find a bit difficult, but I think we've got a good grounding in that because of our academic backgrounds.
That's a good insight. What about yourself Ali?
[Alexandra] - For me, despite having that environmental background, I actually worked in the business school. So a lot of the stuff that we’re now trying to put into practise is stuff that I've been covering from a theoretical perspective for a number of years now and having to put it into practise is a whole new challenge. It's been really fun and challenging. It's definitely stretched my mind a lot; ‘how does that actually work in practise?’
I get the theory, the theory is interesting, but I want to know how I make that work in practise. I think that's actually going to make me a much better academic. Having that practical side balances that theoretical side and being able to go into theory and have a look at some models and use that to compliment the practise.
I think they actually compliment each other really, really well.
Yeah, absolutely. On this journey, I imagine you've had a lot of challenges and the exciting thing is you’ve launched your crowdfunding campaign as well, so congratulations on that. I'm sure that's been a huge challenge in itself, but tell us about some of these key challenges in running EcoGames and how you've worked around them.
[Alexandra] - I think first of all, just being brave enough to do it. As academics, to step out there and go, ‘right, we're going to make this happen.’ That came about because we had so much public interest, so many people coming up to us when we were testing it, saying, ‘how can we download this game? Where is it available? I want to show my brother, I want to show my teacher. Where can I get it?’ Eventually we just said, ‘okay, we're going to have to do it.’
I think one of the challenging things to me is presenting it. So how do we get people to understand what we're doing when we are having to write grants in a written form, when what we're doing is very visual.
I remember the first pitch practise that we did with you, Tom, one of the comments that we got at the end was, 'Oh! it's VR? I didn't realise.' And so then we brought in the VR headsets and now when we're pitching, one of us puts on the VR headset to make it completely abundantly obvious that it's in VR. And so those little things were things that we were struggling to communicate when we first started. So we were struggling to get a bit of traction at the start, but now we've become much, much better with, practising and rehearsing and getting different feedback. We've become much better at that.
And what about from a crowdfunding campaign perspective? Lewis what have been some of the big challenges there for you?
[Lewis] - Well, neither of us have ever run a crowdfunding campaign before. And so the experience of others doing that has been really helpful but also sometimes you've just got to... We knew in our hearts that we could... Well, it's yet to be seen, but we could do this and you know, we keep getting feedback on, ‘we need more time to prepare’ and things like that. But knowing that we have got ready and what we know how we can do it is on the fly.
It's about trusting yourself as well as trusting the other people that are giving you advice, because the advice is amazing, but ultimately between the both of us as co-founders, we've got to make the decisions for ourselves.
Absolutely. Yeah, such a good point. I think it's a really common point that a lot of founders come up against; all these differing opinions and viewpoints and which ones are correct and which ones do you run with?
[Lewis] - Yeah. I think if you search hard enough you'll find every opinion.
Ultimately it's about what feels comfortable to you is how you should run your business.
So as participants in the Elevate+ Accelerator it's been great to work with you both further, but what have been one or some of the core lessons that you've learnt from the program that you think other social entrepreneurs might find valuable as well?
There is a whole ecosystem out there of support, of resources, of people who want to see you succeed, of people who will step in and help you out when you need it. Offer you advice, give you tips, do things pro bono for you when it really matters and connect you up.
And just having that real different way of seeing how business could be run. That was one of the things that first attracted us to Elevate+. And that has been so important to me that we can be around social entrepreneurs, to be around people who see things the same way that we do and want to see that environmental impact and that social impact, has been a real benefit to me personally.
[Lewis] - Yeah, absolutely. And on top of that, before we were in the Elevate+ program, we'd talked to business coaches, we’d talked to other people who had started a business, but they didn't have that social impact side. And so it was sometimes hard for us to have those conversations when, always in our hearts, we wanted to make sure that the social side of things was the most important, but it didn't seem like it was to them. We felt like we were kept running into walls talking to those people. But everyone we've met through Elevate+, all of the mentors, everyone just understands that there's no kind of like, ‘oh, how are you gonna make money?’ It's like, ‘yeah, no, we will make money. The impacts got to be sorted out though.’
Thanks very much for that feedback Lewis. Let's talk about some inspiring projects or initiatives then. What have you both come across recently that you believe are really creating some great positive social change?
[Alexandra] - We had a presentation as part of the programme and I had seen them before with the bags [Elvis & Kresse] made out of recycled fire hose. And I pulled it up and showed it to Lewis and said, 'Right, I want that to be my next birthday present.' You didn't get me one though Lewis!
[Lewis] - Yeah, I forgot. I'm sorry it's in the mail.
[Alexandra] - That's definitely one to me that I thought it's doing the right thing in a lot of different ways and it's producing something that aesthetically is absolutely beautiful and having that impact at the same time.
[Lewis] - I'm going to shout out someone from Elevate+, I mean everyone in Elevate+ is incredible. But I especially like Vessel Nundah just because I think there should be a BYO container store just near everyone. Sometimes you want to do the right thing, you know that consuming all these plastics is bad, but then the effort to figure out how to lessen the amount of plastic you use can be tough. So just something like this makes it super easy. You just bring a bottle, get the skin care and cleaning products and don't waste plastic. It's just amazing.
[Alexandra] - Can I have one more?
Absolutely. Go for it.
[Alexandra] - Obviously, and Lewis, I think you'll agree with this, the Good Beer Co. They align with us so well around what we're trying to achieve… and beers and games, I mean, could you think of a more perfect match? Yeah, I think those guys definitely... And they also have the Pale Tail, so Lewis and I are both dog lovers as well, so we're fully behind that too.
A match made in heaven. And Brisbane based as well, which is great. So to finish off then let's talk about some inspiring books, maybe even some some blogs or some other things that you'd recommend to our listeners.
[Lewis] - You get recommended a lot of books, so I was thinking instead I can recommend some games to our listeners?
[Lewis] - I've got two really special ones and I would love giving these as examples because they really show... I think people have an idea of what games can be that's quite small and these really show that there's bigger impacts to be made with games. The first one's, Depression Quest by Zoë Quinn, you can literally Google that right now and play it in your browser, but it really helped me understand what depression can look like, and the effects that it can have on someone by going through... It's a simple text adventure thing, but just going through that process of playing it was amazing. The other one is That Dragon, Cancer. It's an incredibly heartbreaking game. It's about two parents supporting their four year old son through a cancer diagnosis based on the real life experience of the developers and it's hard to play because games don't necessarily need to be fun, but they can be important.
It sounds like a couple of really great, engaging games. Do you have anything to add Ali?
[Alexandra] - There's been lots of books mentioned about social enterprises, so I'm going to go for a couple of other ones. Anything by David Attenborough. Life On Air. Absolutely for any nature lovers. One that really influenced me early on was Ken Robinson's The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. And another one that I go back to a lot when I'm sort of feeling a little bit unsure about, ‘is it okay to speak up at this point? Am I pushing the barrel out a little bit too far?’ is Giving Voice to Values by Mary Gentile, which was a really good book around...
You never know who's listening, you never know who's paying attention and who might then start to step up and share and try and create a collective impact in the world because of what you said.
Fantastic. Ali and Lewis, thanks so much for your generous insights and time today, and best of luck with the rest of your crowdfunding campaign.
Recommended books and games
Depression Quest by Zoë Quinn
Life On Air by David Attenborough
The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson
Giving Voice to Values by Mary Gentile