I am driven by the notion that reality is nothing more than story realized, and that if you want to change reality you must first change the story. In fact, I gave a TED talk about exactly that which played a significant role in allowing me to work in Congo since 2010 and in turn, brought Justin and I together. But that is a different story. This story starts with me at my computer, and my fiancée at our kitchen table.
“Hey—there is a guy making a video game about conflict minerals in Congo,” she said. She had just discovered the project searching Congo related hashtags on social media. That was the first I heard of Socent Studios. Honestly, I’m not sure I even lifted my head to acknowledge her statement.
To be fair, I had just completed my film, WHEN ELEPHANTS FIGHT (Netflix, Amazon, iTunes), a documentary about DRC that exposes how the exploitation of minerals in that country have fueled and funded 25 years of conflict and how we as westerners not only have an ability to affect change in Congo — but a responsibility to do so. At the time, WHEN ELEPHANTS FIGHT (WEF), was still hot on the festival circuit and was just beginning its early stages of distribution, which meant it demanded my attention 24hours a day.
Further, if I had a nickel for every email or phone call I had received from someone who had an idea for a Congo project during the five years I would spend creating and producing WEF, but no fucking clue what it would take to actually make it happen, well — I’d have a lot of nickels. So, “some guy making a video game,” did not seem particularly important to me at the time. As I would discover, the universe had other plans.
Fast forward nearly a year later, and the "video game guy" now had a name — Justin Bastian. Thanks to my fiancée’s persistence, Justin and I spoke. Our call lasted less than 30 minutes. We exchanged pleasantries and Justin shared a high-level overview of his idea. In fairness to Justin, I’m not a gamer. All I knew of the industry was killing zombies and driving cars. But anyone who knows Justin, knows that a few minutes on the phone with him is all he needs to inspire you with his passion and vision.
After our call, I decided to introduce Justin to the campaign team in charge of organizing political action around WEF. At the time, Justin was working on his game concept with a university and the WEF campaign was working with college campuses all over the world. They seemed better positioned to work with him, than I. I assumed that would be the last time I spoke with Justin but once again, the universe had other plans.
Fast forward nearly another year, I’m standing in the Brussels airport about to board a plane with Justin Bastian, to accompany him and a small team through the Democratic Republic of Congo. Justin was successful in raising first-round capital to fund his trip to DRC to listen, learn, develop relationships, and witness first-hand the issues and community-based solutions on the ground in Eastern Congo. My purpose on the trip was to help introduce him to the thought leaders and heroes of Congo who influenced and informed me in the making of my film and to document his experience in a short film that would be used to convey his project to second-round investors.
Even as I got onto the plane with Justin, I didn’t fully understand his plan or thinking. His passion, vision, and pure dedication to Congo, however, was unwavering and those are core values that ring truest with me. It wasn’t until we arrived in Congo that I finally began to understand his (and the universe’s) plan and my role in it.
My first moment of clarity came in realizing that video games had grown into something far more than I understood them to be. They were not just shooting or driving games, they were—or could be—platforms for deep narrative. Much like a film, games have a protagonist, antagonist, and objective. Anyone familiar with Campbell, Aristotle or even Syd Field, know that the protagonist, antagonist, and objective are the three main building blocks of western narrative—from Dante’s Inferno to Green Eggs and Ham.
Once these three elements are established it is up to the author and the audience to decide how deep to go with the narrative development. There is no “story governor” inherent in video games and no reason to think they can’t hold all the narrative asked of them. Furthermore, in film we vicariously watch and experience our heroes journey. In games we ARE the agency, we ARE the hero. As a filmmaker and storyteller, the more I thought about how incredibly powerful that is, the more intrigued I became.
As we journeyed across Eastern Congo with prominent Civil Society leaders, Fidel Bafilemba and Amani Matabaro, the conversations with Justin continued. When making my film, the biggest challenge I faced was how to express the information necessary to properly inform an audience, without making a purely academic film. Generally, people do not sit down and watch films, or play games “to learn." That might be a result but typically it is not the principle motivation. Furthermore, once you inform the audience, how do you get them to engage? I asked Justin how he planned to deal with this.
“Gamers are the most curious and passionate techies you’ll ever meet,” he replied.
“People who are drawn to online games are people who pay attention to the details," Justin explained. "To be a successful gamer you need to figure things out like what's behind the door, where your teammates are, how each new tool works, the most rewarding way to manage and grow resources, or how best to quest a challenge and identify the solutions needed to produce an epic win. These are characteristics that the gaming industry counts on from its online players. These are also the same characteristics that yield successful change agents. Not everyone is going to be an expert on Congo’s Great Lakes region, but they will absolutely want to know why minerals from Congo have turned their gaming devices into Conflict Electronics, and how those same minerals are helping to fund and fuel the greatest atrocity since WWII. Perspectively, 100 million gamers vote, are ‘highly’ politically active, and are seamlessly socially engaged. We like to spend our spare time weaving through online community, solving puzzles, and conquering bad guys.”
“So how do we get them to take action in real life?" I asked. "Are we building a website that we send them to? Will this be a social media campaign? Where do they go to engage?”
Justin didn’t call me a dumbass directly, but his look was clear. “Mike…. they are already on their computers, consoles, and mobile devices. They don’t have to go anywhere. The actions are integrated into the gaming experience!”
Pause. Pause. Pause.
”So once the gamer finishes a specific level designed to educate them about conflict minerals, a petition could appear that players sign to protect and reinforce the Conflict Mineral Provision of the Dodd Frank bill?” I asked.
“Exactly,” he replied.
“And how many players do we expect for a game like this?”
“Through transmedia narrative, senior triple-A game development, authentic messaging, and multiplatform release, we see four million.”
Pause. Pause. Pause.
Pause. Pause. Pause.
“That means even if only 25% of those gamers act, we would still have close to a million signatures!?!?”
“Correct,” Justin smiled.
To contextualize this, my film had been screening all over the world, with over 100 screenings set up in 16 countries plus major outlets such as Netflix, Amazon and distribution in Europe, South America and Africa. Up to that point, it had generated approximately 5,000+ signatures on a similar petition... and we were getting a lot of traction with those numbers. 1,000,000 western consumers engaging in the issues of Congo would be a force of change never seen before!
I was starting to get it.
As his immersion across Eastern Congo continued, our conversations progressed. Not only about the game and Congo, but conversations that come up when people journey together to a conflict region united in such a cause. We shared stories about our lives, ambitions, struggles, and hopes. We’re both Midwestern boys with rust-belt roots — me from Flint, Michigan him from Cleveland, Ohio. Both towns are more notorious for their decline, murder rates, and unemployment than for being the economic engines they once were or the storied sports town's they've always been. In short, Justin and I bonded.
It was atop of Mt. Nyiragongo that my relationship with Justin solidified, as did my belief in this project. Mt. Nyiragongo is a stratovolcano in North Kivu (Eastern Congo). The largest lava lake on planet earth, it is also the least researched volcano in the world. The 11,380-foot trek up is an 8 hour climb from bottom to the top. I photographed it many times while in DRC but I had never climbed it - let alone with my dear brothers, Fidel and Amani. I was excited.
We all were.
The journey to the top was challenging. The climb was steep, and the footing became less reliable the higher we got. But on we went. Our team galvanized by the anticipation of looking over the edge into earths womb. Approximately 8 hours later, that was exactly what we did. It was stunning and overwhelming. I’m still not quite sure I’ve processed what we saw and I don’t think it’s possible to consume such awe in one viewing. My reaction at the time was to rip off my shirt and yell… it was the best I could do.
As we sat atop and gazed at the wonder before us, our porters prepared for us an incredible dinner of stew, rice, and coffee. We were called to dinner and sat in a small tent, warmed by the fire that cooked our food. We consumed our meal in silence, all of us cognizant that we were but 200 feet from the center of the earth—humbled and awed by opportunities of this life and this country.
The most complexing reality of Congo for anyone lucky enough to travel there, is that you are faced with a beauty outside any framework ever experienced. At the very same time, it presents horror and human ugliness that is hard to imagine anywhere outside the boundaries of hell. It is a contrast that provokes. A provocation usually voiced with the question, “How can this be?” The answers that never come create a humbling silence. After dinner, Justin and I stood in that silence and drank our coffee looking out into the raging volcano.
I eventually started the conversation that would solidify my belief in Justin and this project. I had just finished a five-year journey in Congo, during which time I had gotten divorced, lost a son, gone broke (more than a few times), and through it all, never wavered on the fact that I would finish my film and keep my promise to the Congolese. This is what Congo demands. It’s this commitment that matters more than any narrative, or business plan. You can’t fake it, or half-ass it—it is a zero sum game. You’re either all in, or get the fuck out. And now Justin was staring down the starting line of his version of the same journey.
“Are you ready to do this?” I asked.
His words were simple, but his conviction was clear – “I am." It was all he had to say and I absolutely believed him.
I believed him because I had seen his eyes light up with “holy shit!” as he tried to take in all of Congo. I believed him because I had seen him never lose attention or interest when being debriefed by the many Congolese who wanted to share their story with the Mzungu. I believed him because I saw the way he hugged mama Justine—a superhero who needs no cape, and I saw the way he broke inside when he met the boy soldiers trying to find their new way. I believed him because after our paths crossed, I saw him take an idea and rapidly turn it into the funds and team he needed to launch his social enterprise. Now here he was, in Eastern Congo overlooking the lights of Goma, with a conviction that I recognized.
I believed in him.
Later that night, as we stood at the crest of Nyiragongo and watched her glowing amber smoke rise to the stars, we made a promise to ourselves and to each other that we would see this project through. We would do all we could, with all we are, to create a game that informed, engaged, and moved the needle of human consciousness in a sizable shift toward peace, progress, and prosperity in Congo. Then we casted our pact into the center of the raging lava lake below, offering it up to the heavens.
We are all now back home, steeped in the tasks necessary to launch a project of this scope. Every so often, as I’m banging away on my computer or pacing the floor in a marathon call, my fiancée will chuckle and remind me that she, “told me so.” And she’s right. Two years ago, I dismissed the “video game guy”. Now, after many phone calls, a journey across Eastern Congo, and a summit of Nyiragongo, I am working by his side, dedicated to building a World Game that changes the narrative of Congo, driven by our audacious belief that changing the story can change the world.
Well played universe. Well played.
Narrated by Robin Wright, Mike's most recent feature film, WHEN ELEPHANTS FIGHT (WEF), was the opening night documentary at The Edinburgh International Film festival and winner of the BEST DOCUMENTARY AWARD at the HumanDOC Film Festival and is currently available on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes. At great risk to their lives, WEF is also the only DRC documentary to be screened in Congo by Congolese, for Congolese.
Socent Studios is The Cleveland based social enterprise creating interactive transmedia to educate, inspire and mobilize millions toward durable impact in the world.