Jess Murrey is not your typical founder. After 10 years of working in nonprofits to train young activists, Murrey and behavior change researcher Alicia Clifton decided that mobile games might be an unexpected way to broaden their reach. And so Wicked Saints was born.
American teenagers care about the planet, equality and mental health, but the problems often seem so big they’re paralyzing, Murrey told TechCrunch. We wanted to empower them to take on whatever the world threw at them, and the best way to do that was through games.
In leading training sessions for young activists, Murrey lamented that she can only connect with these future leaders in one moment, rather than over a longer period of time.
When they leave the training, you don’t have this constant connection with them, he said. You can’t keep training them for a long period of time. And so technology provides us with a way to scale this incredible transformative change that we were seeing and also to bring people into a community that we could maintain and continue to build.
The first Wicked Saints game, World Reborn, is an interactive story game with graphic novel-style graphics, which also incorporates augmented reality. Currently in beta with a small group of users in Canada, the post-apocalyptic story is designed to teach Gen Z how to stand up for what’s right in an entertaining way.
You expend energy on the choices you make in the graphic novel world, and when you run out of energy, the only way to empower yourself is to fuel your true self, Murrey explained.
The game will ask players to do things like leave a friend a message of encouragement or pick up trash at a local park. For some of these actions, players can verify they’ve completed them by uploading a short TikTok-style video to a community feed, which other players can vote on.
We’re giving you little ways to practice managing people and life, he said. And as you get more comfortable and you’re joined by all these others within our community, we’re taking you further and further, further and further, into the real world where you can actually make change.
Wicked Saints is the first company to emerge from the Niantics Black Developers Initiative, an incubator for Black game creators. They just raised a $3.5 million seed round led by Riot Games and Oregon Venture Fund, bringing the company to $4.6 million in total funding, including a pre-seed round.
The gaming industry is only 2% black. That has made picking much more difficult, because investors tend to invest in what they know, Murrey said. I looked nothing like the game founders they’re used to seeing. Not only did I have to overcome preconceived notions of what a game is and what it can do, but I first had to jump the hurdle of preconceived notions about myself and what I would be able to accomplish with my background.”
Despite the growing debate about diversity in tech, women of color receive funding at an abysmally low rate. In 2022, female-founded startups raised just 1.9% of venture capital deployed, down from the previous year. Also last year, Black founders raised just 1% of VC funding.
But through the Niantic incubator, Wicked Saints has hired former Pokmon GO senior software engineer Daphne Larose-Molapo as CTO. Larose-Molapo brings the technical expertise needed to succeed in the crowded mobile app market, especially as World Reborn delves into augmented reality features (which are, of course, powered by the Niantics Lightship development kit).
World Reborn hopes to monetize through corporate and nonprofit partnerships to sponsor in-game missions, rather than through traditional advertising. This is similar to Pokmon GO, which offers business links like Starbucks-branded Pokstops, but will never get you to a 30-second ad for a Candy Crush copycat game.
Wicked Saints is aiming to do a teaser launch of World Reborn in the US next year and a full launch within the next 18 months.
“My background may not be in mobile gaming, but my background is in movement building,” Murrey said. I’m not tied to the old way of doing things.
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