Dane Changers turns gamers into doers

New online and mobile educational game inspires real-world advocacy and action.

We often see problems in our communities that we wish we could address and change, but we don’t know where to get started. Add to that the all-too-common feeling of, “But what can I really do? I’m just one person,” and it’s easy to see why more people aren’t becoming the change agents they may want to be.

Dane Changers, an online game from United Way of Dane County that debuted this August — and its new mobile versions, which are now available to download as a free app on the App Store and Google Play — aims to change all that by empowering local residents to see the real-world changes they can effect in a virtual world, and then take that knowledge out to their communities to help improve the lives of others in Dane County.

Dane Changers provides a platform to educate and inspire action across the Greater Madison community about the real needs of community members. Spanning eleven different locations across Dane County, the educational game also answers the question of what you can do to help.

This isn’t the first educational game to try to create empathy among players — “Play Spent“ and “Survive 125” are among the others — but this is the first time a United Way organization in the U.S. has jumped into the fray.

According to Jocelyn Harmon, executive vice president, community engagement, marketing, and strategy for United Way of Dane County, a lot of things had to come together at once to make Dane Changers happen.

“We’ve always been challenged with ensuring that our message is relevant and engaging to the community, especially in a time when concerns about issues at the national and international level can often grab one’s attention,” notes Harmon. “Historically, educating on local issues and providing guidance on what to do about it has been handled through in-person speeches at workplaces, or, if we get sponsorship, advertising. You only reach so many people with those techniques, and you often only reach the same type of person — sometimes excluding young people, or retirees, or folks who are not already connected through a United Way campaign.

“At the same time, United Way had brought together a Taskforce for Transformation, involving over 100 volunteers, to think about the changing dynamics of fundraising, and many of these volunteers brought up reaching community members where they are at — on their phones or online.”

Fortuitously, Harmon had a “get-to-know-you” meeting with Mary Romolino, a long-time United Way volunteer and founder of Mount Horeb-based Acme Nerd Games, where Romolino asked if United Way ever thought of having an educational game.

“I felt there was a real need for something highly local, that really laid out what was going on in the community,” Harmon recalls, “but I said what I always say — ‘We don’t have any money!’ And yet, our volunteers were saying we should create an app, we knew we had to reach folks in new and innovative ways, and Mary had offered a solution. We couldn’t say no!

“From there, we were off to the races, with a plan to raise the dollars to support the creation of the game and to bring in the expertise from our Community Impact department for the input and design of the game itself.”

Game design

Initial conversations and planning for Dane Changers began in June 2017 with a plan to launch in fall 2018, with efforts to raise the sponsorship funds for production, brainstorm the design, gather all the inputs, and undergo rounds and rounds of testing — all happening concurrently.

Once the relative skeleton of how the game would work came into play, the United Way Community Impact team provided scenario after scenario for the “choices” that the player would make, explains Harmon. The result is nearly 40 interactive scenarios players can participate in.

At the same time, Harmon says United Way was working furiously to raise sponsorship support throughout the early part of the year. In the end, with the help of co-presenting sponsors TASC and 11 local community banks — Bank of Sun Prairie, Capitol Bank, DMB Community Bank, First Business Bank, Home Savings Bank, McFarland State Bank, Monona Bank, Oak Bank, Oregon Community Bank, Park Bank, and State Bank of Cross Plains — plus supporting sponsors Alliant Energy and Madison College, and additional sponsor Madison Gas & Electric, the game was able to launch in August.

Acme Nerd Games also provided a great deal of in-kind support to help get the game and app off the ground. The total sponsorship raised was $50,000, with $25,000 of in-kind support from Acme.

According to Sarah Ceponis, director of community impact–basic needs for UWDC, most educational tools currently available on the web are “poverty simulations,” in that they ask the game player to adopt the identity of a person in poverty and try to get by with limited resources. Dane Changers takes a different approach, and instead of asking the game player to pretend to be in poverty, the player acts as him or herself and explores the community encountering others who are facing barriers to stability and success.

“Rather than simply challenge players to realize poverty is traumatic, the game is designed to empower players to both learn more about real and pressing problems, and feel that they can make a difference in fighting these problems and building a stronger community,” explains Ceponis. 

There are two game-play modes that challenge players and increase engagement, notes Bo Monroe, creative director and partner, Acme Nerd Games. In one, the player is limited to see how much change they can effect in 10 turns, the other has unlimited turns but a three-minute time limit. Both modes challenge the player to maximize community wellness within those constraints.

“As far as graphics go, we chose a kind of old school, ’90s-style, 2D isometric graphic presentation that we feel is very appealing and yet runs satisfactorily on a wide variety of devices,” says Monroe. “Our baseline device is just about the cheapest Android phone you can find currently. Reaching as many people as possible was an important goal, and that starts with hardware.”



Within the game, the goal is to achieve community wellness, ideally in all communities across Dane County in the areas of education, income, and health, Ceponis says. Players are able to reach this goal by spending “give,” “advocate,” and “volunteer” currency when they encounter scenarios of community members facing challenging circumstances. By choosing how to support others and using their currency to do so, players will be able to improve education, income, and health statistics and work toward community wellness.

Overall, the game is designed to:

  • Makes issues more visible;
  • Help people see things in a different way;
  • Show the there are people in need everywhere, and;
  • Demonstrate a variety of options for impact.

The process of developing scenarios was not as easy as it might sound, notes Ceponis. “Our Community Impact department wanted to be realistic, representing scenarios that are really happening every day in Dane County, and also wanted to avoid stereotyping or reinforcing any negative narratives about poverty. We hope that the final product helps players understand the wide spectrum of challenges faced by many of our neighbors, and the fact that we are all partners in building a thriving community for all.”

From the technical side, Romolino says Acme Nerd Games took several months to test, iterate, and then test again (and again) before releasing Dane Changers. “We enlisted dozens of people from a broad age range, gamers and non-gamers, UWDC board members, loaned executives, and people from outside the state who know very little about Dane County to play the game. They identified bugs and gave us feedback on functionality, fun, and gave many great suggestions for improving the experience, most of which we incorporated.”

Building awareness

Harmon says it’s a bit cliché to say millennials are the primary audience for a mobile game like Dane Changers, but yes, it’s millennials. “Our research shows that United Way of Dane County awareness is very high across the community, but declines with the 22–35-year-old demographic segment.

“Early response to the game on the web browser has been incredible — it’s so fun to watch people play and see their eyes light up, Harmon continues. “The usual reaction is, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that!’ With the app it’s about expansion. People are used to playing games on their phones and this game works so well on mobile. Most of our social media traffic is via mobile, so we’re excited to provide a mobile-ready link when people are already on their phones.”

Romolino expects more businesses and organizations will soon realize the benefits of engaging people in their brand through video games. “Not to mention that United Way of Dane County is part of a worldwide network and we think there will be a lot of interest in creating similar apps for their communities, too. And why not? It’s a great new way to engage the next generation of volunteers and philanthropists. United Way of Dane County was the first, but they won’t be the last!”

“The great thing about Dane Changers is that every action you take virtually is an action you can take in real life,” adds Harmon. “We want to empower community members to understand how they can join the fight for the education, financial stability, and health of everyone in Dane County. There is so much we can affect locally — we hope Dane Changers can educate and inspire a new segment of the population to get involved.”

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