“Have an educational element” With Penny Bauder and Anahita Dalmia

Most games, like Dictionary, Charades, Scrabble, or Risk, have an educational element, whether you’re learning how to communicate creatively, improving your spelling, increasing your vocabulary or strengthening your strategic thinking. These games are easy to integrate into daily learning, and can be adapted to meet educators’ goals. Beyond that, there are also games which are […]

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Most games, like Dictionary, Charades, Scrabble, or Risk, have an educational element, whether you’re learning how to communicate creatively, improving your spelling, increasing your vocabulary or strengthening your strategic thinking. These games are easy to integrate into daily learning, and can be adapted to meet educators’ goals. Beyond that, there are also games which are more heavily-aligned with educational objectives.

Our current project, Agents of Influence, aims to address the problem of misinformation. At this critical historical juncture, our collective decision-making is more important than ever, and, by extension, so is educating people to make informed decisions.

As a part of our series about what’s around the corner for the toy, game, and video game industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anahita Dalmia. Anahita recently graduated with a B.A. in Narrative Studies at the University of Southern California. She is a two-time published author and co-founder of the company Alterea (yes it’s a play on “alternate reality”). Alterea creates large-scale experiences at the intersection of immersive theatre and interactive gaming, allowing participants to enter a different world in which they have agency and impact within an unfolding story. In her ‘free’ time, you are equally likely to find Anahita at a Forbes conference or exploring secret underground tunnels.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Oh, that’s a tough question. I’ve always been a little preoccupied with fantasy: I was the kind of child who would read a book a day or be glued to either the television or to some kind of gaming device. I did take theatre as a subject for four years in high school. My favourite pastime was imagining how things would play out if I were in those incredible situations myself. I remember spending hours in the bus to and from school staring out of the window and envisioning the first Pokémon I would pick and which friends I would take with me on my adventure.

I started exploring the different worlds of my imagination through writing and then discovered theatre, which pushed me to bring my imagination to life in a physical reality. I became interested in ‘Theatre of The Oppressed’, which is one of the earlier examples of immersive theatre that allowed people to make decisions as characters to educate them and drive change. This evolved into an obsession with creating a living story which people can be a part of and where their decisions matter.

In high-school, I tried creating a Halloween-themed maze with characters hosting games to realize that vision but I fell short so I honed my idea with multiple full-scale productions at USC. Now I’m founding a company that specializes in creating live, large-scale narrative experiences that give each person an opportunity to be a hero.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the most memorable moments for me was when I was walking around my last event, a mythology-themed experience called Ascend. The actor playing Hepheastus beckoned me, whispering, “This group of demigods are hell-bent on having me adopted by Mother Fate. They came up to me sympathizing with my rough childhood, because Hera threw me off the cliff, and said they want to fix it. I just sent them on a quest but I don’t know what to do if they come back!”

I looked at him, both confused and amused. I shrugged and said, “Does it prevent the larger story arc from taking place?” And he’s like, “No….” so I said, “Determine what’s realistic for your character and make the decision which would make the most compelling, believable story.”

Soon, he got adopted. It was such an odd experience, but it was really exciting because we were now facing emergent play. That means the players were discovering things and creating things in our world which we had not planned for them. But it spoke volumes that our game worlds could support and incite this type of organic creation.

It also drove home the importance of trusting the players and actors. When you’re building a large and complex world, you can’t force people to experience the minutiae just how you planned them — you must trust the world you’ve created is enough, and let those experiencing it do the rest.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m very grateful to my mother who actively made efforts to remove any roadblocks we encountered. But I would also like to call out to my friend and teammate Lillianne John. During the first event I ever did, the Halloween Maze which turned into Bizarre! Carnival in high school, she encountered me sitting and trying to draw out a maze by eyeballing the dimensions of the potential venue. She then helped me draw the space and sent me 3 computer-generated plans that evening with the games marked.

Lillianne took full ownership of the project even when it seemed like it was on the brink of failure — and she played an enormous part in making it happen. She took control of operations, staying with me until 3 a.m. to make pitch-decks, figuring out how to make a website, sending emails, and even writing affidavits. If I was the heart of the event, she was the brain. I absolutely could not have done it without her. She taught me so much about operations, which has allowed me to accomplish every single project I have after that first one. Her investment in the project held me accountable to delivering what I had initially attempted to — it was her involvement that made the matter bigger than me, that made it worth fighting for. She armoured me, supported me and accompanied me to every battle.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I would say I’m successful because I’ve brought good into this world. Every event I’ve created has resulted in about three life-changing moments for participants — changes in perspective, changes in behaviour, or even changes in career path and friendships. Here are two of my favourite stories.

One player in my first event, Alohomora, supported the ‘antagonist,’ an immortal survivor of the Salem Witch Trials. When she realized her group’s ultimate goal could be considered discriminatory, she was forced to confront a moral dilemma: She felt empathy for this character, yet realized how limited information had skewed her perception.

At Ascend, another player discovered something new about himself. An introvert, he had always been good at solving puzzles, but avoided the spotlight. But in the event he did things he never expected to do. By the end, he found himself constantly making wisecracks and being social, even vaulting over the stage to confront a god. Afterwards, he concluded he didn’t typically behave that way because of his mental guardrails. He said that ‘playing make-believe’ made him more aware of how his presumptions limit him in real life. Instead of feeling more like another character, he felt more like himself.

Ok fantastic. Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell us about the technological innovations in toys or games that you are working on?

The way we use technology in the games we create is very innovative, as they’re used to add to reality rather than replace or distract from it. To market Ascend, we created a transmedia scavenger hunt using QR codes and videos, which sent participants around the USC campus to uncover clues and find lost gods. To prepare people for the event we created ‘Who is your godly parent?’ quizzes, which were available on our website and emailed to participants.

At the event itself, we projection-mapped the walls to make the room look like Mount Olympus, with portals on the doors leading in, and built an interactive hieroglyphic wall which reacted to audience touch by lighting up corresponding hieroglyphs. These additions make the entire experience feel a lot more exciting, immersive, and personalized without the isolating participants the way technology often does.

Recently, thanks to COVID-19, we’ve had to adapt and are currently creating an entirely digital experience, a spy adventure called Agents of Influence. The event takes the best of many traditional media forms, putting together elements of movies, theatre, and gaming. Every day, participants go on a new, narratively-coherent adventure that propels the overall story forward. Each one uses unique mediums including Snapchat, Twine, YouTube Live, puzzles, live character interactions, and a game show, in a way that makes participants integral to an unfolding story.

How do you think this might disrupt the status quo?

We’re transitioning from a time of storytelling to storyliving. People aren’t satisfied being on the sidelines anymore. They want in on the action. They want to matter. They want to be a part of the story.

Alterea’s guiding principle is to create events where anyone can both become part of the story and impact it as a hero. Our experiences integrate narratives and live actors with detail-rich backgrounds, creating entire worlds where the story changes every night depending on participant action. Our events are built to challenge and empower, getting people to step out of their shells, reawaken their imaginations, learn new things about themselves, and experience deep human connections.

Originally, we wanted to bring these experiences to life in a real-world setting. Due to COVID-19, we’ve had to shelve this plan for the now and focus on digital experiences. However, we believe that when the pandemic ends — and it will have to end at some point — people will be hungrier than ever for real life adventures.

You, of course, know that games and toys are not simply entertainment, but they can be used for important purposes. What is the “purpose” or mission behind your company? How do you think you are helping people or society?

Alterea’s mission is to make experiences that foster connectivity, collaboration, curiosity and co-authorship through live, interactive gaming and immersive theatre. We build experiences that empower, inspire, inform and entertain by creating live stories within which they can impact the narrative and have an opportunity to be the hero.

The four Cs of Alterea’s mission drive our vision of creating a world of explorers and change-makers who live their stories boldly. By connecting with people, we don’t just talk at them, we listen to them, and more importantly, make them feel heard. Collaboration is vital to any successful endeavour: human beings cannot live without each other, and by working together we’re more likely to succeed as a society. To me, curiosity is synonymous with education. We aren’t telling people what to look for. Instead, our events teach them to search themselves, following their interests and developing constantly. Mostly importantly, co-authorship reminds them that they have the ability to navigate the world they’re put in and make a difference within it. Our purpose is to show how individual stories impact the collective experience. We empower people by showing them how their actions play out in real time, and by recognizing them for their contributions.

I’m very interested in the interface between games and education. How do you think more people (parents, teachers etc.) or institutions (work, school etc.) can leverage toys or gamification to enhance education?

The first step is recognizing games are an invaluable learning tool. Most people learn by doing. When it’s too risky to do sometimes games and simulations are the next-best option.

Most games, like Dictionary, Charades, Scrabble, or Risk, have an educational element, whether you’re learning how to communicate creatively, improving your spelling, increasing your vocabulary or strengthening your strategic thinking. These games are easy to integrate into daily learning, and can be adapted to meet educators’ goals. Beyond that, there are also games which are more heavily-aligned with educational objectives.

Our current project, Agents of Influence, aims to address the problem of misinformation. At this critical historical juncture, our collective decision-making is more important than ever, and, by extension, so is educating people to make informed decisions. By immersing players in a spy-oriented game experience, we provide them with the tools and knowledge to recognize and combat misinformation in their own lives. Because it’s a gamified spy experience, they have fun and take ownership of the experience, leading to much higher willing engagement with the educational content.

There are so many educational games out there that are fun and accessible. Parents can start integrating them into family game night; professors can integrate them into their curriculum; companies can even adopt them into socials and workshops. All someone needs to do to find them is look for them.

I know that this question may be outside of your core expertise, but I’m sure you will be able to share some important insight. In your opinion, how is the US doing with regard to engaging young people, and particularly girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

This is very out of my expertise, especially considering I’m neither American nor in STEM. With the limited knowledge I have I would propose:

  • Encourage girls to experiment: I think there is more pressure on girls than boys to do things ‘right’ and therefore girls tend to be more studious and thorough but not risk-takers. Encourage learning through risk-taking and decrease the stigma of failure.
  • Show the more role models: Movies like Hidden Figures are great because it’s very powerful to see someone you identify with doing something inspiring. By exposing the youth to more women in STEM through teachers, movies, books, etc. I imagine they would get more engaged.
  • Games! Encourage everyone in your family/ school to play games that excite the imagination for STEM (sudoku, card tricks, science experiments are some common examples.)

How would you define a “successful” game or toy? Can you share an example of a game or toy that you hold up as an aspiration?

I’m inspired by the companies already out there creating fantastic worlds for people to discover. One that comes to mind is Meow Wolf. When I went and visited in 2018 I spent 10 hours exploring until I’d unraveled every mystery it held. It really felt like Alice in Wonderland, where everything had layers and layers (I literally got to go through a washing machine into another world). In Meow Wolf, games were used as an interface to help people discover the story. I want to create experiences that inspire similar curiosity and devotion.

What are the “5 Things You Need to Know To Create Successful Games or Toys” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Scope, budget and schedule — figure out your priorities and compromise. Alohomora took significantly more time, money and manpower than we anticipated. We needed to be flexible about how we would get what we want or be willing to work with the resources we had if they were insufficient. When I first got the position of Director of Special Events at USC to implement the project, we had a $5,000 budget, four team members and six months (including summer vacation). Four months into the planning phase, we hadn’t even figured out how to achieve our goal. So we pushed the event back six more months. We cracked down on the fundraising and our budget rose to $27,000. My four-person team rose to 70. My priority was the experience. It is okay to change the project based on time, funding or personnel limitations but it is important to figure out which of these elements is the priority. For me, it was the grand vision. For my next event, Ascend, we started with $25,000, a much larger team and a room reservation for a year ahead.
  2. Value your committed team members and relationships (but don’t be discouraged when people drop!). Seriously. You can’t do it alone. Collaborate. Communicate. And still, many people drop out. Be open to finding replacements when people can no longer commit because you can’t control their situations and their priorities. But please appreciate those who don’t, it is so motivating. Your resource pool, efficiency and talent increase exponentially the minute you have people truly committed to the project. Give them specific compliments. Tell them you appreciate their contributions. Buy them all chocolate at the end (I did. It was a lot of chocolate). On that note, I would even argue that it’s more valuable to have emotionally invested teammates than extensively experienced ones. Knowledge doesn’t equal commitment and delivery. And everyone starts from somewhere, so if they care, they’ll learn. And so will you.
  3. Use what you already have, but venture into unknown territory despite the fear. For our first two events at college, we wanted a finale game, our “showstopper” which turned out to be really complicated. It had to accommodate 500 people and reward people who took the effort to do quests and engage in the narrative. That was a really tall order. We were building really complex game mechanics but the answer lay in the simple rock-paper-scissor mechanic that we initially cast away as being too mainstream and simplistic. When we re-skinned it as a duelling mechanic, it was hands down our most successful mini-game and extremely effective for a final “battle.” Always use what you have. The games you have played before, the stories you have read, what is already going on in the event. Don’t ask too much of your audience by asking them to learn something more on top of what they’ve already done. We achieved our best results when we utilized the ‘skills’ we had already ‘trained’ our participants in, just with new twists and more layers.
  4. Playtest, playtest, playtest!. A game doesn’t exist without its players the way a book or movie does — a game is a tool, the paintbrush through which the player or artist paints the storySo it’s really important tohave people play the game, early and often. Watch them as they play it. See how they responded to the cues you wanted to give them — did they get the signal? If not, why not? Should you change the game to adapt to their instincts? And while designing a game, you often overlook some very small details the player always notices because they’re often surface level. By playtesting, you can catch them and improve immediately. In Alohomora, when we game-tested one of our simplest games — a spell-based version of rock-paper-scissors — one of the players just suggested turning around, counting to 3 and then turning around to say your spell to avoid the awkwardness of different timings and adding a dramatic flair. Very simple adjustments that made it so much more fun for everyone else.
  5. Document and Debrief. We almost didn’t have a videographer or a photographer for our first event. We more or less picked up somebody off the street the day of the event and begged them to do it, because we were that desperate and we had deprioritized documenting the event to prioritize running the event. I am so grateful that we did that because now I can show people a short video instead of giving a three-hour long lecture. It also adds to my credibility because it looks cool. And not just pictures and videos, but debriefs are also really important. While it was so tempting to throw my hands up in the air and cry “It’s over!” I sent out feedback forms for both the participants and the team members to learn what worked and what could have been done better. I sat in front of the laptop and proceeded to spew words onto a document about my entire experience, practically crying by the end of it because it was such an emotional journey. But so much gets lost if we don’t have this documentation and it is really difficult to gage your success and improve a year after the experience. So no matter how tedious or irrelevant it seems — you have only one opportunity to get it right, so please don’t regret losing it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Sounds super cheesy, but please pursue what calls to you and pursue it relentlessly. Each person truly is unique with values, skills, interests and personalities. There is a place that they will be useful and I would encourage people not to compromise on doing things in which they find value.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One quote I find particularly motivating is “The war isn’t over until I’ve won — everything lost is just a battle.” It sounds slightly harsh and arrogant, but it really does represent the idea of broadening your goal. It also ties into the idea that it is giving up that makes defeat permanent, but that quote does not capture the idea of changing goals as well. It makes it sound like you’re trying the same thing over and over — you shouldn’t be. You should be re-strategizing and re-prioritizing and re-evaluating your goals at every step in order to achieve them.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

If they want to. The company social media is as follows:


And my personal social media:


Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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