As he evaluates work from students at Harvard and Northeastern University, where he teaches game design, Somerville resident Jason Wiser often has some help from a certain pint-sized professorial protégé: his daughter, Yaela, who play tests the games while he grades them.
Yaela also helps her dad design his own projects. Over the last year, as she became increasingly interested in math, he set out to make a mathematics-based game that would hold her interest.
“They were pretty unsuccessful,” Wiser laughs. “You played them once or twice, and you thought, ‘Hm, this is not that fun.'”
It wasn’t until he was at a conference last year listening to Jason Schneider of Gamewright Games—they make family-friendly favorites like Sushi Go!—that Wiser had the idea for what would become Monsters in the Elevator, which is currently a finalist in a national Hasbro Gaming Lab competition. Another audience member mentioned the idea of an elevator game, a quick, 30-second game you could play with someone you met in an elevator.
Monsters in the Elevator takes a little longer to play, but the idea of using the floors of an elevator as rounds of a game was intriguing to him. “A lot of the game got worked out in the next hour during the lecture—I stopped paying attention,” Wiser jokes. He started play testing his product with students a week later and finished it one week before September’s Boston Festival of Indie Games, where it took home a win for best family game.
It was there that he was approached by Hasbro regarding the competition—they liked that it was a math game, and especially one that was cooperative and non-competitive, encouraging collaboration to beat the elevator. Monsters in the Elevator is now one of five finalists for the competition, and Wiser (and Yaela) have kicked off an Indiegogo campaign that was funded in 24 hours and is now at more than 200 percent of its goal.
Since the Boston Festival of Indie Games, Wiser has tweaked Monsters slightly to include division and, crucially, estimation. He says that while it’s important for kids to count accurately, it’s just as important for them to learn to make choices based on approximation.
He’s already shipped out copies to teachers who have requested the game around the country and here in Somerville. (First grade teacher Samantha Song at the Kennedy School just got her copy yesterday.)
The Indiegogo campaign ends February 12, and the winner will be up to Hasbro’s panel of judges, which includes Daymond John of Shark Tank fame. But win or lose, Wiser says he’s having a ton of fun being part of the process. He and the other finalists found each other online and boosted one another’s work; he backed all of their games in the first week of the campaign, and one of his competitors just posted a YouTube video encouraging his fans to support Monsters in the Elevator.
To Wiser, when it comes to math or the Hasbro competition, it should all be fun.
“It’s important to me for any game that I make that the fun be first,” he says. “Any educational content is something we want, but it’s always something that comes out of the fun rather than the reverse. I was just trying to make a game that my daughter would enjoy.”
Want to check out Monsters in the Elevator firsthand? You can check out a demo at the Somerville Public Library today from 3:30 to 5 p.m. or listen to Jason and Yaela introduce it in the video below.