The instructions are simple enough – “Tap to jump,” “Tap to flip.” All I have to do is make sure the little bicycle man, the rhino and the monkey don’t fall off the bike while grabbing as many gold coins as possible. Just as I begin to believe that my dark days in the world of technology are behind me, my rider flips over a boulder and instantaneously dies. Alejandro Fenn ’16 chuckled. “It’s okay” Fenn said. “You just have to keep playing.”
The app I am trying out is called Sidekick Cycle and features a cyclist attempting to navigate the hilly landscapes of three different levels – Red Rock, Savanna and Desert – all with the help of various animal sidekicks. Players have to capture three gears and as many gold coins as possible within a certain amount of time. Animal sidekicks such as a monkey armed with a magnet, help the cyclist attract more coins.
While players may initially become engrossed in the cute, bug-eyed sidekicks and different dress-up options for the playable cyclist, this app is not your ordinary iPad tool of entertainment. With every 387 downloads of the app, one bike is given to a child in Africa. Fenn, his mother and a team of manufacturers in Berlin spearheaded the launch of the app.
According to Fenn, the idea came from a community service trip to Ecuador he took before his junior year of high school, hosted by the Toronto-based non-profit organization Free the Children. “Free the Children basically takes a group of about 20 kids, ages 15 to 20, to indigenous countries where they can lend a helping hand,” Fenn said. “I was fortunate enough to be one of those kids, and we stayed in the central providence of Chimborazo for about a month, helping the community there build schools.” The sophomore recalled working arduous hours to build schools that would house children from all over the neighborhood. “The school they had was about the size of this wall to that wall,” Fenn said, gesturing the width of a miniature living room.
At the time, Fenn felt he was making a difference until a 10-year-old changed his perception. “I met this little kid named Javier while playing soccer on a playground,” Fenn said. “I asked him the usual questions about school, if he liked his classes, and he told me that he didn’t like school. It was a waste of his time.” Frustrated with the response, Fenn began to question Javier, and the boy’s story unraveled. “He told me that he was the oldest of four kids, that he didn’t see his father for about a month because he worked in Quito and that he basically had to care for all of his younger siblings,” Fenn said. “When he told me that his family couldn’t afford the bus because it cost about $5 a month, that he had to walk three hours to school every day, I got the picture. Javier didn’t like school because he couldn’t get there.”
Upon returning home, Fenn “kept thinking about Javier.” He finally sat down with his mother and told her Javier’s story. Although Fenn’s mother had worked in the non-profit sector for 30 years, she had no previous experience in starting a gaming company. With the help of a technical team, however, Fenn and his mother sat down to discuss marketing objectives that would help them meet their goal.
“Our first thought was, ‘okay, how are we going to help Javier and spread awareness about kids all around the world who are just like him? Instantly we thought ‘mobile.’ You had to be able to have it on your phone,” Fenn said. “From that we asked ourselves, ‘what do people love, whether they’re old, rich, poor and what came to mind were games” Fenn said.
Much to the team’s disappointment, the game’s first trial was a “complete failure,” according to Fenn. “One, it was just a bad product, and two, the product just didn’t tie in with what we were trying to do,” Fenn said. “The game had to represent bikes in some way, as we were trying to give out bikes to these children. It was important to us that people knew that, through this game, they were directly connected to a tangible cause.”
The failure, however, only prompted Fenn and his mother to hire a new team and continue their quest for the perfect game. As of right now, the Fenn company, Global Gaming Initiative (GGI), is partnered with the non-profit organization World Bicycle Relief. “Sidekick Cycle,” priced at 99 cents, gives 50 percent of its net proceed to the non-profit, which then uses the money to buy bicycles for children in Africa. The app also features a “feedback loop” which enables the player to see how his or her downloads facilitate the purchasing of bikes.
Though “Sidekick Cycle” currently costs 99 cents, Fenn and his team are planning to release it as a free app in the near future in order to drive up downloads and “share the story of Javier to as many people as possible,” Fenn said. In about a month, the app will also be showcasing updated features through a Minneapolis-based company. “The updated features will include new female characters, new sidekicks, and most importantly, a new ‘North America’ world where subsequent proceeds will be given to a U.S.-based bike organization, Free Bikes 4 Kids. ‘Sidekick Cycle’ will also be available on Android during this update,” Fenn said.