Human connection in a digital Age: the Utopia Experience
Great entrepreneurs commit to a lifestyle surrounding their work, choosing to solve problems close to their hearts. In Sasha Dawn’s case, it was the determination to connect with her ailing father and those like him through the pandemic.
When her father was admitted to a skilled nursing facility following a severe fall, Dawn, Founder of Utopia Experiences, was determined to find ways to connect with him. This posed a challenge as the onset of the pandemic and COVID protocols meant he was not allowed visitors.
Thus, Utopia Experiences was born as an entertainment platform designed to provide intergenerational connections for clinic patrons through live-hosted interactive games. They partnered with Altruistic to deliver on a promise to bring meaningful digital services to our elderly population through senior game therapy. Together we are building a solid technical foundation that can easily scale as Utopia scales its business, including technical documentation, tech stack, and development strategy. As the platform gains traction throughout the industry, scalability becomes the number one priority.
“Our understanding of inclusive design has long been limited to physical spaces”, says Robert Maguire, CEO of Altruistic. “The age of digital requires rethinking inclusion design to bring accessibility to everyone who participates in the digital ecosystem. That’s why we love working with Sasha and her team at Utopia Experiences. Their focus on inclusive design is bringing gaming to a yet untapped customer segment. It’s only progressive when everyone can participate.”
“At the end of the day, what matters most is for our audience is to share screens and enjoy the game,” says Dawn “Every time I speak with Robert and Amanda (Altruistic’s Chief Revenue Officer) about strategising and scaling opportunities, I realise how their ideas and their knowledge of global integration and different ways to do that are so innovative. It’s inspiring, and it makes us really proud to be partnered with Altruistic, where the bandwidth of knowledge and resources far exceeds my imagination. It’s fascinating.”
Through the platform, participants can choose to host their own events or hire professional hosts, who are improv actors, comedians, and retired teachers. “We bring people with passion onto the platform”, says Dawn. “When a customer wants to book an external professional host, they can peruse a list of trained game show hosts and, depending on their time zone and language requirements, they can filter their options.”
Connection and Caregiving through the Pandemic
Stuck in Colorado while her father was recovering all the way in Arizona, Dawn’s family relied on the nursing staff for daily updates. “Every day, my brother and I would call and check on our dad, but we couldn’t speak to him. We would connect to the front desk, who transferred us to the nursing area, and we were able to get a medical update, but to connect with our father was difficult since the doctors and nurses were just too busy with all the complications managing patient care during COVID brought on.”
Dawn had been organising and hosting game nights via Zoom calls to connect with friends and family during the pandemic. “It was more like a PowerPoint presentation of some TV game shows, and I was pretending to be a game show host and doing it for family reunions.” It became so popular that she started getting bookings, and on Christmas Eve, she worked for nine and a half hours. She recognised the need for people to reconnect with loved ones over something lighthearted during trying times, and a nostalgic classic game show proved to be a great medium.
After eleven days of sporadic communication with the clinic, Dawn was introduced to Sue, an Activities Director at the facility. Overworked, understaffed, and underpaid, Sue often used her money to buy the residents ice cream. She was running up and down hallways calling out Bingo numbers, regardless of the pandemic. She took time out of her packed schedule to set up a facetime call for Dawn and her father. “It was the first time I was getting to see him since the accident”, said Dawn. “My father was isolated, depressed and confused. For the first time in my life, I looked at him and saw fear in his eyes. It just changed me completely.”
Dawn would make it a point to schedule video calls with her father regularly, but each time it would take a toll on both as they struggled to contain fraught emotions. When Dawn learned that the Activities Director hadn’t met her grandchildren in months, she offered to host a virtual game show for them. Instead, she was asked to organise an event for the facility’s residents. Dawn’s father, a man in his 30s who was paralysed from the waist down, a woman recovering from a stroke and one other patient participated. “We played a version of Wheel of Fortune, and I was dressed in a bright yellow blazer, with a bow in my hair, glasses and bright lipstick; playing an animated version of myself”, Dawn recalls fondly.
For thirty minutes, they laughed to their heart’s content, having forgotten momentarily about where they were. As Dawn bid tearful goodbyes to the participants, it felt like she had found her life’s purpose. “It was so easy; it was so fun and simple.”
All Good Ventures Start with a Personal Story
Utopia Experiences scales Dawn’s experience hosting gameshows for friends and family. After nearly two years in development, Dawn and her team have successfully launched Spintopia, a game designed keeping in mind the specific needs of an ageing population.
The team at Utopia has taken an integrated approach to redesigning digital games and connectivity for an elderly audience. Their emphasis goes beyond visual design. Puzzles on the platform can be customised for specific age groups, ailments, and care routines, to assist with memory, independent living, assisted living, or nursing homes. When developing products and services for older generations, organisations need to be mindful of the unique challenges that come with age.
“What is unique about us is our ability to create intergenerational engagement,” says Dawn. By designing a game suitable for children to play with grandparents across the country, Utopia can spark communication and conversation across age divides. Building intergenerational connections has a magical effect. Young people with close bonds to older family members and mentors are 46% less likely to use illegal drugs and 27% less likely to start underage drinking. Older generations show improved executive function and memory, lower levels of isolation, and higher quality of life when they interact with children.
Geared Up for Challenges
By April 2022, Utopia Experiences beta-tested their game shows with four Lorien Health Services communities. In the first round of testing, they introduced staff and residents to the gaming platform and the flagship game, Spintopia. The testing staff at each community were provided in-person, onsite training during the first week to ensure they understood how to connect, input data, play and contact support. Each community was expected to participate in a minimum of one professionally hosted game and one internal game. Every week, we tracked the number of communities participating, residents playing, and games played. We also collected qualitative feedback from staff, residents, and families, which informed our design process and improvements to the platform.”
Over nine weeks, Utopia found that resident engagement increased by 75%, and the number of games played increased by 100%. “There’s a clear demand for the service. We’re just trying to make sure our scaling is manageable to give the best experience to our users. We want to learn, co-create, and grow with the communities we partner with.” says Dawn.
One of the biggest challenges Utopia just overcame was around their virtual hosting. They were tied to a single platform, and the API integration was not seamless. “When we shared this challenge with the team at Altruistic, we were reassured by them that this was a known issue, and they proposed some solutions that could help us move forward,” Dawn shares. Not being tied down to a single platform and rethinking the platform to be interoperable, set up Utopia Experiences for easy scalability.
“There is nothing better about living in a world where caring for someone else is the bedrock of society. Utopia Experiences quick success validates Altruistic’s vision of technology serving human needs and strengthening our bonds”, says Maguire.