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Let the Games Begin for TFA Alum Turned Hasbro Contest Finalist
Teach For America alum Jason Wiser (Baltimore ’95) and his daughter have developed an educational card game so creative that toy giant Hasbro picked it among over 500 entries as a finalist for its highly competitive Gaming Lab contest.
A former high school English teacher and current creative director at Yaya Play Studios, Jason has worked on console games, tablet games, and board games in the past for startups across the country. His current game and Hasbro finalist, Monsters in the Elevator, has the potential to be his biggest game yet.
“I have so much gratitude for our backers,” says the proud dad, whose game has already raised over 400 percent of its funding goal on Indiegogo.
Jason points to his time as a corps member, teaching at Harbor Learning Center in Baltimore, where he saw how games could be an integral part of students’ educational lives, as having a tremendous impact on his decision to become a game developer.
“The students in Baltimore touched my heart like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” says Jason, who was a senior at Wesleyan University when then-TFA staff member (and future Washington, D.C. chancellor of schools) Kaya Henderson recruited him.
After receiving citywide and statewide awards for his achievements as an educator, Jason briefly studied digital art and HTML. As he acquired more expertise in 3D animation, his career began to take off, and he worked at several different companies over the next decade.
It was also during this period that Jason’s reputation grew as a talented lecturer in the field. To this day, he serves as an adjunct professor in animation and game design at Harvard, Tufts, and Northeastern University.
“Teach For America is really in my bones. Everything I do today is about paying attention to the needs of the students, and that’s something I learned my first year teaching in an oversized classroom,” he says.
“It’s not just about if I can communicate the material to them, but if they feel like their time is well-spent. That’s applicable if you’re a teacher, game developer: it’s about serving and collaborating with your audience.”
Jason also realized the importance of allies. “You have to work with others, because you can’t survive teaching alone,” he says. “What makes Teach For America different than other programs is that you have a support system, a home base, where you can talk to someone about anything, or have sessions where you could share ideas with your fellow corps members. I felt like I was part of the most amazing team, and that we could take on anything.”
Currently, he’s working with his seven-year-old daughter, Yaela, for Monsters in the Elevator. The idea was borne out of Jason’s desire to draw on his experience in education and entertainment to create a game for her burgeoning math skills.
“She was our first and constant play-tester,” Jason says. “She made a lot of recommendations with character designs and even decided which monster should go with which weight.”
Jason also called on his education network. “As we revised the games, I consulted math teachers to more closely address the skills most needed by 7 to 10-year-olds,” he says. We were indirectly looking at common core standards. We added a creature that would get off floors that were multiples of 3 or 4. Every single move is math.”
The gaming public has undoubtedly taken to Monsters in the Elevator. Not only was Jason able to sell out his initial production run at the 2016 Boston Festival of Indie Games, but he received an award for Best Family Game, in addition to the aforementioned finalist honors with the Hasbro Gaming Lab.
“I’m humbled and in awe for all the attention this has received,” Jason says. “Ultimately, my goal is to get the game in teachers’ hands everywhere and make the same impact on their students that it’s had on Yaela.”