Let’s not panic about our teens just yet

The benefits of research can be lost if we amplify only one argument in a nuanced, complex topic. How youth interact with social media is as complex as it gets. Dr Velislava Hillman, director and senior researcher at Data, Media, and Society Research Centre, Malta, writes. 

The COVID-19 pandemic kept many children and teenagers at home, with parents struggling to recreate routine. Yet with or without public health risks, teenagers’ social media use was shrouded in moral panic and gloom. Mainstream media headlines do not help; take ‘Social Media Creates ‘Instant Loneliness’ for teenagers’ and ‘Loneliness: An Epidemic In The Making?’. All too often research and policy looks at risks separately from opportunities. 

In Malta, this division happens often. Run-of-the-mill surveys bring out numbers without context. Left in the hands of hungry news writers, these numbers can lead to uncontrolled and wild interpretations that raise unnecessary fear in readers. The truth is that there is no clear evidence of any causal relationship between loneliness and social media use. Young people – and many adults too – do feel social or emotional loneliness, but the real reasons remain elusive. To give a more balanced approach to social-media-induced loneliness among teenagers, here are five questions to ask before allowing any concern to seep in.

The truth is that there is no clear evidence of any causal relationship between loneliness and social media use. Young people – and many adults too – do feel social or emotional loneliness, but the real reasons remain elusive.

Firstly, what’s the evidence? Comparing the findings of a quantitative study on loneliness carried out by the faculty of Social Wellbeing at University of Malta and its coverage in the mainstream media, the gap is striking. There is no solid proof that teenagers suffer ‘instant’ loneliness, let alone that social media causes it. The study found that loneliness tends to particularly affect older people with lower education, unemployed and retired individuals, and those living alone (a bit of a giveaway), among other factors. A person’s risk of loneliness, the study summarises, ‘is reduced if they: form part of a younger age group; are highly educated; are in employment; are of a single marital status; live with their parent(s) or guardian(s)…’ etc.

A third of the teenagers (ages 11–19) who took part in this survey said they experienced some sort of loneliness (with no connection to social media whatsoever). The survey (a method that has its own limitations) included 115 teenagers in total.  While the research instrument has a unidimensional overall loneliness measure, it prevents researchers from understanding why the survey participants responded as they did – which may be a result of temporary bias (e.g. unique life events, having a stomach ache, or responding right after a fight with a friend).

The second question is: who is interpreting the results (researchers, journalists, parents, NGOs who need funding to carry out their work)? Mainstream media covered  similar studies in the past (e.g. studies on youth and online gaming), as they make a compelling read even when evidence is inconclusive. But while the intention may be to create awareness, inflicting moral panics will not provide the support that is necessary in these situations. 

The third question to consider: when does feeling lonely become problematic? A headline such as ‘Loneliness: An Epidemic in the Making?’ sounds as though feeling lonely is somehow wrong. The referenced study by the Faculty for Social Wellbeing highlights that it is OK to feel lonely. And while presenting the number of people who said they feel ‘moderately lonely’, the findings do not make claims about the cause or length of such a feeling. 

Fourthly, are social media users seen as passive consumers or as complex individuals? Scary headlines of media articles (as quoted above) or books (like Jean Twenge’s iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy or Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked) create a dangerous bandwagon. The media has been heavily criticised for construing children and young people as a passive audience of media messages, carried away by content that adults somehow seem immune to. However, children have their own moral compass; they detect liars like no other device can, and show resilience when faced with an adversary. Examples galore: from Pocahontas to Malala and Taylor Swift (with her support for LGTBQ rights and speaking up against sexual harassment). 

Of course, accepting youth as ‘tech savvy’ is another extreme to avoid. The point is to not segregate audiences, grouping them as ‘addicted’ or ‘digital natives’ or ‘lonely’, but to reveal all evidence with its accompanying limitations and drawbacks and to emphasise the nuances that exist among usage patterns, perspectives, and individuals. 

The media has been heavily criticised for construing children and young people as a passive audience of media messages, carried away by content that adults somehow seem immune to. However, children have their own moral compass; they detect liars like no other device can, and show resilience when faced with an adversary.

Finally, what’s the point of creating moral panics? NGOs and mainstream media make every effort to create awareness, to help raise awareness of existing problems, and to make improvements in society. This is great. However, such work also relies on external funding – for selling shrinking newspapers, running educational and support programs, for conducting further research. Amplifying complex issues that are far from being clear-cut builds upon that same dangerous bandwagon. Generalising and turning survey responses into sensationalised headlines is never productive. 

An average family will never spend a whole day reading academic work to understand what exactly has been discovered. All institutional actors, media, and stakeholders concerned about young people’s wellbeing should ensure a full display of the existing evidence and interpret it in a balanced way. And again, there is no causal relationship between loneliness and social media – the tool is not inherently harmful.

What should we do in these unprecedented times?

‘Isolation, physical distancing, the closure of schools and workplaces are challenges that affect us, and it is natural to feel stress, anxiety, fear and loneliness at this time,’ pointed out Hans Kluge, an important World Health Organisation expert. Instead of adding to the anxiety and fears about screen time, let’s use this COVID-19 pandemic to explore the beneficial use of social and digital media. Some tips: 

  • Enable discussions with young ones; learn together about the access to and spread of misinformation (misleading information) and disinformation (wrongfully given information with the intention to mislead and harm).
  • Find strategies for fact-checking and finding good quality information.
  • Connect with others and provide space for children and youths to enjoy their usual friendships, albeit digitally.
  • Listen to them with less judgement and critique. Instead, learn how they feel and what they use their digital technologies for.

Further Reading

Azzopardi, A. (2019). Loneliness: an epidemic in the making?. Malta Independent

Clark, M., Azzopardi, A., & Bonnici, J. (2019). The Prevalence of Loneliness in Malta: A nationally representative study of the Maltese population. The Faculty for Social Wellbeing, University of Malta. 

Conneely, V. (2020). Social media creating ‘instant loneliness’ for teenagers. Times Of Malta

Malala Fund | Working for a world where all girls can learn and lead. Malala.org. (2013). 

Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth. Smithsonian Channel. (2020). 

Zacharek, S., Dockterman, E., & Edwards, H. (2017). TIME Person of the Year 2017: The Silence Breakers. Time.com. 

Home

Author: Dr Pat Bonello 

Dr Pat Bonello

The theme of this edition of THINK magazine is meant to evoke feelings of belongingness, identity, warmth, and solidarity. Our home is usually a place associated with these positive feelings: a place where I can be myself and, in a safe environment, develop into the me I want to be. This is something valuable, something which we should safeguard passionately. At the same time, as a social worker, I know many people for whom ‘home’ does not have such positive connotations. 

The people that come to mind are abuse victims, children and adults living with domestic violence. For them, ‘home’ means suffering, often accompanied by a feeling of helplessness. Others find ‘home’ a difficult concept. Think of people who cannot make ends meet, who have difficulty paying their rent, who cannot afford to buy their own house because of high property prices. Then there are those who can no longer live in their own house because they are unable to look after themselves, be it because of old age or health issues. There are members of broken families who have difficulty identifying their home, asylum seekers who left home behind, and people who have lost a family member and now associate ‘home’ with sadness.

Everybody needs a place where he or she feels ‘held’ and safe enough to develop his or her potential. But if ‘home’ does not fit this bill, where will this environment be?

This is where a network of social solidarity, both formal and informal, comes into play. Alternatives for people with issues related to the concept of ‘home’ include foster placements, shelters, or other residential facilities. But these services are tasked with much more than providing mere accommodation. They need to create an environment which meets the needs of the persons who live there. They need to provide a safe space for people to come in, be themselves, and develop their potential.

For those who don’t need to move out of their current home, options include support and professional interventions, such as family therapy, to deal with the sadness associated around the home, or to improve the dynamics within it. Social service providers in Malta and Gozo carry a lot of responsibility. Unfortunately, the supply does not always meet demand, and some people have to wait considerably before being able to move into more comfortable and nurturing placements—sometimes while living in abusive environments. In other situations, the necessary support is not readily available, as in the cases of asylum seekers and homeless people who need a roof over their head.

While formal support is important and necessary, all Maltese citizens need to share the responsibility and offer a helping hand without judgement. That way, Malta will be able to  nurture communities that work together to create ‘homes’ which cherish everyone, respecting their dignity and worth and encouraging them to flourish. 

On mindfulness

In this overwhelming world of apps, chats, commercials, and instant everything, we’re fighting for our attention at every turn. We sometimes barely have time to think about our decisions, often regretting what we did or what we bought a short while later.Resurrected from old Buddhist teachings, mindfulness is being touted as the answer to the varying needs and demands of modern society. New-age ‘gurus’ offer courses that claim to change our life in seconds. To me, this has always sounded like a mission impossible.

Daydreaming poses a challenge for me. Ideally, it should give us the space to absorb new information and figure out potential options for future decisions and behaviour. But most of the time, programming takes over. We mentally analyse events and their effects—we worry—failing to be present.

The ability to create a mindful space in our thoughts can be developed through regular mindfulness meditation. The practice involves a lot of deep breathing, slowing down, observing our passing thoughts, and absorbing our surroundings. There are even apps to help boost our levels of mindfulness.

Szofia Borojevity

While this might seem like fluff to some, studies have found clear evidence for the positive effects of such practice. Meditation has been shown to have a positive effect on well-being and emotional regulation. Some research also shines light on its therapeutic benefits for anxiety and depression. Research shows that mindfulness gives us extraordinary insights. Those who practice regularly say that they experience the present reality to a sharper degree, absorbing small details that usually get lost. Imagine, instead of automatically reacting to your surroundings, being able to focus in the moment so that you can actually choose your next step with intention. That is power!

Personally, I found that a month of dedicated practice sharpened my attention. I started noticing small things and gestures that, before, would just pass me by. It drove the amount
of wasted time down significantly. I made better decisions. It wasn’t easy to sit there with all my thoughts, but it definitely trained my mind to overcome challenging tasks.

We can all benefit from regular mindfulness practice. Go on and try it for yourself. Take a deep breath, slow down, and pause. Seize the moment. Be.

Further reading:
Cocoran, K. M., Farb, N., Anderson, A. & Segal, Z. V. (2010). Mindfulness and emotion regulation: Outcomes and possible mediating mechnanisms. In A. M. Keing & D. M. Sloan (Eds.), Emotion regulation and psychophatology: A transdiagnostic approach to etiology and treatment (pp. 339 – 355) New York: Guillford Press.
Hoffman, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A metaanalytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78, 169 – 183. doi:10.1037/a0018555

  Author: Sofija Borojevic

Brain Control

The power to control objects with your mind was once a dream held by science fiction fans worldwide. But is this impossible feat now becoming possible? Dr Tracey Camilleri tells Becky Catrin Jones how a team at the University of Malta (UM) is using technology to harness this ability to help people with mobility problems.Continue reading

Transcendence through Play

Even though philosophers like Kant and Schiller of the aesthetic tradition never had the opportunity to troll some noobs in Call of Duty or slay a dragon in Skyrim, their views on the concept of play can be critical to our understanding of how the player relates to the game world. Dr Daniel Vella explores the work of aesthetic and existential philosophers. Words by Jasper Schellekens. Continue reading

The Philosophy of Creativity

In this age of specialisation, finding a niche is key to most people’s career progression. But it is not the only way. Cassi Camilleri sits down with philosopher poet Prof. Joe Friggieri to gain insight into his creative process.

Prof. Joe Friggieri

It was a very warm April day when I found myself sitting in front of Prof. Joe Friggieri. My heart was racing—I had just run up three flights of stairs for a rescheduled meeting after having missed our first earlier in the day. I had lost track of time while distributing magazines around campus. My eyes briefly scanned his library, wishing it was mine, then got right down to the business of asking questions.

Friggieri balances between two worlds: the academic and the creative. His series Nisġa tal-Ħsieb, the first history of philosophy in Maltese, is compulsory reading for philosophy students around the island. His collections of poetry and short stories have seen him win the National Literary Prize three times. I ask Friggieri if he separates his worlds in some way. ‘I can’t stop being a philosopher when I’m writing a short story or play. Readers and critics of my work have pointed that out in their reactions,’ he says. ‘I do not necessarily set out to make a philosophical point in my output as a poet, short-story writer, or playwright, but that kind of work can still raise philosophical issues.’

‘Dealing with matters of great human interest—such as love or the lack of it, happiness, joy and sorrow, the fragility of human relations, otherness, and so on—in a language that is markedly different from the one used in the philosophical analysis of such topics can still contribute to that analysis by creating or imagining situations that are close to the experiences of real human beings,’ Friggieri illustrates.

The urge to write

In reality, Friggieri is usually inspired by day-to-day moments, things normally overlooked in today’s loud and busy world. ‘In my literary works, I am inspired by what I see, hear, and feel; by people and events, by what I read about and by what I can remember,’ he says. It could be anything from a news item to a painting, a whiff of cigarette smoke, a piece of music, or a word overheard at a party. ‘All of that can trigger off an idea. Then, when I’m alone, I seek to elaborate the thought and to convey it to others by means of an image or series of images in a poem, or as part of the plot in a short story or play.’

While on the subject of inspiration and starting points, I wondered: how does Friggieri work? First, he swiftly explains his aversion to using computers for his writing. ‘I do all my writing the old-fashioned way,’ he notes. ‘I use pen and paper. I find it much easier to write that way than on my computer. It feels like my thoughts are taking shape literally as I push my pen from left to right across the page. I think with my pen, much in the same way that a concert pianist thinks with her fingers and a painter with her brush. It’s that kind of feeling that makes me want to go on writing.’ At this point, the subject of the Muse comes up. Is this something Friggieri believes in? ‘Waiting for the Muse to inspire you is just a poetic way of saying you need to have something to write about and you’re looking to find the right way of expressing it,’ Friggieri explains. ‘I write when I feel the urge or the need to write,’ he tells me with a smile.

The sheer volume of work Friggieri has built up over the years seems to imply that he writes daily. But in reality, his workflow is more akin to sprints than a marathon. He tells me deadlines are a good motivator for him to write, providing a tangible goal he can work towards. ‘My first two collections of short stories were commissioned as weekly contributions to local newspapers,’ Friggieri says. ‘That’s how ‘Ir-Ronnie’ was born.’ Ir-Ronnie is a man who finds himself overwhelmed by life’s pressures: family, work and everything in between. As he starts to lose touch with reality, ‘ordinary, everyday living becomes an ordeal for him, an obstacle race, a struggle for survival,’ says Friggieri. More recent works, such as his latest collections of short stories—Nismagħhom jgħidu and Il-Gżira l-Bajda u Stejjer oħra—also reflect this realism, exploring the complexity of interpersonal relations between different people from different walks of life. On the other hand, Ħrejjef għal Żmienna (Tales for Our Times) finds its roots in magical realism, which makes these stories a very different experience for his readers. The books have been well received, with translations into English, French, and German. Paul Xuereb, who worked on the English translation, described the tales as ‘drawing on the dream-world and waking reveries to suggest the ambiguity and often vaguely perceived reality of our lives.’

The Creative Philosopher

When it comes to talking about his other works and creativity, Friggieri often refers to language. When I asked him about his thoughts on creativity and whether he believed everyone to be ‘creative’, his response was positive. ‘As human beings, we are all, up to a point and in some way, creative,’ he says. A prime example is humanity’s use of language. ‘Think of the way we use language. Dictionaries normally tell you how many words they contain, but there’s no way you can count the number of sentences you can produce with those words. Language enables us to be creative in that sense, because we can use it whichever way we like, to communicate our thoughts and express our feelings freely, without being bound by any definite set of rules. In a very real sense, every individual uses language creatively, in a way that is very much his or her own. I think the best way to understand what creativity is all about is to start from this very simple fact.’

Language enables us to be creative in that sense, because we can use it whichever way we like, to communicate our thoughts and express our feelings freely, without being bound by any definite set of rules.

Is Friggieri creative when he writes his philosophical papers? ‘Yes,’ he nods. ‘Each kind of writing has its own characteristic features. But creativity is involved in all of them.’ With philosophy, ‘you need more time,’ he notes. ‘You need to know what others have said about the subject, so it involves researching the topic before you get down to saying what you think about it. When it comes to writing a poem or play, you’re much freer to say what you like, much less constrained.’

In fact, Friggieri has five plays under his belt. Here is where the two worlds of academia and creative writing merge. ‘In three of my five full-length plays, I make use of historical characters (Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Socrates) to highlight a number of  issues in ethics and aesthetics that are still very much alive today,’ says Friggieri. Taking L-Għanja taċ-Ċinju (Swansong) as an example, Friggieri explains how ‘Socrates defends himself against his accusers by raising the same kind of moral issues one finds in Plato’s Apology. The Michelangelo and Caravaggio plays, on the other hand, highlight important questions in aesthetics, such as the value of art, the relation between art and society, the presence of the artist in the work, the difference between good and bad art, and the mark of genius.’

Talking of theatre, Friggieri remembers how, before writing his first play, he had directed several performances. This was where he learnt the trade and what it meant to have a good production. ‘I have also had the good fortune of working with a group of dedicated actors from whom I learnt a lot. In my view, one should spend some time working in theatre before starting to write for it.’

As time was pressing, and the sun was starting to move away from its opportune place in the window, I asked Friggieri one last question, the one I had been obviously itching to ask. What advice does he have for writers? The answer I got was one I should have expected. ‘Budding writers should write. Then they should show their work to established practitioners in the field. The first attempts are always awkward. As time goes by, one learns to be less explicit and more controlled, to use images to express one’s thoughts where poetry is concerned, to develop an ear for dialogue if one is writing a play, to produce well-rounded characters in a novel, construct interesting plots, and so on. All this takes time, but it will be worth the effort in the end.’ And with that, we had the perfect closing.   

Author: Cassi Camilleri

 

Mind the Gap

The world is changing. Technologies are developing rapidly as research feeds the accelerating progress of civilisation. As a result, the job market is reacting and evolving. The question is: Are people adapting fast enough to keep up? Words by Giulia Buhagiar and Cassi Camilleri.

Mur studja ha tilħaq.’ (Study for a successful future.) 

From an early age, most Maltese students are conditioned to think this way. You need a ‘proper education’ to land yourself a ‘good job’. But students graduate, and with freshly printed degrees in hand, they head into the job market only to be disappointed when the role they land seems unrelated to their degree. Yet vacancies are ready for the taking; there are many unfilled jobs in the STEM fields, which create 26% of all new vacancies according to recent research from the National Statistics Office.

So, if there are vacancies available, what is the problem? A skills gap. 

Academic qualifications do not guarantee that graduates have the right skills for work. At a conference addressing the skills gap organised by the Malta University Holding Company (MUHC) and the Malta Business Bureau (MBB), Altaro Software co-founder and CEO David Vella confirmed this problem. In previous years, Altaro mostly employed experienced developers; however, increased demand led them to realise that there weren’t enough of these candidates out there for them. 

To fill those roles, they extended the call to younger people, but Vella found that they were not fully equipped and ready to go. This was when he realised that they needed to change tactics. ‘Now we realise that we need to start hiring junior people and build up their skills.’ Investment needs to be made by both sides.’ 

What every relationship needs 

Better communication between business and academia could improve the skills gap. However, this kind of engagement is easier to manage in some institutions and industries than others, and bringing those worlds together poses many challenges. At the same conference, MUHC CEO Joe Azzopardi noted how start-ups and small businesses often do not have the resources to organise such exchanges. The wall between them and students is a difficult one to get over. However, there is a new initiative seeking to remedy this situation.

Go&Learn is a project bridging education and industry through an online platform that effectively catalogues training seminars and company visits in a multitude of sectors, for students and educators alike. The initiative has garnered a slew of supporters. Sixty companies from all over the world are listed on the site, including some local names: Thought3D, ZAAR, and Contribute Water, to name a few. This year was Go&Learn’s third edition, and with 17 European regions from across 10 countries involved, it focused on the STEM fields. In Malta, the team behind Go&Learn, also a collaboration between MUHC and the MBB, have worked together to create two new programmes. 

One was dedicated to ICT for business, leisure, and commodity. It saw students visit and learn from local companies Altaro, Scope, MightyBox, Trilith, and Flat Number. Students said that the visits helped them achieve a better understanding of the sector and its nuances. ‘For us students, the fact that we are exposed to the internal working of a business’s environment, it’s an eye-opener,’ said University of Malta (UM) student Maria Cutajar. The second was related to food, involving Elty food, Benna, Fifth Flavour, Da Vinci Pasticceria, and Contribute Water. In this case, the opportunity even attracted foreign students. Go&Learn is acting as a vital bridge between education and industry that can help to minimise the skills gap.

The skills gap exists for many reasons: prejudices towards certain industries, lack of information available on others, and much more. However, education can play an important part in fixing this problem.

Bringing STEM to life 

The skills gap exists for many reasons: prejudices towards certain industries, lack of information available on others, and much more. However, education can play an important part in fixing this problem. Currently, local systems are falling short of reacting quickly and addressing new needs in industry. A lot of attention is placed on short-term goals such as exams and assignments, rather than the bigger picture and real-world tasks. This kind of attitude in science education tends to be exacerbated by the notion that its subjects are for ‘nerds’ and ‘brainiacs’. This can be a daunting prospect for young children who don’t see themselves as ‘smart enough’. It can drive lots of young talent away from STEM subjects.

We need to bring fresh talent into STEM by showing how exciting, accessible, and relevant the field actually is. The solution, UM Rector Prof. Alfred Vella says, is to start right at the beginning: ‘We need to inspire teachers.’ This includes attracting the best teachers by providing appropriate salaries. Through education, we need to change the impressions given to children about science and what it means. ‘When I was younger, they used to tell me, why do you want to do science? Wouldn’t it be better to be a doctor? Engineers were seen more as grease monkeys,’ Vella said with a smile. Science should be engaging, inspiring, and fun. For this reason, he commends ESPLORA as being ‘the single most important feature in Malta.’ Vella believes classrooms should be an extension of the ESPLORA centre in their efforts to bring science to life. In addition to teachers inspiring future generations, parents also need to see STEM jobs as a good career for their children, and businesses need to show parents that exciting careers are available by pursuing STEM subjects. Without this, early encouragement might be fruitless.

With more young people taking up STEM subjects, the potential ripple effect will be vast. These future professionals will be able to conduct more research. The enormous benefits to be reaped from having more people excited about STEM subjects means the burden does not fall solely at the feet of teachers and parents. ‘It is also the job of businesses to show the relevance and benefits of STEM,’ says the CEO of the MBB, Joe Tanti. Go&Learn is providing an arena for business to interact with students and for universities to use their influence positively. 

Looking ahead

From children’s classrooms to the skills gap in our economy, everything is intertwined. We need a multi-pronged approach to tackle as many aspects as possible and implement lasting changes. For one thing, we need to take a good look at our education system and how it treats STEM subjects. We also need to bring business and education together, enabling them to communicate more effectively. With Go&Learn starting this much-needed shift, the door is open to more innovative initiatives. Who’s in? 

Authors: Giulia Buhagiar and Cassi Camilleri

Maltese Gaming Goes Global

With ever more digital games companies opening their doors in Malta, standing out can be difficult. Dawn Gillies talks to Dorado Games co-founder Simon Dotschuweit to find out how a small company is carving out its niche in an industry of big players.

In 1974, long before the Internet was around, Mazewar introduced the world’s first computer-generated virtual world. With a serial cable to connect computers, friends could play over a network, competing with and against one another for the first time. The Internet now allows thousands of people from opposite sides of the globe to battle it out simultaneously in games set in online virtual worlds like World of Warcraft.

Digital gaming is an industry on the rise, and Malta has seen success after success. It’s a multi-billion dollar enterprise, taking in an astounding $30.7 bn globally in 2017 alone according to Statista. In recent years there has been a surge in free-to-play online games. With so many free games competing for our attention, you might wonder where the money comes from. It may seem counterintuitive, but these free online games sometimes generate higher profits than paid counterparts. Multiplayer PC beat ’em up Dungeon Fighter Online reportedly made an astonishing $1.6 bn in 2017. 

With more than 30 digital games companies in Malta alone, it’s a competitive industry to take on. Yet Simon Dotschuweit and Nick Porsche have created Dorado Games, launched real-time grand-strategy game Conflict of Nations, and gained over 400,000 customers.

Porsche and Dotschuweit brought different skills to the table: Dotschuweit came from an IT and technology background, while Porsche gained his experience as creative director for the Battlestar Galactica online game.

Dorado’s Origin Story 

Simon Dotschuweit

Whilst working for the independent creators, publishers, and distributors of digital games Stillfront Group, Dotschuweit was already mulling over some new game ideas. The game engines, platforms, and building blocks were all at his disposal. What he needed was a collaborator. That was when Nick Porsche appeared on the scene.

Porsche and Dotschuweit brought different skills to the table: Dotschuweit came from an IT and technology background, while Porsche gained his experience as creative director for the Battlestar Galactica online game. Their ideas had Stillfront interested. They were in the early stages of building a game, and the endeavour was gaining support. ‘It was going well, and the company wanted to go ahead with it.’ Two years later, Dorado Games was acquired by the Stillfront Group.

When most of us think video games, we immediately think of games consoles. So why choose to create an online game? Or, for that matter, one that’s free?

Dotschuweit says, ‘They’re a lot more fun to do. You have more control. Usually you self-publish. You can do stuff more iteratively. You can release and then improve. With console games, you need a large publishing partner that will take a large portion of the revenue.’ With Dorado constantly striving to improve their online world for players, the ability to continually update was a big draw for them. 

Nick Porsche

The world of online gaming better lends itself to strategy games. With Dotschuweit and Porsche already big fans, their goal was to create a game they wanted to play. Their business model is also better suited to online gaming than consoles. ‘It’s free to play, so we incentivise players to pay for extra features, which doesn’t work well on console.’ This is where the money comes from. Players pay to construct buildings or train their troops more quickly, giving them an advantage over the competition.

But Stillfront’s acquisition of Dorado meant it was decision time for Dotschuweit. He had to choose between keeping his comfortable job with Stillfront, or taking on a new challenge in the startup world. Living in China with his family at the time, the ramifications of that decision were huge. Porsche was already in Malta, incentivised by the Maltese government’s support of new businesses. In the end, Dotschuweit felt the opportunity to join forces was too great to pass up. He made the leap.

The Rise to Success 

Money was key. Dotschuweit tells us, ‘We managed to secure quite a sizeable employment-based grant from Malta Enterprise for our company, which was of course a very nice plus. And Malta is a really nice place!’ The grant not only helped Dorado win over investors, but it reduced risk in an industry that’s infamous for its kill rate, both in-game and in real life. Suffice to say that coming out on top in the gaming world is not guaranteed. 

Working in a start-up was also a change for Dotschuweit. Having previously worked for US tech giant IBM, he wanted to make a mark with this new venture. ‘You get to have a lot more impact. Your presence matters a lot more to a small business; it’s a lot more fun. You get to wear lots of hats and get a lot of experience.’ The busy and exciting nature of a small business appealed to him much more than clocking in to a regular office job. 

The good times continued rolling with more support coming in from the University of Malta’s (UM) Centre for Entrepreneurship and Business Incubation (CEBI). CEBI houses the TAKEOFF programme which supports new businesses and provides facilities for them. Dr Joseph Bartolo and Prof. Russell Smith are familiar names when it comes to Maltese start-ups, and they have both been an influential part of Dorado’s story. They now operate from the TAKEOFF building on UM’s Msida campus. 

But Dorado’s journey is not all smooth sailing. ‘We are a live service and we don’t have separate teams for operations and expansions, so that sometimes means your plans change!’ explains Dotschuweit. It’s all hands on deck to fix any problems. ‘It’s part of the bane and the fun of operations. But it doesn’t get boring!’ he says. This means that a day of meetings can quickly turn into a hectic day of making sure the game is running smoothly. They don’t want to disrupt players’ gameplay if they can avoid it.

In the past, Dorado hired game developers to bring their ideas to life. But this modus operandi changed when it came to Conflict of Nations. With this project, Dotschuweit and Porsche wanted more control, and they were ready to invest. They dug their heels in and hired their own team. 

Simon Dotschuweit and Nick Porsche together with the Dorado Games team

A game of political and military tactics with elements of espionage, Conflict of Nations requires real-world diplomacy skills to move up in the world. Unlike most other strategy games, it takes place right here on Earth, making use of Google Maps to make the game truly global.

Bringing their dream team to life was a challenge. ‘Finding talent back then wasn’t the easiest thing,’ says Dotschuweit. But their perseverance has seen them build a close-knit team who have all contributed to Dorado’s success.

The quest for perfection is a common theme in Dorado’s story. The perfect team, the perfect platform, the perfect game. Their commitment to giving players the best possible experience is a testament to their investment in their projects. Taking the time to get the right team together has proved to be one of the many reasons for Dorado’s fast climb up the games industry ladder. Another was getting their game out quickly to get fan feedback as soon as possible. The Stillfront platform restricts them somewhat in their design, as it wasn’t made specifically for Dorado, by Dorado, but it has reduced their workload massively, allowing them to get Conflict of Nations launch-ready in a fraction of the time. Identifying and taking advantage of opportunities has also been key to their quick rise.

Many Lessons Learnt 

In the crowded world of online games, Dorado games has skillfully managed to carve out its place. Real-time negotiations and political tactics in Conflict of Nations are the stand-out features for fans who enjoy the long timescales and mental strategy involved. With this victory under their belt, we’ll soon see more from Dorado. They have plans to develop another game this year.

With years of experience in the industry, Dotschuweit has some advice for any future gaming entrepreneurs. ‘Get it out fast and get feedback. You can always improve it later.’ He notes the success of game jams in turning ideas into businesses and urges people to get involved. So, what are you waiting for? 

Author: Dawn Gillies