Building Character

How Wharton Interactive’s Live-Action Videos Immerse Players in the Game

For many complex fantasy and role-playing games, the key word is realness: how realistically the game’s mechanics make a game element believable. This is subjective, and narrowly pointed — you don’t have to debate the likelihood of a half-orc necromancer unto themselves, just whether or not they actually have the time, and the materials at hand to cast a “Freeze Enemies” spell in a given situation — and what helps a game achieve this high-level of subjective realism has everything to do with the context in which it takes place.

For Wharton Interactive’s games, that credibility very much extends to the business environment.

Built on the ARC platform, our games and simulations deliver an immersive experience where students gain mastery through practice and feedback on their performance. Players interact with important documents, dossiers, “emails” and texts from game NPC’s (Non-Player Characters), and crucially, they speak with characters via interactive video chats; these NPC's are portrayed by professional actors, under the careful auspices of the writing and production teams.

As the face of these characters, and, by proxy, much of the feel and vibe of the game, these actors’ performances carry a lot of weight, greatly adding to the immediacy of the game. “So much of business is working with other people as people,” as Head Writer Daniel Ravipinto puts it. “Understanding them, their motivations, their goals. When we can get an actual person in front of players, there's an immediacy to the interaction that you can't get any other way.”

In the BlueSky Ventures Game, players are quickly introduced to a character named Tommy, who beseeches them with a series of plaintive video chats to help him create a credible business presentation for his venture capital company. When the player accepts the challenge, Tommy hands over a pile of materials he has gathered but doesn’t understand, while feeling so much pressure he has to breathe into a paper bag in order not to hyperventilate. The brilliantly funny actor behind Tommy’s comic exhortations is Luke Bradt, a local thespian set to start law school at the University of Pennsylvania in the Fall, who found the role “a bucket list item.”

In a similarly off-beat role, that of brilliant (just ask her) inventor Darla Xavier, who appears in the complex world of Wharton Interactive's Entrepreneurship Strategy Course, actress Julianna Zinkel, dressed in a lab coat, with her hair done up in a loose bun, and wearing an expression of condescension bordering on the criminal, talks to the players about her latest brilliant invention.

Like Tommy’s role in BlueSky Ventures, Darla’s presence is a somewhat offbeat ingredient in the Entrepreneurship Strategy Course, a simulation that mirrors the pressures and complexities of a startup environment (“Her laser-focus can get her into trouble, and it's up to the player to keep things running smoothly, and allowing her to do what she does best,” Ravipinto says of her). Filmed last summer, in the height of COVID, Zinkel concedes the tricky environment “created a big challenge for everyone,” but found the experience carefully handled, with the production team utilizing a mobile studio that allowed the shoot to be contact-free, which felt “super safe” to her, “an innovative step into acting for gaming [that] felt just right.”

Fresh off a key role in HBO’s smash-hit miniseries, “Mare of Easttown” Zinkel is used to performing on stage and screen. The gaming environment of Wharton Interactive's simulations, however, was a first, an experience she found an “invigorating and delightful trip.”

The challenge for the actors, among other things, is creating the character in something of a vacuum, against a green screen and usually without another actor to work off of. “It can be hard to gauge what level of emotion or response is appropriate without having someone right there to react to,” says University of Pennsylvania alum Annie Fang, another veteran Wharton Interactive actress.

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Annie Fang, featured in the BlueSky Ventures Game

And actor Luke Bradt agrees:

“Working in theater, you almost always have a scene partner to react to. Working on a game, I have to imagine one.”

Beyond the realism of the experience, the actors also add an element of focus and engagement to the game, harnessing the power of attention as a driver of learning.

A big part of that narrative-driven engagement comes from the live-action sequences, with players reacting to the living, breathing characters before them. “It gives you an immediate path towards identifying with the character,” says actor Bradt.

Jaylene Clark Owens, who is featured in the Entrepreneurship Strategy Course, and in Machine Learning for Business Decisions, feels the live-action sequences make the entire experience feel “more realistic.” As she puts it, “ You're not just answering a multiple-choice question, or filling in the blank. You are interacting with a person.” A sentiment also echoed by Zinkel, who finds the live element “more relatable” and capable of “creating instantaneous connections.”

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Jaylene Clark Owens, featured in the Entrepreneurship Strategy Course

Somewhat ironically, after a year in which COVID left most people working from home, and interacting with their co-workers via video chat, this particular game element feels even more true-to-life. In an era where, as Fang puts it,“ Zoom calls reigned supreme,” the idea of a game incorporating extensive video interaction as a primary means of communicating feels perfectly suited to the moment.

As the field of education shifts, Wharton Interactive is ushering in a kind of revolution: a games and interactive fiction playground in which learning is seamlessly integrated into the rigorous demands of an immersive experience. As writer Ravipinto says, “Games already teach. They place players in complex systems and then ask them to understand them enough to find their way through and win. All we're doing is building games where that pedagogical element is our primary focus.”


Play the BlueSky Ventures Game

BlueSky Ventures is a free 90-minute game that will teach you how to evaluate business ideas.

Tommy is waiting for you.