Creative Community: Ben Kvalo
Creating a Better Creative Ecosystem
We are all called to create art for different reasons.
Some to entertain. Some to teach. Some to understand. Some to build community.
No matter your motivation or inspiration to begin, once we decide to we want to make our living as an artist, the end game becomes getting your work in front of eyes. We create at a higher velocity. We work to understand the marketplace. We fight for our stake in the channels that take our art to the masses, to say something to the world, to leave our fingerprint on the conversation.
What do we lose when that conversation moves forward without hearing every voice?
Ben Kvalo knows, and he’s decided to do something about it.
“Our way of disrupting and changing the gaming industry is by providing support to those that aren't being supported, which will naturally create new voices in the industry, will create new opportunities and different types of stories and different types of creators,” said Kvalo. “The industry is notorious for being highly male, and highly white. We want more perspectives to bring more understanding.”
Kvalo, a Wisconsin native, recently left Netflix to start his own video game publishing company in the Midwest. Some might find that move bewildering, but he sees it as fulfilling his calling, his opportunity to push better art into the world.
Video games live at the intersection of creativity and technology. Writers, producers, musicians, designers—a video game touches so many creative hands from its inception to its final destination. But so many hands have been swatted away from the video game creation process. Since Midway Games sold to Warner Brothers in 2009 and closed their Chicago headquarters, there hasn’t been a video game publisher in the Midwest.
Kvalo’s new endeavor will provide funding to developers in the area, as well as offer support in product creation and marketing. He describes it as the business end of the industry.
“I view the mission of what we're doing is really to create a better ecosystem for creatives in the region so that there are more opportunities,” he said.
His LinkedIn header succinctly encapsulates his new company’s credo: Great Games Can Come From Anywhere. But Kvalo is what we often eloquently refer to as a “doer,” and he’s stepping up to make sure “anywhere” has the same access as everywhere else.
Video Games Make Culture
Kvalo has a long history with video games. He received his first gaming system around the age of five. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (we talked about our love of the Packers as any good Midwesterners do), he moved out to the West Coast and began working on the marketing and development side of gaming. He spent time at 2K, the publishing company responsible for popular sports games like NBA2K, as well as Blizzard Entertainment, which produces household names like Overwatch and World of Warcraft.
He then moved to Netflix, at which he worked in marketing films before pivoting once again to video games. He built Netflix Games up as the lead project manager.
“I've always been somebody that resonates with games because I like to problem solve, I like puzzles,” he said. “That's just how my brain works.”
I discovered Kvalo when I stumbled across a LinkedIn post of his describing why he decided to leave Netflix to start his own company. I immediately recognized that while we work in different mediums, we both have the same end goal: to bring the creativity of the Midwest to the masses. As we chatted, I could hear my fiancé playing a video game in the living room, and I considered my own bias around video games. It isn’t until recently I began to understand video games as another form of art.
Kvalo assured me I’m not alone.
“There’s a misconception or a poor perception of what ultimately this space is, which is highly creative and innovative,” he said. “In fact, it is intersection between technology and art and entertainment and how all those things work together, which is why it's so complex to make games.”
Thousands of hours are spent to perfect a video game. Writers produce scripts. Animators and designers bring the imagery to life. Voice actors embody the story. Every aspect constructs an artistic experience unlike any other.
“Our developers need support because they are doing something very difficult. They're the ones that are creating just hours and hours and hours of entertainment,” Kvalo said. “It goes well beyond what TV and film can do. Because you only get a certain amount of time with those mediums. Whereas games, they keep going and then you can play them again. As much as you can watch a movie again, you can't watch a movie again and have a completely different experience. You can't have a different ending.”
The Midwest Creative is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
A Midwest Reentrance
An overwhelming majority of game production lies on the West Coast. It’s why Kvalo decided he had to leave home.
“I had to make major sacrifices in my life to do what I’m doing,” Kvalo said. “I had to leave my family. I had to give up relationships. That's ultimately unfair for a lot of people. There are people with the same amount of talent that maybe had to stay with their family or wanted to stay with their family. There are so many different circumstances.”
As I write this, I’m reminded of the #GamerGate incident from the early 2010s. The online movement that directed harassment, hate, and even death threats to specific members of the gamer community exploded as individuals and groups aimed to transform gaming into a more progressive and inclusive space. Gatekeeping led to violence for marginalized folks, and continues to keep new ideas and perspectives out of gaming.
In the incredibly homogenous world of gaming, Kvalo wants to disrupt the narrative that gaming is for only a select group of people. His company will provide the opportunity for indie developers to get their ideas out into the world, and for different people to be able to see themselves when they turn on a console.
“There are a number of developers in this region who have struggled to get their games funded,” he said. “There are a lot of folks that have these great ideas, and they want to get them off the ground. They're having a hard time getting traction and ultimately funding the project all the way. In fact, two of the top ten states for development activity are in the Midwest, Minnesota and Illinois.”
Kvalo said that building a stronger foundation for the gaming ecosystem in the Midwest will inevitably lead to strengthening other parts of the economy, as well. The famous “brain-drain” of the Midwest will only continue if we don’t create incentives for creative enterprises to stay.
“A publisher not only is an entity in itself with a lot of services, but they also partner with a number of other businesses,” he said. “And unless a publisher is in the region, those businesses don't thrive either, such as marketing agencies or localization vendors, or QA vendors.”
As his new business moves forward, education has become a bigger and bigger pillar within his work. Those hoping to break into the gaming industry in the Midwest will understand better how to get their games created. Those outside of the gaming industry will understand the impact of gaming on popular culture.
Ultimately, gaming consumers will get to play more games, explore more worlds, experience new adventures.
“We're going to get really unique, interesting stories that are really exciting to me,” Kvalo said. “But I know a lot more people will be able to see themselves in the games that they're playing.”
This is an installment of an ongoing series of conversations with artists and creatives based in the Midwest. If you’d like to be featured in this series, or have a recommendation of an artist you’d like to read about, please shoot me an email at email@example.com.
The Midwest Creative is a proud member of the Iowa Writers Collaborative. Please consider a subscription to my colleagues’ work to support storytelling across the state of Iowa. All of these authors provide content for free, with paid subscription options. Pick one or more, and help sustain this movement.