elena hoge

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Ahead of the game

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Edinburgh alumna Elena Höge shares how she launched a startup company to build educational adventure games that focus on sustainability.

There has long been debate around video games and the impact they can have upon those that play them. Critics of gaming believe that the negative aspects outweigh the positives; that they ultimately encourage inactivity and even violence. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to the aims of Yaldi Games, a start-up company launched last year by an Edinburgh alumna, which has its sights set on having a wholly positive impact on the lives of its players.

Entrepreneurs at Yaldi Games are building fully immersive experiences that will combine adventure and education with sustainability. Their focus is to offer a 360-degree approach, that encourages players to use what they learn within the game, in real life.

A digital render of an environment in wholesome

Edinburgh alumna Elena Höge chose the word ‘yaldi’, which is Scottish slang for excitement or joy, when it came to naming her company. The name is in tribute to Edinburgh where she moved to complete her MSc in Design & Digital Media. She also hopes that the games Yaldi builds will ultimately inspire those same sorts of positive feelings in their players.

A portrait photograph of Elena Höge

Elena has always been a lover of video games herself but it’s the combination of learning and entertainment that really inspired her to create her own.

“I was always curious and loved to learn,” she explains. “There was a time in school when I was really interested in history and when I came across the game Assassin’s Creed, which merges history with adventure, I discovered that it was entirely possible to combine learning and fun. I wanted to make games just like that.”

Wholesome gaming

Since their launch in 2020, the Yaldi Games team has been working on their first title, Wholesome. Within it, players are invited to explore picturesque outdoor scenes and learn more about nature. Elena explains: “Wholesome is a relaxing and peaceful game where players can explore beautiful environments, find and identify wild food, cook dishes, craft decorations and cultivate their own garden.”

The gaming market has grown exponentially in recent years so that consumers are spoilt for choice, with many games accessible as apps on our phones. Wholesome is pitched towards a sophisticated audience with players able to create their own avatar, pursue specific goals and uncover instructions for recipes or crafts. For Elena, this is a significant difference in the development of Wholesome.

“It’s not a gamified app,’ she explains. “Wholesome is a fully-fledged game with some knowledge on the side, similar to Animal Crossing. Players will be able to download it either on PC, consoles or mobile and then create their own character and achieve a range of goals, for example, making teas and oils to help their characters.”

a digital render of the playable characters in Wholesome

Animal Crossing is a gentle first person game that allows players to build their own small villages, help other characters through fishing, growing fruit and vegetables and fossil hunting and visit other players’ towns to trade goods. Although similar, Wholesome allows players to download the game’s activities and instructions, encouraging players to try them in real life too.

“Every recipe and crafting instruction discovered in the game can be downloaded and used in real life,” states Elena. “As such, we hope that digital play can be followed by analogue activities in real life, ideally with family and friends.”

So where did the idea for the sustainability education of Wholesome come from

“My father started foraging back in 2019,” Elena tells us. “I was very concerned back then, quite fearful of the idea of my parents eating wild mushrooms.

“So, one day, I decided to go along with them and I discovered that foraging felt very familiar – something that I had been doing for years in all the games I’d played. It was a treasure hunt. I immediately saw how I could turn this experience into a game. And how, reciprocally, the real experience could be inspired by the game.”

a digital render of a dandelion in Wholesome

Connecting with nature

Interacting with nature is clearly a key part of the Wholesome game and has always been a part of Elena’s life: “In my family it has always been important to think of the environment; to recycle, to reduce plastic and use renewable energy. We care about nature, which is why we want to protect it. It is this feeling that I want Wholesome to create for our players. To connect, care and protect.”

Although it was foraging that ultimately sparked the idea for Wholesome, Elena is keen to stress that the emphasis of the game is much broader than that. The focus of the game is not just to inspire foraging – it’s much more about creating a connection between players and nature and to help players notice their local outdoor surroundings.

a digital render of a train station in Wholesome

The benefits of this are numerous, both for the environment and for the player. Encouraging interaction with nature can help with all aspects of health and Elena has certainly experienced the benefits first hand.

“Since I started foraging, I’ve spent a lot more time outside,” she says. “I’ve become fitter and feel mentally refreshed. The increased awareness of my surroundings has opened my eyes to the wonders of nature and I enjoy my time outside much more. That’s what I want to achieve with my game: to playfully teach children and adults about nature and increase their interest in the outdoors.”

Edinburgh Innovations

The University’s commercialisation arm, Edinburgh Innovations, worked closely with Elena to grow her dream into a start-up company.

Elena was keen to make use of their expertise and describes their Start-up Summer Accelerator programme as an ‘amazing opportunity’. The programme supports students to get their ideas ready for investors. Delegates receive one-to-one coaching and benefit from themed peer-to-peer sessions. The programme also offers workshops on pitching and financial forecasting as well as hearing from other entrepreneurs about how they raised investment.

At the end of the programme, Elena was able to pitch to investors and won a grant as one of the finalists.

With the continued support of Edinburgh Innovations, Yaldi Games has won multiple awards, including the creative prize in Scotland’s Converge Challenge competition, and an Innovate UK Young Innovators Award.

Elena shares what it was like to be recognised in this way: “It was truly amazing, and such a relief. As a start-up, there are a lot of doubts, so getting recognition through grants meant that the potential of my idea didn’t just exist in my own mind. Of course I did not win every grant I applied for – but what I learnt from each rejection improved my other applications.”

A digital render of the bedroom from Wholesome

Future plans

A year after launching Yaldi Games, Elena has big plans: “I want to grow Yaldi Games into a successful and sustainable company that creates meaningful entertainment – not just video games.

“With Wholesome, we are laying the foundation for a global, gamified wiki that can preserve and share knowledge from people and cultures all over the world. It is my hope that we will, through studies and research, prove that Wholesome increases outdoor or analogue activities on a public scale.”

Hearing other voices and getting more people involved is an important part of Elena’s hopes for the future of Yaldi Games: “I want to build a community around the game that can have an active voice in shaping its design and content.”

Much like the content of the game itself, she also hopes to build on the reciprocity she has created in Wholesome: “On a local level, I’d like to work together with charities and nature trusts and offer workshops related to Wholesome’s foraging, cooking or crafting content. On a global level, we will look to support many environmental causes and might even be able to provide funding for other new and sustainable start-ups.”