Justin Hefter explained Bandura Games’ unique peace-promoting mission during his Casual Connect Tel Aviv lecture: “Our mission with Bandura games is to use our games to create empathy and to create connections with people of different backgrounds from around the world and across conflict zones.” Watch him discuss the studio’s efforts with Bandura Games co-founders Etay Furman and Ammoun Dissi in the video below.
Justin Hefter is a man with a mission: to change the world by getting people from diverse backgrounds to interact and learn that they have more similarities than differences. When he saw how games helped people become friends and create relationships, he realized he could use the medium to help make the world a better place.
As he studied the science and research, he discovered games are one of the most powerful forms of media for creating change. After working with Israeli and Palestinian youths to discover their game preferences, he came to believe he could build games to create relationships for people all over the world.
Two years ago Justin founded Bandura Games after more than a decade of thinking about the changes games could make in the world. While an undergraduate at Stanford, he worked to bring Jewish and Muslim students together through fun events where they could build relationships in a safe environment. His dream was to take these experiences to millions of people around the world.
Justin’s background was in business and conflict resolution. For almost three years he helped develop business strategies for Fortune 500 companies with the Avascent Group in Washington, D.C. In addition to hosting the Jewish and Muslim students’ events at Stanford, he interned with the Peres Center for Peace, helping lay the groundwork for deals between Israeli and Palestinian businesses. The combination of his business background and his conflict resolution background gave him the ability to understand from a practical perspective how to start a company that could help resolve conflict in a fun and scalable way.
He describes Bandura Games as the manifestation of years of interfaith and inter-ethnic conflict resolution work. “We use games,” he says, “to create empathy and connections for people of different backgrounds around the world and from across conflict zones.” Appropriately for aspiration, his co-founders are Etay Furman, an Israeli entrepreneur and Amoun Dissi, a Palestinian teacher.
Justin is clearly someone convinced of the value of fun, both in his work and as a hobby. He has been performing standup comedy for the past six years both across the US and in Israel. He also hosted a popular comedy open mic for two years in Washington, D.C. He is an avid soccer player and skier, skiing for the Stanford University Ski Team while a student.
He is fortunate to do work he loves, spending time with people who believe in their mission and their ability to change the world. He describes: “Knowing that I am dedicating myself to a good cause is extremely motivating. Even when I’m exhausted, I know I can keep going because there are people around the world who will be better off if I succeed at my mission!”
Justin has always loved games and comedy, but he admits, “Never in a million years did I expect to be CEO of a game company! Even when I first started, I had no idea things would end up as positively as they have.”
While growing up he was constantly creating games for his friends and finding ways to make his friends laugh even though he had no idea he could do this professionally. But in college he discovered he could write his own jokes. He also learned that with focus and hard work he could create other things he wanted to see in the world.
“That’s how I got into games,” he says. “I saw something I wanted to create and I went for it.”
Art has been a big part of his life from his childhood when his mother, a caricature artist, would draw pictures of him and his sister. Now he often draws inspiration from other games, learning from designers he admires. And once he was inspired by a Target ad advertising baby products.
His creative process begins with brainstorming, with himself and with others. When brainstorming on his own, his process involves writing notes, linking ideas in a mind map and talking out loud while walking in a circle, “gesticulating wildly with my hands.”
When with others, it involves talking out loud and bouncing ideas off each other. He claims, “Our team has come up with some brilliant ideas during our brainstorming sessions that I believe will be revolutionary.” But they actually have more ideas than they can try; their biggest challenge is prioritizing the features they love.
The team members Justin looks for are the “doers.” He needs the people who do what they say they will do and who can deliver on time. As he insists, “At the end of the day, it’s about results, and if you can deliver, we want you!” The team recognizes he is also hard-working and a good leader; he believes they realize he has dedicated his life to the company and see how hard he works for them.
One of the biggest challenges the team has in game development is coordinating across time zones since they are in the US, Israel and Pakistan. But working with a global team also brings Justin his greatest rewards, giving them the ability to inspire people around the world.
“Our Indiegogo campaign has had visitors from almost every country in the world,” he relates. “We have contributors from the United States, Israel, Philippines and even Saudi Arabia. Seeing how people around the globe are inspired by our mission makes all of the challenges seem like nothing.”
To those who are interested in pursuing the same career, he says, “Call me! Anyone who wants to use games to make the world a better place is someone I want to talk to. This has been a long journey and I’d love to help people who are just starting out.”
Justin describes a painful experience when a friend was in a life-threatening situation. When this friend asked for help, Justin was one of the few who said yes. He then spent the next two weeks using dozens of connections and making hundreds of phone calls to find the right people to help. These two weeks of persistence and dedication allowed him and a few others to rescue their friend from what seemed to be an impossible situation. He now believes if you put your mind to it, anything is possible.
He says, “If I never do anything else again, I will be proud of having saved a life. What led to this was saying ‘yes’ to someone in need.” Now he tries to say yes to friends and yes to the universe and watch as amazing things happen. He likes to say, “I create intentional serendipity.”