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Local game maker aims to empower and inspire

Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

Strolling into Café Mekka on a Tuesday evening may just change the way you look at life.

For Tuesday evenings are the standing game night with Nevada City game maker John O’Neill. O’Neill, a lifetime artist, brings his games to share, market and sell but, most importantly, to open the minds and hearts of others.

O’Neill isn’t peddling the likes of Monopoly or Sorry. His creations can be found at the other end of the spectrum, where integrity and social responsibility overcome greed and blind ambition.



“I wanted to touch people’s soul, and interactivity is the best way to do that,” O’Neill said. “I wanted to do beautiful things that people could afford, not just paint one thing that one person could put on a wall.

“I wanted to touch people’s soul, and interactivity is the best way to do that.”

— John O’Neill

“I wanted to have an impact and reach people. I tried cards, decals and all the little things people could buy, but games are an immersive experience.”




Born in England, O’Neill founded GameWhys in 2009. He spent more than a decade in the Bay Area and has a vast and varied resume encompassing art, culture and technology. He spent time lecturing about interactive art for the 21st century, was tapped by CBS to do a series on Dr. Seuss stories, did flash animation for a tech company website and designed video games.

His first game, Lifespan, was considered the first video game as a work of art and he was subsequently considered the “Dali of computer gaming.” His career and endeavors waxed and waned with trends, the economy and the pulse of the nation.

He turned his back on video games when they “went violent with doom.” Though he had designed board games for quite some time, Sept. 11, 2001, served as a major catalyst.

“After 9/11, the world changed,” he said. “People had their feet pulled out from under them and there was a lot of questioning. They seemed to be much more open to the games, and there was a lot of growth and interest.”

Paradice was his first board game and can now be purchased and played in a number of formats. The goal is to save forests by empowering people to balance taking and sharing. Players eventually see the “bigger picture” and gain the reason and power to give. “A signature move is getting humans to meet eye to eye.”

The Ice Cap Cards tasks players (as penguins and polar bears) to compete and cooperate to return icebergs to their homes.

The game touches on reliability and responsibility. Humanity and OYL are his newest games. OYL (Occupy Your Life) was inspired by the Occupy movement. Players try to satisfy needs and manage wants.

O’Neill’s games are far from preachy. One player is designed to act selfishly and he introduces conflict often. The goal is to get players, people, to work together.

“In my games, if you have conflict, you both have to fix it,” he said. “This inspires us to follow your dream, but not at the expense of someone else. The first person with dreams to come true, wins the game.”

O’Neill has found a growing interest from home-school programs. The games are designed for kids as young as nine, but are thought provoking and relevant enough for teens and adults of all ages.

“I want to take kids, people, away from video screens and open them up to discussion. Not lectures,” he said.

The production of all GameWhys games takes place in Grass Valley. O’Neill works closely with Real Graphics and designs all the pieces and artwork himself.

“I looked at China, where the initial run of Paradice took place in 2004, and India, where it could be done for a $1,” he said, “but thought about it and decided to do it all in America.”

O’Neill also handles all the marketing and day-to-day business himself. The games can be purchased at his website, http://www.GameWhys.com, which was completed just days ago, or at Café Mekka’s game night.

“We had wanted to do a game night, and then John approached us with his idea,” Carolyn Curry, who organizes the event at Café Mekka, said.

“We thought it was a great idea. I’ve played Paradice with him and was completely intrigued. I like chess and problem-solving games, and this was combination of both. It’s challenging and fun with a whole life philosophy behind it. I loved it instantly.”

The games can be purchased as board games or cards and range in price from $22 to $145 (a limited edition, art version of Paradice, initially sold in major art galleries across the U.S., including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Chicago Institute of Contemporary Art).

In addition to Tuesday evenings at Café Mekka, O’Neill can be found with Elixart at Victorian Christmas.

He plans to have a regularly scheduled game night at the Broad Street gallery after the first of the year.

Until then, soul searchers, the philosophically curious and everyday game lovers can head to Café Mekka every Tuesday from 7 to 10 p.m.

“We play games to waste time, but time is the only thing we have to spend in life,” O’Neill said. “My games are meant to leave you energized, not depleted. These games speak to people’s soul and give them inspiration, insight and some sense of empowerment.”

Katrina Paz is a freelance writer who lives in Grass Valley.


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