After ventures in MTV and gaming, Donora's Jon Moses launches WeChi.com
June 7, 2012 8:14 AM
Donora native and software executive Jon "J." Moses
By Deborah M. Todd Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
After greenlighting what ultimately became one of the top-selling video game franchises of all time in the late 1990s, Donora native and software executive Jon "J." Moses was at the top of his game.
Giving the thumbs up to "Grand Theft Auto" -- the gaming series based on a digital hellscape where carjacking, vandalism and gunfights with police are richly rewarded -- rocketed him from his post as president of New York-based BMG Interactive Entertainment to vice president of MTV Russia.
The climb continued in 1997 when Mr. Moses co-founded UGO Entertainment, a Manhattan-based online gaming and entertainment company that was sold to Hearst for an undisclosed figure in 2007. UGO was acquired by News Corp's IGN gaming company last year.
The idea that so much good in Mr. Moses' life had come as the result of one of the more callous and bloodthirsty titles on the market seemed apt at first glance. Graphic games such as "GTA" and "Mortal Kombat" achieved cult status by tapping into humanity's darkest instincts, left dormant in an age when predators are kept at bay and enemies are punished by law and not lance.
So-called "nice" games had their place in the hierarchy, but even Nintendo's cuddly cartoon hero Mario had to step on heads and spit fireballs to save the Princess.
The concept of kindness and compassion adding value to games hadn't occurred to Mr. Moses until 2005, when he was stricken with Benign Essential Blepharospasm -- a condition that causes involuntary forced closing of the eyelids -- following eye surgery. Relying on the goodwill of strangers on the real life streets of New York City led to a sense of gratitude and connection he realized could easily translate to the digital realm.
"My [eyelids] slammed shut the way it might feel if you have a charley horse in your leg. That is what was going on in my face for two to three years. I had to scotch-tape my eyes open to get to work and they were closed 90 percent of the time," he said. "I guess I had to go blind to see, to a certain extent."
Today, as founder and CEO of Bagooba Inc., a New York social media company billed as "a power plant for emotional energy," Mr. Moses says his latest venture, WeChi.com, could spark the emotional revolution he believes gamers are hungry for.
Mr. Moses will formally introduce the site during a keynote speech at tonight's Design, Art and Technology Awards and Interactive Exhibition 2012, hosted by the Pittsburgh Technology Council. The event kicks off at 6 p.m. in the North Side's Grand Hall at the Priory. Visit http://www.pghtech.org/networks/creative-technology/comingup.aspx for more information.
"I think people want to be in a place that's more safe and that encourages good behavior. And the more engaged we are in a particular act, the more likely we are to continue to appropriate that behavior," he said.
WeChi is a social networking site where users are rewarded virtual "coins" for sending positive messages to users in need. It has been in beta-testing with 1,000 users for more than seven months.
In addition to raising fellow users' spirits, those who earn coins can transfer the digital currency to actual cash that goes toward a charity linked to the site. Statuses posted on WeChi can be cross-posted to Facebook and WeChi users are encouraged to recruit Facebook friends for the game.
Mr. Moses is currently footing the bill to transfer the virtual coins to cash (he recently put up $2,500 to account for 250,000 digital coins raised for a campaign to fight malaria) but said the site will use charities with sponsors willing to pay for the coins in the future.
What Mr. Moses and his team have dubbed the business of "social alchemy" isn't entirely new, according to Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston. Ms. Rutledge noted that support groups and fan forums have existed for decades.
As Mr. Moses and his team work out technical kinks associated with explaining the game's process (a step-by-step tutorial is in the works), he believes the WeChi site's concept is rock-solid.
It has already proven itself as an effective fund-raiser with a campaign that raised $2,500 to support the charity Malaria No More, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to ending malaria in Africa by 2015, and a second campaign to raise funds for a fresh-water well in an African village is currently underway. Additionally, the team is in the process of recruiting several major charities to join the site.
With his health on his side (he describes the condition as "more of an inconvenience than a handicap" now), Mr. Moses said positive vibes he received during his lowest point continue to sustain his mission today. He's hoping WeChi can open the eyes of a public used to putting up blinders to the world around them.
"Be nice to people when they're having a lousy day. When a person is in a not-so-good place, that's when they need you the most," he said.