6 Questions With…Tobi Saulnier ’84, ’89, ’94

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute alumna Tobi Saulnier, Ph.D., was recently named the 2018 William F. Glaser ’53 Entrepreneur of the Year. After earning a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctoral degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer, Saulnier went on to become the founder and CEO of 1st Playable Productions, a game development studio located in Troy, New York.

As a social entrepreneur, Saulnier leads her team in using educational gameplay to not only excite students about learning but also to help make the world a better place. Some of the work in the 1st Playable Productions portfolio includes games to help patients undergoing respiratory therapy, seniors experiencing cognitive decline, and emergency doctors training to prevent unnecessary death.

1st Playable Productions is also the first certified B-Corp company in New York’s Tech Valley and the first game development studio to receive the certification in the United States. Companies who gain this certification are recognized for using their business to make a positive societal impact.

Q:  How did you develop the concept for your business? 

In my short time in the game industry, I learned that many developers did not prefer to work on games for kids; while at the same time I had instantly realized with the first game I worked on (Blue’s Clues for Game Boy Color), how perfect the technology was for education. I thought there was a market gap to be filled, in terms of a development studio who was passionate about creating games for kids, and, at the same time, there was a social impact to accomplish, in part through transitioning this complex technology to applications like education.

 Q:  What does it mean to be a Certified B Corporation and why was this certification important to you for your business?

A B, or Benefit, corporation is a company (whether a C corp, S corp, or LLC) whose operating agreement specifies that decisions are made not just for shareholder (monetary) benefit but also for stakeholder benefit, where stakeholders are inclusive of the community, employees, customers, suppliers, and so on. In other words, the company will spend more money to do the holistic thing. The certification option is the ability to have an independent team evaluate your effectiveness in accomplishing these ideas through a common set of measures. This was extremely valuable in both articulating our values to employees and clients, as well as having those common sets of measures to generate new ideas as to how we could do even better.

 Q:  What is your favorite game that has been created at 1st Playable Productions and why?

This is like asking a mom who her favorite child is! In some ways, I see our games as similar to children, in that we have dreams and excitement starting each one, and then it’s an adventure and learning process as we see what it becomes with the joint contributions and collaborations of the “village,” which in this case, is our team, our client, play testers, and so on. Like kids, we are often eager to ship them out and then are immediately nostalgic about the creative and technical hurdles we overcame to produce them, and reflect on the fun anecdotes along the way. As one example, our Cooking! Recipes on the Road game we did for Leapfrog required a multiday photoshoot in my kitchen, and every time I see a screenshot or play it, I am transported back to that experience of making, posing with, and eating all of that food!

Q:  What is the biggest lesson you learned on your journey as an entrepreneur?

One of the biggest lessons I learned was how much it is a team effort and how strong the community is: Whether the local business community or the game industry community, we wouldn’t have gotten our start without help from so many people, including competitors.

There have also been many difficult times along the way that were more manageable with the support of so many people either proactively reaching out or helping when asked. It is so important to not start thinking that it is a solo effort just because you have all of the responsibility. I try really hard to pay it forward and support other businesses as well, whenever I find an opportunity.

 Q: What advice do you offer to women working in the gaming industry?

Some parts of the game industry are very difficult for women, especially young women, to have an environment where they can focus on their contributions without being targeted or having to fight against harassment or discrimination. It isn’t that different in some engineering fields. My main advice to them is to cheer on those who are fighting for change, and also encourage those becoming discouraged or burned out by that fight to seek a job in an organization that doesn’t need to be changed. We all need a break from fighting sometimes, to experience some great role models and colleagues, before jumping back into the fray and trying to expand those positive workplaces to more organizations.

 Q:  How will gaming impact the future of education?

It is already having a huge effect! I am so inspired hearing from the pioneering educators that we have supported through our local Games in Education conference. There are some amazing teachers out there using games to transform their classrooms and the educational experience for students: both nationally and locally as well!