Jamie Van Doren says that being bullied as a child was a big inspiration for why his startup NeverEnding wanted to create an inclusive experience. The platform, which allows users to create customized characters, brings together the worlds of gaming and community for one exciting experience. We sat down to chat with Van Doren on how NeverEnding is going to shatter expectations of what it means to have a custom world.
Grit Daily: You had your own adventures before founding NeverEnding. Share those.
Jamie Van Doren: Honestly, it feels a little weird talking about myself. It’s not that I’m one to stand in the background, it’s more that I didn’t exactly grow up being comfortable in the spotlight. I grew up really, really poor in southern California. I dealt with a lot of bullying during childhood because my family was so poor and I was often, frankly, dirty and a little weird. Being half-Mexican didn’t help with the bullying either. So pretty much my whole life up until adulthood I had some pretty persistent self-esteem issues that stood in the way of my success.
I’ll give you an example. Until my mid-twenties, I thought I wasn’t athletic. I had been told that growing up, and because no one had ever taught me anything about sports – even how to catch a ball. But then a friend of mine got me to try this Kung Fu class with her. It was funny, because I basically dry-heaved in the middle of it. But I liked it a lot! It literally opened a whole new world for me. I ended up traveling to China a few times, as well as in France, and other places to compete. That’s something my childhood-self never would have believed possible.
The good news is that experience really helped cement for me that I needed to ignore the limitations of other people’s expectations. And that’s a little bit of the reason why I am building NeverEnding. It’s also why we’re working on adding visible disabilities as options for our custom character builder. I don’t think anyone should be limited based on another person’s assumptions about what they can or can’t do – especially if those assumptions are based on how they look.
Grit Daily: For the uninitiated, what is a custom character builder?
JVD: A character builder is just an app that lets you build a 2D or 3D cartoon character. You can use it as a social media avatar or for tabletop or other games. Basically, you’re picking from a menu of options like different bodies, different heads, hairstyles, eyes, and clothing.
Ours will be part of a larger social media platform that will eventually allow you to create and share everything from webcomics to animated videos, all without having to be an artist or learn complicated software.
Another big difference with ours is that we’re focusing really heavily on representing all types of people. Whether that’s different cultures, ethnicities, or disabilities. The last one is a standout for me, because I haven’t seen anywhere that you can build a heroic avatar who’s in a wheelchair or has an amputation or a prosthetic. I really think we need more places and more ways people can feel seen in their stories in a really positive way.
Grit Daily: What is behind the “NeverEnding” name?
JVD: NeverEnding is literally the first name that came to me when I got this idea and the moment that it did, I knew it was right.
My mom is intellectually disabled and has been my whole life. At times it’s made it challenging for us to share positive experiences. But when I was a little kid one of the movies that we both loved was “The Never Ending Story.” It was something we could enjoy together that was really fun.
I’m 100% not copying the name or anything from the movie, but there’s definitely a bit of an homage. In fact, in some ways it might be too on the nose! Essentially, the protagonist in the movie is this bullied kid with a huge imagination and a big heart who has a hard time believing that he can be the hero of his own story. I think a lot of people can vibe with that.
Grit Daily: Where is that logo from? Inquiring minds want to know.
JVD: Our logo was a lot of work! Our first iteration was a sword in a stone that was on a film strip background, like a piece of camera film. It was a little generic and a little too… I guess I would say “commercial.” So, we went back to the drawing board.
I knew I wanted to have something that included a dragon, in part because dragons are almost ubiquitous in fantasy stories. It’s also partially because one of the most popular tabletop role-playing games is Dungeons & Dragons. Tabletop gamers is a group or market that we’re targeting early. I also wanted to keep the sword somehow.
What the design team and I came up with was this kind of infinity symbol that’s meant to evoke the concept of “never ending” since that’s our name. But we did it with a stylized dragon’s head and a sword going through the middle. That also kind of touches on or echoes the fantasy trope of the knight fighting a dragon.
Once the design was finalized, it was redrawn, including the word art of our name, in a hand-drawn style to mirror the hand-drawn nature of all of our art.
Grit Daily: What’s one conventional wisdom about virtual characters that’s just plain wrong?
JVD: I think what people don’t realize is the impact virtual characters can have on us in the real world – both individually and culturally. They’re another type of media and they communicate really fundamental things, like what’s normal or what does a hero look like.
That’s why it bothers me so much that so often the avatars that you can create for games or whatever are all either lean, or muscular, or “sexy”. You don’t see other types of bodies that are more representative of what people actually really look like and you certainly don’t see heroes in wheelchairs or with amputations. And so, think about what that says about what’s normal or about what a hero looks like. It’s 100% the wrong message, because it unintentionally communicates to a whole swath of people that they’re not normal and they can’t be heroes. That’s just not true.
I think we also run into it when we don’t include other cultural and ethnic options. There are countries all around the world that have amazing stories and legends. More importantly, there are people from all over the world who want to connect with, uplift, and share their heritage, histories, and experiences. To do that in a virtual space, you need to be able to create characters that capture or illustrate those cultures in a way that doesn’t make it a farce or rely on tired stereotypes. We’re really committed to doing that with NeverEnding.
We’ve got a beautiful, diverse, and rich world out there. I can’t think of any compelling reason why we wouldn’t want to represent that virtually and make everyone feel welcomed and seen.