Kabongo Takes School-Based Learning Games to the Consumer, Focuses on Being Both Fun and Effective

9/20/10Follow @xconomy

Kids usually don’t do schoolwork at home purely for fun. But Terry Anderson, president and CEO of educational gaming company Kabongo, thinks that his company’s products could provide an exception to that rule.

The startup—headquartered in Emeryville, CA, with research operations in Ann Arbor, MI—first marketed its learning-skills-building games directly to schools. But earlier this month it started offering a consumer-facing product right on its website. Anderson says when he joined the company last year, he noticed that a large percentage of students who used the online game in the classroom were logging into the site from home to play.

“What it told us was that kids love the games,” he says. “They had to play for school, but it was working.”

Anderson, who’s spent the bulk of his career in educational media, says learning games didn’t have quite the same appeal ten years ago or so. “A lot of what we saw then was either bad games created by earnest educators, or great games with no educational content,” he says.

Kabongo was born three years ago, when University of Michigan-educated founder Martin Fletcher converted the literacy games he developed for a kids’ learning clinic into Web-based games. Anderson, who’s based in Emeryville, joined Kabongo last year “to put a consumer wrapper” on the games it sells to school systems, where it charges on a per-student basis. Kabongo’s ten employees are split evenly between California and Ann Arbor, where Anderson says the “brain trust” of the company is. The startup now has one set of games targeting kids ages four to seven, and a second one for those ranging from seven to 12 in age.

GoGo Kabongo, the recently launched game that kids can access right online, without log-in information from the schools, is designed for the younger age group. The game’s landing page is targeted at parents, who set their children up with the game, but once kids get logged in they should be able to play independently without the help of parents, Anderson says.

“It gives parents a break while the child is playing,” he says. “Then the experience is completely self directed.”

Or rather, avatar-directed. GoGoKabongo’s avatar host takes users to different virtual islands, each with a different game focusing on a specific learning skill, from comprehension to phonics to attention and focus. Kids can also earn rewards that can be converted into virtual stickers, which they can add to their own Web-based comic books—what Anderson describes as the modern-day equivalent of color forms or flannel graphs.

“It’s reinforcing the learning; kids are creating their own comic books and it’s part of the literacy process,” he says.

Kabongo, which raised a $2.3 million Series A round earlier this year from DFJ Mercury and RPM Ventures, is planning to introduce an online, consumer-facing game for the older age group sometime next year. GoGo Kabongo, meanwhile, operates on the “freemium” model, with the initial game and virtual habitat costing nothing, and each additional habitat’s game functioning as an individual app that costs $6.95, Anderson says.

Speaking of apps (and keeping kids occupied so parents can take a break), Anderson says the company is working on taking its products to the smartphones, which have become what he calls “passback devices” that parents hand off to kids to keep them occupied in places like the car. He also sees a future for Kabongo in taking its games to mediums like books and board games.

“The launch is the first step in both extending the kids’ online experience, as well as his or her offline experience,” Anderson says.

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