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when they got old enough they would start correcting my behavior. I had this epiphany that nobody had taught me these skills.”
All of Hawkins’ grandparents went through divorces, and “there was a whole lot of brokenness and damage in my parents’ generation,” he says. Hawkins, too, has gone through multiple divorces. The traditional assumption that families or religious institutions, not schools, should teach skills like ethics and compassion clearly hasn’t worked out for many kids, he feels. “I thought, through my own observation of myself and my inadequacies…that this is an area of human knowledge that needs to be reestablished.”
Proponents of SEL try to help kids build skills like recognizing and regulating their emotions, listening to others, demonstrating empathy and concern, building relationships around cooperation, and resolving conflicts without violence. Hawkins says he was sure there would be a way to embed such elements into the storyline of an immersive, adventure-style video game, and to make it interesting by drawing on the proven formulas of games like The Legend of Zelda, Pokemon, and Animal Crossing.
All three franchises are from Nintendo, and they’ve shown that a combination of quests, battles, collecting, world-building, and open-ended exploration can keep kids obsessed for years. “Those are amongst the all-time most engaging games for boys and girls in this age range,” Hawkins says. “So we don’t feel like we have to invent a new game mechanic. What we want to do is keep boys and girls in that age range engaged.”
Ingredients for Change
But would a game with an explicit educational agenda be a good business proposition? And could it sidestep the chocolate-covered broccoli problem? Probably not, Hawkins realized, unless game developers also tapped into several other key changes that have taken place over the last decade.
One is the rapid spread of mobile devices. “There are literally a billion devices being sold a year,” Hawkins says. “They are chock full of memory and power. Even five or 10 years ago, computers were pretty hard to operate for kids. Compare that to today’s smartphones and tablets—even a lot of young kids are completely fluent at using these devices.” The obvious implication is that developers should build for smartphones and tablets first, rather than PCs or the Web.
The way such devices arrive in homes is also changing, Hawkins notes. Back when he was starting out in the video game business, marketers could safely assume that women were driving most “white goods” purchases (microwaves, washing machines, and other appliances) while men handled “black goods” (computers, music systems, game consoles, and other media and entertainment gadgets). That pattern has fallen apart as technologies like the iPod have shifted the focus from hardware to the content it holds. “Women, for the first time in history, are taking over technology buying,” Hawkins says. “Moms became expert users, thanks to Apple primarily, and have decided this is a good thing for the family, and therefore they need to govern it.”
Thirdly, the app-store ecosystem that’s grown up alongside the new digital devices has given parents more power to curate the games, videos, books, and other materials their young children are consuming. “When I was a kid, TV and books were the two choices,” Hawkins says. “My parents didn’t care so much what I read; they would rather have me read than watch TV. Now you have a new category of products which are, at their foundation, educational and fun, but the business models are about marketing to moms, who make the selection based on value. That is all fairly unprecedented.”
But even with all those elements in place—a technology platform, thoughtful consumers, and a thriving marketplace with a built-in payment mechanism—Hawkins knew it would still be a challenge to get parents, schools, and kids to embrace a game about social and emotional skills. To appeal to demanding parents and to be useful in classrooms, the game would have to be built around a legitimate curriculum. It would have to include tools to assess players’ progress and prove that they’re learning. And just as important, it would have to be fun.
“We have seen a lot of failure and disappointment” in the educational game market, Hawkins says. “A lot of well-intentioned products have failed to scale, because they were produced by smart academics who didn’t really hold them to the high production values and fun value in mass entertainment.” Kids are pretty good at “smelling the spinach,” as Hawkins puts it, especially as they approach their tween and teen years. So a game that teaches them how to recognize emotions and deal with conflict would have to feel just as convincing, immersive, and slick as any Nintendo rescue-the-princess adventure.
Dogs and Cats Living Together
To build the world of If…, Hawkins raised $3 million in angel and venture backing, recruited Toben to act as the company’s primary advisor, and allied with two co-founders. Ben Geliher, If You Can’s chief creative officer, is a former lead producer for Moshi Monsters, a Pokemon-style collecting game from London-based Mind Candy. Jessica Berlinski, the chief learning officer, is the former national director of Character Counts, an ethics-and-values program for schools developed by the non-profit Josephson Institute in Los Angeles.
They run a team of 23. The core development staff—led by chief product officer Stewart Bonn, the former head of EA Studios—works from the high-tech Shoreditch district of London, while Hawkins works from the Bay Area.
Hawkins gave me a brief demo of the game on his iPad mini. It’s what industry insiders call a “top-down RPG,” where players looks down on the game world from an elevated point of view and can direct their characters’ movement by tapping on various spots on the touchscreen.
A child playing the game can start out as a dog or a cat, male or female; he or she begins in the abandoned town of Greenberry, which feels like it’s part Tatooine, part Bedford Falls. The story of the game progresses through encounters with various NPCs, or non-player characters, such as the elderly sage YouDog, who has the unmistakable look of Ewan McGregor’s Obi-wan Kenobi. Players’ choices about how to interact with the NPCs have consequences that, in theory, teach them about the nature of emotions and how to manage them.
One example Hawkins spelled out draws from sources as divergent as The Hobbit, Lawrence of Arabia, and Philip Zimbardo’s notorious Stanford prison experiment. The player must obtain a magic widget that will allow her to sneak in the back door of a dragon’s lair. To get the widget, she must agree to babysit some cats.
“You go into this room and there are a couple of guard dogs doing some very lightweight bullying of these cats,” Hawkins explains. The easiest way to get the guard dogs to hand over the widget is to consent to harsher bullying. But if the player does this, she’ll be captured later by a band of cats up on a hill.
“They’ll tease you just like you tolerated those other cats being teased. We’ll let you sit with that, and let it sink in that your hopes are dashed. And then YouDog gets you to appreciate empathy some more, and says ‘Maybe if you’d helped those other cats they would be helping you now.’ Then you can go back in time and make a more compassionate choice, and next time you come up the hill the cats like you and they have a widget, so you can defeat the dragon.”
There’s a lot more going on, of course. Greenberry is in bad shape, and needs cleaning up. Players can earn good karma by picking up trash and building a recycling center. The land around Greenberry is populated by … Next Page »
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