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Vim, endangered creatures who can tap the energy field. They can help the player complete quests, but they’re easily offended and have a tendency to rise off the ground when they’re angry or upset. Some deep breathing can bring them back down.
Each episode in the game is keyed to a specific section of Toben’s SEL curriculum. Hawkins says the ultimate goal of the game—which will unfold over a period of months or even years—is to reunify Dogma and Catonia. Along the way, students are expected to complete 20 so-called exSEL goals in areas such as awareness of emotions, resilience, gratitude, sensitivity, empathy, listening, humor, leadership, and collaboration. (On their smartphones, parents can access a dashboard showing their child’s progress.)
Putting key curriculum points into the mouths of mentor NPCs like YouDog allows the game designers to deliver important lessons without leaving that spinachy taste, Hawkins says. “In a game, you can have mentor characters that talk to you and say the things that teachers would have said, straight out of lesson plans. But they’re framed in a storytelling way, and you’re given choices about what to say in reply, some of which are more effective than others.”
20 Years of Research
The startup is building the If… game world using the Unity 3D graphics engine from San Francisco-based Unity Technologies. “Write once, publish everywhere” is Unity’s main selling point, which means it shouldn’t be too hard to port the game to Android devices, desktop PCs, or the Web.
But for now, the game will be available only on the iPad, which offers the most lucrative initial market, Hawkins says. “It’s the fastest-growing device in history—there are almost 200 million of them out there now,” he says. “And the owners are quite an elite group of people—probably the best educated and also the most affluent, so they can afford a service like this.” The first chapter of If… will be available as a free teaser. To enable their kids to continue in the game, parents will have to subscribe for $5 per month using their Apple accounts.
Hawkins says he hopes schools will eventually purchase game subscriptions as well; the company plans to offer discounted volume pricing. But first, it will have to demonstrate that kids who play the game are meeting actual curriculum goals for schools that have SEL programs. That’s why If You Can plans to offer the game to kids attending after-school programs run by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the San Francisco Unified School District, and to search for foundation support for studies that would document their progress. “We’ll continue to study how to fit this into the formal classroom, so that when we finally come to that market later, we will have tuned the product correctly and added the features we need and have the research evidence we need,” he says.
Given the poor record of educational games in the marketplace, Hawkins says, the burden is on game designers to prove that they’ve understood the basics of SEL and embedded them in the game in a form that kids can absorb. “This is about the learnification of games, not the gamification of learning,” he says.
Ever since his epiphany in Sydney, Hawkins says, he’s had a sense that everything in his life, all the way back to his immersion in football statistics and the first generation of video games in the 1970s, was preparing him for this moment.
“If you look at inventions like Pong, it’s a whole different field to try to make a genuine NFL simulation. I was willing to take on that burden and figure out how to do it right, and once I had it right I was the only one on the market. Here we are all these years later, and I’ve been a parent for 20 years, and I have come to appreciate the importance of SEL, even as an adult. I understand moms, I understand schools, I understand boys and girls—having had two of each—and I’ve had a 20-year research lab in my home testing kids’ engagement with media platforms. All of that informs me that this is not only a really important, vital thing to do, but has helped me gain the skills necessary to do it.”
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