Trip Hawkins says the idea behind his new educational video game company If You Can came to him fully formed, and totally by surprise.
“For me, the way entrepreneurship has always worked is I will see a picture, and it will be a complete picture, and what that picture tells me is so compelling that I can’t choose not to do that,” says Hawkins, who’s best known for founding video game giant Electronic Arts in 1982. “But until that picture is complete, I don’t usually see [it]. I don’t even know there is going to be a picture.”
The picture that earned Hawkins his first fortune, and established EA as an industry leader, came to him back in the early 1980s. It was a vision of a football simulation that would be compelling not just because of its graphics and game play, but because it was based on real-world statistics and the expertise of an unassailable authority on the sport.
That authority, of course, was John Madden, the former Super Bowl-winning coach of the Oakland Raiders. Four years in the making, EA’s Madden NFL came out in 1988. It went on to become the longest-running and best-selling sports simulation in the history of the genre.
The skills that If You Can’s first game, called If…, is designed to teach are about as far away from football as you can imagine: social and emotional learning, or SEL. But the picture in Hawkins’ head today has the same broad outlines.
This time, it’s about working with one of the world’s experts on promoting emotional intelligence: Janice Toben, who developed a groundbreaking SEL program as a teacher at the exclusive Nueva School in Hillsborough, CA. She’s helping the startup design an epic fantasy game that will be fun for kids to play and measurably beneficial for their emotional maturation.
In educational games, as in sports simulations, “You need great game developers to make it fun, but they are not the world authorities,” Hawkins says. “If you are teaching SEL, there is published evidence and standards and lesson plans, and you need to bring in the John Madden equivalent. Janice is our star, if you will.”
Kids playing If… land on an abandoned planet where a past conflict has driven the original inhabitants, dogs and cats, to the separate worlds of Dogma and Catonia. Wise guides help players master an energy field that links the worlds and defeat dragons and other creatures who draw dark energy—read, anger and other negative emotions—from the field.
If that all sounds a little like Star Wars, it’s no accident. Hawkins says the game world is built around the hero’s journey described by Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist who also inspired George Lucas.
There’s no way to tell whether If… will develop into a smash hit on the scale of Star Wars or Madden NFL. It may be an uphill fight, given that the game is designed for 6- to 12-year olds, who aren’t even old enough to sign up for accounts at the iTunes App Store, where the iPad-based game will be available starting in mid-February. But the effort, which is backed by marquee investors like Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock, Founder’s Fund, and Maveron, is symbolic of a growing conviction that parents and educators can do more to teach life skills like emotional intelligence, and that technology can be a help.
When kids are taught that they can identify and manage their emotions, they’re more likely to make effective decisions, less likely to give up when facing challenges, and less like to bully other students or to suffer from bullying, Toben and other educators argue. “If you have that kind of instruction, from kindergarten, I think that in 20 years the world will be a very different place,” Yale psychology researcher Marc Brackett told the New York Times last September. Brackett is the developer of Ruler, a popular emotional-intelligence training program for schools; Hawkins says he’s also a consultant to If You Can.
Other organizations, including Electronic Arts, are pursuing similar ideas. The EA game SimCity, for example, is being retrofitted to teach students about ethical and social challenges such as pollution. The Learning Games Network, a spinoff of MIT and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has developed a free, Web-based science fiction game called Quandary that teaches empathy and ethical decision-making. And there’s a related wave of companies promoting video games as a way to assess and improve mental health and acuity, for people of all ages.
The big bet at If You Can is that kids can learn social-emotional skills through encounters with software-driven characters in a fantasy game environment—and that parents, especially mothers, and eventually schools, will be willing to pay for it.
Reestablishing Emotional Skills
Hawkins, a father of four, says he never thought he’d be lecturing people about social and emotional development. After leaving EA in 1991, he founded two more game-development startups, console maker 3DO, which failed, and casual game company Digital Chocolate, which he left in 2012 amidst a downturn for the genre. He wasn’t planning on a fourth. “I didn’t really have it in my head that I was going to start another company” he says. “I don’t need to do it for ego reasons.”
But in mid-2013, Hawkins found himself at a Microsoft-sponsored conference on education technology in Sydney, Australia, and the once-hidden fragments of a new picture snapped into place.
“There was a contest where teams from around the world had been told to prototype a game that would help educate children about one of the eight mission purposes of the United Nations,” Hawkins recalls. “And I’m watching the presentations, and some of the games had to do with ethics, compassion, and emotional well-being. And I’m just going, ‘That is so lame.’ Much of what they were proposing was really shallow. It occurred to me that I could do a much better job.”
It helped that all four of Hawkins’ kids had attended the Nueva School, which meant he’d been hearing about Toben’s social and emotional learning program for years. “I would either learn about SEL from parent-teacher meetings, or from my children,” he says. “They would talk about what they were learning, and 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 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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