Watchers of the educational software industry have known for a long time what it would take for learning games to breakthrough. It would take the best entertainment video-game designers, the ones with staggering success, to figure out how to turn school curriculum into epic video games. Did this just happen?
When Hawkins showed up at the Education Innovation Summit in Scottsdale this past April to demo his new game, most attendees didn’t realize what had just happened. It was like being in a saloon in the Arizona Territory and Doc Holliday walks in, but people keep drinking and playing poker. Hey folks, that’s Trip Hawkins...
At the conference were investors, academics, ed tech school leaders, and edu-preneurs. The keynote speaker was Gov. Jeb Bush. Nelson Rockefeller, Jr. was in attendance. How could they know a video-game legend walked in?
Hawkins has topflight credentials. Leveraging his Harvard degree and a Stanford MBA, he became Apple’s sixty-eighth employee and their Director of Strategy and Marketing. When Steve Jobs went to Xerox PARC to see the “mouse,” Hawkins was with him.
In 1982 he founded Electronic Arts, the video-game juggernaut which today has an $11.7 billion market cap. He created the John Madden Football video-game franchise from Madden's 3 ring binder playbook for the Oakland Raiders. In 1991 he founded video-game console maker, 3DO. In 2003, he started mobile game-maker, Digital Chocolate. Folks, a Hall-of-Fame video gamer just walked into an ed tech conference.
The closest education games have come to the talent of AAA video-game designers is Will Wright, another Hall-of-Famer, with his games Sim City and Spore. There are Sid Meier and Bruce Shelly, the Hall-of -Famers who built the Civilization franchise.
But, these titans weren’t trying to make educational video games. They were making games they wanted to play. Their gold standard was “fun.” They were accountable to entertainment, not school curriculum.
Why haven’t big name video game designers made great games for education?
“If you look at the reality,” says Hawkins, “the game industry is dominated by young men who want to make games they want to play. They are not parents yet, so they aren’t thinking about education and kids. But as the video game industry matures, more professionals will have made that shift. As more make that transition and see the opportunity, it could galvanize a new industry.”
Hawkins is 60, has raised four kids--two girls and two boys--and he is now focused on making educational games. In November 2012 he founded If You Can Company, and started developing a game to teach kids about social and emotional behavior. Their Apple iPad game is called If..., after the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name.
Why a social-emotional learning game?
Hawkins didn’t have a flash of insight to make games about Social and Emotional Learning (SEL.) This idea developed over a lifetime pursuing his interests in psychology and human events, combined with twenty years of parenting. His entrepreneurial pursuits are captivating, but his stories as a dad ping the heart.
“If there was a light bulb moment,” he said, it was trying to figure out what to do for his colicky baby. “You want to understand what’s going on, and what you can do about it.” Parenting fueled a hobby interest in attachment theory, brain research and the science of human emotions.
Besides his general interest in SEL topics, his kids just happened to attend the Nueva School, one of the nation’s premier private schools. The school was made famous in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence. Goleman devoted ten pages to Nueva’s SEL curriculum.
Janice Toben, the coordinator of the school’s program, had polished and refined the curriculum over thirty years. It was codified into grade-by-grade lesson plans.
Staying true to the binder
What is most impressive is that Trip Hawkins is trying to make a game that is true to what the lesson plans teach, just like he was true to Madden’s playbook. The hours of episodic game play match the time and sequence students spend on the curriculum in school.
The “fun” in the game is not the same kind associated with entertainment products. The goal is to teach the curriculum in the most fun way possible. “It’s not that the kids can’t see the spinach,” he says, “it’s that they are having enough fun they don’t mind the spinach.” Teachers would appreciate his respect for their lesson plans.
How did Janice Tobin’s ring binder get valued in Hawkins’ company? “Obviously, I can’t tell you details,” he said, “but she got stock.” She also has a consulting contract and works with the development team.
Says Hawkins, “I’ve put together a team of master teachers and experts on SEL, similar to what I did with Madden. We want to conform to the teaching standards that were produced during a long process involving educators, government, and research institutes.”
What did you discover doing market research for an SEL game?
“Of course, once I got interested in a social and emotional learning game, I looked at the market for other educational topics as well,” said Hawkins. During his research he developed a list of potential topics the market might respond to. “In fact,” said Hawkins, “I collected more than eight hundred SEL-related topics—from global warming to ethics to forgiveness.”
Says Hawkins, “First, I researched if there was a compelling need for an SEL game.” He discovered the federal government was promoting research that backed how social and emotional learning contributes to student achievement.
At one point his game, If… , was presented to the U.S. Dept. of Education and the President’s technology advisors. Why? Because California, in their request for a waiver from the reporting regulations in NCLB, promised the federal government they would expand SEL curriculum in their schools. If... was included as an example.
Besides a clear need, Hawkins found there were no other products broadly available for teaching and assessing SEL. “It’s more a cottage industry of lesson plans. There’s no textbook, or even a single book, that could enable a teacher or parent homeschooler a methodical way to cover SEL curriculum. A video game, based on the SEL canons, is a scalable solution,” he said.
Hawkins also saw opportunity in the parent consumer market place. Parents will spend on products and services for kids who need extra help. The $100 billion tutoring market verifies it. “Our most enthusiastic customers are parents of kids with developmental delays. If… provides some help.” The consumer market is also a path to early revenue for the company. “It could float our boat for ongoing development,” Hawkins said.
How many VC meetings did it take to get funding?
“Lots,” he said. “Investors are cautious. Early stage money is easier to get, but beyond that you have to talk to many VCs to find those who believe in what you’re doing.”
One of his early investors, and lead for the company’s $6.5 million Series A round, is Greylock Partners, early investors in Facebook, Instagram, and Dropbox. “Greylock has shown they are advanced thinkers about the digital world. There’s a big, long-term opportunity. There’s going to be disruption in education. They are pioneer investors,” he said.
"If you look at the platform we’ve built,” says Hawkins, “you can see it has a lot of future opportunity to build out more topics. Not just topics related to SEL, but to English, history, and social science.”
Sounds like he’s galvanizing a new industry.
by Ava Arsaga, 9/10/2014 Ava Arsaga is the Founder and Editor of EdBizWatch as well as Parent Cortical Mass, a blog with the mission to help parents get more informed about learning and education.