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 … Next Page »