Technology raises just as many problems as it solves. Just look at cyberbullying, a tragic--and sometimes fatal--byproduct of the real-time, instantaneous social networks we inhabit. In a recent Harris survey, 85% of parents believe technology has made bullying easier.
Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, one of the most iconic gaming companies, isn't surprised."Bullying remains pervasive regardless of generation, and cyber-bullying is both new and rapidly growing," Hawkins tells EdSurge. "I will just say that while I got bullied in middle school and high school, these stories are not what I remember about first grade!"
In January 2013, he started a studio, If You Can Company, to addresses problems like this through social and emotional learning (SEL). Today, he announced a $6.5 million Series A round led by Greylock Partners, with Almaz Capital also participating. He's now raised a total of $9.3 million from investors that include Andreessen Horowitz and Founder's Fund.
Along with the funding announcement, this week also marked the release of the company's first title, "IF...", available on the iOS store. It's currently free, though users will have to pay to unlock future "episodes."
The focus on the game is to teach empathy, perspective-taking and other SEL skills. “To change anything important,” Hawkins says, “we need to meet people where they’re at.” For his intended audience of 7 to 11 year olds, that place is the tablet, which many children use as a gaming device.
The player embarks on a "Hero's quest" across an open world filled with colorful wildlife, towns and cities, friendly characters and mystical creatures called "Vims". There are dialogue, fetch quests and Rochambeaux-like encounters reminiscent of Pokemon duels. In the world, the conflict between cats and dogs (who used to get along) has created a “Rift” which produces a negative energy called the “Darkness.” Some of this energy has infected the Vims and turned them hostile. The player is tasked with the noble goal of making everyone get along again.
The controls, graphics, animations, music and voiceovers are what one would expect from a team of 35 game designers and developers who have worked on AAA titles like Madden and Moshi Monsters.
Hawkins knows better than anyone that getting users engaged is key to a game's success. And the first step is to ensure that the audiovisual and mechanics are on par with other games that kids have at their disposal. “Efforts in the past to scale learning games have failed because the games have not been enough fun; for that reason the gameplay fun must be at the foundation in order to sustain motivation and engagement,” says Hawkins. “Hence we are doing the "learnification of games," not the gamification of learning.”
Playing With My Emotions
Hawkins has enlisted help from content experts decorated in SEL research. His advisors include Janice Toben, who teaches the subject at the prestigious Nueva School and heads The Institute for SEL, and Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
"IF..." targets 20 key social emotional learning goals, broken down into five categories: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and decision-making. The game addresses these topics primarily through dialogue with in-game characters, who will ask the player variants of questions like “How do you feel?” or “What do you think s/he was feeling?” The player then chooses from a set of pre-scripted responses that range from thoughtful and empathetic to rude and self-centered. The game then attempts to explain why I may have chosen a particular response.
During one conversation with an elderly sage, I decided to push the limits of the game by repeatedly picking the most inappropriate dialogue responses. He attempts to dig at the roots of my mean responses and says I can share negative emotions in a responsible manner without hurting others. Sensing that I may be greedy, shallow and pompous, he dropped this philosophical gem:
“Fancy cups let us pretend we are better than other people. But life is the water, not the cup. Drink life! The cup is the stuff we worry about too much; we may forget to even enjoy the good taste of the water.”
After further attempts to annoy him, he says “my feelings went up the escalator” and suggests I take ten deep breaths to calm down. This, says Chief Learning Officer Jessica Berlinski, is just one example of the many instances in which the game encourages the student to "push out of the game experience" and apply SEL exercises in real-life.
There are moments, however, when the dialogue did not progress until I picked the “proper” answer. It's an issue common with other games that try to encourage “good” or “moral” behavior: the illusion of choice.
“While multiple choice, we have gone to great thought and design efforts to make players need to think about these choices and to have the choices alter outcomes and branches of conversation and feedback,” Hawkins says.
Yet, there is an open-endedness to social-emotional skills that can’t be narrowed down into a scripted dialogue with pre-defined responses. As a game, it’s like the difference between going on the set of Jeopardy to compete, and playing the game online, which reduces the experience to simply a set of multiple-choice questions.
Will It Work?
Even if the game just gets children and parents to be more mindful about SEL, Hawkins, Berlinski and the rest of the team will consider that an early win. The first goal, they say, is to push SEL into the lexicon of everyday cultural knowledge. "We don’t purport to be a comprehensive solution for all the social emotional learning that a child is meant to be exposed to," says Berlinski. Instead, she explains:
"What we wanted to do in our platform is to open parents' and teachers' eyes to the necessity of SEL-- not just in the four walls of the home or classroom--but as an integral part of all areas of a child’s experience, whether its play, sports, after-school programs. If SEL is not a part of everything your child is doing, it should be."
The company has plans to do efficacy studies with academic and research organizations, but Hawkins cautions it will be a while before there are significant longitudinal findings. In the meantime, the company will release a dashboard for parents. It will track the choices that their child makes in the game and suggest follow-up SEL activities for parents to lead.
If this game works, Hawkins believes it could have a bigger impact beyond reducing cyberbullying. "Taking a very long-term view, I will know that the people of this world really understand SEL when we reverse global warming and have a bigger impact on pervasive poverty," he says.