Why Atari, EA Founders Are Moving from Pong to Pedagogy

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From left: Chris Nyren, Trip Hawkins, Osman Rashid, David Lord , Nolan Bushnell / Scott Perry

Something special’s brewing in edtech when gaming industry greats make the move from Pong to pedagogy. On January 22nd, 175 educators, entrepreneurs, and investors packed the Cross Campus co-working space in Santa Monica for the “Educelerate: Games and Learning” event. Panelists included Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Chuck E. Cheese and now BrainRush; Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts and now If You Can Company; David Lord, President and CEO of JumpStart; and Osman Rashid, Founder and CEO of Galxyz (and co-founder of Chegg). Christopher Nyren of Educated Ventures moderated the discussion.

The Interconnected Revolution

The most important change happening in game development, said Lord, is the “Interconnected Revolution”--the notion that customers want their products to work on and across all of their devices. Indeed, several panelists expressed interest in hiring individuals fluent in Unity--a game engine which is able to export to many familiar formats like iOS, Android, OS X, and Windows.

But designing apps that work well across a wide range of devices is often more difficult than developers realize. Tablets equipped with sensors like accelerometers can teach physical or motor skills. Players might be told to use the microphone to teach a student to breathe slowly as a part of a social and emotional learning program. However, desktops and laptops lack many of these functions and games may have to be tweaked heavily to accommodate the missing functions. The medium is truly the message, it would seem, and developers who thoughtlessly port games do so at their own peril.

Lord also cautioned developers to select their sales channels carefully. For example, while customers might be used to buying apps for small flats rates or as freemium titles on the iTunes App Store, they’ll be adverse to making recurring monthly payments. The result is a much lower lifetime customer value than a game that has a $10/month subscription fee.

Real Skill

Throughout the course of the evening Bushnell, whose previous company Atari helped produce classic games like Asteroids, Breakout, and Centipede, took a few jabs at the current U.S. education system: “The number of college graduates that are unemployable, with $100k worth of debt, points out the criminality--and I believe that education today is a criminal enterprise that is foisted on the young and foolish--to pursue topics and issues that are totally irrelevant. It’s like they haven’t heard of the internet.”

Bushnell went on to share his four principles of game design:

  • Time pressure: games need to give the player a sense of immediacy that puts their mind set in the present.
  • Activity: the player needs to interact with the material as opposed to simply watching or reading.
  • Mastery: Make sure the player knows that mastery is required to advance through the game.
  • Adaptivity: Alter time pressure to ensure that the game’s pace is matched to the player’s ability.

Based on these principles, Bushnell, through games offered on Brainrush, hopes to make learning ten times faster, with the eventual goal of compressing high school into six months so that students can focus on projects that have real-world applications.

Big Brands

Panelists agreed that the toughest battle for educational games is the fight for attention against free and freemium games outside of the educational sphere. This is especially tough for games located in saturated marketplaces like the iTunes App Store.

Lord emphasized the importance of branding when he asked the audience a deceptively simple question: What is the number one educational consumer game of all time? (Not so fast! Keep in mind that Oregon Trail was heavily pirated...) The answer, he said, is Scooby Doo.

Lord explained that teaming up with big brands is key and that connecting with Dreamworks allowed JumpStart’s app, "School of Dragons," to piggyback off the $150 million in advertising that How to Train Your Dragon received. He believes the branding bump has helped the game to receive 300,000 players a day.

Rashid disagreed that educational games are a hit-based business, stating that the curve of adoption could be drawn out much longer as your game improves through development. He argued that marketing through word of mouth can be an alternative to typical online marketing campaigns that rely on Facebook or Google AdWords. Rashid would like Galaxyz to follow an adoption model similar to ClassDojo, where teachers recommend the product to parents.

When asked about his plans for the Asian market, Lord lightly dodged the question, stating that Russia was the biggest market for "School of Dragons" and that Dreamworks’ connection with the Chinese government could allow them a proper entrance into the market.

All the panelists agreed educational games have a way to go before they realize their full market potential. Hawkins explained that those developing these titles are

“...in a long term process of showing the public that really great Internet services and really great apps have value and are worth paying for. There’s not that much money in (educational apps) today...but awareness is going to grow in the same way that it did for private tutors and gluten free food. The one thing we can do is keep spreading the word and sharing the value and importance of these apps and services.”
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