Archive for November 17th, 2010

“Learning by Playing” : TechHub, 11th November 2010

The “Learning by Playing”, (or “Stealth Education”), theme for last Thursday’s event at Tech Hub was rather inspired.

There is, conventionally-speaking, a thick line that separates games, (which exist in order to provide fun), and lessons, (which exist to teach).  Distinguishing between the two is one of the first things that we learn as children: it’s innate.  Even the most highly conditioned child will eventually conclude – no matter how fun their parents or teachers make their learning experiences to be – that bouncing on a trampoline or playing on the Wii is a lot more fun than any form of lesson or work.

This line separating learning and playing, though, has been narrowing for years.  It doesn’t take the most eminent of psychologists to point out, (though many of them have), that the more fun learning can be, the more we’ll be encouraged to do it and the more effective it will be.

Treading this increasingly thin line are, amongst others, 7 tech companies at varying stages of development which all presented at TechHub last Thursday.

The evening consisted of four presentations, an interval, and then three more.  And it was, in more ways than the simple inclusion of an interval, a game of two halves.  Mind Candy founder Michael Acton-Smith, (more of whom later), highlighted the most important decision that he and his team  made when designing their MoshiMonsters game:

The first four companies to present, one of which was Mind Candy, all seemed to share this view while the next three to present their products appeared – to a greater or lesser degree – to have adopted an inverted approach.  While there is clearly no right or wrong answer, and all of the products on show were created for different demographics and with different objectives in mind, some interesting statistics, contrasts and comparisons did emerge.

1. Poptropica – David Samuelson, EVP and Director of Games and Augmented Reality at Pearson

Poptropica is an online game targeted at children ages 6 to 15 where players can travel, play games, complete “island missions” and generally communicate and compete with each other in a safe environment.

David Samuelson gave an interesting introduction to the $42 Billion games industry by highlighting the new rapid shift toward social gaming; the new and exciting opportunities offered by touchscreen computing/ tablets; and the continuing evolution from ‘shoot ‘em up’ games of the past to current games focused on anything from singing and dancing to cooking.  He also, surprisingly, noted that there are now more female gamers worldwide than 17 year old boys, and a huge 26% of gamers are over 50!

Poptropica itself has been a huge success with in excess of 300 Million avatars having been created for the site, (though the number of “active” users at any one time is less than 10% of this).  The ongoing popularity of the site can’t be doubted but the question of where the “learning” comes into this equation was one directly posed to Samuelson at the end of his presentation.  He answered that the site is more of a “constructivist” educator, encouraging children to engage in a process of discovery and teaching them how to explore and solve problems.  Arguably, this doesn’t sound too different from any other computer game;  Samuelson says, “It’s education. But with a small “e”……”

2. Topsy and Tim iPad App – Joanna Galvin, Digital Marketing Manager at Penguin UK

Penguin’s Topsy and Tim book series has been around for a very, very long time.  Each book sees Topsy and Tim going through a first time experience that other pre-schoolers will either have experienced, be experiencing or be about to experience.

From having nits to the first day at school, Topsy and Tim have done it all.  The books allow parents to communicate the message of “don’t worry, this is what happens – Topsy and Tim have done it, you’ll be fine”.

Penguin have now launched this book series as an interactive App for the iPad.  Children can design an Avatar that looks like them, putting themselves at the heart of each story told, which, Galvin explained, is key to enabling them to relate to any message being conveyed. Throughout the story they have the opportunity to do simple puzzles like matching shapes and colours or doing jigsaws.

It ought also be noted that Puffin have just launched a Puffin Digital Prize for anyone – author, illustrator or just someone with a great idea – to bring them a great new idea for an interactive digital product.  Get thinking!

3. Moshi Monsters – Michael Acton-Smith, CEO at Mind Candy

The fact that Moshi Monsters’ prime demographic is 7 – 11 year old children didn’t appear to have put off many of the attendees at Tech Hub who raised their hands when Michael Acton-Smith asked how many people there had adopted one of his monsters.

Launched in early 2008, the adoption rate for Moshi Monsters, (pun intended), was slow until new, safe, social networking features introduced in 2009 kicked off a period of “hockey stick” growth that has now seen the social game exceed 30 million users in 150 countries, (65% of whom are girls).  Most play for free, though some particularly avid fans, (or, the loving parents of avid fans), pay £5 per month for access to additional content.

Acton-Smith is clearly enjoying the fruits of his statement that, “Fun digital content for kids is……explosive”.  Moshi Monsters includes a Puzzle Palace – 35 educational games covering everything from maths and general knowledge to “the flag game”.  While the details of how the flag game actually works isn’t too important, the result of it is.  Acton-Smith relayed a story of his friends in New York, the parents of a 7-year old Moshi Monsters’ member, who can now recognise the flags of countries that they’ve barely heard of.  Two happy parents + a clever child = an extra £5/month to Mind Candy.

Children get exceptionally engaged on Moshi Monsters.  It’s fun, but at the same time they have the opportunity to learn.  Not just to learn in the puzzle palace, but to learn about responsible internet usage and how to report unsafe or inappropriate content.  As the children using the site as generally deemed “pre-facebook”, these are all important lessons for children growing up in a digital age.

Mind Candy have exciting plans going forward.  Having just completed a move from Battersea to their new offices in Shoreditch, they’ve got a lot going on.  Like Poptropica, they have plans for more toys, books, a magazine, online tv channel, trading cards, iPhone and iPad apps and a new site for the pets of your Moshi Monsters:

4. Land of Me – James Huggins, MD at Made in Me

The Land of Me is an award-winning collection of creative games and activities for children and adults to enjoy together.

James Huggins explained, to a soothing background soundtrack and images from the Land of Me, that his focus has been in creating something that enhances interactions between parents and their pre-school children; not something that replaces those interactions.  Penguin’s acknowledgement earlier in the evening that many children seem content to play with their Topsy and Tim App alone appeared to be exactly the type of result that Huggins and his team are trying to avoid.  The question that they seek to answer with the Land of Me is “What can foster creativity and bring kids and parents together?”

Land of Me looks like it may well answer this question: the main question lies in marketing the product well enough to enable the team to continue what they have set out to do.  While other products on show, particularly Poptropica and Moshi Monsters, have achieved their huge success through the quick and easy access to their games (and their social, and so viral, nature) Land in Me has a very different model.  Users can get started with the series for free, while the following chapters (such as “The World Outside”,  “Rhythm and Dance” and “Making Things”) can be bought and downloaded from the website.

While 3 to 6 year olds will never share Land in Me in the same way that older children have shared Moshi Monsters, it should be remembered that Made in Me’s actual target demographic are the parents of 3-6 year olds, who certainly are tech-savvy and sociable enough to quickly share, with friends who also have young children, a product that they love – if they’re only provided the opportunity and tools to do so.

5. Curatr – Ben Betts, MD at HT2

Curatr applies game mechanics to curriculum learning.

Ben Betts, an extremely engaging and entertaining speaker, commenced his presentation by paraphrasing Dan Pink, (the author of “Drive”, a book that explores intrinsic motivation). Pink asserts that external forms of motivation, (essentially carrots and sticks), have, time after time, proved to be wildly unsuccessful – the key to genuine motivation, whether it be an employee or a student who seeks it, is –

i)  Autonomy (control)

ii) Mastery (going on a journey of improvement)

iii)  Purpose (being part of something greater than just one’s own quest)

This, Betts noted, largely explains the current appeal of social gaming.

A problem with Curatr, though, may be that while social gaming is generally fun, Curatr appears to be less so.  Where the prize for contributing content to, or reading from, what will often be fairly dry material is a badge or a gate unlocking access to more fairly dry material, it must be asked whether social game mechanics can in fact make the process of learning any more enjoyable, (as opposed to simply more burdensome or confusing).

Curatr could, and may, be amazing, but it does seem that a larger injection of fun and challenge will be required in order for it to reach its full potential.

6. Caspian Learning – Graeme Duncan, CEO

The product presented by Graeme Duncan was very different from all of the others seen during the course of the evening.

Caspian’s technology allows anyone to create 3D presentations and games extremely quickly and without (almost) any coding experience.  Whether you’d like to teach a history class by putting your students into the Second World War, (defining the experience that they’ll have, the people that they’ll meet and the things that they’ll learn), or whether you’re the Armed Forces creating a simulation of a situation that would be too dangerous to practice for real: Caspian can provide it quickly and – by all accounts – at 25% of the cost of similar options.

The technology was impressive, especially given how quickly some of the examples given were developed.  If it’s true that we learn by doing, then there are many exciting products that Caspian could – and doubtlessly will – develop in order to facilitate that.

7. Manga High – Toby Rowland, Founder and CEO is the brainchild of Toby Rowland, who also founded the popular games site  The aim is to make maths fun for students by integrating the entire UK National Maths Curriculum into a website full of games.

The site appears to be a good example of an educational game with fun elements, as opposed to a fun game with educational elements.  The maths – at least the maths on display – was hard.  Rowland explained that the initial aim for the site was to have corridors that students could move around, but that in the end it was decided that this would be too distracting for them.  The games, the timers, the lack of places or options to explore: all of it is created to ensure an environment where students can focus on the job at hand – getting the maths right.

The problem is that, unless you’re a student who likes Maths or who is good at it, playing Manga High may not be a lot more fun or interesting than simply reading a textbook.  This may be why the site is aimed at teachers and schools, rather than at the students directly.

Although the line separating work and play is narrowing, there is still a line.  Creating a fun, positive and exciting environment that is also genuinely educational appears to be a lot trickier than it might seem.

Some of the products presented at TechHub, particularly those that have spread virally, have a capital F for Fun: they sneak in softer forms of education, (like puzzles, learning to be creative and learning what is and isn’t good form in an online community), but – importantly – they’re aimed at younger children who need to learn these things.  It’s when trying to combine learning with playing for older children, and for adults, that things appear to become trickier.

Too much fun and there’s no learning.  Too much teaching, and students of any age will be sorely tempted to do something more fun.  The line between these two options is certainly a thin one, but there exists a fertile playground of possibility for any company that manages to get their balance on it.


November 2010
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