When Trip Hawkins left Apple to start Electronic Arts in 1982, he wanted to make the type of games that he and other young adult males liked to play. Thirty-one years and four children later, Hawkins interests have changed. He still wants to build games, but he's aiming them at young children in the hopes of helping them develop social and emotional skills.
In an interview (scroll down to listen), Hawkins said he learned about social emotional learning (SEL) from his own children. "I learned about it because almost two decades ago my oldest child stared attending on one of the first schools (Nueva School) that had this kind of curriculum and I stared learning about it." He admitted "that was a chance for me to realize -- frankly as much children began to give me examples of how my behavior needed to improve and used SEL teaching as their evidence, I realized that they were right." He's now "excited about bringing curriculum like social emotional learning into game technology and helping kids to have a chance to learn" about it.
Hawkins isn't the first person to try to use a game to teach social skills but, frankly, it's hard to recall any that are highly successful -- at least when compared to many of the popular commercial games. That process, often referred to as the "gamification of learning" often fails to keep children involved. Hawkins is aware of that and -- as a person with a deep pedigree in game development feels that he understands the challenges as "it has to be done more as the 'learnifiation of games," adding that it's very challenging "to make entertainment so good that people aren't going to get board to switch to something else."
In addition to his team of game developers, Hawkins is working with educators from the Nueva School along with researchers and Yale, Stanford, SRI, and other organizations. One of the advisers is Roger Weissberg, the CEO of CASEL.org -- the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. CASEL, which is widely regarded as the leading proponent of social emotional learning, defines SEL as "the processes through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions."
Social Emotional Learning
Research into SEL has found that it can help cut down on risky behaviors such as drug use, violence, and bullying, and correlates with academic achievement and success in the workplace. There has been a lot of recent focus on bullying and cyberbullying, and some SEL advocates argue that bullying is more of a symptom that could be drastically reduced if more people had better emotional intelligence training that teaches empathy, compassion and anger management skills. In my own work as founder of SafeKids.com and co-director of ConnectSafely.org, I've had a chance to study bullying and cyberbullying, and as we conclude in our recent free booklet, A Parents Guide to Cyberbullying, "we can collectively shrink the problem (of bullying) further by working to get social emotional learning into as many schools as possible, giving all children the social and emotional skills that reduce bullying and increase academic and social success."
Hawkins new company is, If You Can Company , and its first product is IF ..., an iPad game aimed at children between 6 and 12. The game, named for the Kipling poem ("If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you ...), "helps preteen kids reinforce skills that can improve their EQ, or Emotional Intelligence. We have big challenges today with academic performance, school climate, cyber-bullying and mobile addiction," according to Hawkins.
An academic pager, Benefits of Playing Video Games (PDF), published this year in American Psychologist argues that "playing video games may foster real-world psychosocial benefits," and points out that "Video games are a ubiquitous part of almost all children's and adolescents' lives, with 97 percent playing for at least one hour per day in the United States." While there has been plenty of media coverage of the possible negative impact of video games, there has been far too little written about the positive outcomes. Even commercial games that may not be designed to enhance emotional skills have been shown to be beneficial when it comes to cognitive skills and social skills. Popular games like World of Warcraft, Minecraft and Starcraft 2, according to this paper and other research, help reinforce the need to socialize, learn new skills and develop complex relationships.
But, whatever one thinks of many of the games out there, there is no question that games are a big part of young people's lives so it makes a great deal of sense to apply gaming to developing positive emotional skills.
In the game, children deal with challenges in the imaginary town of Greenberry where they have to make decisions that reinforce the learning goals, which include managing emotions like frustration and disappointment and showing empathy for others. The story builds on the Joseph Campbell Heroes Journey and is themed around The Energy Field (a metaphor for emotional communication and compassion); conflict between dogs and cats.
The game will be released in January. It's divided into chapters. The first chapter is free and subsequent chapters will be available for $5 per month. The company is working with partners to make it available free or at lower cost through Boys and Girls Clubs and other youth-serving organizations.
The company has so far raised $3 million in capital from angels and seed venture funds including Andreessen Horowitz, Maveron, Greylock and Founder's Fund.
Podcast interview with Trip Hawkins
Click below to listen to the interview with Trip Hawkins along with one question (near the end) answered by his 9-year-old son Crash Hawkins, who has been testing the game.
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