Can a game teach kids to be nicer? One gaming vet says yes

Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins talks about his kids' game, If, and discusses the "freemium" mobile-game model.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
3 min read

Trip Hawkins' latest project is called If. Screenshot by Roger Cheng/CNET

It was more than a decade ago, but gaming trailblazer Trip Hawkins remembered the day that he got admonished by his children for being rude to a waitress.

His children attended the Nueva School in Hillsborough, Calif., which included in its curriculum training in social and emotional learning (SEL) -- basic social skills as well as how to be more empathetic and emotionally aware. Still sharing that anecdote, Hawkins makes it clear the moment had an impact.

"It's a good wake-up call when you have a 9-year-old successfully correcting you," Hawkins said in an interview this week.

If You Can Company CEO Trip Hawkins If You Can Company
The idea of SEL education is the crux of Hawkins' latest project. Hawkins, who founded gaming titan Electronic Arts, failed console 3DO, and mobile-gaming company Digital Chocolate, has his eyes set on a new title, If, which marries slick game-play with building up a player's emotional intelligence. Hawkins is betting a game that teaches children to be better people will somehow cut through the noise from the likes of Candy Crush Saga or Clash of Clans.

The app, which launched in February, is opting to follow the "freemium model," where the initial gameplay is free but subsequent chapters must be purchased. It's a model that's helped companies such as Supercell's Clash of Clans or King's Candy Crush turn into monumental successes. They're the top two grossing games in Apple's App Store.

Since its launch on the Apple iPad, If has garnered 300,000 downloads, Hawkins said. But that's come without marketing, and without any additional chapters yet. The company spent a few months creating a new, more efficient platform for future installments, and plans to be more vocal about the game when the second chapter arrives in mid-June.

Hawkins said he liked the freemium model, calling the free-to-play parts of the game the "ultimate marketing opportunity." But the flip side is the content actually has to be good.

"It's sink or swim," he said.

While some games use viral tricks to get downloads -- such as asking players to share the game on social networks or inviting them to play, Hawkins said If wouldn't do that because it was important to maintain the privacy of the child gamers. He was still looking at the best ways to promote the game, and he was also hoping for good word of mouth and positive reviews. The game will also be available on more platforms by the end of the year.

If You Can Company

Hawkins talked up the benefits of the game, and said he wanted to turn a negative -- kids getting addicted to mobile games -- into a positive with a game that actually promotes more empathic and socially aware behavior. Ultimately, he wants children who are more compassionate, ideally reducing the widespread problem of bullying by helping the bullies themselves.

Just as Hawkins helped build the first realistic professional football video game -- in what is now the massive NFL Madden franchise -- utilizing real-world rules and experts like John Madden, he utilized established SEL-related curriculum and pulled in experts in the field to build the game and its interactions, which are done via choosing between different text-based options.

Beyond the educational elements, Hawkins said he knew he had to build a game that was fun. His If is an adventure game in the style of Pokemon or Animal Crossing, with strong graphics, voice acting, and a polished appearance. It isn't too juvenile, and attempts to appeal to 6- to 12-year-olds. It's a game, he said, that children would want to continue playing.

"They don't smell the spinach," Hawkins said. "Or they do, but don't mind eating it."