If Trip Hawkins’ new game takes off, it would be a more satisfying outcome for the founder of Electronic Arts than creating Madden NFL football, designing the 3DO game console, or creating mobile games with Digital Chocolate. That’s because the emotional stakes are high with his startup, called If You Can, and its game, dubbed “IF…”.

IF dogs and cats

Above: IF… takes place in a magical fantasy world of dogs and cats.

Image Credit: If You Can

Hawkins told GamesBeat in an interview that his new project is educational, and it supplements learning in schools by focusing on subjects most of them don’t teach: social and emotional development. IF… is a fantasy simulation/role-playing game where kids try to walk in the shoes of an animated character who has to learn how to be sensitive to other living beings and how to deal with his or her own powerful emotions.

It is by no means a normal video game or a normal classroom subject, and that’s why Hawkins believes it will be unique and entertaining — at the same time it teaches kids how not to bully or be bullied. If Hawkins can make IF… succeed, he’ll feel like he has made a contribution and completed an emotional arc in his own personal odyssey.

“I’ve had my own journey,” Hawkins said. “Materialism doesn’t make you happy, but compassion does. It’s something that makes you want to build your life around. That is the fundamental point of social and emotional learning. It is shifting our value system away from materialism and toward compassion.”

IF…, coming out on iPad, is mostly for kids ages six to 12 years old, with the target being the impressionable ages of eight and nine. The game is really a parable that lets you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. You start as an animal person who runs into situations that help develop his or her character, learning to make moral choices and develop a compassionate attitude toward others.

“Parents are looking for things that are more useful than an ordinary game,” Hawkins said. “They have electronic babysitters, but they are despondent because they feel games are killing brain cells.”

Hawkins hasn’t set a date for shipping the title yet. He has teased it before, but now he’s finally describing it in more detail.

In IF, an elder helps the dog character Youdog make the right decisions.IF decision making

Above: An elder dog character YouDog helps the player make the right decisions.

Image Credit: If You Can

What the game is about

IF… isn’t just a thinly disguised parable. Hawkins knows the mistakes that educators made in designing “edutainment” in the 1980s and 1990s, and he’s trying to avoid the pitfalls by making a great experience. 

“It’s no fun if the kid smells the spinach,” Hawkins said, referring to parents’ trick of putting spinach in something that tastes good.

The title uses the Unity 3D engine for the Apple iPad. Much of the content will be free, but at some point, a subscription fee will kick in. The game splits into chapters.

In IF …, two tribes don’t get along, the dogs and the cats. The long-term goal of the game is to unite the warring factions.

Youdog portal

Above: The player sees a portal with the help of a Vim.

Image Credit: If You Can

The chapters impart lessons about things like what is an emotion, how to recognize what someone else is feeling, how a conflict can escalate and what are the tools to calm it down, how to disagree with someone and still stay friends, and getting people to act in a more compassionate way.

Kids will play through scenarios that teach lessons about topics like bullying.

“If you can manage your emotions effectively, you can function and deal with a bully more effectively,” Hawkins said “If you are a bully, you are coming from your own wounds. The hope is a bully can examine their own feelings and emotions and become more aware.”

Players will also encounter scenarios where a dog character has to babysit some cats. It’s similar to a classic lesson (known as Stanford’s Zimbardo Prison Test) where some students are prisoners, and some are prison guards. The interaction that happens between them teaches kids something about empathy. If you are mean to the captives, you might find later on that they capture you. How they treat you depends on how you treated them.

The game also introduces Vim characters, which have a kind of spiritual energy. The Vim are in danger, and you have to find a way to protect them. You can’t catch them and own them. But you can befriend them, and they will use their energy on your behalf. If you are nice enough, a Vim will become your constant sidekick. You need to master how to communicate with Vim, and you can train your character to work with one, like a Pokemon trainer.

Once you’ve done some training, you can go off and do missions with your Vim. You make progress if you do things like help a mother get reunited with her baby.

During the game, one character tells you that feelings are like layers, and that if sort through them, you can understand how you feel. That’s another classic SEL lesson. If your character starts feeling a lot of conflict, it will float in the air, in an analogy of how conflict can escalate. You can do things like breathing deep to bring your character back down.

IF … takes place in a town that mixes elements of Pokémon, Animal Crossing, and the Jimmy Stewart film, It’s a Wonderful Life. You’ll have to do things like clean up litter and build a recycling center. Your character is in charge of repairing the town. Hawkins says the game will have a strong story.

“The story is a key element here,” Hawkins said. ” People remember info better if they learned it from a story. Stories have drama and characters. That’s the power of myths, legends, and fairy tales.”

Trip Hawkins' new startup If You Can gets its name from a poem

Above: Trip Hawkins’ new startup If You Can gets its name from a poem.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Why IF … matters to educators

With the onset of George Bush’s No Child Left Behind, the focus in education has shifted to the basics like math, science, and reading. Budgets are smaller for other things like SEL. The police teach it through the DARE program. Churches teach a kind of SEL, but these lessons are religious in nature. They’re secular life skills.

“If you model real-world situations for them, maybe the behavior will kick in when they are in real life,” Hawkins said.

Attitudes about SEL got a boost after Daniel Goleman published his book, Emotional Intelligence, in 1995. The cost of neglecting SEL can be serious, as the spate of school shootings and cyberbullying suicides across the country have shown us.

“People are worried about suicide, bullying, and cyberbullying now,” Hawkins said. “They have caught on now that SEL is vital. What we’re trying to do is use game technology in a new way.”

IF trains your character how to work with a Vim

Above: IF … trains your character how to work with a Vim.

Image Credit: If You Can

Hawkins believes the iPad is the perfect device to reach kids in this age group, and he thinks a game will hold their attention as an educational tool more than any type of classroom teaching. But he has consulted with social and emotional learning (SEL) experts, including Janice Toben, who taught Hawkins’ four kids at the private The Nueva School in Hillsborough, Calif., and also created the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning. Hawkins’ advisors include Toben; Roger Weissberg, CEO of CASEL.org, another SEL nonprofit; Marc Brackett and Robin Stern of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; and Fred Luskin of Learning to Forgive and a consultant on dealing with stress at Stanford University.

“Social and emotional learning is the deepest aspect of education,” Luskin said in an interview. “What Trip is trying to teach is more positive social behaviors, like how to have more self control and patience. To teach them to choose the right kinds of responses.”

Luskin added, “The schools are not teaching this, but kids are being taught these things anyway as they live. The question is to what degree these qualities can be learned and maintained through a game. Gaming has value because it conveys visual, motor, and language lessons.”

But the game won’t work miracles. Luskin and Hawkins said that games can do their part, but other things in kids’ lives are important, such as parents, siblings, friends, and teachers.

“There’s been a push for a long time … to teach SEL in public schools,” Luskin said. “I have been approached by a lot of people to do emotional games. Clearly, the stuff that Trip is doing has the most legs of any I have seen.”

In an email, Stern concurred. “Trip Hawkins and his team have created IF … as an emotionally intelligent alternative to ‘shoot-em-up’ adventure games. The appealing design and characters, as well as the fantasy play, entreats kids into a world where curiosity, boldness, kindness, perseverance, and respect are the currencies used, and emotional skill development is the way to exchange that currency.”

Stern believes that parents will learn alongside their kids in IF … and start important offline interactions with them.

“IF … is meeting kids where they are: online,” Stern said. “More than that, IF … offers a compelling interactive environment to engage their hearts and minds.”

Weissberg agrees that this possibility is an exciting one. His organization – the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) – is currently working with hundreds of schools across the U.S. to implement research-based SEL programs. He would like to see schools and families support and reinforce the social and emotional skills that children learn from games.

“Parent-teacher-gaming partnerships could be a very powerful way to educate children to be knowledgeable, caring, responsible students, workers, and citizens,” Weissberg said.

IF character builder

Above: IF has a character builder.

Image Credit: If You Can

A personal odyssey for Hawkins

Hawkins became familiar with SEL not only through taking an active part in his kids’ education. He also went through his own emotional rollercoaster. Hawkins founded EA in 1982 and turned it into a juggernaut of the game business. He left in 1991 to start his own game console at 3DO. The system launched in 1993, but it failed.

Next, Hawkins started the mobile game company Digital Chocolate and, as a result of a big tax battle with the government, went through extreme financial difficulties that left him much poorer.

Those lessons have left their scars. But Hawkins keeps trying new businesses and putting a lot of heart into them. He isn’t just out to make a buck anymore. He wants to make a mark. 

He knows that the game will be a hit only if parents see it as educational and kids embrace it as fun. This formula for success goes back years to titles such as Math Blaster by Davidson and Leapfrog’s games for early learners. But Hawkins hopes to build something much more ambitious, a mythological world with a great deal of complexity around its emotional decision making.

Pixelberry is teaching the same kind of anti-cyberbullying lessons in its own game, High School Stories. And EA is co-sponsoring GlassLab, which recently released a modified classroom version of SimCity that teaches kids how to manage the environment.

“Today, every kid gets bullied,” Hawkins said. “Cyberbullying is growing. It’s driving youths to commit suicide. If you happen to be a bully, the redemption of a bully is something you can learn. Both victims and bullies can play a game like this. I don’t think being a bully makes a bully happy. With tragedies like the shooting in Newtown, Conn., there was alienation in both directions. Students were alienated from a boy, who then felt like an outsider.”

It’s not just about saving a kid from a bully.

Hawkins takes his task very seriously. A few years ago, he decided that his own generation wasn’t going to fix global warming because it was too materialistic and not compassionate enough. He felt guilty that he would leave the world in worse shape than when he got it. The missing piece is SEL, which teaches compassion.

It took many years for Hawkins to come to this conclusion, and that finally spurred him to create If You Can and IF ….

IF training battle with Vims

Above: IF training battle with a Vim.

Image Credit: If You Can

Is it really going to be fun?

This is a heavy burden to put on any game. All that IF … really has to do is entertain a child. If it can do that, then the goodness of its lessons will follow. If it fails on that front, then it will have no impact.

“The academics have fallen flat because they didn’t have the fun,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins has clearly put a lifetime of learning into this startup. He has assembled an interdisciplinary team of gaming and educational experts to make the project better.

One of the co-founders is Stewart Bonn, who was one of the earliest employees at EA. Another co-founder is Martyn Jones, who worked at Mind Candy. Ben Geliher, who was the lead game designer on the successful kids title Moshi Monsters, has also joined the team, as has Jessica Berlinski, a national director of character counts. 

Hawkins says each one of them brings something special to IF …, and the academic advisors have directed the team to pay attention to how it could be used in a class. The game will have metrics that will help teachers assess whether a child is really learning a certain curriculum or not.

But the point of the metrics isn’t to bombard the kid or the parent with advertising offers to buy stuff or to monetize the experience in a better way. And the game won’t blast the kid with a gamification layer, since the motivation to play is best if it is intrinsic — or something that comes from internal motivation, not external motivation.

Hawkins and his co-founders kicked in their own money and raised seed funding from angels. They have more than 20 people, with many of them based in London.

The company’s name comes from a Rudyard Kipling poem that intones, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you….” The point is that if you embrace social and emotional learning, you’ll really become an adult.

“We believe that we can affect real world behavior,” Hawkins said. “We’ll start with the younger kids. But over time, they’ll grow up, and so can our content. I’ve spent 20 years as a parent, and I feel like this is my 20-year research project.”

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