Interview: EA Founder Trip Hawkins’ New Game Teaches Social and Emotional Learning Skills

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Trip Hawkins has had the kind of career in the video game industry that most people only read about. He’s gone from marketing director at Apple, to founder of Electronic Arts, from laying the groundwork for one of the industry’s most enduring franchises as creator of Madden NFL, to launching the 3DO console with Panasonic and going on to found mobile game developer Digital Chocolate.  

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CEO of If You Can, Trip Hawkins

These days, Hawkins is back to making games, but this time around he’s looking to offer a new kind of gaming experience.  His new company, If You Can, which has raised $9.3 million in funding so far, has released the first episode of its new game, called simply IF… for iOS devices. Geared towards six to twelve year olds, IF… uses the traditions of role-playing games to boost kids’ Social and Emotional Learning, or SEL.

Letting kids take on the role of a cat or dog adventurer, the game takes players through the town of Greenberry in the fantasy world of Ziggurat, and tasks them with resolving the conflict between the two always-at-odds species. But behind that classic dog versus cat premise, IF… aims to teach children how to understand emotions, connect with others, learn empathy, and how to cope with failures. And parents are involved in the kids’ SEL progress, as the app will email them reports of what’s happening in the game and what skills are being taught.

Hawkins answered a few of our questions about his new game, and the plans If You Can has for the future.

BestTechie: How long has IF… been in development?

Trip Hawkins: We incorporated in November of 2012 and began staffing the studio team in February 2013 so it has been about a year.

BT: The site says that IF… brings together “some of the most successful video game creators in history.” Besides yourself, what other video game creators are involved?

TH: Co-founder Ben Geliher and his sidekick Martyn Jones led the design, directing and product management of Moshi Monsters which has reached 80 million boys and girls.  Co-founder Stewart Bonn was one of the first producers at EA and rose to become the Studio Head, making many hit games.

BT: What specific experiences or moments motivated you to make IF…?

screen480x480 (1)TH: A huge moment came as a child when I realized I was thinking more and learning more while playing games.  Many years later I got to see how my kids matured because SEL, or Social Emotional Learning, was being taught in their pioneering school, The Nueva School.  I finally realized that we could teach SEL and other topics within video games with the same model I’d used to make the EA Sports games.  For example, I would say that Janice Toben from IFSEL is our “John Madden”.

BT: Is IF… taking its inspirations from any other games?

TH: Having watched 2 sons and 2 daughters play countless games I know which play mechanics engage boys and girls of different ages.  Nintendo probably had the most success in history, and we especially admire brands like Pokemon and Animal Crossing.  I would also say that our game world’s structure is similar to the VR world in the book, Ready Player One.  A very fun read, by the way.

BT: It’s not much of a stretch to say that more than a few adults could benefit from increasing their SEL. Are there any plans to make an adult equivalent for IF…?

screen480x480 (2)TH: Maybe someday.  For now, adults need to become aware of SEL and hopefully read some books like Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion.  We’re working with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence on an EQ test that visitors to our website can try for free.  It should be available later this year.

BT: What can you tell me about the collaboration with the Stanford Research Institute? How involved was Stanford in the creation of IF…?

TH: SRI are one of the few global leaders that understands the discipline of ECD, or Evidence-Centered Design.  Both we and Glasslab, on SimCityEDU, did work with SRI on assessment design using ECD principles.  We got some very good ideas from SRI.

BT: What are the plans for IF… going forward in terms of how many episodes and ports to other platforms?

TH: We’re excited that Apple began featuring IF… today in the App Store.  We hope to have smartphones, Android and PC covered by later in 2014.

BT: Are there plans for If You Can to create other games or apps? If so, what can you tell me about them?

screen480x480TH: We are going to focus on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) because it is a curriculum that, like math, unfolds over a period of many years and needs time to really get baked in at a sophisticated level in terms of values, habits and behavior.  That said, we are building a good platform that could host other content that is related to social science.

BT: How have your attitudes towards games and gaming evolved or changed since the beginnings of EA to today?

TH: My first 20 years I was much like other guys, wanting to make the games that I personally wanted to play.  The last 20 years I have been a parent and realizing there is a higher purpose to help children by using game tech in education.  I also have the good fortune of spending the last decade learning about mobile and social game platforms so I am in a good position to help IF

[Download IF… from iTunes]


— Brian P. Rubin

Brian's been a writer-for-hire for the better part of ten years, creating content for Geek Magazine, Machinima, and even Hasbro's Trivial Pursuit. After living in New York for most of his life, he recently relocated to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he plays drums in his band, the Lost Wheels, and roams the land for the midwest's best approximation of actual pizza.




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