THE BLOG
11/26/2014 10:58 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Everything Is Everything and It's All in the Game

Is your kid ready to "discover the power of social and emotional learning"?

This is the challenge and opportunity presented in IF... The Emotional IQ Game, which was created by Electronic Arts founder and video game pioneer Trip Hawkins. Launched earlier this year for iPads (with plans to expand to other platforms and devices), IF is a fantastically animated and thoughtfully narrated game that encourages young players to make conscious decisions about their journey at every turn.

Here is a peak into how it all comes together.

I've spent the last week playing IF, including advancing through the first chapter with my touchscreen-savvy and emotionally developing 4-year-old son. Along the way, I also interviewed Hawkins about his own journey from creator of smashmouth games like Madden NFL to this new venture capital-backed enterprise that celebrates human touchpoints more than touchdowns.

Here are some insights and observations based on these collective experiences.

The message resonates through the screen
The conceit of IF was inspired by a wonderful (and nearly 120-year-old) Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name. While it would be nice for me to read passages of the poem to my son or his older cousins (the game is ideally suited for kids aged 9-to-11 but applicable to anyone older than four), many kids don't naturally sit still long enough to hear and meditate on lines like "If you can wait and not be tired of waiting" and "If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken."

I'm not suggesting that parents and caregivers should stop trying to continually convey poetic wisdom via memory, print or an assortment of analog devices. However, what IF and a handful of other of apps like Feel Electric and Emotions Collection do is help children learn to think about how they feel without thinking that they are being forced to think about how they feel.

The backstory of IF is clear and engaging. Planet Ziggurat is being overrun with dark energy, and players are tasked with turning back this energy in order to restore peace between cats and dogs. But rather than jousting, fighting, or shooting, players progress by checking in with whoever they see along the way, including sharing how they feel about certain challenges and opportunities.

When provided information about what's ahead in their journey, players can choose between saying things like "that's stupid" and "I don't like" x example with more thoughtful and proactive replies.

"This is a tool to build daily mindfulness," Hawkins said. "Any game that allows you to make choices and understand their consequences has huge value in learning."

While chapter one is free to anybody who downloads the app, subsequent chapters are released on a monthly basis and can be purchased for anywhere between $5 (annual commitment) and $7 (3-month commitment) per chapter. Another premium offering is a dashboard that allows parents to assess and review the choices their kids are making.

There is a huge market opportunity social and emotional learning apps
While there are thousands of high quality applications that teach elementary and middle school students math, english language arts, history and science, there are very few quality applications and digital media tools that do the same for social and emotional learning. The subject is newer and, while arguably as important as anything taught in a school setting, doesn't have nearly the same volume of classroom adoption.

To that end, Hawkins partnered with domain experts to produce a White Paper that describes in detail how IF teaches the core attributes of Social and Emotional Learning including Self- Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills and Decision-Making.

"This used to be the province of parents and religions," Hawkins explained. "We are not very many generations removed from a tribal culture, where (these lessons) were just naturally built in for thousands of years. Today, we are more urban, technology-based, and industrial, with both parents working away from the home."

Hawkins is trying to do for SEL what Sim-based games do for STEM-based Learning
The underlying technology that powers IF can potentially be applied to other games and applications focused on social and emotional learning. Hawkins, who is based in Northern California, hired the London-based development team behind moshi monsters to pull off this ambitious enterprise.

"What we have is the social science equivalent of that kind of an engine that can produce any social science curriculum," he said.

This is not a complete exercise in altruism
While Hawkins is an enormous personal advocate of social and emotional learning, the early Apple executive and founder of Electronic Arts, the 3DO Company and Digital Chocolate is collaborating with elite venture capital investors and generations-old industry contacts to produce the first blockbuster hit in this genre. The If You Can Company to date has raised $9.3 million in venture capital from investors including Greylock Partners, Almaz Capital, Andreessen Horowiz, Founders Fund and Maveron. Additional individual investors and board members include Apple's Vice President of Education John Couch, Clear Channel CEO and MTV founder Bob Pittman, and former Yahoo! chief marketing officer Karen Edwards.

The app to date has generated more than 500,000 downloads and nearly a 5-star rating. The next steps in Hawkins plan include expanding into other platforms, distributing directly to districts and schools, and completing more chapters.

This last one is admittedly a little bit of a stretch
After playing IF with my son last Saturday morning, we were looking for more of a fitness-related option to combat the early Chicago winter. C-Fit Yoga, available on the iPad for $2.99, is a nice companion app. Like other C-Fit apps, the Yoga title is divided into four sessions that are approximately 10 minutes in length.

After getting in touch with our feelings, we spent nearly 40 minutes practicing breathing techniques, tree poses, upward dogs, and flying like eagles.

All in, the first Chapter of IF and this accessible yoga app for kids costs less than a Venti drip cup of coffee at any Starbucks. Can't find too many better perks than that.