Nearly three quarters of elementary and middle school teachers already incorporate digital games within their classroom curriculum, according to a recent survey by the Games and Publishing Council. The smart money is on this number going up in the coming years.
This of course is great news for developers. However, creating a viable educational game that can teach a tangible lesson or Common Core Standard -- while also maintaining a young student's fickle attention span -- is easier said then done. In order to succeed, game developers must understand how to weave relevant and personalized educational content within an engaging and interactive call to action.
"The most difficult challenge is making sure the education isn't getting in the way of the gameplay, while also making sure the gameplay isn't getting in the way of the ability to answer questions," explains Shannon Johnson, a producer at JumpStart.
Founded in 1991 by famed technology entrepreneur Bill Gross (the parent company is known as Knowledge Holdings, Inc.), JumpStart produces high profile educational games for 3-to-10 year-olds that are accessible on multiple platforms by more than 30 million users. Popular titles include Neopets, Math Blaster and several titles developed in partnership with DreamWorks Animation and the National Football League.
Johnson, who started her career as a teacher's assistant in the Los Angeles Unified School District, over the last two years has worked with 10 different teachers to integrate educational content within JumpStart titles. The aim of what is formally called the JumpStart Teacher Panel is to harness the subject and grade-level expertise these teachers possess within the conceit of a game in a way that is technologically feasible. This is not an easy process that flows naturally.
"The way you teach a lesson in the classroom doesn't translate to the way you teach a lesson in a game," she said. "It can't be boring, and it has to be programmatically possible."
One of the teachers Johnson recruited to JumpStart was Brian Choi, who previously served as a K-6 Curriculum Developer at New York-based standardized test training company KentPrep. While Choi said that integrating educational content within JumpStart games was "very similar" to developing lesson plans for classrooms, there were technical considerations he needed to work through with the team.
As he explained in an email response: "A decision must be made if the educational content in the game will be displayed as a multiple choice (one correct answer out of four choices), a one to one match (question appears, for example 8 + 4 = and the player will have to type in the correct answer), or a many to many (more than one correct answer to a question)."
Turning teachers into game creators is both an art and a science
While there are more opportunities than ever for digitally-savvy teachers to pivot professionally into educational content development, the transition requires more than just the acquisition of new skills. As Knowledge Holdings CEO David Lord explains, teachers to learn to embrace rapid experimentation and ambiguity.
"It's a complete change in everything they've been taught," said Lord, who joined the company in 2008 after serving as CEO of RazorGator Interactive Group and ToySmart.com. "When creating games, you iterate, get results, and the iterate again. You don't always have the right answer. We like to give teachers certain disciplines, then teach them aspects of our approach so we can integrate that into how we do our business. Teachers need to learn to change everything, learn a new craft to make their current craft possible."
In recent years, Knowledge Holdings has aggressively expanded into online and mobile gaming. While the ubiquity of media and devices in which to play JumpStart games expands the company's market opportunities, there are new technical challenges to manage. A desktop computer or Nintendo DS, for instance, may offer better gameplay opportunities. However, there are different things from an educational standpoint that can be done via an iOS or Android touchscreen device.
"Each platform has its own requirements, and the way we deliver education changes" Lord said. "We now have a Learning game on STEAM (a platform for hardcore gamers), and that was unheard of 5-to-10 years ago."
Another production challenge unique to JumpStart is how to incorporate lessons alongside iconic characters like the Madagascar Penguins and School of Dragons. Both the company's game and educational content developers need to be mindful of the relationship players already have with the characters.
"Incorporating education takes a lot more foresight when you are dealing with a brand that already has a story," Lord said. "You need to tap into that."
Knowledge Holdings/JumpStart employs approximately 250 people, half working out of the company's Torrance, Calif.-based headquarters, and the rest out of a development shop in Bangalore. The company releases as many as eight new titles each year, as well as updates to existing games every six weeks or so.
After being part of Cendent and Vivendi at various junctures, Knowledge Holdings became a venture capital-backed standalone company in 2004. While Lord wouldn't reveal financial information, he said revenue is growing at about 100 percent in 2014.