School of Thought

Mindshapes CEO David Begg on the noble art of making educational games for children

As children spend more and more time in front of screens, be it a television or an iPad, it's only natural that parents are looking for games and apps that offer more than talking cats and irritated fowl. London company Mindshapes hopes to fill that need, offering a range of educational games.

Founded by Playfish's Shukri Shammas in 2010, it works closely with children, schools and parents, and after recently raising 3.1m in a Series A funding, is preparing to launch its new Magic Town and Language City products early next year. spoke to CEO David Begg about the challenges of creating software for such a specific market, and why Midshapes offered an alternative to "dumb technology."

Q: You're in an interesting niche, with educational mobile apps. That new market must have been pretty heavily reliant on the success of the iOS devices, right?

David Begg: Absolutely, you've hit the nail on the head. Particularly if you're talking about the younger age group, because the simplicity of the interface for a three or four year old, compared to, say, a mouse, has changed what we can do in that space.

I have a three year old and a six year old and my three year old is so completely adept in using my iPhone and iPad that they're not really mine any more! I think that's probably the case for most parents with kids in this age group.

It's opened up the use of technology to that age group. Previously, the primary means of interacting with media was television. Even in my experience with my eldest, he had very little interaction with computers until he was mid fours. My three year old is already completely happy with dealing with interactive technology.

We are not suggesting that the consequence of that will be that children of that younger age group start spending huge amounts of time with interactive technology. I think what you're starting to see is that interactive technology is starting to take the place of television viewing in that age group.

The breadth of opportunity which that gives us in what we're doing is fantastic... because our space is very much educational gaming we have to be very careful, especially when we're talking about the lower end of the age group, not to think that educational gaming means things that are overtly educational in terms of learning numbers and letters.

What we're talking about is making sure we can provide a media experience which is fundamentally more educational, more valuable and based on development, than maybe some of the primary sources of media for kids in the past.

Put simply, the ability to interact with media enables the child to be more involved and be more controlling of its outcome, which adds enormously to the creative value of that media. If you're sitting down and watching television, it's a very reactive response. Yes, you can have more and less valuable TV media but if you get a child of this age actually interacting with it, then our belief is that there's an exponential rise in the value of the content that you're providing them.

Obviously the breadth of things you can do within that expands enormously as well. That's particularly in the younger audience. Obviously the iPhone, iPad, tablets in general are having enormous impact throughout education across all age groups. We're seeing more and more schools supplying iPads, even one per child.

I think it's a really interesting trend. Suddenly you're giving automatic access to a much richer learning experience and a much richer depth of content which when we were kids, we could only have dreamed of.

Q: When you're designing and marketing a product, you're in a market where the target audience aren't the people buying it. How difficult is it to strike the balance between appealing to both kids and parents?

David Begg: Well I think you've hit on one of the core debates and problems in this space. I use my own kids as examples a lot of the time - that's where a lot of the ideas emerge from. This morning, before my three year old headed off to playgroup, I was trying out a new app we're working on with her, testing out two different graphic styles. Very, very difficult. We trying out both a more animated, characterful creative style versus a more simple, bold blocky colourful style. I know what a parent is going to prefer in terms of their own experience, but even among parents often their response to something that they know their child is going to use, is not necessarily realistic.

You'll find parents with younger children buying into blocky, colourful products because they think that's what their children are going to like at that stage, but that might not be the case. Parents are overcompensating for what they believe their kids like.

In the end it's about testing. It's about putting products in kid's hands, getting them to play on things. You can't get a focus group, you can't actually get them to tell you directly what they like, you just have to do it through observation, and observation over a substantial amount of time.

We are partnered with quite a large number of schools and pre schools in this country and the US, and we're also working with one in mainland Europe as well, to get products into kid's hands. We sit and we watch the kids playing and try to get empirical evidence of what they like and dislike. And not just our products, we put a lot of competitor's products in the hands of those kids as well, to see the things they migrate towards.

It's quite tough because you've got to get it into their hands for a long period of time, you need to observe them not just playing it over 15 or 20 minutes, you need to leave it with them and see the things that they come back to and that they want to play on a regular basis. We do it a lot with our own kids, so most of the senior team and the product team here have kids, and the products get in to their hands and we observe things over a long period of time.

Q: Do work with any educational bodies or professional educators, child psychologists?

David Begg: At the top level, those on our board are very heavily involved with the development of our educational philosophy and our view of child development. Professor Paul Harris, who is professor of child psychology and development at Harvard School of Education, he's one of the biggest names, he writes most of the text books in this area, and he has been involved with us since the middle of 2010, in evolving our thinking, really before we started even building the business.

That's when we started looking at this sector, he's one of the first people we started talking to to really understand the issues that children of this age have, the educational needs that they have and what we could do with technology to help that. We're involved with a number of other academics, whether it be more in child psychology, in specifically the application of technology in child development and creativity. So we're trying to link in to as many of that level of people as possible.

And then we're involved with a number of schools and we spend a lot of time there. A group of six of us spent yesterday afternoon with a school that goes from four to eleven, and we spent the afternoon reading to and playing with the kids, looking at interactive books with them and other interactive games, getting their input on what they liked and disliked.

We have teachers, we have a number of teachers in the team, one of our team here is actually a teacher and he spends part of his time teaching and part of his time in the team, and we have other people who are particularly experienced in child development and child media. We have guys from Scholastic, from CBeebies, and other business of that type. Sesame Workshop, so with sort of media child development experience.

And through the schools we're partnered with we're involved with a range of people, teachers but also one person we work very deeply with is one of the librarians in a school that we work with close to here, on the spirit of reading, the way that you communicate with children through the reading experience.

We go very deep into education, and it's very critical to us. We also go deep into child psychology from a practical point of you, a lot of us have kids. We are with those kids in our own lives but we're also bringing them into the office and involving them in what we do, so that we're deeply observing the way that kids behave in a home environment. Because you have to remember that most of our products are not designed for specifically school use, they are designed for that overlap between use at home and the soft learning and practice in school.

Q: In terms of revenue scales are you finding any particular age group particularly rewarding?

David Begg:I can't talk much to our own position, we're fairly early stage in this, we've launched now seven apps and we're starting to see some response, but we're absolutely in the early stages of getting a view on that. We put our products across a reasonably wide range to gain some insight into it. But we've got further to go to determine where the real sweet spot in the opportunity is.

There is probably a greater historical significance to why at the moment there's probably more money to be made in the six or seven to fourteen age group, its the group that has been using technology for the longest and is very comfortable with technology. It's an area area where parents start off being more comfortable with micro-payments and things of that sort.

Q: One of the major complaints about the App Store seems to be discoverability, have you experienced any of those problems, or does specialisation work in your favour?

David Begg:We approach this as any other normal business, in that we cannot just rely upon a distribution channel in order to build the knowledge of our products. If we were just to go onto the App Store with no other marketing and communication around that I think we would have long term the same problem as if you were selling shampoo and never did any marketing behind that product.

We've got a strong marketing team here, we're in the early stages of it but we're building our branding, our communication directly with parents, we're looking at how we best build our brand, and for us Apple is a very good partner and a very good distribution channel for that product.

But that's a fraction of what we're doing in terms of communicating our product. I think anyone who just relies on it, when you're talking about the number of apps that are there, is going to struggle. But that's the same as any distribution channel that has that breadth of product selection.

Q:Have you considered licensed apps or products? Would you see it as devaluing the educational aspect at all?

David Begg: No, absolutely we are. We've launched the Casper app, which has done quite well for us, and we have a very strong belief that learning through characters and through stories is a very, very critical element of a child's learning. There is an enormous opportunity there. We are shortly to launch, early next year, a big product for us called Magic Town, which is a reading and story based world and we are already partnered with a large number of the main publishers to licence a lot of their content. We have about 250 books on the contract already that we're converting for animated ebook launch. And that's growing very, very fast, so we're expecting to be in the many hundred in a very short amount of time.

That is a world that is based around not just the books, and the principle of books, but it's based around character worlds. So you enter the houses in the town and each house is the world of a particular character, such as Winnie The Witch or Elmer, and each learning experience that the child has in that house is not just about learning from a book, but it's also about true educational games, offline activities, so that you can get the child completely immersed in the world and the experience of that particular character.

So for us licensed content is very, very valuable, we want to be careful in the licensed content that we access and that we bring in. We want to make sure that the characters are such that they are, in their incarnation out there in the media world, are sending the right messages. Messages that we believe in. But I think there are very few that don't have the ability to convert into valuable messaging in form or another. So we're very very open to it.

Q: How do you think your development process differs from someone working in the pure entertainment market?

David Begg: We look on ourselves substantially as a media business, so I don't see that we're doing that much different to what, for example, CBeebies is doing. We have a number of ex-CBeebies people in the team and we pursue a number of things that they would do in the production of their very high quality programming. I think potentially the only difference versus maybe traditional media is that our products are fundamentally interactive.

And so we need to ensure that we have deeply considered the interactivity of those games and toys, so we probably have to spend more time directly interacting with and playing with the kids in that space.

Guys like Scholastic and Sesame Street I have enormous respect for and I wouldn't like to say we're doing anything particularly better than they are. We are probably doing things slightly different than they are because of the nature of the product. We are trying to be quite specifically educational in the things that the children are learning, and not ABCs and 123s necessarily, but creativity, mental reasoning, so when we're developing the ideas and principles behind a product we are clearly trying to understand deeply how children learn in that way and in analysing the product in development we are looking at very specifically those characteristics of the product.

Maybe we are just slightly more involved in the function and the result of what we are doing that just the - and again I don't want to be critical at all because we're only just going a fraction further - but in the consequence, rather than just the engagement. Engagement is obviously very important to us, but we also have to make sure that we are looking at the consequence for a child and the parents and family in what they're playing.

Q:Have you had any direct interest from the government or non-state schools to do tailor made products?

David Begg: We are partnered with both the National Literacy Trust and the Book Trust for the launch of our Magic Town product, because they consider it as being a very valuable product for the advancement of literacy and reading in schools and in society in general. So at that level for the partnering they're helping us to think through what we're doing and the communication of those things, absolutely.

We're also partnering with schools' technology providers to ensure that we can embed our products directly into interactive whiteboards and other school technology so that it's directly involved with the schools. But we haven't directly been approached by any government body or any educational body to look at the specific development of a directly school based product to integrate into the curriculum.

We're open to it, but I think the difference is that we are not trying to be a provider of educational software. What Mindshapes is about is learning through play. So I absolutely see many of our products being used is schools as additional tools for a teacher, for example, in practice where they're using our games because its a fun way for a child to engage with mathematics or words or reading etcetera. But we're not trying to embed ourselves directly into the curriculum, that's not our purpose. At the same we don't hold out any specific claims about the absolute educational value of our product. We believe that used in the right way and engaging with parents and engaging with teachers our products and games can be valuable to children, but we're not looking at it in a hard education way.

Q: As you say, if you're just attempting to produce products which are beneficial, that's a much more easily proven term.

David Begg: Absolutely that, but also just fundamentally we believe that the school process and the teaching process is ultimately the most valuable, hard educational structure. We're not trying to compete with that or undermine that in any way. What we would really say is we are competing with dumb media and dumb technology. Kids will spend time on screens when they're at home, playing on all sorts of stuff, and we would rather as parents, and I know this very clearly as a parent, I would rather my children were playing with something that I believe to be more valuable than a simple, non developmental game.

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