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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. GamesIndustry.biz 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."

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

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Rachel Weber

Senior Editor

Rachel Weber has been with GamesIndustry since 2011 and specialises in news-writing and investigative journalism. She has more than five years of consumer experience, having previously worked for Future Publishing in the UK.