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School of Thought

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

GamesIndustry.bizHave 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. 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.

GamesIndustry.bizHave 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. 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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Rachel Weber avatar
Rachel Weber: 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.
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