The gaming world is unlike anything else on the planet. It is a place where people are accepted based on their street creds and their high scores. There is little room for preconceived notions, racism or tensions unless you’re number two and you just met number one on the scoreboard. It is a fantasy world where you can pick the character you want to be and do things that you would only dream of in the real world. It has inspired many people to go to the next level and invent their own gaming worlds in the hopes that they may be the next big hit with gamers.
But, you have to face the tech world before you could achieve major gaming success.
Undeterred and determined to change the face of the educational gaming world, Laila Shabir has turned down her desk job to embrace entrepreneurship. She is the co-founder of LearnDistrict and CEO, a company that aims to create educational games that are so much fun to play that your children won’t realize they’re learning. She brought together a team of six people, who literally live together under one roof and play video games by day, then make new, better ones by night. Based out of San Diego, California, Shabir and her husband who is the other co-founder and CTO, hope that their most recent creation Penguemic will take the world by storm and create a new movement in the educational gaming world.
How did you come up with the idea of creating educational games for kids? What was your source of inspiration?
Culturally, the first thing we think about is making money so we can support our families and I think having worked a couple of years, the idea of going out and doing our own thing has been a bit of a risk but it’s one I can afford at the moment. Also it’s been easier because my husband wants to do it as well. So the fact that we teamed up to do this really propelled us to go and do all the things that we wanted to do.
Both my husband and I tutored for many years and that’s where the love for teaching comes from. I tutored my own peers in high school and Ish tutored through college and while working. It’s something that we both really enjoyed doing; making the world simpler for someone that was having trouble understanding it. The only problem with going the traditional teaching route is that kids are not responding anymore to it. When a kid walks into a classroom and there’s a lecture or something written on the board, he’s already checked out because he’s in school and his mind is on video games. Whatever he’s playing on his iPhone, iPad or xbox, his mind is on that and school can’t compete with that because the kids are so complete immersed in these things, they’re entire worlds revolve around it. Games give you the opportunity to live a completely different life through the avatar you create. You can drive a gold plated Lamborghini, be a millionaire tycoon amusement park owner or even fly a helicopter and it’s all safe. You are at no risk of getting into any real trouble and at the same time you get to experience all these new things that you would otherwise not be able to, it’s mesmerizing to the kids.
Games have become this tool that gives kids the opportunity to live an alternate life and so going forward I don’t see it lessening in any way especially since we’re incorporating smartphones and tablets. And it’s that trend that moved us towards digital education. When we first moved to California, we were doing a different tech startup but the goal then was to do the startup, make a lot of money and then go build schools in Pakistan or whichever country needed schools to be built. We had some founders but it fell out. That’s when we started thinking of ways to get to the point that we wanted to get to which was improving access to education in third world countries and areas that don’t have access to it.
We started thinking maybe we can start a company here in California or build a school here. We asked a lot of questions and spent several weeks brainstorming: what’s the problem with education? Why are students here not learning as much as they should be? We came to the conclusion that it was because the education we have and the knowledge that we have is not accessible to the students in a form that they want to access it in. Whether it’s here or in a third world country, the problem remains an access issue. Here, we have a book right in front of them but the knowledge in that book is not accessible to them in the form that they want it which is digital, interactive and immersive. Instead of having them sit down and memorize texts after texts of knowledge, we realized that kids want to be engaged in the knowledge. So we decided to tackle the problem here first, with all the information available to us how do we get into the hands and minds of students? We went through many iterations until we finally came to the conclusion that video games was the way to go.
It was a good progression, we stayed on it, we tested it and we saw how much it was engaging kids. So we went out and played the education games currently on the market and we found that a lot of the educational technology that’s being put out there is being designed by educators. The person behind the educational game is not himself or herself a gamer so they don’t really understand what makes the game fun, they understand what makes the game educational because they’re putting learning elements in it but then it becomes a bona fide lesson.
Instead of having a game where we stop you and ask you to memorize the flash card and then use it, our game has stuff coming at you and you have to use the cards at your disposal to fight back, they’re you’re powers. You need to win to progress to the next level and get a high score all the while teaching you the words and their definitions. It’s combining both passions: education and gaming.
Tell me a little about your journey up until this day with LearnDistrict and Penguemic.
The technical process was pretty straightforward because to make games we have a lot of technologies available today that allow you to make games quickly. You have to do a little bit of programming on top of that but my husband is a software developer so he was already ahead of the curve when it came to looking at software for games. I was dealing more with the business side, trying to find a target market and the other logistics that come with business development. We decided our first game would cover vocabulary because it’s one of those things that’s a low hanging fruit in that the next best thing to Penguemic are digital flashcards. I couldn’t believe that there was nothing in between the flashcards and a regular book so we started trying to figure out how we could teach vocabulary more naturally.
Our first attempt was a graphic novel that would place the vocabulary words in a certain context to create a more natural way of learning it. No one tells you the definition, you are just given a context and a word and you figure out the definition through those tools. We tested out the graphic novel with a lot of students in Orange County and encountered a problem that we should have predicted; most kids don’t like to read. So we then thought of a motion graphic novel that would be available on the iPad, it would have voice acting and would be more like watching a television show. But then there was so much story and so much additional content around everything that the words were getting lost and it wasn’t effective. We then thought of toning it down to little skits that would demonstrate what the word meant but that turned out to be very technically challenging. So we toned it down again to something that would be like a word on word battle and we finally reached the version that we have now.
The team that we have also went through the same process. The first team that we had with the graphic novel was completely different. We had freelancers at first but they ended up being very expensive because we don’t have revenue and we were paying per animation, per illustration and we couldn’t maintain this unless we had funding. So my husband and I went back to the drawing board and tried to find people that would be as passionate about this as we are. So we started looking for each team member one by one; we need an artist so let’s try and find an artist who would buy into our vision and see what this can potentially become. And the same went for the rest of the team.
We got a big house where the whole team would live, sort of like a trade off since we couldn’t pay them at least we would cover housing and food in return you work for us. We live together, we work together, we basically do everything together. We’ll build this company together and you’ll have a share in the revenues. I’m truly amazed at the team we were able to bring together, we got very lucky. We just went from five core members to six with the most recent person I hired to help me on the business side.
The tech world is very male dominated, what was your experience like coming into it and being the head of a company to top it off?
It’s funny that you mention that because the male domination started at home, it was me and five guys until I hired my associate. Any gaming conventions that I go to it is mostly male dominated but I see a change now. I’d say that as a woman, because you can be more charming and a little more polite, there’s no ego war. When two men talk there’s an ego war, but when a woman and a man talk, because the expectation of a competition between the two is not there, you can easily talk to them and catch them off guard when you sneak up in the market. But I’ll see how it plays out, so far any interactions have been between me and the team or me and the collaborators so I haven’t really been exposed to the phenomenon except about a month ago at a gaming convention when it was probably 90% men. But the gaming world is also a lot friendlier than the tech world because everyone there shares a love for games. If you can talk about a game then they don’t really care about your gender. I still have to see with the tech world but as the company continues to grow and move forward, those differences might come up but so far it’s been pretty good.
Do you see more women finding an interest in this area in the near future?
Although there are gaming girls out there, I don’t see too many in the gaming company. Women dominate the market when I talk about education because a lot of them are trying to empathize with their students and trying to understand why they’re not interested in the classroom. A lot of teachers that are making educational games are women as well so whenever I go on twitter or to a convention, it’s actually female dominated. Women in the classroom tend to be more engaged and they’re trying to figure out what is this whole gaming thing that kids are doing and how can I incorporate it in the classroom.
What have you done differently from other competitors in the marker of educational games that will encourage children to go towards your games?
Most educational apps or games that are in the market are designed by educators, they design the game around the learning. Their focus when they’re designing the game is learning instead of first making the game fun and then incorporating the learning tools that make it educational. With us, we placed our focus on making a fun game and then tried to figure out how we could add the lesson to it and that’s how we came up with a bunch of penguins fighting polar bears with vocabulary words. The learning comes second and the game mechanic comes first. If you were trying to really master the game, there’s no way you won’t master the words. The game needs to be fun itself regardless of the words I’m putting into it.
Take Pokemon for example, kids all over the US and Canada played it and were walking around talking about these characters that had Japanese names that was associated to its power. Kids memorizes hundreds of these names, even though they made no sense to them whatsoever since they were in a different language, because they fought with them and they captured them and watched them evolve in the game, they even collected the cards. We’ve seen this kind of game mechanic work very well and that’s why we chose to stick to it, if Pokemon had done a game with vocabulary words in it they would have been much bigger than us right now. We have four or give gamers on our team and so the potential for making a great game is very high. If it looks like a game that we wouldn’t play then we won’t make it.
We went through stringent testing with Penguemic before programming it, we made physical cards with the words on them and played it and we had a lot of fun fighting each other with the different words. That also helped us figure out little tricks that would make the game run better and more smoothly and it gave us the idea to actually make collectable cards for the game in the future so people can play each other in person.
As gamers we know the importance of strategies in games so there’s a lot of that aspect in the game as well. Certain words will amplify you character and make them stronger, a strategy taken from classic card games such as Magic The Gathering. So a lot of the elements we used were from big franchises that people are already familiar with so when we go to a convention, gamers understood Penguemic immediately, we didn’t need to explain how to play it.
What advice do you offer women in the tech world that want to start their own companies or have a leading role within their current company?
The best advice I can give would be to never go about this alone, having to tackle the business side and the tech side is too much to handle for one person. Also find a CTO that you are comfortable with, the best part of the company that we have now is my husband (co-founder and CTO). I can go to him and get very pure advice because he’s my husband and he’s the co-founder. He will explain exactly what’s happening on his end to me and I don’t have to worry about that aspect of the business at all. I could have gone ahead and covered the technical side but then I would have had to hire someone for the business side and in any case, my husband is so much better at it than me so it made sense to do a pure diversification here where he does tech and I do business. But I also need to have a deep understanding of technology so that I can communicate with him. If he tells me the game is bugging or we need to mod it, I need to know exactly what he’s talking about.
The success rate of solo founders is extremely low statistically speaking, so you should have at least one other person there with you and then grow as a team.
What do you see for children in the future that play your games?
The kids that will play our games will be more likely to get high grades because it’s not only teaching you what you need for your test, it’s teaching you things that will stay with you for the rest of your life. If you were to memorize a hundred words the day before your GRE, you would remember them for your test only. But with Penguemic, you would remember them for much longer and that would make you a more educated person. LearnDistrict gamers will get better grades and do better in life in general because the knowledge they will acquire from our games will stick with them for a long time. Our goal is to turn you into a wholesome, learned, educated person who uses technology wisely.
The goal we want to achieve is for the educational gaming industry be aligned in the same way that we’re looking at educational games. When kids play games that are too educational, they know it feels like homework and so they don’t want to play. The kids that are going to play LearnDistrict’s games are going to know that we make games period. They’re fun first and they have a lesson in them somewhere but the important thing is that they’re fun.
The really big thing that we’re trying to stop ourselves from doing is teaching too much with each application. We don’t want to overload it and make it look like a textbook. You have to balance fun with learning so we’re going very slow and building a portfolio of games that teach you one aspect but it teaches that aspect so well that he game is addictive and fun. That’s what kids can expect from us, a lot of fun games that they can learn something with.
The other big thing is that we’re trying to encourage game developers and tech people to come in and realize that they should be making games the improve the way people learn, they should be helping people unlock the immense world of knowledge in a way that’s accessible and enjoyable.
In the future, do you potentially see the big games on the market such as GTA and Assassin’s Creed taking on the same educational edge? Would this be something that could be worked into the format of the games?
There’s a company called Valve that I really look up to because I love their game Portal, it’s a puzzle solving game and it’s what got me hooked on gaming in the first place. Teachers are starting to use Portal in classrooms to teach physics and they’re using many other games such as Minecraft and trying to add an additional layer of learning or design because they know this is how kids understand. This is their language and they need to speak their language in order to get to them in the classroom. I really want to see more developers and big name companies come in and help enrich this market. The trend is already on, a lot of different companies are starting to think about it.
At a recent convention, they featured over 150 games and only two of them were educational one of which was us. I was happy that there was at least one other person there that was into the educational gaming industry. And then developers from other games came by and we told them that their game looks amazing but if they changed certain aspects then their game could teach mechanics making it a physics lesson. I told them they should try and mod their game in a way that it would go that extra mile and a lot of people are open to the idea, it was just something that never really occurred to them the first time because no one sits down and says I’m going to make educational games, we all grow up saying we want to make games.
It’s really just about unlocking your perspective of something that you always thought was an entertainment tool and realizing that it can also do a great job teaching if you just tweak it a little bit more.
My dream is to get as many people developing the apps and as many educational games as possible and educational elements in games.
Featured image courtesy of Jessica Keating Photography/Flickr.