By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- Trip Hawkins has always been ahead of the game. Back when gaming wasn't a mainstream business, he designed his own major in Strategy and Applied Game Theory at Harvard. Hawkins left the safe confines of Apple Computer (AAPL) in 1982, where he worked with Steve Jobs as director of strategy and marketing, to start up his own videogame company, Electronic Arts (EA). In 2003 he founded Digital Chocolate to develop games for the burgeoning mobile industry.
Since stepping down as CEO of Digital Chocolate in 2012, Hawkins has been focusing his attention on If You Can Company, a startup that creates educational videogames for 6- to 12-year-olds. In his role as CEO, Hawkins has brought game industry vets like Stewart Bonn (former producer from Electronic Arts), Ben Geliher (former product owner of Moshi Monsters at Mind Candy) and Jessica Berlinski (former executive director of Gamedesk and Character Counts) on board. John Couch, vice president of education at Apple, is a company investor and has joined its Board of Directors.
To date, Hawkins has raised $3 million in capital from angels and seed venture funds, including Greylock, Andreessen Horowitz, Maveron, and Founder's Fund. The idea behind this company is to develop "AAA" quality gameplay experiences that also happen to teach kids while they're playing. The first game from the studio is IF …, an iOS game created by a team that includes former Mind Candy developers. All corporate and curriculum work for the game is being handled in San Mateo, Calif. A free version of the game will launch in late January first on iOS devices.
The 3-D action-adventure game introduces kids to Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), an educational philosophy that emphasizes communication skills, conflict resolution, and character development, among others. IF ... introduces these concepts through a fictional universe featuring cats and dogs. After years of warring, cats have established a home planet of Catonia, and dogs have created Dogma. Players create a dog or cat avatar and receive a spirit guide akin to a Jiminy Cricket or Tinker Bell, but in feline or canine form. All of the characters have been voiced over so that younger children can experience the game as well.
"We present the curriculum to players intuitively through gameplay experiences that unfold as they explore Greenberry and its surroundings," said Hawkins, who noted the gameplay will have elements of Nintendo's Animal Crossing franchise and also feature collectible creatures a la the Pokemon games. "When litter builds up in town, players can ignore it or they can pick it up and even create a recycling center. The goodwill you build up in the town will have characters feel about similar to Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life."
While kids won't notice any of it -- the game was designed to be fun and engaging -- a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes to make it educational. The game developers draw from several documents and specs regarding teaching standards, beginning with the State of Illinois, which introduced the first-ever government SEL standards, and the Nueva School, pioneers in the SEL field. The team also works with the Stanford Research Institute and with UC Berkeley (Greater Good Science Center).
The game has been divided into chapters, and different lesson plans are taught over the course of a month. The first chapter will explore positive and negative emotions and the multiple layers within each emotion. For example, anger is generally considered a secondary emotion because something else is causing it. Throughout the game, new characters will be introduced, and players can learn about their emotional state and explore back stories on why the characters feel the way they do.
"We introduce the concept of a check-in when you interact with people, checking to see how they're feeling and being more mindful and socially aware about that," said Hawkins. "We also teach about the concept that feelings can get escalated up and down, and we introduce some tools for self-management and regulation of emotions."
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Gameplay illustrates these concepts in different ways. When a player's avatar becomes emotionally elevated, it floats into the air. The spirit guide teaches the player how to calm down using lessons from SEL. Later in the chapter, the player will encounter a mother who's been separated from her baby, and she's angry because she thinks the player is responsible. Now the player must use these same calming techniques on the mother, applying what they learned earlier. As a reward, the player will ultimately reunite the mother with her child.
"We learn by doing, and gameplaying is a fundamentally potent way to learn if you're put into a situation that can be transferred into the real world in the way that benefits you," said Hawkins. "If you look at Angry Birds, you're not learning anything that can be applied to the real world. There are lots of parents that are despondent because they have a child that has a mobile addiction. We all have a mobile addiction, let's be frank, but many people are using tablets, smartphones, computers, and game consoles as an electronic babysitter. We've designed IF … to present kids with scenarios where they need to make decisions within a fully engrossing fantasy world, and those same decisions can be applied to everyday life."
The game will explore SEL educational guidelines that Hawkins said aren't being addressed by many schools today, including how to manage your emotions, how to develop positive relationships, and how to make effective decisions in society. Another benefit for parents is that the lessons the game teaches also address bullying.
"If a bully played this game they wouldn't immediately realize that they're a bully -- and this game isn't going to teach them not to be a bully -- but it would increase their sensitivity and they would start to better understand the consequences of being a victim," said Hawkins. "I really do have a long-term belief that what we're doing with this game doesn't just help the victims, it would actually help bullies realize that they're better off not being bullies."
If You Can will release the first chapter of the game for free and then offer a subscription for additional chapters. Hawkins noted that the global market for private tutors today is nearing $150 billion, and with no direct competition, he believes parents will invest in this game to supplement in-school education and also offer a positive mobile gaming experience to kids who are playing with tablets and smartphones anyway. Schools will be able to use Apple's volume-based pricing to subscribe to the game, although they will also get the first chapter for free.
"I met with the superintendent that runs the public schools in San Francisco, which includes 56,000 students, and they have 8,000 kids in after-care," said Hawkins. "A lot of these schools use Race to the Top money to buy tablets without really having a great assortment of educational apps that are even available. There's nothing remotely like what we're doing, so there's definitely an opportunity there."
Hawkins said the focal point for the company at first will be the consumer market. And then in parallel they have strategic partners like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America that will use iPads and IF … as part of their after care program. The company is also talking to academic researchers at Yale and other colleges to develop research projects that will show that the game is effective.
Wanda Meloni, founder of M2 Research, believes If You Can could do very well because parents are continually looking for quality games their children can play, but also learn something from.
"Parents always feel much better about purchasing a game that has elements of learning that reinforce education concepts," said Meloni. "In schools, the discussion of bullying has become a central theme for teachers and school administrators who are looking for programs they can implement."
Hawkins said he's taken the same approach with his educational company as he did at EA when creating the Madden football franchise, which went on to generate over $4 billion at retail. He's assembled a team of proven game creators and educators. Come January, the world will see if he can do it again.
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