Game Executive

I had the joy of participating a few weeks ago in AaltoEE’s Game Executive training. The one week super intensive bootcamp lasted from 8.30am to 9pm each day. The daytime lectures were given by renowned business professors. The evening sessions consisted of visits to many of Helsinki’s gaming companies, such as Next Games and Playraven, as well as companies supporting gaming, such as Fondia and Barona.

Overall I was super impressed by the quality of the programme. I would not hesitate to recommend this to anyone looking to enter into the gaming business. Even for an experienced gaming professional looking to start their own firm or moving into an executive role, the course would no doubt come in handy.

Through the bootcamp I was thinking time and again that I should have taken the training a year ago already. Many of the things the professors and game professionals shared were what I have had had to learn through the last year mostly by trial and error – and also by abundant asking around in the amazing Helsinki gaming scene. Having had a training like this when we first embarked on starting Lightneer would have been golden.

Lightneer is the fourth company where I’ve been a founder or co-founder, so in that sense entrepreneurship is not new to me. But all the intricacies of games business ranging from customer acquisition to PR, from lifetime value calculations to coregame-metagame loops were such where I felt I got to deepen my understanding further. Also the sessions on business strategy, business models and accounting were a great way to refresh how to focus business decisions.

I’m a big fan of lifelong learning, and while the course coincided with what has turned out to be some of the most exciting and busy times in the history of Lightneer, I am super happy to have participated in the training. Not the least because of making new friends and getting to spend time with some amazing present and upcoming game executives.

I would heartily recommend AaltoEE’s Game Executive course to anyone looking to make an entry in the gaming business or looking to advance as an executive in the field.

You can read more about the training programme here.

Is Gaming Mindless Waste of Time?

There was a period in my life when I used to think gaming was mindless waste of time. Maybe good for stress relief, but not much more than that. I used to play a lot of games when I was younger, but there was a ten year patch when I didn’t play almost anything. When I started researching learning games around 2011, I started playing other games too. I used to joke that I was doing research playing Angry Birds Space, Cut the Rope, Braid or Psychonauts way past midnight, but the fact is, through those experiences I rediscovered myself as a gamer.

Last weekend, we finished Ratchet & Clank on PlayStation 4 with my kids. It was easily one of the best console games I’ve ever played. Kind of like watching a Pixar movie and playing Super Mario at the same time. Best of both worlds.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a lot of criticism about screentime. It’s growing an increasingly big topic, especially in the contexts of kids and education. I think it’s important to take this criticism seriously. People play on average two hours of mobile games a day. It’s a lot of screen-staring.

I think, however, that the issue of screentime and gaming is far from simple. People also used to watch TV twice the amount of time they now play on mobile. Meanwhile, in the last two decades, the amount of eight-graders who watch TV more than four hours a day has halved. I would also venture to claim that playing a game is easily a thousand-fold more useful to you or your brain than watching gameshows and reality TV. (Of course, if people play two hours of Angry Birds on top of four hours of Big Brother and Celebrity Apprentice, we do have a problem.)

It’s been argued that gaming predicts academic success. Yet many people think, like I used to, that games are a mindless waste of time. And this is why I thought about this post while finishing Ratchet & Clank.

The final boss in the game, Doctor Nefarious, was painstakingly difficult to beat. It took us several evenings to finally find the right combination of Groovitrons, Warmongers, Pixelizers, rocketpack refuellings and Zurkon Jr. deployments to beat the Doc. What it took to overcome that final obstacle was a combination of resourcefulness and resilience.

I believe the notion of games being an easy pastime is rooted in a misunderstanding of what a great game is. Great games are not easy. In great games, the difficulty varies. At first, it has to be easy to not to churn players away. But then, it must also be maddeningly hard, to really commit you to playing. If you’re not challenged enough, you will soon grow bored with the game. (As a side note, I believe the same dynamics apply to learning too.)

A great game is not mindless waste of time, but rather a set of challenges that engage you again and again. A great game teaches you new ways to think, and it also teaches you resilience: not giving up in the face of adversity.  I bet every parent with gamer kids knows this well.

In discussing screentime, it might do us good to move from discussing the quantity of screentime to the quality of it. Every step we take do to guide people from mindless couch potatoes hypnotized by reality TV to engaged shiny eyed gamers is a step we should, in my opinion, take.

Or you can always also choose to watch a great movie.

The challenge is not the medium, but what we use the medium to convey.

Why Lightneer Exists?

The question that eventually led to the founding of Lightneer was: what if we could really leverage games for learning? And not just any games. What if we could bring together some of the best game designers in the world to create real learning experiences?

After having studied these questions for almost five years, we started the company, with a mission nothing short of ambitious. Could we make learning games that are as loved and as widely adopted as the best games out there, like Angry Birds, Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga?

Our goal is simple.

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People play on average over two hours of mobile games every day. Could we take a chunk of those two hours and direct it to something that is as much fun – but where you also learn things, ranging from particle physics to biology, from history to new languages?

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We want to be the missing link that creates in an informal setting connections to topics that might otherwise not appeal to people in formal education. People young and old may explore freely things like the periodic table by playing a Lightneer game. Not because they want to learn physics, but because it’s just a really fun game to play.

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Then, when they first encounter these typically complex topics in a formal setting, like a classroom, they will instantly recognize concepts that are already familiar. Instead of feeling intimidated by the complexity, the players of our games will feel excited by it. After all, a physics teacher can explain so much more about what goes on in the life of atoms.

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We see our games as taking some of that space that is now occupied by casual games, social media and other digital pastimes and offering something that is as much fun, but that introduces and helps stealth learn an abundance of ideas and concepts that can then be further deepened in formal learning. This is why we don’t see our games as teaching tools – but rather as ways to have fun in a whole new way.

Because learning doesn’t need to be funified. Learning, when it happens, is one of the most amazing things we can experience as human beings. Learning is fun.

It is this new kind of fun we want to bring to the world, starting with the launch of our first game, the particle physics game BIG BANG LEGENDS in January 2017.

The Best Learning Games, Part 2: Math

There are probably two categories that are over-represented in learning games: basic math and elementary reading. Of course, this should come as no surprise as these are the two most important skills and learning metaskills we have.

While many math games are simply variations of drilling math with a cute animal on top, there are some very innovative math games out there. I have also included some of the more traditional drilling-type games on the list, because some of the games even in this category have been well enough executed to be a good addition to a any fully rounded set of math learning games.

You can use this list to pick up individual games that perform better than about 95% of what you can find in the App Stores. You can use the games yourself, with your kids or in a classroom. Alternatively, you can build a home-made curriculum out of them, starting from basic understanding of mathematical concepts and advancing all the way to complex algebra and analytic geometry

One great idea (and one that we have employed with our own kids with great results) is to build your kids a self-organizing learning environment by installing some of the best learning games on an iPad and handing it over to the kids. If you install only learning games on the kids’ iPad, you’ll see some amazing learning results really quickly. (And if you install casual games like Angry Birds or Candy Crush, be forewarned that your kids will spend most of their times self-organizing around them.)

1. Dragonbox: Algebra, Elements & Numbers

As you could probably tell from my previous post, I’m a big fan of Dragonbox. But it’s not just that I love these games or that I’ve witnessed crazy things with people playing them (such as my 3-year-old son learning to crack equations with four or more parameters in them). Dragonbox has also been able to demonstrate very robustly that it generates real learning: whopping 93% of 40 000 kids who played Dragonbox for an hour and a half learned to solve equations! How’s that for performance, schools!

The game studio We Want to Know currently has three Dragonbox games out. Dragonbox Algebra is about solving equations. Dragonbox Elements is about analytic geometry. And Dragonbox Numbers – which I just heard made it to #1 in Norway’s App Store – is about basic arithmetics. The last one is only out in Norway, Ireland and New Zealand. If you happen to live in one of these countries, get yours now. If not, keep your eyes peeled. All three are really amazing games and great benchmarks for the rest of us learning game developers/geeks of what is really possible when you hit the right balance of substance and engagement.

2. Slice Fractions

Slice Fractions is a great game by a small Canadian studio Ululab. It features a mammoth who needs to avoid obstacles that gradually start to teach you how fractions work. Gradually the game will introduce more complicated concepts and mathematical notation, not unlike Dragonbox.

It’s another exemplar of a very innovative way of creating a great game with solid pedagogic value in it. The game does not query you about how much is, say, half of three, but rather you need to understand how fractions work to save your mammoth from being crushed by, for example, a block of ice.

3. Divide by Sheep

Divide by Sheep is a bit similar in spirit to Slice Fractions. In it, you have a group of sheep you need to move from one island to another. The islands require you to divide the sheep into smaller groups and thus begin to understand division.

The game mechanic is very innovative and the production values high enough to keep the game interesting. This is, in fact, one of those next generation learning games that you can almost play without even thinking about it as a learning game.

4. Quickmath Jr

This is the third game in a similar category as Slice Fractions or Divide by Sheep. Quickmath Jr is geared towards learning various mathematical abstractions without a schoolbook feel to it. In a sense, Quickmath Jr even resembles Dragonbox Numbers in places. (Or is it the other way round, since Numbers is so recent?

This is a wonderful game especially for understanding entry-level mathematical concepts like counting. I could easily envision a learning iPad where a very young kid would start with Quickmath, Dragonbox Numbers and Divide by Sheep, then proceed gradually through Dragonbox Algebra and The Land of Venn to finally master King of Math and Algebra Touch. Having a variety of games of a variety of challenges would easily enable children (and adults) to really hone in on their math skillset.

5. King of Math and King of Math Jr

I’m normally very critical of the kinds of learning games that take schoolbook drilling and gamify it. However, even in this genre, there are the few exceptions that break the rule. King of Math is one of them. Although overall I think gamification sucks (you should just create great games, period), if you want to go that way, King of Math is about as good as it gets.

Both the advanced and the Junior version employ the same mechanism: a multiple choice math quiz set up against a role-playing backdrop. It is the combination of the quiz and the role-playing elements that makes the game so compelling. The quizzing is actually pretty decent casual fun, and unlike in so many other titles out there, the metagame elements are properly balanced to drive you to want to get the three stars on each quiz. Also, the character development and experience point collection is well enough designed to keep you on your toes as to when you’ll graduate to the next level.

(A small spoiler coming up.) Sometime around two thirds through the advanced version, I realized the ultimate character class in the game would – of course – be the King of Math. This kept me going, and I must admit I was pretty happy camper when I finally nailed the final quiz. Good stuff, altogether.

6. Algebratouch

It’s debatable whether Algebratouch is a game. It’s rather a pretty interesting and innovative way to manipulate equations. I’m including it on the list, though, because it makes a great complement to any set of math-related learning games.

Especially the combination of Dragonbox Algebra and Algebratouch will give you a true powerhouse of learning algebra. You can basically just give a kid an iPad with these two apps and watch them take it from there. Also, I’ve heard of kids struggling with math in school, who got over their troubles by playing with these apps.

7. Grow Your Garden

This is a logic game that’s a fantastic first step to the wonderful world of math. The logic puzzles start out very easy, but as they proceed, even an adult will need to spend a minute or two trying to figure them out.

The puzzles themselves are varieties of the classical water bucket problem: you have a variety of water cans and buckets and you need to be able to figure the right sequences of filling them up so that you’ll get a full bucket with no spillage. While the game’s production values and its initial tasks have it pinned for preschoolers, it’s actually decent fun to play even for a grown-up.

8. 10Monkeys Multiplication

This is another variation of math drilling with cartoon elements, but like King of Math, 10Monkeys Multiplication has been well enough executed as to set it apart from the competition.

In the game, you have a number of monkeys that have been captured in boxes. You need to be able to consistently cover multiplication tables to be able to free the monkeys. While the game is a typical example of gamified schoolwork, in this case the multiplication table, it’s well enough executed and high enough in production values to raise it to the top of the gamified-style game learning heap. A good addition to any kid’s learning iPad.

9. Counting Kingdom

Counting Kingdom is a fun math game styled after tower defense games like Plants vs. Zombies. In the game, you play a wizard who’s defending agaist the onslaught of invading monsters. To defeat the monsters, the wizard must cast spells to match the numbers on the backs of the monsters – which amounts to addition etc.

Counting Kingdom is a great entry-level math game that helps understand the basics of addition and provides a lot of fun ways to explore the world of math.

10. The Land of Venn

The Land of Venn is a geometry game geared towards introducing basic concepts of geometry. The game is aligned with the common core curriculum, therefore making it a great go to game not only for self-organized learning but also in the classroom.

The game has a very peculiar and adorable aesthetic, with wacky voice actors and atypical graphics. The gameplay is a variation of tower defense, where the player must defeat invading monsters by creating geometric shapes, not unlike Counting Kingdom. Although where Counting Kingdom resembles games like Plants vs. Zombies, The Land of Venn is more similar to tower defence classics like Kingdom Rush or Fieldrunners.

A well-rounded learning environment consists of a variety of avenues of inquiry the learner can choose from. In addition to the above, the following games may also worth taking a look at: Endless NumbersSmartkid MathsLola’s Math TrainMotionMath and Parkmath

More to follow.

The Best Learning Games, Part 1

There are two major challenges for the learning game industry. First, a great learning game is really hard to make. Simply put, a great game is really hard to make. And with a great learning game, you need in addition to figure out a way to make a game that has pedagogic value – without making the game elements seem glued on top of the learning substance.

There are, however, quite a few awesome learning games out there. This brings me to the second challenge: discovery. I’m sorry to say, but the great majority of learning games out there are really quite mediocre. I have found that the stereotypical learning game is simple math drilling sugar coated with cartoon characters like cute animals. And while this kind of a game may perform well when compared to a schoolbook, it will never last in comparison to an actually well performing game.

I’ve been dealing with learning games for almost five years now. During this time, among other research and activities, I’ve had the chance to review what amounts to hundreds, if not thousands, of learning games. Out of these reviews, I’ve generated a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Since having this knowledge confined in my own head does much less good than sharing it, I decided to compile a number of lists of what I think are the best learning games out there. These lists are, at the end of the day, completely subjective, although some of the selections have been picked up by a pretty systematic set of criteria I developed with some colleagues in the last few years. So your mileage may vary.

I will post the first listing – the best math games out there – in a day or two. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with what still in my opinion takes the Gold Medal, even though the game is already more than three years old.

Last summer, I had the chance to discuss learning games with a very impressive crowd of the people who know the field very well. I asked about what they thought were the best learning games. Practically all of them answered something along the lines of, “Well, do you know this game called Dragonbox? And let me think, there are some others as well…”

Dragonbox, the algebra game by a small Norwegian studio We Want to Know, is a really mindblowing example of what learning games can and will be really capable of. It’s about relatively complex algebra. Especially if you have small children, give it a go. You will be amazed.

More to follow.