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Penguins and the SATs: Interview With the CEO of LearnDistrict

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By: Stephen Crane (Photo:Penguemic: World Domination)

Educational games suck, right? I mean sure, many of us have fond memories of playing Reader Rabbit or Math Blaster or some other
combination of learning games out there, but we’ve grown out of them, haven’t we? They’re simplistic, and generally dull. Why sit yourself down to learn a skill with a game that is just going to bore you as much if not more than the actual textbook?

What if a learning game is made as a game first, though? What if it’s designed to be fun and perhaps a bit silly with the learning factor made incidental? That’s what the game designers at LearnDistrict are looking to find out.

On August 30, LearnDistrict launched their KickStarter campaign for their first game, Penguemic: World Domination. It’s planned for PC/Linux/iOS devices with the intention of teaching high school students the 100 most common words on the SATs/GREs/GMATs while being fun, age-appropriate, and engaging at the same time.

I recently took the opportunity to interview the CEO of LearnDistrict, Laila Shabir, and had an enlightening conversation about her plans for the game and where she came up with the idea.


Armed
Gamer: Let’s get this started then. So you’re the CEO and one of the founders of LearnDistrict. How did you guys end up coming together?

Laila Shabir: Well my husband is the other founder so us coming together is a longer story than how LearnDistrict came to be. The both of us have tutored for a long time and I actually wanted to go into academia. I was on my way to getting a PhD and then becoming a professor and changing the world one academic paper at a time when he stopped me and pretty much said “Well if you’re trying to have an impact and teach people, there are better ways.”

We walked through every other interactive media from documentaries to writing books to opening schools and then we finally came down to games because we’re both avid gamers. In fact, Ish (Ish is my husband and the co-founder) he played Halo professionally a couple years ago. 

AG:
Oh wow!

LS: So yeah, he’s really into video games. And I never imagined in a hundred years that I would be working in the game industry, so this is kind of a crazy place to be. 

AG:
Okay, so you guys decided you wanted to change the world and one way you’re going to do that is through video games. Why did you guys decide to go the indie route? Did you try to find funders beforehand? And why did you go with KickStarter?

LS: Not at all, actually. So indie gaming is something I didn’t… I didn’t even know it would be called indie gaming at that time. We were just going make our games and publish them and then realized oh, okay I guess that’s what indie gaming is; I guess we’re indie gamers now.

We were gonna make games we love, we’re gonna publish them. Awesome. People will play them – great, we’ll continue. We never thought about approaching the big whigs like that. Our goal is really to make high quality educational games that bridge the large divide that currently exists between entertainment like indie games, and education media that comes from schools andteachers and look like “gamified” lessons.

That’s still the stigma we’re fighting since we’re not on that end. When we talk to gamers they think we’re a bunch of teachers trying to make games, and when we go to schools they think we’re a bunch of gaming kids who don’t know what we’re talking about. 

penguemic 1AG:
So you guys just came back from PAX. How was that for you?

LS: It was fantastic. It was my first gaming convention. I’ve only attended educational conventions or startup conventions, but this one was insanely fun. I can’t even begin to tell you. On the fifth day when I woke up and PAX was over, I was like “My life has no meaning! There’s no more PAX!”

I’ve played more games in the past four days than I have in the past year. And I was on Twitch.tv, which was exciting! 

AG:
And I believe, while you were there, you got to meet with the folks at Extra Credits as well, which is kind of good timing considering their 
Games For Good Campaign on RocketHub which has [as of writing 3 days left] and is funded at $57k out of its goal of $50k. 

LS: Yes! What they’ve been doing, it’s really funny. After watching some of their videos, it’s really uncannily similar to what we want to do. And our KickStarter video, actually, when people watch it they say it reminds them of Extra Credits. And I say “No… it’s the other way around. We’re just really similar.” But it’s really true because we are gamers that want to make really good games that actually teach you instead of educational games. I wish there was a name for games that come out of the industry that do extra. I think that’s the Games For Good, campaign. I think it will fall under that umbrella.

I met with James and Dan, and they were really excited. James especially was really receptive towards what we were doing. He’s the head writer on Extra Credits and they had this innovation award that I think they were going to give out to someone else, and then James just said “Well you guys are doing a lot of good too, here take it!”

It’s this cardboard cutout that says “Extra Credits 2013 Innovation Award.” So that was really exciting, and we flew back with it. It was just the two of us, and the middle seat was empty so we put the award in that seat. It was the three of us heading home.

AG:
That’s fantastic! Do you have plans to work with Extra Credits in the future?

LS: We would absolutely love to work with them. You don’t find many people you can connect with on so many levels. James is an academic. He thinks about games more analytically than many educational game developers do, and I feel like we would both benefit from a partnership there. I’m still trying to get a podcast out there since we’re new and we’ve just launched. The beginning days are a bit harder but hopefully after the first game comes out, people will play it and we get some feedback about it. That’s when we would go approach them about it. 

penguemic 2

AG:
Alright, getting into your game let’s start with my big question: Why penguins?

LS: [Laughter] Why penguins? Well we’re all Linux fans so that’s one thing. The second thing is… well we were going to go with cats, but then it’s hard to… well cats have been a little bit overdone. We also really love Madagascar so remember those penguins? That’s kind of where the world-domination theme came from. Those penguins are really cute so no one will ever suspect them. 

AG:
What’s the design of the game going to be? It looks to me like it’s going to be words vs. words, or a mix and match card game?

LS: So at this point that’s the thing. We’re building the engine and it’s getting closer and closer to what the final design will look like, but it’s not so much words vs. words. The words vs. words thing only comes in when it’s a super-effective spell. The cards fall under three categories. You have enchantments, summons, and then spells. It’s starting to sound like Magic: The Gathering but it’s not.

You have enemies that are indigenous to whatever continent or country you are in. Each enemy: bear, kangaroo, panda, etc. represents an SAT or GRE word. These words are hand picked because they are the 100 most frequently occurring words on the SAT, GRE, or GMAT, so they have the added benefit of being the most effective if you want to study for your test. I digress.

Now you start out with three cards with an enemy approaching you. You have to pick either a summon, or a summon with some sort of enchantment if it’s not an exact antonym. So, for example, with a noxious bear the exact antonym would be ambrosial, which is sweet or fragrant. So poisonous vs. sweet or fragrant, they would cancel each other out and the bear would die. But if you don’t have ambrosial in your deck and you have something like iridescent which is multi-colored, you can add an additional spell on top of it which would make it more effective, but still not be fully effective so your penguin would still die.

The mechanics are still being refined, but we’re hoping to get the demo out within a week. We’ll be sending out a playable demo so people can get a better idea. We have some ideas in the house and we can’t put them all in. It needs to be fun first and educational second. 

 

Penguemic – Word Domination (Alpha Footage Teaser) from LearnDistrict Inc. on Vimeo.

penguemic 3

AG: This is obviously focused on high school students at about the sophomore or junior level. Do you have plans in the future (I know this is a long way away) to focus on other age groups or on a math game for SATs?

LS: Absolutely. We are a primarily a higher education gaming company because there’s enough going on for the kids from middle to lower elementary and below that. Our lower threshold will be high school. We’re excited about doing more complicated things, so for even college students. The average gamer is 26 to 30 years old and it would be fun to design more complicated games for them. We’d love to create games that we’d love to play. I’m 26, Ish is 26. If we wanted to play a game we’re not going to play something super simple. There needs to be a balance between fun, education, and enough challenge to keep me hooked to it. 

AG:
How long do you guys think development is going to take? I know this is always a tricky question to ask any developer.

LS: So with this one we want it out for this SAT season. We’re aiming for somewhere between mid-to-late October. The “mid” is me as the CEO saying “You need to get this out!” and the “late” is me saying “Okay, I understand, this takes time.” Definitely out for this season because there is only November, December, and January for the three tests left. Past that, there’s always the GRE and GMAT so they could use that in the spring. 

AG:
So today’s day 6
[Editor’s Note: as of the time of this interview] of your Kickstarter and you have already raised $14,000 out of your $50,000 goal. How hopeful are you of reaching your actual goal?

LS: We’ve been talking about educational games and the first SAT/GRE vocabulary game for a long time. We’ve had a lot of interest over the past several months even before the game was ready. We had paper prototypes that we were showing to teachers and students.

Now it’s just a matter of reminding them that “Hey, remember that game we told you about? It’s up on KickStarter!” Still, not many people are familiar with KickStarter or why it matters. They also think that if you raise $14k you’ll still get $14k. I have to go back and  – I’m just coming back from PAX so
this is my priority now –  tell people “Hey, we talked, you were interested, here’s your chance to buy it and help us make it.” So we’re pretty optimistic about reaching our goal. 

penguemic 4AG:
I know there are some educational games out there. Have you considered pursuing those?

LS: We want to. The tough part about a grant is you apply today and you get it two years from now. The easiest place for me would be to go back to MIT where I graduated. They’re really big on educational innovation. They have the game lab, for example. It’s even possible we might move the company there. It’s such a great place for education and gaming, but I still haven’t tapped into that. We’re a for-profit company, so we sort of get notched down since there are a lot of non-profits ahead of us. 

AG:
I saw someone backed you for $5,000. How excited were you when you saw that?

LS: We knew about that before. We actually had to create that for them. They approached us with “Would you actually create a game for me?” And we said sure, if you really want to. We’re not really a contracting business, but sure. It would probably take us two weeks or however long the design would be. So he said “Okay, well where do I give you the money?” And we said “Well we’re actually launching a Kickstarter campaign – here you go!”And we’re hoping more people do this because $5,000 for a project you’ve always wanted to see come true is actually a really good price.

My favorite reward is the $3,000 one where we fly you out and give you a 10 day boot camp. You get to see animation, illustration, development and you get a prototype by the end of it for whatever you wanted to make. I think it’s a really great way for people who are interested to get into game development.  

AG:
Absolutely, that sounds like a great idea. So your stretch goals start at $60,000 and go up to $100,000. Is there any goal you are really hoping to reach?

LS: I really want to get Android. I really really do. I think a lot of people would benefit from that. If we don’t hit it in this round, we will still try to do it but it will probably take us longer. The additional $10k would pay for development and we would hire one more person to help us with development for that time period. 

AG:
I’ve noticed a lot of indie developers have focused on PC/Linux/iOS to begin with. What’s the challenge behind Android? Why is that being left behind?

LS: There’s additional development, and there’s a lot of asset resizing. Android’s system makes it just a little less friendly. We’re using Unity, and Unity makes it easy to push out to PC, Linux – those guys. For Android there’s additional development required. It would be at least another week or two weeks of development. 

AG:
I know there are going to be some people who are really interested in this project but can’t afford to help fund you. What can they do to help you if they don’t have the money?

LS: Oh my god, what we want even more than money is to tell people about it. Right now, that’s the biggest problem. A lot of indie games really suffer from this. We don’t have a publisher, we don’t have a PR person or anything so people like you are helping us out a lot right now. So thank you! 

AG:
[Laughter] You’re welcome.

LS: And whoever you can tell: teachers or students or whoever would benefit from it the most. Obviously also gamers because it’s an interesting game. It’s a really unique mix, and I would love to see game developers follow suit: We’re making a great game; what can we teach with it? That’s the vision of LearnDistrict –  we want to get people to think about games as entertainment first and then whatever additional benefit you want to add second. Do you want to teach behavior change? Do you want to teach actual content? That should be the second layer.  

AG:
Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. Before we go, is there anything else you want to say or you want to shout out?

LS: Absolutely. Pretty much the last thing I just said. I would love to see more of my indie developers follow suit and make “games for good” as Extra Credits puts it. I think we’ve reached a point where a lot of people are looking at entertainment and interactive media as a forum for social change, and getting people interested in bigger things like global warming, or getting people food is very important. I think education is huge because in the past thousand years we haven’t progressed from the blackboard, and it’s starting to finally happen so it’s really really exciting.

 

AG:
Thank you again very much, and I hope to see your project fully-funded soon.

If you liked what you read, check out the Penguemic Kickstarter. Fund them, share their page, and spread the word! Also follow LearnDistrict on Twitter and Facebook.

penguemic 5

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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