A Golden Age for Educational Games

by Bill Ritchie, president and co-founder of ThinkFun®, Inc.

With this article I want to share my perspective as a game manufacturer.  I think we are on the verge of entering a golden age for games in education, and I’m excited to be a part of this as it emerges.

There are a lot of reasons for why this is so… the biggest one is Amazon.  Amazon has, in terms of the trade, radically shortened the consumer path to purchase.  Now, in a world where customers are online and on social media, if a person reads about one of our games and likes what they see, its click click and they’re on the Amazon page staring at the Buy Button.  This is so different than things used to be it makes me dizzy.

Robot TurtlesHere’s an example of how things have shortened.  In the summer of 2013, Dan Shapiro created Robot Turtles, a board game whose purpose was to teach his pre-school kids the principles of coding.  That fall he launched it on Kickstarter, Robot Turtles raised $630,000 and generated a mountain of press.  Dan’s business plan?  Have the printing plant send games directly to Amazon, have Amazon take care of the rest.

Industry experts proclaimed that Robot Turtles was too difficult and too overtly educational to make it in the commercial market.  We figured that the game would have trouble selling in traditional toy stores, but also we believed that the great publicity it was generating meant that lots of people would read then click right over to buy on Amazon.   So we licensed Robot Turtles from Shapiro in 2014.  And we were thrilled when The New York Times ran a front page article about Dan and Robot Turtles as an example of modern entrepreneurship, in May 2014!

Game ideas that used to be too radical to make it commercially, now have a chance.  A manufacturer can now target a niche audience with a more intense concept and then engage with the audience, if it works then the result becomes a story that can generate its own publicity which starts a virtuous spiral effect.

Our new music game Compose Yourself is the most radical product we’ve ever developed.  You start with a deck of transparent cards with musical notes printed on them (which you buy on Amazon); then you come to a special website we have created where you can hear each card being played as a recording.  Listen to the musical phrase, flip it over and listen again, rotate it… four different patterns of notes with each card.  Play with the music, combine the cards, try different patterns, and wallow in the music.

What is so special here?  Compose Yourself was created by world renowned music composer, conductor and cellist, Philip Sheppard. He wrote the music, then conducted every combination of all the cards, recording the sessions in Abbey Road Studio with Evelyn Glennie and a full symphony orchestra. Every single recording, 1,440 of them, sounds majestic and magical.

We showed a prototype of Compose Yourself to our best retail customers last fall, none of them thought that they could be successful with it.  We decided to do it anyway… so we are selling Compose Yourself exclusively on Amazon, our marketing strategy is to get a lot of publicity which will only happen if people really like it and start sharing their music with their friends.

We’re using this same concept to pack the education into our new Maker Studio open ended construction sets.  Players use household recycled boxes and bottles for the machine bodies and choose their own engineering challenges, that’s the play experience.  This is knotty stuff here… if it works it is a great way to develop independent thinking, creativity and perseverance.  Traditionally this play pattern wouldn’t work, it is just too strong to be commercially successful.

Our plan is to inspire a first generation of kids to make builds. We’ll showcase their best projects and leverage this into as much publicity as we can get.  We’ve lined up a seven year old maker as product spokesperson!  Have a look at her first teaser video, we’re so excited!:

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Do you see innovation in educational games?  Keep a look out… it’s going to be coming from everywhere.

Bill RitchieBill Ritchie is president and co-founder of ThinkFun®, Inc. A lifelong puzzle enthusiast whose passion drives the development of ThinkFun’s innovative products and education programs, Bill believes fiercely in the power of a great game to strengthen thinking skills and prepare kids for the challenges of the 21st century.

His pioneering efforts have led the development of innovative programs that stretch and sharpen the mind, and his partnerships with researchers and inspired educators all over the world are an important part of furthering this vision.

He is a member of the World Presidents Organization and the founding President of the World Entrepreneur Organization. He was the recipient of the “Sam Loyd Award for Lifetime Achievement in Mechanical Puzzles” from the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors and a featured speaker at TEDx.

  3 comments for “A Golden Age for Educational Games

  1. Dr Michael Jameson
    June 2, 2015 at 9:01 am

    St Albans Cathedral and Abbey Church congregants have been doing this since the 1970s with roseboard games and their predecessors. The latest in a series of paperbacks and .pdf email attachments is ready for publication. “Roseboard Games” was published in 2013 and is available from me as editor/collator of these original ideas, as is the monthly newsletter “Roseboard news”. The games and roseboards are owned by the Abbey and this has been successful in establishing Sir James Dyson’s principle that publication fixes who owns what. None of the games or roseboards are made or marketed yet commercially.

  2. Dr Michael Jameson
    June 2, 2015 at 9:04 am

    What “Required fields”? MJJ

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