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How TeacherGaming wants to become Steam for schools

For most of us, playing video games at school either meant taking every break opportunity to play on a handheld device or sighing at the sight of an umpteenth boring educational game. TeacherGaming aims to bridge the gap between the two, minus the boring part.

Co-founded by two teachers (American Joel Levin and Finn Santeri Koivisto) and a developer (Aleksi Postari), TeacherGaming started with Koivisto and Levin doing the same thing on two different continents: using Minecraft as a learning tool in their classrooms. Having joined forces, the three partners got Mojang’s blessing to develop MinecraftEdu, an educational edition of Minecraft specifically designed for use in the classroom. It remains to this day their most successful product, with thousands of schools using the software to teach everything from computer science to chemistry and storytelling.

Having showed thousands of teachers across many countries that video games were more than just entertainment, TeacherGaming sold MinecraftEdu to Microsoft in 2016. It also created the educational version of Kerbal Space Program and then decided to go even further, providing a platform for schools wishing to use games: the TeacherGaming Desk. This subscription-based platform gives access to the firm’s entire library (over 40 games), with a curriculum interface where teachers can pick topics, which then funnels the right game to the kids, with the teacher able to follow their progress.

“For example if you have a Kerbal license, you go to the desk, the lesson is there, with ready-made activities,” Koivisto, now TeacherGaming’s CEO, starts explaining. “They can just launch Kerbal, they don’t need to use our materials but they can also pick up activity ideas. If you pick, let’s say ‘Newtonian physics – Law II’, then automatically there’s a scenario in the game that would match that.”

Working hand-in-hand with traditional materials and teaching methods, video games in the classroom naturally boost the students’ engagement and benefits everyone involved, Koivisto explains.

“Starting from the very basic and obvious things: of course the academic side is important but raising a human being is another important part. I would say that schools have part of that responsibility and games are just such a huge part of people’s lives nowadays, especially young people, that we should address games in some way in any case,” Koivisto tells MCV.

He continues: “Because it’s such a huge part [of kids’ lives], it becomes a massive sort of leverage potential because then you can turn the informal side into more effective learning. You can connect through this medium both the informal side and the formal side. For me as a teacher if my only comment about games is ‘Don’t play so many games’, then teenagers would look at me and be like ‘You just don’t get it’ and then you lose the connection.”

Koivisto also advocates that teachers should at least take interest in games, if not able to use them in the classroom.

“Being interested and having some of your own experiences, being able to have a conversation about games with your students already has a big positive impact and that is typically strongest on the very weakest of students that don’t necessarily thrive in school but tend to thrive in video games quite often,” Koivisto says. “I would say that’s the first argument. That’s a very binary argument but I think that alone should be enough for anybody who cares – you know, pay attention to this stuff.”

NEWTON’S LAWS

Boosting kids’ engagement is just one of the benefits of using games in the classroom, but there’s more to it than that. This includes improvements to natural learning, cross learning, increased clarity and context and teaching skills outside of traditional school topics. The benefits are numerous and far-reaching.

“For example if you have attention problems, hyperactivity, things like that, when you are engaged you are much more able to focus, concentrate, sit down or actually be on task. So of course the engagement is a big part,” he continues. “Schools are often blamed for teaching things in silos and having no real impact whatsoever. You’re setting this module that in the worst case scenario is just sort of an island, whereas games can be much more, integrating many things, not only in school but outside.

“Let’s take Cities: Skylines, which is one of the very big games that we work with… It’s a game that naturally teaches all kinds of skills, for example problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. That skill development is often very well integrated but at the same time we want to implement curricular topics and themes, for example sustainability or CO2 emissions.

“So one great way of using games might be that you use your standard material about sustainability, but then after every lesson you say ‘You now have 30 minutes after school to play the game and integrate what you learnt during this lesson to the game’. So you don’t even have to use it in your class hours and you can still reap the benefits.

“It lets us more naturally put things in context and create purpose on difficult topics that we need to teach in school – physics being a great example. When was the last time you actually needed Newton’s laws in your real life? I mean, never,” he laughs. “For a teenager who is always struggling with this stuff, the reasons why we are learning this might not be very obvious. But games can provide that sort of platform and context where you can instantly find that type of information useful.

“Games really reinvent themselves, even if the game is something that the student has already pretty much exhausted at home. When there is an adult involvement and all your friends are playing the same game, it’s such a different context. So we have seen very positive reactions from the students in the classrooms.”

FINDING THE RARE GEM

TeacherGaming targets quite a variety of topics such as biology, languages or maths, with STEM, computer science and social sciences being its “sweet spots” Koivisto says. He once again mentions Kerbal Space Program and Cities: Skylines as good examples, as well as Positech’s Democracy.

We ask him if there are specific features in a game that make him think it would be a good fit for a classroom. He takes some time to think before answering:

“We don’t really like educational games… We have some for some borderline cases, of course – maths is very difficult to integrate or facilitate into a sandbox game. So in terms of gameplay it tends to be more maths games-like. Which is unfortunate but that’s typically the most approachable way of doing maths in a game. Now of course there are certain deal breakers, like if it’s a very violent game or if it introduces sexual content, it’s something that is hard for us to bring to the classroom.

“If there is a good game that first of all gives you freedom and flexibility to make decisions, experiment, be more of a creator than a consumer, that’s always something that is very nice for us. Something games do very well is to teach and integrate skills. But the skills, in order to develop, require that you can make mistakes and learn from your mistakes. Of course creativity is important as well.

“The best is if it’s close enough to realism and a factual side with the game mechanics integrating those in a natural way. So for example Kerbal Space Program: it’s an important part to understand about physics and Newton’s laws in order to make successful rockets. So it actually provides a very good context for you to first look into how physics work, understand a certain concept, be able to do a bit of maths around that and then you can really nail your design. So if the game mechanics and what we’re trying to teach align very well, that’s always something really nice.

“But also something that many educational games miss and lack is that the production values are just not there. It has been hard for educational game makers because you cannot expect much business to come to your game and then you need to put your price very high. I would even argue that the business is, in a way, broken. I would strongly advise everyone not to do educational games in this traditional format because the schools are not able and willing to pay without the production values that are really needed for the game media to work.”

That’s why TeacherGaming works very closely with developers to produce classroom-ready versions of high-standards games, rather than just delivering traditional educational games that could lack production value.

“We try to take everything off the developers’ hands because we know that everybody is very busy and I think developers’ time is best used when they are making great games and not educational versions of great games,” Koivisto says.

“So basically our ideal situation is where we get a full or partial access to the source code where we can make our necessary changes and the basic integration to our system and then where we can also deliver that code to our TeacherGaming app. The paperwork, reporting bug fixes and whenever we need help with the code, we try to be very transparent and connected with the developers.”

Studios wishing to get in touch to bring their titles to TeacherGaming can contact them via email or Whatsapp, Koivisto adds. “We’re very casual, so anyone can approach us at any time,” he smiles. “We are happy to have a discussion about all kinds of game ideas.”

STEAM FOR SCHOOLS

That brings us to discussing how TeacherGaming’s partnership with Paradox Interactive came about – and why other developers and publishers should be looking into publishing educational versions of their games.

“Paradox is a really nice match for us because they tend to focus on historical IPs, simulations, things that can be played for over 100 hours. And I would say that many things that I have learnt about history or city urban planning comes from Paradox games,” Koivisto laughs. “It’s also a small – or smaller – publisher so I would say that their decision making so far has been proven to be quite nimble and they have been a very flexible partner. Kerbal comes from Take-Two. We have been having conversations with them about other games and we have been having conversations with other publishers as well.

“Maybe the key point that I should mention is the value for the game developers. Many game developers and publishers are like: ‘Okay Steam and app stores are getting very saturated, where can we find users, where can we find the retention, people getting excited and getting to know our games?’ And I claim that quite a bit of that Minecraft hype, especially amongst the younger children, was built in schools. I mean for games like Cities: Skylines that’s the place where you get the first positive experience about that game and then it’s very likely that you go home and you buy the game.

“What kids are playing on their devices is not necessarily very high quality and it’s unlikely that we can reduce the amount of time they are spending with games but what we can do is to affect the quality of what they are playing. And so far every feedback from parents that we have been getting is ‘Thank you very much because now my kid is not playing Counter-Strike or GTA’ – which are both great games, I would say that, but at the same time for a 12-year-old, it’s maybe something they shouldn’t be playing. And now they are building rockets or castles with friends and parents tend to be very happy with this.”

Bringing games to the classroom is a win-win situation, with developers and publishers being able to find new users, while it’s also showing kids (and more importantly: their parents) the value of good games. Which is why TeacherGaming won’t stop here, as Koivisto has big ambitions for his firm, having raised $1.6m earlier this year.

“I guess our ultimate ambition is more or less to become the ‘Steam for schools’ which will be very different compared to what Steam is for consumers. But in a way Steam is a good comparison,” he says. “But especially what this fund helps us to do is to fine tune the retention and how we can build the features teachers really need, like easy access to connecting all of the content to a curriculum, easy reporting, easy for them to find the right content at a given time.

“But schools are slow in terms of making decisions and purchases. So that also gives us the time to really nurture the customers that are coming in and helping them to get started and then understanding how this is the best service for schools – is it the subscription model that we currently have or is it something else? Based on that, hopefully it gets you on a growth track and then we’ll be able to build a proper growth business.”

About Marie Dealessandri

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