Teacher by Day – Game Developer by Night

At E-Line, we’re often impressed by the games that teachers create to aid their students in learning. Martin Esterman, a teacher from Marietta, GA, is a great example. In 2012, Martin won the Educator Stream of the National STEM Video Game Challenge for his game, Addition Blocks, that helps students increase addition speed and accuracy. Since winning the Challenge, Martin has received a great deal of exposure for his game and was the recent recipient of a Channel 11 Class Act Award. In the Q & A below, we asked Martin to share information about what inspired him to create Addition Blocks and why he thinks games are beneficial for learning.

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Martin, thanks very much for being a part of this interview. Why don’t we start with you telling us a bit about your teaching life. What grade(s) and subject(s) do you teach? How long have you been teaching?

Martin:  Hey Kerri, great to talk with you again! Teaching is actually my second career. Originally, I was a software engineer for several small companies until I discovered how much I enjoyed working with middle-schoolers. Very clearly, I was led to leave the world of computers, and returned to school to earn my Master’s degree in Secondary Math Education. I’ve been teaching Math for 11 years, all at the middle school level, and primarily advanced students. I was recognized as a “Georgia Master Teacher” in 2006. Currently, I teach in a STEM Magnet program at Marietta Middle School, in Marietta, Ga. I absolutely love it, because I can combine my engineering & computer background with the math curriculum.

What inspired you to create the game?

Martin:  I was thinking about a way to make a game to practice addition of integers. The ‘Bejeweled’ /Pattern matching games were pretty popular, so I merged game play with finding sums as the ‘matching’. Pretty quickly, I put the game together, and basically never got around to implementing negative numbers! I liked the simplicity of the game using only the digits 1-9 and finding the sums, so the game just stayed ‘AdditionBlocks.’

Had you been using any games in the classroom prior to making you own? If so, what were your observations about games for learning?

Martin:  One of my goals for my classroom is to show my students that math can be fun. So, whenever I can, I bring a game or activity or project into the learning process. I use games to help practice whatever we are learning at the time. Most of the games I used early in my career were pencil-and-paper games or puzzles – one of my favorites is “Cross-Sums” (more popularly known now as Kakuro). I’ve made up games like “Percent Bingo,” where I give the students a decimal or fraction, and they have to turn the number into a percent.

Overall, I believe that playing games and doing puzzles as part of my teaching creates an environment where students can relax and have fun (if they *choose,* ha!); which makes the classroom very conducive to learning. Additionally, if I have ‘earned’ the credit that we will have fun in my class, then students are more responsive to the more rote work of lecture and class work when that has to be done. As a plus, I believe some of my middle schoolers actually begin to enjoy ‘doing math.’

How long did it take to make Addition Blocks? What sort of process did you go through? Had you ever made a game before?

Martin:  The very first version of the game took maybe 3 or 4 months working on weekends and over breaks. When I discovered the STEM Video Game Challenge, I took another 3 or 4 months and made the game more playable, adding the speed and difficulty options, implementing the achievement system, and fixing some bugs. Over the summer I spent a lot of time on the game, improving graphics, (more) bug fixes, and porting to HTML, iOS, and Android.

I have made quite a few games, as this is a hobby of mine that actually started when I was in middle school! I made a computer version of Kakuro (Cross-Sums) 6 or 7 years ago that I have my students routinely play. I also made a 4-in-a-row game based on the Factor Game for practicing integer multiplication. However, AdditionBlocks is the first game that actually went public, primarily due to the STEM Video Game Challenge and E-Line Media.

How often do you use Addition Blocks with your students? What sort of response have you witnessed?

Martin:  Since I teach in a Middle School Magnet program, most of my students are advanced learners, so I use the game as a warm-up/activator or after tests/quizzes when students have finished early. But I do have students who ask if they can play the game during class!

The response to the game from parents and teachers has just been amazing, and I’ve really been humbled. In fact, a few of my co-teachers are addicted to the game! Several other teachers have told me they have started using AdditionBlocks in their elementary classrooms. One parent has told me that she had her child play the game every day for 5-10 minutes, and has noticed an improvement in her child’s adding skills.

How can teachers begin using it now?

Martin:  First, understand the game is not intended to *teach* basic addition, but to improve a student’s speed and accuracy. If you see a student ‘counting’ to add (“5 + 3 is 5-6-7-8”) or using their fingers, their fluency is low, and they should start the child on the ‘slow’ speed and ‘easy’ difficulty…But, AdditionBlocks is really for anyone to increase their speed. Interestingly, students will also begin to see patterns with numbers and sums. AdditionBlocks can be used to show how ‘grouping’ by 10s will help in addition, especially when students get to higher sums in the game.

However, I think with any basic skill development activity, whether it is done with pencil and paper, or using AdditionBlocks, practice needs to be done routinely (2-3 times per week) for short periods of time (5-10 minutes). Students also need to see they are improving by charting or graphing their progress.

What does the future hold for Addition Blocks?

Martin:  I am currently working on the next version to be released early summer. I’ve contracted with a graphic designer and we are re-doing all the graphics. The new version will have 4 game modes, including a Practice Mode, and new achievements. Wait until you play the challenge mode! Ha! Anyway, ‘Like’ AdditionBlocks on the Facebook page for news and updates!

Do you have any other games in the works?

Martin:  I hope to have MultiplicationBlocks and IntegerBlocks completed this summer as well. The Product Game just needs some tweaking and bug fixes. I also have a couple of games for practicing decimals, fractions and percents – The Percent Bingo game along with “Percentominos.” Another game focuses solely on fractions that can be used to show equivalent fractions, comparing and even adding. I’ve got a lot of other ideas that I would love to see produced!

Thank you again, Martin. We look forward to seeing what happens with Addition Blocks!

Thanks, Kerri and everyone at E-Line! I really have enjoyed working with this company.

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Half the Sky Goes Mobile

Just as slavery was the defining struggle of the 19th century and totalitarianism that of the 20th, the fight to end the oppression of women and girls defines ours. In 2009, with the acclaimed bestselling book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn took on this urgent challenge and encouraged readers to join a burgeoning movement for change.

Funded by USAID, E-Line Media joined Games for Change in support of this mission to create three mobile phone games that tackle key issues related to health and gender equity:

Family Choices – Family Choices enhances the perception of a girl’s value to her family by emphasizing the importance of keeping her and her peers in school. The ‘choose your own adventure’ game allows players to explore the outcomes of a family’s choices related to a girl’s education, early marriage and family planning. Players decide whether Anu (in India) or Mercy (in Kenya) will ultimately achieve their dream of becoming a financially independent nurse.

9-Minutes – Players experience the adventures of nine months of pregnancy in just nine minutes. The game aims to introduce players to the key dos and don’ts of pregnancy by presenting players with a series of life choices (physical, medical and social) against the clock. The player’s choices determine the health and well-being of both mother and baby.

Worm Attack! – Worm Attack! aims to keep girls and boys healthy by defeating the dangerous worms inside their stomachs. Young players, their teachers and families work to rid themselves and their communities of infestation with intestinal worms in this fast-paced game through the strategic use of deworming pills.

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The games were executive produced by Games for Change, developed by Mudlark and published by E-Line Media, with Hindi language solution provided by Reverie Language Technologies. They have been downloaded over 30,000 times (as of March 2013) around the world.

Early on, Games for Change and E-Line Media reached out to NGOs – Deworm the World, Breakthrough, FilmAid and CEDPA – to integrate them into the development process. These groups helped conceptualize, define goals and provide content expertise. They also connected us with local communities to solicit feedback on art, gameplay, language and instructional content.

The games were released as part of USAID’s continued support of gender and family issues and their commitment to increase global awareness to bring about social change in the areas of health, gender equality and empowerment. They have been disseminated for use in India and East Africa by NGOs and more widely through in-country app stores (Nokia, Safaricom, GetJar, and Appia). The games complement a series of 18 short educational and advocacy videos on health and gender-related topics that were launched in September 2012.

A recent evaluation of 9 Minutes shows measurable positive shifts in knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions toward promoted safe pregnancy and delivery actions following exposure to the game. 608 female and 308 men participated in the study, which was conducted in India. Learn more about the evaluation methods and results here.

Being able to demonstrate effectiveness is of great importance in the impact games sector, especially when budget restrictions frequently don’t allow for deep and meaningful assessment. Results can then be converted into best practices and guidelines for building successful games in the global developement context.

Here are some key learnings:

Define your Theory of Change early in the design process.

Having a defined Theory of Change before starting your design phase is critical, as this will help define your impact goals (behavior change, outreach, learning, partnerships, etc.) and heavily influence design decisions on what to include or exclude from your game, localization, technology to be used, and expected gameplay behavior.  

Identify key local partners and content experts early.

Understanding and identifying who they are will benefit your development process and ensure cultural appropriateness. Partners (like NGOs) act as content experts providing guidance on game content, subject matter expertise, capacity to support real-world activities and localization efforts around the game. Make them part of your team. 

Design with the technology platform in mind.

Recognizing challenges and limitations of the selected platform will allow you to better accommodate real-life necessities, game expectations, and how to get your game in the hands of hard-to-reach audiences.

Test early on, involve audience and content partners to inform and iterate on design.

Focus on your audience (they are your “fresh set of eyes”) and engage content partners throughout the iteration process. Foster a culture of iteration, were refining your ideas and testing them again is core to potentially avoid development mistakes.

Be creative when it comes to distribution channels and create in-country capacity.

Penetrate the market with multiple distribution channels and consider how cultural particularities will impact game use and accessibility. Sometimes the simplest low-tech solution is the most efficient one. Think about leveraging existing infrastructure and use your local partners (NGOs) as distribution channels.

Analyzing a Rising Sector

In 2011, E-Line Media and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop united efforts to launch an initiative called the Games and Learning Publishing Council. The goal of the Council is to catalyze innovation and investment in research and curriculum-based digital games by developing a new type of educational, impact publisher devoted to creating meaningful, measurable learning impact and building a profitable and scalable business. The initiative uniquely leverages the game development and business creation expertise of E-Line Media with the policy leadership and industry convening expertise of the Cooney Center.

With the increased interest in games for learning, philanthropic organizations, government agencies and academic institutions are now investing significant funds and intellectual resources in promising game-based-learning research and development efforts. Unfortunately, very few of these initiatives have successfully crossed over from small scale innovations to sustainable products or scalable models in either formal or informal learning markets. As a result, private sector investors have been reluctant to help capitalize the sector. This has resulted in a funding gap that is constraining the growth of a new ecosystem of game-based learning products and services.

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The Games and Learning Publishing Council aims to understand the market dynamics and areas of innovation that are ready for scaling within the game-based education field. The Council, which is made up of a multi-sector leadership group of industry, research, philanthropic, policy and practice leaders, develops analytical tools, convenes experts and disseminates periodic reports to help raise the sector. Our work to advance games-based learning will also include multiple policy briefs and conference proceedings, all of which will be published on a new dedicated website that will be launching this summer. The new information service aims to help developers create effective and entertaining games by helping them understand the latest research in learning, game design and emerging platforms. The site also aims to help foundations, universities and venture capitalists make more effective investments in future projects by demonstrating what works and what doesn’t when it comes to both the development of educational games and the marketing of those games to schools, parents and others.

To see major activities of the Council’s first year, click here.

The Engagement Challenge

One of the key drivers of E-Line’s vision is to address the increasing lack of engagement with youth in school. School dropout rates across the country have reached epidemic proportions, and America is falling behind our competitor nations on math, science and literacy scores. As a result, the nation’s prominence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation faces a very real threat. Underlying this crisis are the following statistics:

  • 7,000 students drop out of school every day (more than 1 million every year)
  • 1/3 of public high school students fail to graduate
  • 1/2 of African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic high school students fail to graduate

While there is no single cause driving student dropout, one overarching factor is the lack of motivation and relevance most adolescents report in assessing their school environments. In a 2006 study conducted for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 69% of students said they were not motivated or inspired in school. They expressed feelings of being disconnected and bored, and doubted the real-world relevance of their classes. The economic and social impact of this problem is massive in terms of unemployment, public assistance and public health. A lack of education also has direct results on the stability of the nation and the potential for communities to thrive. As evidence, nearly 50% of African-American males who drop out of school end up in prison.

Game-based learning has emerged as one of the most promising areas of innovation in making academic content more engaging and relevant for America’s youth, and in promoting the types of skills demanded by growing numbers of employers. A recent white paper by the New Media Institute outlines the value of such learning. According to its author: “Harness the power of well-designed games to achieve specific learning goals, and the result is a workforce of highly motivated learners who avidly engage with and practice applying problem-solving skills.” Indeed, computer and video games have shown promise in promoting inquiry, literacy, creativity, collaboration, problem solving and system design skills needed to learn standards-based content, develop an understanding of STEM concepts, and build critical skills that are essential for preparing youth for successful high school completion, college success and, eventually, 21st century careers.

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Kids in Columbia, MD, helping each other learn with Gamestar Mechanic.

On the Road Teaching Youth Game Design

We believe that one of the best ways to support the games for learning ecosystem is to get out into the field and do hands-on work with youth. Since the very early days of Gamestar Mechanic, we’ve partnered with organizations who shared that goal. In 2010, we started working with the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards through their recently added Video Game Design Category. The Awards received a generous grant from the AMD Foundation to conduct game design workshops across the country and they asked us to be a part of the fun. Together, we ran several programs to introduce youth to the concepts of game design – core mechanics, game play elements, building balanced systems – and led hundreds of students through exciting physical and digital game making exercises. Not only was this an incredible way for us to see firsthand how youth interacted with Gamestar Mechanic, it also helped us shape the tools and content we would later develop.

In addition to working with the Scholastic Awards, we also were able to increase our On the Road schedule through two generous grants to the National STEM Video Game Challenge, for which we are a co-presenter along with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. These grants came from the Hive NYC Learning Network and the Institute of Museum and Library Services and  have enabled us to facilitate more than 30 game design workshops across the country since 2013 began.

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Youth in Independence, KS, making physical games.

The majority of these game design workshops have taken place in museums and libraries, which are making a large push to become innovative centers for 21st century learning. By adopting Maker Space like programs, these venues are re-inventing themselves to fit the demands of an ever-evolving world. For some youth, museums and libraries also the only places where they’re able to interact with technology, making this transition critical for the community at large. We have been very fortunate to be a part of this movement through our workshops series and are excited to continue to find opportunities to interact directly with young people.

BEM: Or Before E-Line Media

Even those who know us well sometimes don’t know that before there was E-Line Media, there was E-Line Ventures. E-Line Ventures was conceived by founders Michael Angst and Alan Gershenfeld with the vision of angel investing in digital media that could engage and empower youth. We wanted to create proof points of companies that could find the organic alignment between making money and making meaningful social impact. Based on these proof points, the plan was to raise a double-bottom-line fund focused on impact games and, possibly, other youth media platforms. We studied a number of media sectors and ultimately concluded that we could make the most impact with a primary focus on computer and video games.

After looking at more than hundred potential investment opportunities, it was clear that there is a gap in publishing expertise within the ecosystem of learning and social impact games. We found leading commercial game industry and educational publishers reluctant to embrace these projects because the risk profile is too high and the teams leading these projects lack certain core skills and assets required to support impact-focused games. Despite a growing number of venture capitalists that want to invest in the educational space, most projects lack investable management teams to attract venture capital. Until more experienced management teams demonstrate evidence of market traction or can refer to success stories in the sector, venture investors will continue to watch from the sidelines.

This is a visual that summarizes what we observed:

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To help realize the potential for digital games to make meaningful learning impact and to help scale the overall sector, we felt we could be most effective as a publisher of game-based learning products and services. Our E-Line Ventures investment approach became the E-Line Media publishing approach, with a new goal to create a double-bottom line company founded specifically with the mission of scaling research-based learning platforms in a manner that balances financial sustainability, affordability, and reach to underserved communities. We hope that we will create commercial proof points as well as methodologies that can help rise the overall sector of game-based learning and ultimately positively effect more youth.

The Blog Launches

In the last five years since launching E-Line Media, we have witnessed an incredible shift in perspective about the value of games for learning. Supported by a wealth of research and strong quantitative and qualitative feedback, the educational system has come to embrace games as an incredible way to motivate students’ interest in a variety of learning areas. Here at E-Line, we have been extremely pleased and encouraged by the number of teachers who have excitedly adopted Gamestar Mechanic, our first game-based learning product that has now been used by more than 350,000 youth and is in over 4,000 schools and after-school programs. We have also been excited to see the number of very strong learning games that have emerged from academia, organizations and studios focusing on educational and social impact games.

While we continue to see the power of games explored in a variety of positive ways, we believe that a place is necessary where we can share the many ideas, perspectives, tools, resources and research that are available and that will become available. We hope this blog will be just that. We are modeling this blog after a lab – a place for exploration, discussion, trial and error. We encourage those who are interested in games for learning or who are participants in the space to be contributors to this site. We look forward to building it with you.