(This article was originally published on MacGamer in December 2010.)
How do you make learning fun? For Margaret Johnson, CEO and co-founder of Sabi Games, the answer to that question came when her daughter had major surgery and was playing Xbox games during her recovery. Johnson was a member of Microsoft’s Xbox team at the time, and she had long struggled with figuring out a way to create a game that was more than simply an “interactive worksheet,” as she describes typical education titles.
“I saw the power that games have with kids, that feeling of success when they complete something,” Johnson recalls. “And I saw that in my daughter.”
Inspired by that experience, Johnson led a Microsoft research team tasked with figuring out how to bring that sense of empowerment to an educational game. The technology giant eventually decided to end the project, so Johnson and some of her team members left the company to form Sabi, whose name comes from “sandbox interactive.”
The group brought along seven patents, including a crucial one that forms the foundation of Sabi’s first title, ItzaBitza: Living Ink, which brings children’s drawings to life and lets them interact with their work. “Researchers told us drawing recognition was too hard of a problem to solve,” Johnson says. “That just made our engineers want to solve it even more. They said: ‘What do you mean it can’t be done? We’re gamers – we can do anything!’”
“We looked at Living Ink from the standpoint of ‘How do kids learn to draw?’ and started from there,” Johnson relates. “We also purposefully avoided school curricula. We worked with people like Dr. John Bransford, a University of Washington Professor of Education and Psychology, who helped us create a new learning model. We wanted to figure out how to change behavior so that learning is a byproduct of play.”
ItzaBitza stars Sketchy, who asks children to draw things that he or she (depending on Sketchy’s gender, as chosen by the child) puts to good use. For example, Sketchy will grow or shrink to fit into a house. Then Sketchy will ask the player to complete a task to earn a star, such as drawing additional items for Sketchy to use, or finding hidden objects.
Speech bubbles containing simple words also appear. When the child holds the mouse over each word, Sketchy says it, enabling the child to not only identify those words but also understand the concept of reading words from left to right, top to bottom. As children draw objects and point at words, they also develop valuable computer mouse skills.
As children complete tasks and accumulate stars, they unlock new areas of Sketchy’s world. ItzaBitza features five environments: Home Sweet Home, Let’s Go Camping, Play in Space, A Farm Life, and A Very Scary Haunted House.
Johnson notes: “A lot of parents who don’t get gaming want to help their kids with the tasks in ItzaBitza, but you have to let them figure it out. It’s like Call of Duty: you pick the wrong weapon and you get killed, so you figure out which is the right one. You can learn problem solving skills from games and apply them elsewhere in life.”