“We have every sort of tea under the sun,” Kuato’s Director of Learning, David Miller, sagely assures me
From your average English breakfast, to strange concoctions unpronounceable without Google, this educational studio’s desire for the experimental clearly extends even to the teapot.
Nestled deep in London’s Whitechapel, Kuato prides itself on building educational games with a creative flair – alongside its well-stocked kettle cupboard.
The idea is that gaming and learning can be embedded together to become part of the same experience. Kuato develops rich 3D world where children and teenagers can find escapism, but also engage in what Miller terms “proper learning.”
Learnification, not gamification
“I have a background in education,” Miller says.
“I graduated in 1985 and have worked in different spheres of higher education from secondary schools to conservatoires, but from 2000-2008 I worked in secondary schools as an English teacher, and in 2008 I won the UK teacher of the year award.”
“I think that holds the record for fastest mention of teacher of the year award,” pipes up Kuato’s creative director, Kris Turvey from the boardroom’s speakers where he’s joining our meeting via Skype.
Miller is bashful. “I used to not mention it,” he shrugs, “but apparently it’s a thing that goes down well with a video game educational company.”
“I think I’ve got a bronze swimming certificate somewhere,” Turvey offers, which doesn’t impress quite as much as the fact that Kuato also holds a nominal base at the Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto.
These are the same people that developed Apple’s Siri, and Kuato gained the exclusive license to apply that technology to games education.
Now Kuato has grown to just under 20 employees, from a variety of backgrounds.
We’re fairly anti the idea of gamification because that encourages kids with rewards rather than encouraging an innate love of learning.David Miller
“We’ve got neuro linguistic programmers, we’ve got 3D artists, we’ve got animators, game designers, producers, the whole thing,” says Turvey.
“We’ve been going for four years, but before Kuato I used to work for an educational outreach program where we’d do music production, filmmaking and video game design with kids who’d dropped out of school, or were in gangs, or were youth offenders.
“While there I got really interested in using video games with kids, because we all know it’s one of their most passionate subjects. Certainly everyone in senior management has come in as much from an educational side as they have from a games side.
"For me personally, working with a bunch of unruly teenagers has been brilliant preparation for coming in and running a game development studio!”
So when coming up with a new game, does Kuato approach development from a gameplay angle or an educational angle?
“Right, so, not the latter,” says Miller.
“We’ve developed as a company ‘learnification.’ We’re fairly anti the idea of gamification because that just encourages kids with rewards and doing things in order to earn a badge rather than encouraging an innate love of learning.
“So early on we decided not to go down the curriculum route (where we believe many games companies go wrong.) If kids feel a game is too didactic then you’re just replacing a 19th century classroom teacher model with technology.
“We decided that we would much prefer to go down the route of skills, 21st century skills like collaboration and creative thinking.”
The idea is that if you start with a great game, you already have a great learning environment.Kris Turvey
He points to Dino Tales as an example.
The game captures screenshots of key moments of gameplay, and at the end of the session presents it to the child in a storybook. Children can read about what they’ve just done, and also change key words, verbs and adjectives in their personalised storybook so that they learn how language impacts on meaning.
“We didn’t set out to teach KS2 vocabulary building, but instead we teach through creativity and exploration and serendipity.”
Turvey chimes in, “the idea is that if you start with a great game, you already have a great learning environment. The kids are in a flow state of enjoyment, and enter into problems and solutions willingly.
“It’s about trying to seed that environment with learning, rather than trying to turn a subject into a game because you’re inherently going to probably come up with something boring. So with all the games we have this focus on skills and a drive on literacy. We see coding as a new form of literacy. There’s a bill going on in the States to make coding a language option in schools, so you can choose French or Spanish or coding. “
Code Warriors, for example, was developed by Kuato to teach coding as if it were a language. Players direct robots across a Chess-like grid using commands they type through code in an input box.
With more organisations calling for us to nurture young talent interested in the technology industries, has Kuato considered how it will encourage a new generation that includes female developers?
“It’s something that’s really important,” agrees, Turvey. “We had someone write a comment about Code Warriors recently saying ‘why have you made this game with robots? Why have you not made this game for girls?’ And it’s like, well, robots ARE for girls.
“I don’t believe in having to gender products saying things for girls have to be pink and fluffy. We need to destroy that notion that certain things are for one gender, and other things for the other with a girl verision and a boy version. It’s definitely something we think about. “
The result is games that are already being used in over 200 schools, teaching new skills to children of all genders, abilities, and backgrounds in the time it takes you to boil a kettle.
You can find out more about Kuato Studios and its games via its website.