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39: From Legos to Dopamine Rewards-Based Learning Games with Adam Gordon of Andamio Games

Published June 23, 2020
Run time: 00:59:28
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Solving the technical challenges to make learning fun is the specialty of Andamio Games, and its President, Adam Gordon, joins the podcast to chat about the unique infrastructure challenges educational game developers face, from funding to design to feedback. Adam shares why partnering with textbook manufacturers might not be the panacea Tim thought it would be, how to incorporate feedback from both educators and students, and what grants can do to boost your organization’s chances of success.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How to navigate multiple feedback loops
  • How different generations use devices and the importance of understanding this when designing your app
  • The importance of creating a sustaining revenue model not reliant on grants
  • How to use game mechanics to accomplish learning objectives

This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.

Recorded May 15, 2020 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski

Show Notes:

Episode Transcript:

Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at all things technical. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.

Today we are interviewing Adam Gordon of Andamio Games. Andamio's mission is to build engaging and effective learning experiences for educators, students, and health professionals. And they've created some really cool games like iNeuron, which teaches students how to build neurological circuits, which help them understand, for example, how the brain gets the bicep to flex. In this episode, we discussed the conversation at a Lego competition which led to the creation of Andamio games, the unique infrastructure challenges that an educational game designer faces, why partnering with textbook manufacturers might not be the panacea I thought it would be, how to incorporate feedback from both educators and students, and what grants can do to boost your organization's chances of success. So without further ado, here is my interview with Adam Gordon.

Adam Gordon, welcome to the show.

Adam Gordon 1:15
Oh, I'm so glad to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Tim Bornholdt 1:17
No, thank you for coming on. I'm excited to get to learn more about you and about Andamio Games. Tell me about your history and and tell me about everything that could have led to the creation of the company.

Adam Gordon 1:29
Sure. Well, I've got to start with our parent company, Adventium Labs, kind of the smartest women and men in the room, a lot of ex-Honeywell software engineers solving big problems of national security, cyber security, artificial intelligence. And a neuroscientist from the University of Minnesota approached one of them actually at a Lego competition and said, Hey, I've got this idea for this neuroscience game to help high school teachers start to introduce students to neuroscience, because I think it's so important and we all need to start learning neuroscience earlier. And they started looking at it. And she wanted to build these solid models. And finally, he just said, you know, we're software engineers, we don't make solid things. We make software, and there's this great new product out that all the schools are shortly going to be using. And we think we can design something, and it's called an iPod Touch. So everyone's going to be using iPod Touches, you know, next year, every single student will have one in their pocket. So we will design a way of creating a game where the students are functional neurons and they'll connect to each other iPod to iPod and in that way, they'll have this physical experience of it, but they'll kind of learn that really neurosciences is just a connection science from, you know, the brain to the muscle or whatever. So they said, Well, that's cool.

And this Adventium Labs is primarily funded by government contracts and Small Business Innovation Research grants. They've done a lot of work with the DOD, but they got a grant through the National Institutes of Health that was specific for science education. And so off they went and they collaborated with this professor Jan Dubinsky, who's a internationally known educator in neuroscience. And she had a program for teaching teachers so we took her know-how, and on our side, applied the engineering to it. And along the way, we built a platform for rapidly iterating games, when you're subject matter experts was not a game designer. So how would we do something like that? Well, we asked this professor who was not very tech savvy, what technical, you know, software do you use? She said, Well, I use Word, and I use PowerPoint. So they created a template for her to create her content on PowerPoint to use the alt text to put in certain tags and to rapidly iterate touch based games using, kind of ingesting PowerPoint as the source and and from that we've eventually created all our games, but always starting with the idea, what is the learning objective and off we go.

Tim Bornholdt 4:49
Yeah, well, it's awesome that you're able to build some software that anyone can use, any educator can use to create games and create a way to make their environment, their material more easy to learn. When you first got started with building out the first game, you said you had the engineering resources in house, is that how you were able to actually build out the game? Or how was that first process of actually sitting down and figuring out like, how are we going to go about actually building this idea that we've got?

Adam Gordon 5:25
Right. So the engineers at Adventium could not be called mobile device software engineers. They really were platform architects, smart people who could create a framework for creating such a thing, including libraries, ontologies, all these things. How are we going to, knowing that when you create a game, you don't want to code it every time from start to finish, that you're going to iterate. You're going to create a version, put it in front of people, they're going to play it, some things are going to work, maybe only 5 or 10% of the things work and you throw away the rest and you keep going. But you don't want to start from scratch every time. So these engineers were really good at creating that platform. We collaborated with a local firm called MentorMate. They're an internationally known firm now for creating mobile games. So they're the firm that took what we did internally, that created an XML output and translated that for mobile devices and really created a commercial ready product for us. But the initial steps, the game design, the how we wanted it to work, and then coding and Swift eventually for the iPad, was done inhouse.

Tim Bornholdt 6:55
Sp how is it, I am sure you haven't worked on like big platform games or anything like that, so I know it's hard to answer, but what's the difference between building like educational games versus other games? I'm sure that there are certain things that are unique about building specifically educational games. Do you have any insight as to what those things might be?

Adam Gordon 7:19
Well, the top two that come to mind is you start from, what is our learning objective? And you start by sitting in a room with teachers who are teaching a specific subject, and you try to drill down to where do they need help. I mean, you don't want to build a game, an educational game, for something that's already being well accomplished. So what's the point? Teachers are doing their job and since they are the people who will implement it, if they're already doing just fine with it, they're not going to go look at software. So you need to find both a hard critical subject, something like, for example, our second game Photosynthesis, which is kind of the backbone of so much for many subjects that maybe students find difficult for a variety of reasons. Maybe it's boring, maybe they don't see why it's relevant to them. And finally, teachers need to say, you know, this is a hard thing to do.

So, in the course of going out and introducing and selling iNeuron, which was our first game, I talked to a lot of teachers. They said, Well, we don't teach neuroscience and I said, Well, what do you teach them? What do you need help with? And I was talking to a lot of biology teachers, and it kept coming up, photosynthesis and cell respiration. If you could create a game that would be great, you know, so I start to hear that and then I dug in a little more. Why is this hard? Why is it a hard thing to teach? So that's the starting point. I don't think when you're playing a game, when you're playing a big, you know, multi user game of Fortnight or something, you're worried about a learning objective. You're thinking about game mechanics, you're thinking about win state, you're thinking about a whole other number of things that they don't even enter the equation for us for a long time.

The second piece is acknowledging that there is no business model that supports educational games that anyone has figured out. That's the other part of it. Like as I came in, Oh, this is great. They're gonna find this, they're going to use it. There's this growing user base. There's, you know, all this budget, this or whatever. But the reality for selling the schools is this: unless the people who spend money are at the district level, and in order for them to even have a conversation with you, you have to solve a district level problem and we were only selling a subject level problem, maybe a classroom level problem. So we could do the thing. And this is what we have done, where we're selling at a level where an individual teacher from their budget or from their credit card, and I don't feel good about that, could say, Hey, we can afford this game and this will create this experience for our kids. But if you want to build a business in education, you need to need to solve a district or, at least, you know, building level problem so that you're talking to people with enough authority to make a purchase that could sustain you as a company. And there are some big companies that have built games that have not figured this out and have gone away that were backed by lots and lots of money.

And so this is why we started out with, Well, we've got to get government funding. So we started with two grants from the NIH. Then we got two grants from the National Science Foundation. And then coming back to SoberSloth, which we'll talk about later, we got two more grants for from the National Institutes of Health. You need to be strategic about those, and I can talk about those relationships later. But as you're building a company, you're also satisfying the requirements of a grant. So it's kind of a, it's a whole other kind of model than building a game and either, you know, attaching, in app purchases or something else to generate revenue.

Tim Bornholdt 11:40
So it sounds like, I mean, I was in school 10 years ago, but when I was in college, it was like, textbooks. I'm sure they haven't gotten cheaper by any stretch of the imagination, and I'm sure that they haven't gotten more effective in terms of transmitting information and actually helping students learn anything. It's crazy that there isn't, you know, teachers and maybe the administration hasn't pushed for finding games, like the ones that you build that you could use to replace or supplement textbook learning. I can't imagine that I've just come in with a silver bullet and saved this industry. Would that ever be like a possibility where you'd be able to supplement like what the textbook industry is doing? Or is that like what they're doing is the macro of the whole curriculum, and what you're focusing on is more of like, the lessons within the major curriculum?

Adam Gordon 12:41
Sure. Well, the textbook industry is its own thing, and I'll touch on that in a second. So the vision, the early vision of creating the platform, which we call Forge for creating these games, was to transition from PowerPoint to app, but there are, I'm going to forget right now, but a lot of Fortune 500 companies use just such software to create mobile apps that are really just swipe and tap, swipe and tap. If you want to start creating more rich interactions and engagements, that's a hard leap. You're really talking about building a new interface besides PowerPoint to create that. But the other thing is, as we have gotten into each subject, we've tackled neuro, the neurobiology of addiction, we've tackled photosynthesis and cell respiration and then the basics of neuroscience. Each subject has this different set of requirements and the metaphor that you come up with. So for example, the metaphor of neuroscience was connection. And we can drag two pieces together and make a connection. And our innovation was, Hey, Tim's going to have an iPad, Adam's gonna have an iPad, they're both going to see the same connection challenge. And they're going to collaborate on the solution. And when they collaborate on the solution, each with their own iPad, they're going to be forced to talk to each other. And in that forced interaction, they're going to start to use the vocabulary, they're going to start to teach each other, they're going to have some fun. So that was the thing that, you know, that was the metaphor.

There is no such metaphor for our cell energy. And as we were rolling out cell energy, we're like, well, what's the key interaction? It turns out that the teachers really wanted students to be able to go into a sandbox, an experimental sandbox, and to design, to experiment and to design it wrong, and that be okay. They said, We can't let our students design wrong experiments. We have to essentially give them a recipe, and they follow it. And so they don't really learn how to build an experiment. But with your app, they could build it. And you know, three weeks later, all their plants aren't dead. They're dead right now. And they have to go back and adjust, right? So this was what they wanted. So we built this virtual lab that went into a notebook with graphing capabilities. That was the, you know, not really a game metaphor, but that was the secret sauce of that. So you can see how different those two things are. We couldn't just build a engine that does both of those things kind of in an automatic way. And so that's a difficulty. But all of that said, you know, our holy grail is connection with a textbook company that has lots of content, but say it's biology and we've talked to quite a number of people. We haven't figured out how to make the money right on this.

But let's say you're teaching biology. And let's just say there's a dozen key concepts like photosynthesis, like genetics, that you could give a deeper dive and a way of really cementing both mastery and memory of some key concepts. This is what games are good for. The science is settled on games as learning tools, like you can go search like what are games good at. Well, they're really good at some specific things that are needed for education that are hard to do without kind of boring your students to death, repetition, you know, learning a new skill, mastery of a process or a you know, a series of steps. Games are really much better at that than a textbook and in contextualizing.

So for example, instead of just saying when there's more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, plants actually grow better, we can run a multi year study through our app at various periods in history, using data from those various periods of history at various locations on the planet. A student can set up as an experiment like that, something you could never do in a classroom. But it's still a valid experiment. Here's the data and the location for, you know, growing these tomatoes in Peru or whatever. And then look at it over time. So these are the things you can't do in a textbook that kind of create these "Aha" moments. But, you know, the textbook companies are in their own pain right now. They've gone through major, major transformation and change in the last decade, and they still have not figured out their models so they're not really in a position, as much sense as that makes pedagogically, as much sense as it makes for an end user to use games, it doesn't make business sense to them yet. And we haven't built our platform out, you know, certainly seven figures to take Forge and make it so that an end user could just plug in some information and output a game like that, you know, it's just not that easy. It still takes a fair amount of, we still need a software engineer running the platform.

Tim Bornholdt 18:46
Well darn I thought 10 minutes into our conversation we would have solved this problem but I was wrong.

Adam Gordon 18:52
My problem, your problem? Yeah.

It's an interesting problem that some very smart people have been working on. And I'll also say when we started out, there was no iPad. Then the iPad came along, we thought, oh my God, this is it. So we shifted everything over to the iPad. Well, so we apply for a grant in 2015. And at the time, iPads, were already starting to lose market share. But right when we did our application, they were still dominant. Well, by the time we got to the end of our grant, two and a half years later, it's all Chromebooks. Right? And that's a whole different environment, with much less interactivity, almost no school Chromebooks have touch. And we've kind of hung our hat on touch as the way to, you know, really create what we call a constructivist model where if you're a student and I put you in a position to build the thing, you are actually building your knowledge. And the best way to do that is by touch, not by you, you know, writing it out or typing it out, so we're in the midst of that transition now too.

Tim Bornholdt 20:13
I would assume, you know, your key mission is to help students learn.

Adam Gordon 20:20
That's right.

Tim Bornholdt 20:20
And i would assume it's not quite as dramatic as saying, you know, by any means necessary but in a sense, it's, you kind of got to go to where you know if all those schools are being outfitted with... I volunteer at a middle school and they have one tray of MacBooks but those are kind of the coveted, you know, you got to be one of the cool teachers to get that cart. And everyone else gets stuck with these lousy Chromebooks that have been there for a couple of years and every year it seems like they get more and more locked down with what you're allowed to do on them and they also get more and more, like the students I watch them walk around the room, like grabbing them by the screen, just carrying them around like it's a piece of paper, you know. So I would assume that investing in a fleet of iPads, I can imagine that you just kind of have to work with what you got from your perspective, just kind of like you said, Go to whatever tools the students have at their disposal. But that kind of stinks when Chromebooks don't have touch inputs.

Adam Gordon 21:23
Right. So we're, you know, in the midst of transitioning over to an entirely web based developed delivery, using Amazon Web Services as our backbone for delivering that through the cloud. And, you know, we're transitioning over some really amazing interactions and trying to figure out how can we make them not horrible? If all you have is a touchpad that you're using, like, how can we create an interaction that's still kind of fun and intuitive. And because they're in that environment, they're kind of used to it. And it's still a whole lot better than anything that they're using right now. But there's a level of pain, having lived with an iPad, which is really kind of, you know, it's not an equitable device. It's not like every kid in the country gets to have an iPad. And so we were also thinking about equity, like, how can we build something that everyone can use, whether they've got a phone, a Chromebook, or an iPad, or whatever. And so we really have to go to web based. And we probably, you know, me as the guy who's been running this company, if I made any mistakes, it's that as soon as I saw this turn in the market, I should have just, I should have done a major technology pivot and I didn't. I stuck with the iPad longer than I should have. So now we're playing some catch up.

Tim Bornholdt 22:26
Well, I think sometimes it's good to at least try to double down and make things work. But at the very least, you're making that pivot now.

Adam Gordon 23:12

Tim Bornholdt 23:12
And I think it is really important. Like there's not only hardware issues, but also connectivity issues. Is that something that you're like, when you're building out web tools like that, that'd be the obvious advantage of a native mobile app would be that the student could download it, and it would be on their device. And if they didn't have a network connection at home or whatever, or if you were out in the sticks and didn't have fast broadband connection, that wouldn't be a problem, but with the web based solution, is that something that you're working on is trying to make sure like connectivity is... Even looking at schools like the connection, the network connection in schools is terrible, too. Is Is that something that you're taking into consideration also with the equity side of things?

Adam Gordon 24:02
You're hurting my heart right now.

Tim Bornholdt 24:05
Like, I'm a horrible interviewer.

Adam Gordon 24:06
And it's only 9:30. It's too early to start drinking. So here's the thing, one of the beautiful things about our iPad games is we didn't have to worry so much about things like student privacy, because really what we were doing is saying, Hey, our app, once it's on that device, we've created a dashboard for the teacher so the teacher can see what's going on. But it's all using the local wireless; it does not connect to the internet. So once it's there, you're using it, and let's say you're a kid, you take your iPad home, when you come back and connect to the local wireless, all that data just goes to your teacher, not to the internet, just through the local. So we built this very intentionally to work exactly that way.

So now, you know, the bet we're taking is looking at the trend in middle schools and high schools in this country, which is the level of science that we've been teaching and just saying, Hey, you know, 70% penetration of devices is Chromebooks. Now this is not, you know, it's not optional. Now we've got to go there. And we're just going to have to say this game is going to be played at schools and they're going to worry about that connection. We just, you know, we make our game as skinny as we can, so it's not a resource hog. But at the end of the day, we can't solve a national infrastructure problem. We're trying to solve the problem of someone learning photosynthesis and cell respiration, but if you are an educational game designer, you''ve got to think about all this stuff.

As we shift our conversation to SoberSloth, which is what we're building right now, it's a game that teaches the dopamine reward system and its role in addiction and recovery to adolescents who have substance use disorder. And we didn't want to build an app that would only be used by people who could afford say, Hazelden, Betty Ford or that kind of thing. We wanted to build an app that could be used by any adolescent and maybe even those who weren't able to get into treatment but would come across it through other means. More and more health insurance is trying to treat substance use disorder earlier on through primary care physician. So could we build a tool that they could use that they could deliver to their patients when they need it? So as we've been building that we've been very careful not to, you know, build an avatar that's a white kid or a black kid or an Asian kid or anything like that. Instead, we created sober sloths, because the sloths and any mammal has the same dopamine reward system. But as we started thinking about, Okay, who's our character going to be, we're like there's no way we can make this equitable so that this kid, you know, in the Pine Ridge Reservation sees a character that looks like them and this kid in Houston sees a character that looks like them and can relate to them, right? So down to the level of game design, we're thinking about equity, about cultural responsiveness, right out of the gate. I'll be playing a game on my phone, and then I'll get an ad for another game. And so often, it's this buxom white woman, you know, and like they're just going right for that. Do they know who I am? Or whatever? You know, I don't know. But are they delivering a different ad to different people? I can tell they're not worried about the same things we're worried about. I'll put it that way.

Tim Bornholdt 28:11
So, yeah, I was gonna say if you're building like Angry Birds or Candy Crush, you're not necessarily focused on being like a good steward, first of all, a good steward of anyone's time. Or, like trying to figure out how to advance a cause. It's like you're just trying to get people to pull the slot machine lever a few more hundred times so that you make more ad money. Like this has never been a hard hitting interview show, so I feel terrible that I'm bringing up all these dark moments for you, because I know that it's terrible how, when the people that are trying to do good and help educate, it's like even just talking about like teachers' pay and things like that. It's like, it's such an uphill battle that you have to fight. But I would assume, you know, a lot of the drive would come from actually seeing some of the results of your work and seeing students actually learning.

And that was one question I wanted to bring up was, you know, when you're building a typical mobile app, you have a good feedback loop of, you kind of alluded to this before, you know, you build something, you bring it to the users, they give you feedback, you get out the stuff that they don't like, and you put in more stuff and you keep going that way. I would think that you've got kind of two feedback loops that you have to deal with here, the educators to actually get, you know, the material across and then as well as the students to make sure that it's actually not like an eye rolling type of situation for them, as most students would attest to with technology. So how does that feedback loop work for you and how do you actually incorporate all that feedback from all those sources?

Adam Gordon 29:58
Yeah, a hundred percent, Tim. So we start with the teachers. We start with before we even have an idea of how the game might go, we've collected our team, our subject matter experts, and then one of the people on our team has always been an education expert. A friend of mine, Barb Billington, teaches Science at the University of Minnesota and I brought her on because I needed someone who speaks that language, but also knows every science teacher in the state of Minnesota. And it's literally true. I go to a science teacher conference and I say, Hey, Barb, can I hang out with you for an hour and walk around? And we can't take two steps and she knows everyone, so this is key, because you have to recruit teachers, who have no time to like go to the bathroom. You have to recruit them to come sit down, look at content creation, feedback. And you do that a lot at the beginning.

So in our phase one, we would have three, four different iterations. We bring them together, give them food, wine, a gift certificate to Starbucks or whatever. But they would come and they would volunteer their time, because they're passionate, you know, and you'd get these smart people and a lot of them are young, but there are some veteran teachers in the mix, too. And then, here's the funny thing, once we start iterating on the game, they're just dying to give us feedback on game mechanics. And we write it all down beautifully, but we ignore it. And I hope none of them listen to this because they have no clue about, and I don't either, about how these kids these days actually will use the app. And they'll say, Well, I need some instruction here or whatever.

So then when we put it in front of kids, they literally never need any instruction at any time in our games. Maybe just like the very first, like, what's the game mechanic? And once they have that, they never ask for help. Whereas if I put it in front of someone who's my age or a teacher, they're like, Oh, well, you're going to need to provide this kind of user manual or whatever. And we write it all down. Oh, thank you. That's good feedback. But what we need from them is, what do you need help teaching? And is our content hitting the mark? And then we use those same teachers, we say, Hey, can we visit your class now? We'll bring pizza or donuts or whatever, and you find times within their schedule, so it's like, in the middle of the winter or it's after their final exam, but before the year is out, and you say, Hey, can we come in? And they're just dying to have something else to engage their kids and we come in, and we watch them play, we ask them question about it. They're pretty honest. They're not trying to please us. A kid will tell you, Well, no, that wasn't fun at all. Or they'll say, I wish you could do this. I wish you could do that. And that is money right there. And so then we try to incorporate their wish for how the gameplay would go into the subject matter, and we try to come up with something that's kind of fun and engaging.

So in Cell Energy, it seems kind of silly, but after you finish each level, you're put into this kind of outdoor patio that you trick out over time. So you finish the one and you do something and if you solve a puzzle that's related to that theme that you're presented with right there, it's kind of a summative test if you will, but they don't know it's a test. So you solve that puzzle. Then you get coins. We call them ATP coins, which is part of biology. And then they use those coins to buy something. So it's this little game mechanic that they really love that has no learning outcome. But it's just got a little bit of extrinsic motivation for them. We've always had points, our first game had these points, they meant nothing, you could do nothing with them. And it was the most important thing to these kids more than anything else was these points, how can I get more? And so we put in a little bit of risk in it, you know, gamble 500 points, we're about to ask you this question. How much do you want to risk on it? This was their favorite part of the game, right? So this is where the dopamine comes in.

So anyway, so we go from teacher to classroom, and when we're doing the classroom, we do it pre and post test as well, because with all of these studies, we are eventually doing research and we have to prove a hypothesis. Our hypothesis is this game will improve the uptake of this information, will get them more engaged in science, you know, those kind of things. And then we have to figure out how are we going to measure that? And so in addition to the game, we also say, did the game work from an educational standpoint? So there's all these different parts. You can only do that with kids. You can't make that up, a bunch of, I'm not using this pejoratively, but a bunch of old people in the room figuring out what kids are like, right? And some of the old people in our room are just barely out of college age and some are older like me, but you know, you see what I'm saying? Like you've got to have the end user.

What's hilarious is you hand an iPad to an adult, they grab their index finger, and they start tapping and swiping. You hand an iPad to almost any kid, and they hold it with two hands and they use their thumbs to navigate, right? And over and over and over again, like, well, that's a huge difference in designing the interaction. So if you design for that and hand it to an adult, they're gonna say, Oh, this doesn't work. Right? So it's an interesting problem. And it's fun. You can tell that I really enjoy navigating this problem. It's kind of fun and hilarious.

Tim Bornholdt 36:31
So it reminds me a lot of there's a, I don't know where the origin of it is, but there's this meme of Steve Buscemi walking into a high school and like, he looks like he's, you know, clearly 60 years old, but he's wearing a backwards baseball cap and carrying a skateboard and he says, How do you do children? And, it's like, that's exactly the vibe that I get whenever I do Technovation and volunteer to help teach the girls how to code and that's, I don't think I'm that old until you walk into a middle school, and you get put in your place really quickly about how old you are. And so yeah, I can see that.

And the other thing I can see that you have when we were talking about games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush and it's like that's the type of thing that the students are interacting with all the time. And that's kind of their level of expectations of how games work and how you interact with devices. And I would assume that that's something that you have to take into account, not necessarily mimicking gameplay or you know, like having to go into like download Fortnight and play that and study it or Minecraft or whatever, you know, whatever the kids are playing these days, but I would assume that watching the students interact with those types of games that will also influence how you have to design your games. Because you don't want to, as much as we all loved Oregon Trail growing up, I'm assuming if you put something like that in front of them, they would get it eventually, but things have evolved so much in the last 20 years that you just have to, I would assume, keep up with the changes?

Adam Gordon 38:20
Right. Yeah. So yes and so what I'll say about that is as I look at these games with these beautiful 3D worlds and graphics, and there are some educational gamers who are creating stuff, there's a game called Eco. Go look it up when we're done. I know the game developer's out in Seattle and he has created this whole world where you go in and when you adjust things in the environment, it has ripple on effects. So you're kind of creating a world but you're also suffering the ill effects, the ill environment effects, of your decisions. It's really an interesting game.

But, you know, that's not funded by school licenses and subscriptions either. He's also funded that primarily by government grants, like there's just no way. So our competition is not Minecraft, is not Fortnight, is not Candy Crush. Our competition is a video about a subject, a lecture, a workbook, so we think, what are we competing against from a pedagogical standpoint, what are the different ways they're learning this? The most hands-on they might get is a lab, where they get to interact with the Bunsen burner and the test tubes or whatever. But most of the time, that it's a lecture, reading, discussion, whatever. So, in that context, our games are a breath of fresh air in the classroom. But are our kids going to go home and say, I gotta play another round of cell energy photosynthesis labs. That really got me! You know, no. They're going to go home and play Fortnight and I'm okay with that because my purpose is to engage the students long enough with a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

So these games like Fortnight with all the, you know, the dopamine hits, and the sound and the beat, you know, there's a lot of extrinsic motivation, and eventually you're in that flow mode. Well, I'm never going to get a student in flow mode as they're adjusting the variables in their virtual lab. I'm just not going to do it. But am I going to teach them more about dependent and independent variables? Yes. Am I going to get them to repeat without rolling their eyes about the equation of photosynthesis? What goes in? What goes out? Yes. Are they possibly going to remember for their whole life what the connection between brain and a bicep flexing is? They absolutely will because they had that interaction. So that's what I'm trying to do. If I was trying to create a game that they would play, they'd go home and they'd want to play, I probably wouldn't start with photosynthesis or cell respiration, as my, you know, as my underlying story. I just have to know who my competition is. And I do look hungrily, and jealously at a game designer that has a revenue stream and a whole team of graphic artists because for us, we did our own graphics on our first game. Since then we've always budgeted, and just having a graphic designer who knows his way around game design has changed everything for us in terms of the end user's experience of the game.

Tim Bornholdt 42:26
Yeah, I think that's one thing we see a lot is people underestimate the importance of, even just in a basic app, design is his initial. You know, I want to be mindful of time, but there's one thing I really wanted to touch on before we go, which was grants. And you've mentioned that several times, and I just want to talk about that because I don't think we've really had, maybe we've had one guest on the show that's been funded in part by grants, but I want to hear you talk a little bit about the just the process of, how do you find these grants? How do you apply for them? Why should you apply for them? Just any information that you have around that whole process and how it's helped out your business, that's something I'm really interested in.

Adam Gordon 43:14
Yeah, so back in the 80s, there was a set aside at the federal government level, and there's other grants besides federal but the largest funding comes from at the federal level, a small business innovation set aside so that each of the 12 or 13 big government agencies had to set aside a prescribed percentage of their budget to invest in grants for innovation for small business. And small business is anyone with fewer than 500 employees. So that's some big companies there. Anyway, so in the last decade, there's been this interest in games. And you might remember in the previous administration, in the Obama administration, he, at one point, brought in game developers and educators and said, I want to make education as engaging as these games. How can we do that? And he brought in some pretty high powered talent and smarts. And that then trickled into funding at the level of the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. And they each, in their innovation funding, set aside money for game based education. And each of these agencies has different requirements, different metrics that they're trying to, you know, trying to move the needle on.

So for the Department of Education, it's k-12 education. It's equity. It's, does everyone in the class get it? And does it in particular move the needle for populations that maybe are a little bit more marginalized, for whatever reason, special education, second language learners, that kind of thing. The National Science Foundation, they want to fund very risky innovation. They want to be a seed, essentially, be a seed investor in innovation that is so advanced that it might not attract other seed investment. But the case you need to make to them is if I'm successful, I will create an intellectual property that is protectable and will add to the tax base. And then for National Institutes of Health, to show an outcome that either improves health education or improves health itself.

So they all have these these separate things. You have to thread that needle, you have to say both I am doing this highly risky or highly innovative kind of learning and development. But if I'm successful, here is the probable commercial outcome. So it's not just we're throwing money at you. You also have to tell us how you're going to make money if you're successful with this. So it's really just another source of seed revenue. People think, Oh, it's free money. Here's the double edged sword I referred to earlier, when we applied for our first phase one National Science Foundation Grant, that was in 2015. We finished that work February 2019. Think how much the world changes in four years? But you're proposing a course of study. And then we did a phase two, which we also won, you're proposing a course of research that you then have to do. And so you have to have like a crystal ball, where's the world going to be when I'm done with this? And how is this going to advance my company? Like, will I be developing technology that I can then take and use commercially? So you're taking, you're making a bet on a number of things, and you're asking the government to fund it.

For phase one, the rate is around 15% of people who submit win an award and if you won phase one, and are going on to phase two, I think the numbers around 30% of those win. So we've won three, three phase ones and three phase twos, which is a very high level of success. And I think a lot of that has to do with my parent company that was very used to the process of writing these grants for Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, NASA, that kind of thing. So we took a lot of their know how, and brought it over to these other agencies.

But the key thing to remember is it's not, I would say, it's not a way to build a business. It's a way to fund non-recurring technical expenses. But building a business is a whole other thing, like a revenue, you know, you kind of have to make choices. And we're at the point now, where we've said, Okay, we're not doing any more grants, we now have to, we have to put on our big boy pants and figure out, is there a model for us out there that will create sustaining revenue? And it's still an open question. I mean, we've been around since 2014. We've had some success, outside of education as well, building games for people. But finding that model is our goal right now.

Tim Bornholdt 49:06
That's all fascinating because I'm not familiar with the world of grants at all and you get that misconception that it's free money but it's also good to know like the main driver behind it is those non-recurring technical costs. And I'd say most of the development that we do, the projects we take on, there's a lot of work upfront to get the infrastructure built. But as you know, software, like once it's built, then it can scale. You might need some more additional expense to help scale if you have server infrastructure or whatnot, but it's having somebody help you get that first bit off the ground is huge. And then yeah, like you said, you have to on the back end of it make sure you've got the business behind it so that it can actually self-sustain because, yeah, the grant money won't keep rolling in to just keep the lights on.

Adam Gordon 50:02
That's right. So for SoberSloth, we said, Listen, we need to build this online version. Because if we're going to get to the audience, it's got to be delivered in a web based way. We have a whole platform, but we're going to need to do that transition. So we used that grant to help fund that transition for us. We didn't have an immediate source of revenue that would fund that transition. But we saw an opportunity, hey, we've done a lot of the work. And we can use a lot of this software infrastructure, but we need a little help going from here to here to be able to reach this new market, so you try to do that as well. You try to think what's the next step in my company and can I tie that to a project and I almost said with a straight face like we're not gaming the system. You can't. They'll sniff that out in a second. You've got to say, Hey, here's a real problem, we're trying to solve it. In order to solve it, we need to have a web based delivery. Like you can't just make something up there because it's all peer reviewed. And people at the top of the field commercially, technically, and academically review you, and I've sat on review panels, and really good ideas do not get funded. So if they have a little weakness here or there, it's rigorous. And my guess is a minimum of two to 300 men and women hours went into just writing these grants.

Tim Bornholdt 51:52
So that's worth it in the end if you are successful. So one closing thought I wanted to get your feedback on behalf of like the listener. I know like it's not been so much lately but when we first started our company, we got so many people that came to us that wanted to build games specifically. And again I know there's a difference between building an educational game versus building a dopamine hit. But I wanted to get your final thoughts around advice you would give people that were looking to jump into either Educational Gaming specifically or just games in general, building out software. What advice would you give if somebody's like, I've got this idea. What would be the next steps? Where would you have them go from there?

Adam Gordon 52:45
So my first thought is, abandon the idea of competing with Fortnight and instead think are there some good mechanics that align with what I'm trying to accomplish. So maybe you've got a sales force, and they've got to learn about a new product. And really, the key thing is what's called spaced repetition. I need to learn about this over, you know, I learned about it on Tuesday. I read, I learned about it again on Wednesday, and then I learned about it again on Friday, that kind of thing. How can I use a game mechanic to nudge, to spur them to return to a subject? That kind of thing.

So there are a number of game mechanics that really align with learning outcomes or let's say your training outcomes would be a better way of saying it. So there's a lot of research that says you don't need a complete, immersive 3D game to have a good outcome. You just need to use some mechanics that provide enough extrinsic motivation to try something, so you don't want to just give them a PowerPoint presentation that they're going to slide through and click, click, click. You want to engage some things, and some of those are pretty easy to do.

So you first, as you're architecting a problem or a new game, you say, Okay, I think a game would be the way to go. First of all, you want to make sure that a game is the best way to do it. There might be a better way to learn it. If there is a better way, don't build a game, it's too much work. But then, if you really have a kind of nettlesome problem that you want to approach with a game, figure out what are the key things to learn and then align the game mechanics with it. And you don't need to do a full out game; you can just put some, you know, risk reward, some interesting contextual repetition, that kind of thing, that games are great for. Think about kids trying and trying and trying and trying again. You can use that same kind of, Okay, you almost got there but didn't, and send them back. And it forces this kind of repetition until they get their win state.

So don't start from, I'm going to make a game. Start from, here's the problem I'm going to solve. And then what are two or three game mechanics I can use to boost the extrinsic motivation. Because it's just too expensive and timely to make a game. That's the reality of it. Unless you're building a Fortnight that's gonna have a huge user base, that's putting money into it.

Tim Bornholdt 55:42
And let's be real. I mean, the App Store, there's a million games out there that probably already do what you are trying to do or if you're trying to build something that's going to compete with all million of those games. Good luck.

Adam Gordon 55:57
Right. And now it's free. Everything is free with ads, and you can't put an ad on an educational game. Right? So my thing is, I'll give it away for free and we'll make it up on volume, right? No, I mean, you've got to figure that out. So our trick has been to give away themes for free, lock certain themes, and sell a dashboard, so that the teacher can unlock a classroom worth of apps, because you can't, at the school level, or I'm sorry, at the classroom level, you can't expect that a student is going to pay for it. And we're not at the level yet where we can expect a district to pay for it. But a school with an individual like science budget, or that kind of thing, could pay for a $30 Teacher Dashboard, which would unlock Cell Energy for all of her students, that kind of thing. So you have to be very creative about what your model is because you're not going to make it up on volume or ads.

Tim Bornholdt 57:02
Just writing that down because that was a great last point. Yeah, that's a perfect way to end it. Adam, thank you so much for coming on the show today. If people want to get in touch with you, or if there's anything you want to plug it at this point, the mic is yours.

Adam Gordon 57:19
Well, they can come visit us. First of all, they can learn how to say our company's name. It's Andamio, which is Spanish for scaffolding, which is this educational principle. So we're Andamio Games, and we've made our games free for the pandemic right now. There's, you know, no one's buying anything right now for a classroom. And that's how we were set up. So we just took the paywall off and we said, have at it. We're all in this together kind of thing. And we were funded by government grants, so we feel like this is the least we could do, right? And then if you are in involved with substance use disorder, either prevention or treatment, please talk to us. We've got this great app and we'd love for you to try it.

Tim Bornholdt 58:11
Right on. Thank you so much, Adam. I really appreciate you coming on today.

Adam Gordon 58:15
Really, really good to talk to you, Tim. You have a great day. Thanks again for the invite. I've enjoyed this conversation.

Tim Bornholdt 58:22
Thanks to Adam Gordon from Andamio Games for joining me today on the podcast. You can find out more about Andamio by visiting AndamioGames.com.

Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter and the show is @CV_podcast. Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the glorious Jordan Daoust.

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