An interview with
Dave McCool, CEO, Muzzy Lane Software.

If you work with college-age students on a daily basis, you are probably aware that many of them love to play video games – online or downloaded onto local devices; alone or in groups; on computers, tablets, smartphones, and video gaming systems. The 2013 Horizon Report for Higher Education lists games and gamification as one of the top two higher education trends in the mid-term horizon, with widespread adoption expected to occur in approximately two to three years.

In a 2003 research study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 70% of the college students surveyed reported playing video games – with women outnumbering men by 3:2. Some (9%) said that they often played games to avoid doing homework. Recent survey data from the Entertainment Software Association indicates that 68% of all gamers are 18 years of age or older, with 31% of them in the 18-35 age range. The fastest growing segment of the gaming market is adult women, currently representing a larger segment (30%) than boys age 17 and younger (18%). So, educational games clearly have the potential to appeal to both adult learners and traditional students, whether male or female.

Dave McCool and his partners at Muzzy Lane Software have been creating educational video games – most in partnership with publishers, training companies, and other organizations — since 2002. Jeanne Heston recently had an opportunity to ask Dave about the process of developing games that are designed to help augment the learning process and to learn more about some of the differences between educational games and those that are created for pure entertainment purposes.

Jeanne Heston (JH): What was the inspiration for Muzzy Lane when you started the company back in 2002?

Dave McCool (DM): I had been working in the technology industry for 15 years – mostly in the network-based peripheral space — since graduating from MIT in 1987 with a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, but I was interested in pursuing a personal interest in gaming. Very specifically, I was interested in combining my interests in political science, history, and education with gaming. At the time, there had been a lot of rumblings from the education sector that education was about to “go digital”. So, co-founders Tim McCormack, Nick deKanter, and I decided that it was the perfect time to start a company that created educational games.

Our first project was Making History, a natural choice for me because of my interest in history. At the time, the iPhone, with its app-based model, had not yet been introduced to the market, and the educational games that had the best name recognition were Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Both ran locally, on the user’s personal computer, and had been in the market for many years. Our first version of Making History was also designed to run on the user’s hard drive. We initially sold it to high schools and colleges, but we quickly discovered a great deal of interest on the consumer side.

JH: What was it that you learned from the first set of customers who adopted Making History? In what ways did you change the game in response to market feedback, if at all?

DM: One thing that became clear to us rather quickly was that it would be difficult for us to continue marketing and selling our games directly to colleges and high schools without a very large sales force. We knew that publishers were starting to add digital content to their offerings, so we felt that the most efficient path for us was to partner with publishers – to focus on our core competencies of designing and developing games and to leverage the subject matter experts (SMEs) and efficient marketing and sales teams that the publishers already had in place.

Also, as more and more students connected to the internet with laptops and smartphones, they expected games to be accessible online – whether designed for single users or multiple users. This was a huge lesson for us. We knew that our games needed to be on the web and that we needed to start designing for multiple players. The introduction of the iPhone and its app-based model (in 2007), followed by the introduction of the iPad, dictated yet another set of changes to the way in which we designed and developed games.

JH: You recently worked with Cengage Learning to create some games for developmental math students, to help build and reinforce skills in arithmetic and algebra. In what ways did that project differ from some of the other games that you had created in the past?

DM: The games that we developed for Cengage Learning are designed to build specific math skills, as defined by the SMEs that we worked with on the project. The games are different in many ways from the other games that we have designed, which tend to be more experiential or immersive. The simple game rules make it easy for students to start playing the math games right away – in short, focused sessions – whenever they have several minutes to spare. Students can move on to the next level of game playing immediately after mastering a particular level, or they can continue to the next level at a later time.

Games that are used in an education setting have a different life cycle than commercial games. Once a new commercial game, or a new version of a popular game hits the market, it has no more than a 12-to-18-month window of time before the majority of fans become bored with the game and move on – to the next game or the next version of the same game. In the education market, the students cycle through the game from semester to semester. Once they have completed the course, they move on. To each new group of students taking the course, the game is “new”.

JH: How do you determine the format and flow of the game?  How do you ensure that it helps promote learning, instead of simply serving to entertain?

DM: We work closely with the SMEs to understand the learning objectives for each game that we develop, whether it is one that we are designing in conjunction with a publisher, a corporate training center, a non-profit, or another organization. It is also important for us to connect with potential users directly, through focus groups and site visits. Once we have some initial ideas, we “road test” them with the SMEs.

JH: How do you test the games when you are in the development phase of the process?

DM: The great thing about designing games that live on the web is that “everyone” can help us test the games. It’s easy for us to provide access to new alpha and beta versions of  games as soon as they are available. For games that are designed for K-12 and higher ed students, we typically run a class test for a full semester before making final changes to the product.

JH: Where do you see game technology going over the next several years, especially in the education market?

DM: The biggest change that we have seen in recent years is that tablets have basically reinvented the traditional school curriculum, accelerating the move to an all-digital model. Tablets have also made games more portable and accessible than ever before. Higher education is still ahead of the K-12 community in terms of its demand for games, especially because it has a long tradition of using simulations as teaching tools – whether in business, science, medical, or other disciplines. Many of these games are already designed for multiple players, but they become much more engaging when they include three-dimensional interfaces and web-based play.

We are also seeing an increase in the demand for health-related games, particularly for behavior modification. The games are designed to help patients who are recovering from surgeries and illnesses identify the triggers that cause them to resume old habits – like smoking and poor nutrition – and to suggest coping mechanisms. This is a big area for growth and we expect to see many more innovations in this area over the next several years.

Cengage Learning recently worked with partner Muzzy Lane Software and authors Dan Petrak and Maria Andersen to design and develop three games for the Developmental Math curriculum. Free/Lite versions of Algeboats and Algeburst are available for download in the iTunes Store, as well as full version upgrades for Algeburst:Topics in Arithmetic, and Algeburst:Topics in Algebra.

Have you used video games in conjunction with your courses? If so, we would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences using the comments section below.