Kuato: The leading London studio tells us about Dino Tales, coding robots, & getting more great educational games into schools.
What was the coolest piece of equipment you had at school?
A class computer? A TV on wheels with a magical VHS box underneath? Perhaps all you were armed with was a trusty calculator.
One thing is for sure, you certainly didn’t have colourful dinosaur friends on an iPad teaching you to read, make music, and create stories of your own.
Founded in 2012, Kuato is fast becoming one of London’s most-loved educational game studios.
Actress Uma Thurman was at hand to launch the company’s Dino Tales and Safari Tales games in New York last year, and last month the studio was praised by Barack Obama at the White House Science Fair.
Most recently, the company released a new game for kids under five, Dino Tales Jr, which is all about storytelling through play.
Even as an adult, it’s easy to see how Dino Tales Jr inspires joy.
“We’ve made this lovely, coloured prehistoric environment with dinosaurs running around that kids can personalise and look after,” Kuato CEO Mark Horneff told The Memo.
Here, children can learn basic musical skills with a jamming dinosaur band, they can make bright jigsaw puzzles, or rest and recoup in a story time corner.
There’s even a cinema where kids – who cannot yet read – can expand their vocabulary and imaginations by narrating over video clips.
“The cinema is a big volcano that spits out popcorn, with a nice red carpet up to the cave, and an audio prompt that asks them to describe what they see,” explained Horneff.
One of the best bits about Kuato games is they help open up discussion between children, parents and teachers, says Horneff.
When a child plays Safari Tales, for example, wherever they go, whatever they learn, is all turned into a storybook that’s bespoke to that play session. This is then emailed to their parents.
“People tell us, ‘Well I let my daughter play for 15 minutes before she gets her pyjamas on, and then we read her story before bed’,” said Horneff.
“The kids get excited because they know they’ve created it, and the parents have conversation points to reinforce the learning.”
Indeed the CEO doesn’t think there’s a risk of ‘too much tech’ when it comes to educational games.
“If you embrace technology the benefits are far bigger than the risks,” he said.
It’s not just storytelling games that Kuato specialises in.
The company’s most popular game is Code Warriors (it’s this game that recently caught Obama’s eye).
It’s fun for kids, who try to get reach and delete their opponents ‘core’, while parents and teachers can access the same learning dashboard to track how a child is progressing.
“There are some great coding resources, but they very quickly become homework,” said Horneff. “Code Warriors is really fun”.
Indeed one of the big problems on the educational games scene is that studios too frequently forget to put fun and games first.
“We think most people are doing it wrong,” said Horneff. “People seem to forget everything they ever learned about games design – everything that makes something fun or engaging.”
Too often, gamification is a token gesture, a unsatisfying layer on top of boring or arduous tasks.
“If they’re making a maths game or a science game they start with the learning objectives and then try to illustrate them,” he said.
“We take the idea that you build a game, you build a piece of entertainment first, and if you seed it with the right information then kids will learn organically.”
Some studios do succeed in connecting with kids in engaging and creative ways, however, says Horneff, and one is Sweden’s Toca Boca.
“They have just the most amazing visuals, they’re just so well-crafted for little hands,” said Horneff. “They’re not directly educational but the simplicity of design is brilliant.”
Minecraft also continue to inspire, added David Miller, the Director of Learning at Kuato.
“You have physics teachers using Minecraft to demonstrate the laws of physics, while English teachers are teaching storytelling skills. It’s such a rich environment.”
While Kuato started off as being predominantly parent-focused, now over 450 schools have played games like Code Warriors. (Last week a new school come online from Kazakhstan, alongside a flash of 900 downloads from Finland).
“A good teacher will pay attention to if a child is using software at home, and encourage them to bring it into the classroom and vice versa,” said Horneff.
While the future is not without its challenges, Kuato is now “actively going after schools”.
“Every generation of new teachers that come in, they have a hunger for new tech,” said Horneff.
Not only is the Kuato imminently launching a Code Warriors online forum, but it’s met with a number of billion dollar entertainment businesses to discuss bringing cool characters from film and TV into educational games.
Towards the end of 2016 the company will be creating a new coding series with a focus on animating character emotions, and further ahead, it may even step into virtual realms.
“Virtual reality is definitely on the cards.”
We can’t wait for the games of the future to be put in the hands of children today.