Amplify Games Win Awards Even as Direction of Company Remains in Flux

"World of Lexica" is one of three Amplify games that won a gold medal at this week's Serious Games conference.

“World of Lexica” is one of three Amplify games that won a gold medal at this week’s Serious Games conference.

Even as Amplify has reportedly scaled back its tablet business with schools the educational firm has continued to ramp up its investment in games, launching some 30 titles in the last six months. Many of those games have drawn critical praise and just this week the company will take home three of the four gold medals for K-12 education at the Serious Play Conference in Pittsburgh.

The company won gold medals for its English Language Arts game, “The World of Lexica;” “Twelve a Dozen,” which teaches algebraic math; and its environmental game “Habitactics.” They also scored a silver was for the single-player version of a spelling and vocab game, “MasterSwords.”

It’s welcome good news for a company that has been making headlines lately for what it seems like it is no longer doing or for internal reorganizations that have wracked the News Corp.-owned edtech company.

But despite the turmoil, the Amplify line of products reflects a growing investment in high-end games that are aimed to be included in school technology, but built to reinforce learning outside the classroom. Unlike many games that are created for formal education, Amplify has always espoused a slightly unorthodox approach to games, telling us back in September, “If they ‘smell like school’, and have been designed primarily to be an unobtrusive assessment, kids will typically dismiss the activity as yet another form of testing.”

The result has been an array of games aligned to the Common Core standards but not too obsessed with the analytics and assessment sides of the equation.

According to Justin Leites, vice president of games at Amplify, the games, for the most part, remain part of the Amplify suite of products offered to schools.

“We were in a small number of schools in the late spring, and we’re excited to be launching in several multi-school roll outs in major urban districts for this coming school year,” he said late last week.

The games were built to have consumer grade-level production values, with slick graphics, professional voiceover work and, according to Leites, a basis in the research around “Self-Determination Theory.”

“This research shows that if you want sustained engagement (from students or anyone else), you should support the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness,” he said.

Leites points to “Lexica,” produced by Schell Games, as perhaps the best example of this, saying it, “probably offers players meaningful choices (and thus supports autonomy) to a greater extent than any previous educational game – choices about what kinds of game activities to pursue, what books to read, what to make and share with classmates.

An unforgettable moment for me personally, when I played the game, was that at one point I chose to read the first few chapters of A Christmas Carol (one of more than 600 books in Lexica’s virtual library) and then, a few days later, one of the non-player characters in the game engaged me in an extended and illuminating conversation about what I’d read.
— Justin Leites, Vice President, Amplify Games



Despite this week’s gold medals and heaps of positive press, only “Twelve a Dozen” has been released to the consumer market. When Amplify made that move last September they cautioned, “If that goes well, then it’s very possible that other games would follow.”

In the nearly 10 months that followed no other game has come out and it sounds as if consumers should not hold their breath.

“We were thrilled by the uniformly positive feedback it got from reviewers, parents, and kids, but (given how good the game is) it hasn’t sold all that well so far,” Leites said.

Despite the slow sales, he added the company is still thinking about doing something in the consumer space, but probably larger than another single title, saying, “[W]e’re thinking about a broader consumer strategy, with many more games, that would enable us to reach a much wider audience; but we haven’t made any decisions yet. “

We had a couple of additional questions for Leites as he prepared to rake in the array of awards in Pennsylvania this week. Why do you think the games you commissioned have done so well among critics?

Justine Leites, Amplify: We’ve been working with fantastic game designers, and established a production process that has enabled those designers to do their best work. I was fortunate to start working for a great game company and with great game designers four decades ago, when I was in middle school myself.  I learned a lot then, especially from the late Redmond Simonsen, about how to set up systems so that the designers were making the games they wanted to make, while maintaining consistently high standards of quality.

When we started Amplify Games, I spent most of my time for the first few years traveling around the United States and the United Kingdom recruiting the designers whom we thought, based on their past commercial game work and interests, would have the best chance of success. So, for instance, Jesse Schell and his team (who created Lexica) had previously done a Disney game called Pixie Hollow, which was the first MMO (massively multiplayer online game) for kids; Jessie also gave the single most interesting talk about games I’ve ever heard.

Watch his talk here:

Games for Change Festival 2011: Jesse Schell, “Make Games, Not War” from Games for Change on Vimeo.

Zach Barth (who created Habitactics) invented the Minecraft genre of games and also had done a great chemistry-themed puzzle game.

We also tried to learn as much as we could about why so many educational games have failed in the past.   We concluded we could do better if we stuck to some core design principles:

  • High production values. Education games should be as well-made and as engaging as great commercial games.
  • Don’t be an exam. If a game has been designed primarily to be an “unobtrusive assessment,” kids will typically dismiss the activity as yet another form of testing.
  • Be social. Kids want to play their games with friends. Collaboration is an important part of the learning process.
  • Make failure fun.   If you do the “wrong thing” in an educational game, it should do more than tell you that you were wrong, or how you were wrong, or ask you to try again. Screwing up should have memorable and engaging consequences. Great games are the ones that are fun to play, not just fun to win. If you were to invest in a new learning game, what topics do you think are in need of the kinds of games you all are building?

Justine Leites, Amplify: We still need more of everything. No matter how great a particular game is, not every student (or every adult) is going to like it. And having multiple games on the same topic is a great way to reinforce the learning. That’s one of the reasons we’ve taken a portfolio approach – and why ultimately we’d like our portfolio to be even larger than it is now.

I have a particular meta-project that I want to do someday, if time and funding ever permit. The idea is ask game designers around the world to each contribute a game that relates to a different chapter of Moby Dick. The goal would be to eventually have at least one game for each of the 136 chapters. Probably it’s a Kickstarter rather than Amplify project, though!

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Lee Banville Lee Banville is editor of and editorial director of the Games and Learning Publishing Council. He is also an Associate Professor of Journalism at The University of Montana. For 13 years he ran the online and digital operations of the PBS NewsHour, overseeing coverage of domestic and international stories.