Sunday, December 1, 2013

MadRat Games: Combining Learning and Fun

We in India have a strange relationship with our own languages. We enjoy telling visitors about their diversity and richness (I must have shown an Indian currency note which lists all the constitution-recognised languages dozens of times), but the typical middle class, urban Indian uses English as the stepping stone to success. 

While most people in “our” generation at least learnt our own languages (even if we don’t read and write in them every day), today’s kids have often grown up with English alone. I remember reading a fascinating article by Ramachandra Guha some years ago where he predicted the end of the bilingual scholar. We can see that happening before our eyes.

But I don’t think everyone is happy about that. I was recently in Pune, and met an old friend Jayaram Chengalur who works at the National Centre for Radio Astronomy. Jayaram has taken the courageous step of educating his kids in a Marathi medium school. (By the way Jayaram’s “mother tongue” is Malayalam, but his wife is from Maharashtra, and living in Pune, they decided to let their kids soak in the Marathi language.) I am sure there are several others who are keen to retain some Indian linguistic heritage.

Most people would not, I imagine, be willing to go so far as to emulate what Jayaram has done. But, they would be happy to encourage their kids to learn one or more Indian languages if there were fun ways of doing so. That’s why I was delighted to get introduced to MadRat Games through its co-founder Madhumita Halder.

MadRat Games

Madhumita and I were co-speakers at a recent event organized by the FICCI Ladies Organisation  (FLO) at Hyderabad. Madhumita and I are at the centre of the picture below.

MadRat Games is a company that makes board games, some of which have been adapted to the mobile phone and tablet. Their flagship game is Aksharit, a Scrabble-type word-building game, originally designed for Hindi, but now available in a number of other Indian languages.

Being designed in Indian languages, MadRat games not only offer the opportunity for urban English-speaking kids to connect with India’s rich linguistic heritage but also for kids from different linguistic backgrounds to have fun in their own local languages.

Aksharit is also available in a mobile version on the Symbian platform. (That doesn’t seem to be the right platform now, I hope they are adapting it to the current popular platforms).

Aksharit’s design goes back almost a decade to a project undertaken by MadRat co-founder Manuj Dhariwal as a B.Des. student at IIT Guwahati in 2004. Manuj’s brother Rajat (the third co-founder) and Madhumita were classmates in Computer Science at IIT Bombay. While Rajat did his Masters at CMU, and Madhimita worked for an animation company, both wanted to work in a more creative environment and joined the Rishi Valley School as teachers. [As an aside, the Krishnamurti Foundation of India (KFI) Schools have provided such a haven to many such youngsters over the years. I hope someone will one day document the contribution of the KFI schools to school education in India.]

The Rishi Valley experience brought home to Madhumita and Rajat how important it is to focus on the “how” of learning rather than the “what” of learning. Learning can (and should) be fun. This is particularly important while teaching kids. Several organizations have responded to this need (in India I can think of Akshara Foundation, Pratham Books, the Agastya Foundation…). After four years at Rishi Valley, they decided to join forces with Manuj to make Aksharit a commercial product. MadRat Games was born.

Distinctive Features of MadRat Games

There are several things I liked about MadRat Games:

  • They have created a wide range of games in a short time, at attractive price points;
  • They have a range of games rated for different age groups as per international practice;
  • They have used a wide variety of distribution modes, online stores being one of their most important channels;
  • They have been quite business-savvy in riding waves (remember the “Pain Wave Waste” framework of 8 Steps to Innovation). E.g. they have a whole set of games centered on the popular Indian cartoon character Chhota Bheem;
  • They focus on fun and learning at the same time;
  • They seem to be able to transcend technologies and platforms, though they remain predominantly a board game company.

Madhumita gave a practical demonstration of their understanding of how kids learn when she conducted a short workshop for the FLO members during our session. In this, she took them through the process of doing simple experiments with paper that could explain some basic science concepts. Quite impressive!

The Next Generation of Indian Entrepreneurs

A few weeks ago, I attended the Bangalore launch of Reimagining India, the new book compiled by McKinsey & Company to urge the world not to give up on India just yet. At the launch event, InMobi founder (and former McKinsey consultant!) Naveen Tewari outlined his vision for how entrepreneurship is the force that will transform India. In From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation, I argued that we need a new generation of (tech-savvy) entrepreneurs to put innovation in India on a new trajectory. While there certainly has been a groundswell in favour of entrepreneurship in recent years, I keep wondering whether Indian entrepreneurship fulfil our aspirations and dreams.

An important challenge for Indian entrepreneurs and innovators is to take advantage of their familiarity with the local context. Language is one important aspect of that context. It’s useful to remember that many prominent Chinese companies (including giants like Lenovo) started off by addressing China-specific needs like Mandarin word-processors and DTP systems. I am glad to see MadRat Games exploiting such an advantage.

While much is made (often justifiably) of the importance of creating a supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem, I continue to believe that we underestimate the importance of our entrepreneurs having the right stimuli and experiences. In an earlier post, I wrote about how Steve Jobs was very much a product of his growing up experiences. I wonder whether MadRat Games would be the same if Madhumita and Rajat had not chosen to spend four years in the prime of life teaching young kids at Rishi Valley. We really must find a way of giving our youngsters a wide variety of experiences that will trigger their imagination in ways that reading and formal education will never be able to do.

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