Luma World: Why analogue games may be the future of learning

By Avanthika Ravichandran

The birth of an idea

One sweltering day in September 2018, four friends met at a quaint coffee shop in the suburbs of Mumbai to ponder how, collectively, they could contribute more towards their common passion – education. Two of them, Sameer and Tejasvi, ran a fledgling company that helped young housewives make more of their spare time by becoming educators or, in the common parlance of Mumbai, ‘tuition teachers’. Their training network was burgeoning, with many young women looking to buttress their household income by putting their formal education to better use rather than letting it remain just another bullet point on their CV. The fact that they could do so in the comfort of their homes with the ardent support of their families made this enterprise seem even more viable (this of course was pre-Covid when the concept of working from home was still a luxury and not a necessity). However, the business model was an operational and logistical nightmare, requiring constant handholding, training, telephonic support, and heaps of paperwork. It wasn’t sustainable even though it showed potential for exponential growth and being extremely lucrative in the long run. Also, though it provided opportunity, livelihood and self-sustenance to different strata of urban women, it was extremely difficult to control the one thing that the founders held dear to their hearts – the quality of education imparted.

The other two friends, Sajid and Venkat, were co-founders of an upskilling start-up that helped young graduates and professionals to become ‘work-ready’. This included customisable course modules of soft-skills combined with technical knowledge. Clearly ahead of the times, their offerings soon morphed into a variety of digital content – ranging from short animated videos for learning complex words on YouTube to onboarding videos for corporates hosted on their Learning Management Systems (LMSs). The stringent demands from clients not only stifled their creativity but the variegated content meant a lack of any formal structure to their enterprise. They were forced to operate more like a boutique agency than an ed tech start-up.

Their problems were different, their experiences diverse but here they were, sat in a café united by a common frustration – the inability to design holistic educational experiences for learners.

At some point, the conversation veered off in a different direction. Sajid, the previous weekend, had been part of a board games night at a friend’s house. He mentioned how he had taken along a friend who was visiting India from the US. The friend spoke about the renaissance of tabletop games in the US and other western nations over the past decade and how it was soon going to spread across the globe. “The advent of the modern strategy board games,” he called it. His friend, in jest of course, also claimed “for the east, especially India, this won’t be a renaissance but rather a new experience of gaming. I really hope India is ready for discovering analogue games beyond Scrabble and Monopoly!” This comment at the time seemed innocuous and even had others nodding in agreement, but the longer Sajid pondered over it he felt compelled to label it mildly offensive and rather ludicrous. “It was demeaning and condescending, and frankly, it came from a lack of knowledge of the history of games coupled with a preconceived notion that the West had a monopoly of prowess in creativity and design,” he exclaimed. As a few seconds of silence followed, Tejasvi replied in the most nonchalant manner, “Well, let’s prove him wrong!”

Little did they know how important that exchange would prove for all of them. It would provide them with the idea, direction and motivation needed to pursue their collective dream. It would be the spark that would spur them to conceive Luma World.

This moment has been replayed countless times over centuries. The conversations, purpose, ethos, constraints, challenges may all have been different but the essence remains the same – to create something special. We may never know exactly who, why, how, at whose behest or under what conditions were created games that have become entwined in human culture, enthralled us through the ages and even endured the collapse of our greatest civilisations. The faces and names behind the royal game of Ur, Senet, Chaturanga (the precursor to chess), Mah-jong, Backgammon or Pachisi have been long forgotten but the games themselves have persisted and pleasantly evolved, arousing every possible human emotion along the way and eventually becoming a part of our collective story (Finkel, 2021) ( 2014). Every game started off as an idea, a flicker of hope that it may impart knowledge, reform actions, spur change, or simply add a bit of joy to those who experience it. The greatest of games, however, manage to do them all. This hasn’t changed for thousands of years whether in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, China, Persia, India or, rather recently, Europe and the Americas. It’s safe to say it never will.

Knowledge in unison with play

The purpose of Luma World is perhaps best described through a quote from the philosopher Socrates – “Education is not the filling of a vessel but the kindling of a flame.” Yet traditional education relies on a model where information is imparted in the form of a lecture, often ending up being a soliloquy, and relies on the learner to make the effort to conform to the rigours of acquiring knowledge. If the learner were to meander and look to pursue an unconventional path they would certainly be reprimanded and reproached. Simply put, the learner has very little elbow room in this one size fits all model of academic instruction. Education should, as Socrates envisioned, aim to pique curiosity in every learner, giving them the freedom to explore, tinker and better prepare themselves to carve their niche in a world that is constantly in flux. Education must therefore be personal, flexible, and multipronged instead of being rigid and pertinacious.

The founders at Luma World wanted to change the current framework of education from being system centric to becoming learner centric. This means facilitating a shift of power from the institutions controlling education to the learners, so that they may choose how, when, what or even why they must learn. They wanted traditional education to transition from focusing on theoretical knowledge to helping to create a foundation for learners to acquire future skills and succeed in the real world. This is where play beautifully waltzes in and becomes the chief protagonist. Play, it has been long known, enriches learning and is essential for developing key life skills such as enquiry, expression, experimentation and teamwork. This isn’t just limited to humans but can be seen across the mammalian world. Schools may not exist in nature but learning through play is widespread! In fact, some researchers argue that play is the key to learning.

According to the book, From Play to Practice: Connecting Teachers’ Play to Children’s Learning (Nell, 2013), ‘meaningful play’ has five characteristics:
It gives the learner freedom of choice.
It feels fun and enjoyable.
It evolves spontaneously, rather than following a script.
It’s driven by intrinsic motivation.
It creates a risk-free environment where learners can experiment and try new ideas.

In meaningful play, learners are active participants. For example, instead of passively taking in a lesson, children take on roles alongside their peers and respond to the other children according to the rules of play that they’ve created. While interacting with educators, parents and students the founders also discovered how, using a play-based approach, it is possible to create an educational experience greater than the sum of its parts. Students learn critical thinking skills, develop their language abilities, expand their range of knowledge and increase their social emotional awareness—all without realising how much they’re learning.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of learning through play is that it gives learners, especially children, a chance to practise what they’re learning. In a world that rewards success and admonishes failure, from a young age learners are instructed to omit errors from any tasks and taught how mistakes could lead to dire consequences. Play, on the other hand, provides a platform for making errors with almost no repercussions coupled with the opportunity to reset the variables and try again.

This is probably best summarised by Sameer during an interview when Luma World was awarded the prestigious National Start-up Award by the Government of India in 2021. “If education is meant to provide everyone with the opportunity to succeed then it must also provide them with the freedom to fail. History is witness to how some of our greatest successes have emanated from mistakes and failure. Imagine how little we would have learned if we never failed. Yet we treat failure as a blemish when we should celebrate it like enlightenment.”

The amalgamation of purpose and process

When speaking of game-based or play-based learning most people, including educators, simply assume it is freedom for learners to engage in activities which may not be of their choosing, but the manner of their engagement is entirely their choice. In addition, some people also believe the facilitator is disengaged in the process. This could not be further from the truth. First, let’s start by highlighting the difference between the two. Play-based learning is most effective when it uses the surrounding environment as an integral part of the learning experience, where every activity in space has a purpose and adds to the gradual imbibing of knowledge and skills. It may not always be structured and may remain largely open-ended but the physical environment and space play a crucial role in that experience.

Game-based learning, on the other hand, defines this environment using rules, boundaries, storylines and actions. It creates a structured environment for learners within their current physical space, provides motivation for achieving well-defined outcomes and provides clear instruction on what actions may be played to achieve them ( 2014) (Kara, 2018). This may sound rigid but actually by providing the structure to abstract play it helps scaffold information across the learning domains, aiding both knowledge retention and engagement. The deepest learning happens during the course of play, in the learners’ minds in a subliminal manner i.e. they learn without even realising they are doing so as their motivation arises from game linked gratification rather than instruction.

At Luma World, this structure for game-based learning started way before they even began ideating games. Knowing well that educational curricula is made purely for classroom instruction, it was virtually impossible to use them for play, least of all design games out of them. So they decided to dissect cumbersome curricula from across the globe and convert them into functional learning objectives (LOs). The core of everything they design is a customised educational framework that helps translate theoretical concepts into gamified experiences. They did this with maths, science, social sciences and, using the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), even environmental education!

The benefits of breaking down large swathes of information into snippets help during both designing games and learning. Below are some of the key benefits from such an approach:

Enhanced Effectiveness. The creation of modular LOs allows for easy integration into game mechanics while keeping learners constantly engaged and motivated. Imagine trying to teach everything about fractions through a game, it would be tedious and boring for learners/players. Instead, focusing on one aspect of fractions (identifying basic fractions or combining two fractions to make a whole number) allows for greater flexibility in design, higher knowledge retention and better outcomes.
Purposeful Design. When the objective of an educational game is well defined it is easy for game designers to identify what the desired outcomes are and what the learner/player experience should be like. With a crystal clear goal it makes the design process easier as the constraints act as a foundation to build the game on.
Remedial Action. The goal of the game is to enhance learning and make concepts more lucid. For facilitators, identifying gaps in learner ability is a huge challenge. When LOs are defined and mapped to the game, it becomes easy for them to identify, even during the course of the game, instances where learners lack conceptual understanding or are unable to apply them effectively.
Enjoyable Experience. It’s quite easy to forget when designing an educational game that the balance of learning and fun is the key. The game, however effective, will fail to attract learners if they don’t enjoy it. This doesn’t apply only when they are playing but starts from when they first see the game. Inviting art, a meaningful theme, motivating storyline, engaging gameplay, interactivity, personal learning curves and replayability all play crucial roles in ensuring the success of the game from an educational and fun perspective.

When the LOs have been defined and mapped to the desired outcomes is when the actual game design process begins. Once again the approach aims to balance creativity, learning and engagement precariously.

Theme. The first step in the design process helps ensure how attractive players will find the game and at the same time how well the inherent learning has been woven into the game. The theme is not just ‘what the game is about’, rather it is about the coalescing of design, art, story, relevance and motivation. At Luma World, careful attention is paid to ensure that the player experience at all times is synchronous with the theme.
Mechanics. This is perhaps the most important and substantial part of the entire process. Luma World has over time built extensive expertise, unlike perhaps any other game design company, to merge and balance mechanics after careful consideration of the audience and LOs. The challenge is to keep actions simple enough to play and learn but complex enough to pose a challenge and ensure an upward curve (Finkel, 2021) for player improvement and strategies. The go-to formula for the team is a 30-60-10 rule which refers to 30% learning – 60% game strategy – 10% luck.

Testing. However promising a game may seem its true trial by fire is when it is tabled before kids. Adults may feel it necessary to provide measured feedback lest they hurt the designer’s sentiments but children have no such inhibitions. They are extremely blunt and curt which, contrary to belief, works wonders for a game! It helps break the bubble for designers and helps provide a reality check about their assumptions and choices. At Luma World, every game is tested with a minimum of 50 participants, most of them kids but some also doing so along with their families. The testing process involves controlled testing, where every participant is briefed about the game and closely observed, and also blind playtests, where game prototypes are simply sent to volunteers for their feedback without any involvement or influence by the team.

The unique aspect of this entire process at Luma World is that they execute it end to end in-house. Over the past 30 months they have built a multifunctional team and developed skillsets immanent to the organisation. Their prowess in creating games has even opened doors for providing their services to other businesses looking to gamify their own content.

The key takeaways

The primary motivation for the entire team at Luma World is to make a difference. Their games have now reached over 25,000 families in more than 20 countries and have garnered meaningful insights for the entire team. The games are affordable, multipurpose tools used extensively in classrooms as educational aids or in homes as supplementary resources. Perhaps the biggest validation was when the awards began to flow in. It gave the team conviction that its work was getting noticed and was achieving the intended purpose. Bolstered by recognition, over the past six months, it has forayed into games designed for environmental education. A relatively untouched genre, the learnings have been comprehensive but worthwhile. The greatest challenges have probably been brand awareness, informing people about what Luma World stands for and building a passionate community that believes in the brand ethos. The need for consistency in marketing efforts and amplification of creative ideas, content and offerings may help overcome these challenges.

However, the biggest victory on the journey so far and the most unexpected has been the ability to steer people, and families, off their screens and bond around their games.

Research has clearly shown that increased screen time for young learners causes almost irreparable damage to cognitive development, linguistic ability and executive function (Kara, 2018). In addition, prolonged exposure to screens also affects emotional and physical well-being like increased risk of obesity, aggressive behaviour, mental health issues, social isolation and so on. Additional studies have shown how our dependency on screens has drastically reduced our attention spans, our ability to read longform content, our problem solving abilities and even memory. The biggest motivation to create something of value was to get people to unplug themselves from the virtual world and connect to reality. Our best memories involve other people, places and experiences and it was essential that Luma World, through their games, helped create them for a whole new generation.

In a world insistent on digitising every human experience, especially in the world of start-ups, it’s quite risky to envisage a product or a service that is essentially deemed to be ‘brick and mortar’. In fact it may be considered borderline foolhardy. Why would anyone in their right minds, in this age of connectivity and technology, look at creating tactile educational experiences? Herein lies the essence of Luma World, something which the founders have themselves lent to the organisation – character. It’s quite easy to sway with capricious ed-tech trends but to remain steadfast and committed to your vision and principles requires conviction and belief.

Sajid Chougle, the creative director at Luma World, signs off on a sagacious note – “We don’t design games for kids, we design them for classrooms and families. If we wanted kids to play these by themselves or for parents or educators to not be a part of this experience it would defeat our purpose in doing this. We want our experiences to be fun, collaborative and memorable. You may never remember a lecture, video or even conversations with friends and family. But play a game together and it’ll make a lasting impression on you. You will remember how you felt, the rush of emotion and the memories will come back in a flood! Play is an intrinsic, universal emotion that transcends borders, cultures and age. We want everyone to play and experience joy, together!”

About the author: Avanthika Ravichandran is a computer engineer, digital marketer, and brand strategist by profession who is passionate about game-based learning, gamification, and education for change. She has been closely associated with Luma World since its inception and has participated in numerous playtesting sessions. She is based in Mumbai and when not helping brands formulate an effective digital strategy, is mostly found in a café – reading a fiction novel and sipping on filter coffee.






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