Your Game Face

My “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012” game face

Well, thank God for avatars.  This picture is me while playing “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012”.  Definitely not Tigeresque.  But I guess we’re all in the same boat when torquing that controller.  I bet Tiger Woods doesn’t even look like Tiger Woods when he’s playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour.

He probably looks like this:

Anyway, check out Robbie Cooper’s photo essay of kids building and playing games in this Edweek article, “Making a Game Face.”

I’d love to see what your game face looks like.  Send your photo to me at and I’ll post it here.  And let me know what game you’re playing when the shot was taken.

— JvK

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Little & Free = Big & Priceless

© Little Free Library

Hats off to Todd Bol of Wisconsin who spawned the Little Free Library movement.  To honor his mother who was an avid reader and booklover, Todd built a miniature library the size of mailbox, filled it with books, mounted it in front of his home with a sign that read:  “Take a book — Leave a book.”

© Little Free Library

The idea has been spreading around the country and now Todd and Rick Brooks’ website provide plans, pictures of little libraries, and maps of where to find them.

photo of Hickory Village, TN, Little Library by Zan Broussard

They’re popping up all over the place, connecting neighbors, making new book-lovers, inspiring craftsmen.  And you have to love their mission:

“To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide.
To build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.
To build more than 2,510 libraries around the world–more than Andrew Carnegie!”

I noticed that there isn’t one in my town yet.  I’m getting to work right away!

— JvK

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Sowing the Learning Environment

In almost every game, just like a good story, there is a beginning, middle and an end.  We’ve talked before a bit about “win states” and “failure states” which are, of course, end game events.  Since Nuvana games revolve around mission-based activities, our opening gambit is almost always a call to action.  What we’ve noticed over the years, is that if the gaming environment is prepared in certain ways, the more successful the learning outcomes.  It really doesn’t matter if the environment is in a school, in a business, or an organization, there are certain qualities that create optimum pre-launch conditions.

First off, the environment has to be safe.  A good call to action challenges players to engage in actions that are often outside their comfort zone.  In fact, in our opinion, the definition of a good learning community — whether a school, a workplace, or an affinity group — is one in which the environment feels safe enough for the learners to accept even the most demanding challenges that will likely end in failure.  Furthermore, in a safe community, players feel comfortable about sharing everything from best practices to authentic feelings to constructive criticism.

That said, when we began creating Nuvana games, our team spent many hours debating on who should create these calls to action.  After all, generating calls to action is a tremendous responsibility and bestows upon the creator a considerable power.  You’re telling the community what to do.  You’re dictating their behavior.  Given that authority, one faction on our team felt that admin and experts should make up all the missions.  But another faction had a very different opinion.  They felt that the player community should also have that right to create missions.

If you’re familiar with any of our games, you know that it was the latter camp that won the day.  On every one of the games we’ve launched thus far, there is a subtle but radical feature common to them all:  there is a clickable button that reads:  “Suggest a mission.”

What we didn’t realize at the time we first embedded this button was how empowering this little button was to any playing community.  In most learning communities, it is a “Top Down” proposition.  The teacher or admin or the COO or the exec director or the expert tells the community, “This is what I need you to do to satisfy MY standards.  This is what I challenge you to do.”  But in one fell swoop, the Suggest-a-Mission button flipped everything by fostering a “Bottoms Up” environment.  The player pool is able to tell admin, “Why don’t we do this!  THIS is what I’m interested in — and so should you!”

Essentially, the community was empowered.

The level of engagement went through the roof, even in subject areas that normally have minimal interest.  Rarely do we see flame wars or spamming in our games.  Mutual respect is the order of the day.  Liking and moderation is a much more intrinsic behavior rather than a frivolous activity because it actually means something coming from an engaged and committed community.  Instead of slacking off, players tend to exceed expectations.  And all because the player-base is empowered.  They are, in essence, owner-operators of the game along with admin.  You don’t vandalize your own property, right?  So too with learning communities:  by empowering the learners, they become the mentor/guides with real investment in the outcomes as they build social capital in the activity.

Dan Pink talks about this in his TED talk about motivation.  His cites scientific research that shows incentives like rewards and bonuses often diminish performance results.  (Another reason why I’m on the fence when it comes to badges.)  When it comes to driving higher performance, Pink believes it’s a matter of three triggers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose (especially if it’s higher purpose).  In results-only work environments (R.O.W.E.), employees who are given autonomy over their hours and the direction of their efforts, their productivity and work quality goes way up.  In other words, empowerment.  ROWE companies like Google and Pixar certainly prove out the strategy.

So back to what makes a good learning community:  it’s safe.  And it’s empowered.

What else?

Well, according to renowned high school, math teacher, Sam Calavitta, an effort-centric environment is key:  “Contrary to popular belief, brilliance is not a prerequisite for learning math. Rather, perseverance and diligence over time can certainly equalize — and even surpass innate ability,” said Calavitta, who has taught everything from remedial math to advanced calculus. “I teach my students to never, never, never give up!”  In the jargon of psychologist Carol Dweck, this philosophy is the essence of “growth mindset” — where recognition of effort leads to authentic learning and mastery.

And lastly (at least for now), let’s not forget fun.  When the learning environment is fun, the play leads to innovation and inspiration.  We see this in the workplace, like Pixar and Ideo.  We see it in schools, like MIT’s Media Lab and Carnegie Mellon.  More on this in a subsequent post.

For now, before launching any kind of digital media learning project, think about prepping the space first.  Make it:





As we all know:  we reap what we sow.  Let us know what blossoms from your efforts and if you have any suggestions for “pre-launch conditions.”

— JvK

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Kill the Ump!

Nothing makes me more crazy than to watch a perfectly good baseball game ruined by a bad umpire. When the rules of a game can’t be judged fairly, it tarnishes the integrity of the game.  You wouldn’t play cards with a stacked deck, or dice with loaded cubes.  Sometimes the infractions on a Major League baseball diamond are egregious.  Likes the horrendous call at first base that ruined Armando Gallaraga’s perfect game in 2010.  And recently, a no-hitter for Johan Santana was preserved when a fair ball hit by Carlos Beltran was called foul.  Within seconds, everyone watching the game on TV saw the umps got it wrong in both cases — but on the field, the men in blue steadfastly refused to consult the digital tools that would allow them to correct their mis-judgement.

Jim Joyce, the umpire that blew the call that ruined Carlos Galarraga’s perfect game

These are just two of the more high profile instances, but any fan of baseball sees this kind of thing happen every day.  Bad umpiring is compromising the game.  And a game is only as good as its referees.  A poorly judged game ruins the sport for all the participants because it results in tainted outcomes.   Things get even more dicey when it comes to calling balls and strikes.  The variation of the Strike Zone varies widely from  ump to ump.  This guy likes low strikes.  This one favors high ones.  This fellow calls anything that hits the catcher between the knees a strike, even if it’s off the plate.  This guy’s strike zone gets tighter in later innings.  Hunh? Those that defend these inconsistencies cite the charm of the “human element.”  That this is a tradition of the game of baseball.  Are they kidding me!  Lame judgement is a cherished tradition?!

One of the oldest games known to man is the simple foot race.  The Greeks, in the first Olympics, used no more than their eyeballs to determine who crossed the finish line first.  It’s all they had.  But are you telling me that we should follow this quaint method to determine the winner at the 2012 London Olympics because this charming tradition pays homage to the human element passed down through the centuries?  Heck, no!  In the name of all that’s fair, the Olympic Committee will get out the digital clocks and break down the times to the nearest 1/100th of a second.

And don’t tell me that instant replay would slow down the game.

If Wimbledon can use lasers to determine whether a tennis ball is “in” or “out,” we can use the same technology to alert us to balls and strikes.  Believe me, if that technology had been around during John McEnroe’s era, it would have nipped his line call tantrums right in the bud.

John McEnroe informing the linesmen: “You guys are the absolute pits of the world!”

I know I’m in a small minority, especially when it comes to removing the home plate umpire to call balls and strikes.   I’m just looking at baseball from a game designer’s point of view:  a good game must also be a fair game.  Whether you agree or not, there’s no doubt in my mind that instant replay is inevitably coming to baseball — to settle disputes over foul balls, questionable home runs, close tag outs and controversial calls.  It came to tennis.  It came to football.  It came to basketball.  The modern era is going to come to baseball.  Unless Commissioneer Selig keeps the game officially in the Stone Age.

Bobby Cox, thrown out more times than any manager in history

When it DOES come, there is one thing I’ll miss:  managers getting tossed for arguing a call.  Guys like Lou Pinella, Tommy Lasorda, and the immortal Bobby Cox.  Their ejections were better entertainment than most games.  But since all three are retired, maybe it’s time to retire the men in blue too.

— JvK

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Redefining Failure

I wrote a post a couple weeks back about “The Win State,” which in the world of game design is what makes a game, a game.  But that naturally mandates there’s such a thing as a “Failure State.”  We all know what that is.  Brutal when you’re in the thick of an awesome, invincible, controller twitch — and up comes that terrible prompt:  You lose.  Your character has died.  Game OVER!

Nothing to do but hit “Start over” and begin again.  That’s the beauty of a game.  You can always begin again.  And we do.  Because in the world of entertainment games, there really is no consequence for failure.

In the all-too-serious worlds of education, business, philanthropy, and sometimes, life in general…if you fail, in many instances — you’re done.  We see this in high schools throughout California where if you’re not white or well-to-do, the dropout rate is staggering (in 2009, the dropout rate was 37% if you were black, 27% if you were Hispanic, 25% if you were low-income).  Unlike Angry Birds, you can’t just hit the re-start button and jump back in for a do-over.

The reliance on standardized testing in American public education has fostered a learning structure that relies on right and wrong answers.  After all, in multiple choice tests, for any given question, there are not multiple correct answers.  There is only one.  Unfortunately, that wrong answer does not set off a subsequent line of inquiry on those STAR tests — and therefore, failure is a dead end.

But in the current circumstances of our ever-beleaguered real world, terminating effort due to defeat  is a frightening notion in that it can only lead to overall system failure.  If we give up, we’re goners.  But try solving the following problems with your first draft solutions:  over population, food and water shortages, environmental crises, economic schisms, wars fought with IED’s built from junk parts on the one hand and high tech drones on the other, global pandemics — not to mention, obsolete educational methodologies.

There are no single right answers to any one of these problems.  A myriad of strategies, quickly but thoughtfully deployed by nimble thinkers — and even more nimble AND effective doers — who must have no fear of failure is the only salvation in the current age.  It’s the only path to effective innovation.

The brilliant inventor and engineer, Charles Kettering had this to say about failure:  “Every great improvement has come after repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”

To redefine failure, a wrong answer has to clearly be a temporary state on a longer path to re-invention, wisdom and eventual success.  That is why Nuvana has for the time being, shied away from virtual world games.  In our former lives in entertainment media, we definitely built them.  Besides being expensive and time consuming (and do we really need costly, long-term building efforts in the face of educational budget cuts?), building a virtual world with CG or Flash or any kind of animation for that matter pre-supposes that it is a closed system with borders.  Players get frustrated and bored once they sense the boundaries of a virtual world.  The builder has to constantly expand the world (i.e. more cost and more time).  And intrinsic in this environment, there is a “right” and a “wrong.”  A win and a fail.  Somewhere, the world or the program or the AI reaches its limit.

In a Nuvana game, the effort is to empower the players, show them they have no limit other than their own persistence, and to support while learning along with them, in order for them to find other pathways and solutions that might exist.

As Bruce Lee put it:  “What is defeat?  Nothing but education; nothing but the first step to something better.”

By redefining failure, what we are really doing is reforming the learning process in any context to create innovative, creative, indefatigable thinkers and doers.  Done right, education can be transformed into an inclusive, equitable, behavioral change process that will make dropouts obsolete and create standards based on quality rather than quantity.

— JvK

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Focus groups, polling and the “American Idol Delusion”

“I’m watching you!”

When we pre-tested our first game, “Flashback,” the high-schoolers we polled universally responded that they would NOT play an American history game.  It was the academic course many indicated they hated most, and that playing “a game” revolving around history sounded as attractive as drinking a brussel sprout milkshake.  Yet within days of launching Flashback, the site went wild and within 10 days had 200,000 page views.  In post-game interviews, 97% of the kids who said they would never play our game said they would definitely play it again.

What does this tell us?  About the same thing that election pollsters already know but rarely tell anyone otherwise they’d be out of a job:  polling is unreliable.  In a recent New York Magazine piece, Gavin Polone wrote about a similar mistrust he has of focus groups, the small test audiences (generally 48 men and women) that rate TV pilots.  Mr. Polone observes, “The idea that such a small sample can represent the whole market for a show does seem ridiculous and bound to deliver anomalous results.”  Some of those results are notorious.  Focus groups gave extremely low ratings to “Seinfeld” and “Friends.”

So what is wrong with polls and focus groups, and even more puzzling, why do we continue to use them?

Without doubt, where polling goes off the rails is that they rely on personal opinion — and opinion that is derived in a questionable context.  We call it, the American Idol Delusion.  You know what I’m talking about:  in the early episodes of any season of American Idol, a judge asks a contestant, “So do you think you’re the next American Idol?”  And the contestant brashly exclaims, “Absolutely, I’m a phenomenal singer.”  And then when that singer opens his or her mouth, the worst screeching and out-of-tune caterwauling gushes out.  Randy pales and moans, “No no no, dawg — that’s just horrible!  Can’t you hear yourself?!”

No, they can’t.  Hardly any of us can hear or see ourselves objectively — or anyone else, for that matter.  Prejudice and self-delusion color our opinions.  So why do we continue to use polls and focus groups?  Because they generate quantitative results.  “54% are fearful about the economy…  7% are undecided.”  It all sounds so scientific.  But what are they measuring?  Opinions.  Employing “tools” (i.e. polls and focus groups) that do no more than measure opinions in order to make decisions can result in epic disasters.  (48 men and women, somewhere, LOVED “Homeboys in Outer Space” — or don’t you remember that series?)

So what is worth measuring?  Actions.  Yup.  You know, those things that happen in the real world and speak louder than words.  You may think you’re the next Whitney Houston, but if when you open your mouth you are Roseanne Barr yowling the National Anthem — well, it really doesn’t matter what you think.

That’s why when we build games that also need to serve as assessment tools, we measure the data generated by actions.  Not opinions.

I also mentioned context as important to evaluating the action.  With the Nuvana platform, most of the actions generated by players happens in a social environment.  That is, you do something, and you publish it to the community.  Something very powerful and magical happens within that context:  authenticity.  People who fill out polling questionnaires in private have very different, and generally less honest answers, than when they answer in a community environment.  Let’s face it:  it’s much harder to b.s. peers in public.  Everyone is watching and listening.  If it’s a good community, they will call you out — but hopefully in a supportive way.  That’s what Nuvana strives for:  authentic actions and self-correction by the involvement of the community.

We see this happen all the time with Nuvana games.  The ethics of a social network based on authentic actions always trend toward the moral high ground.  It’s not totally surprising.  There was an interesting phenomenon discovered by Melissa Bateson, a behavioral biologist at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne who was in charge of her psych department’s coffee fund.  She found that by putting up a picture of a pair of eyes, donations to the coffee jar went up threefold.

Hmm.  Maybe we should change our name to NooVana.  With the double O’s in the shape of eyes.

Seriously, we have no interest in playing the role of Big Brother for the gamified universe — but we are seeking to drive authentic behaviors for ethical communities.  The actions that result can be transformed into verifiable data with which one can build trustworthy assessments.

What does that mean in real world terms?  Well, back to Mr. Polone who finishes his New York magazine piece by writing:  “Really, this [focus group] testing ritual seems pretty outdated in the Internet age. Why stick with such a small sample size when we have the technology to quickly get the opinions of a much bigger audience? A network could put all of its pilots up on its website and let the entire populace of interested viewers vote for their favorites and leave comments on how they would like to see the show improved before it went to series.”

Sounds like the perfect premise for a Nuvana game, doesn’t it?

— JvK

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Win State

If you ask a game designer, “What makes a game, a game?” — many will answer with some version of the following:  “If there’s a win state, it’s a game.”  And then you look at those activities that have a traditional win states and your list quickly bulges with the usual:  chess, WoW, baseball, tic-tac-toe, Angry Birds — the list of games is endless.

But then it’s easy to expand the list to other less traditional game activities that still possess a win state:  political elections, educational grading systems (“I’m in the top quintile!”), eBay bidding, war, dangerous medical procedures “Patient X beat the odds!,” foundation granting processes (“We won the grant!”), the human race (well there are always winners and losers in a race), and even love (“I am going to win her heart!”).

For better or worse, that parsing process has helped to fuel the proliferation of gamification.  Is it that I reside in West Coast Technoville or because we’re in this “space” — but it seems every day we hear the rallying cry of Gamification from some of the most unexpected quarters.  (I’d list some here, but even the most preposterous in conjunction with our tool makes some darn good sense).  Alongside this rush to gaming are the accessories and features that come with it, these new, shiny tokens of achievement:  badges.  New badging systems are cropping up like wildfire.  Some from traditional sources, like the scouting community which has always proudly worn their embroidered emblems on their ubiquitous sashes.  Other badges are attached to new systems and games in the digital media learning arena with a whole new set of graphics, titles and certifications — but all meant to be “worn” on virtual sashes over swelling digital chests.

With the Nuvana MVP, our users can import whatever badging system they prefer — or create their own, or use our default badge set.  That’s what certain communities need and demand.

But at Nuvana, we think it’s important to remember that there is a significant population of “active engagers” (our sometimes-used, less trivializing term for “gamers”) that actually hate badges and scores.  And that’s putting it mildly.  The ostentatious display of achievement only serves a certain kind of player.  The quest for badges and subsequent community admiration is in many cases, a turnoff to innovators, artists, out-of-box thinkers, and geniuses.  It’s also a turnoff to kids with already-low self-esteem who are one gold star-less day of becoming dropouts.  Do we really think that trading a letter grade for a badge or a snazzy score because a school is suddenly “gamified” is going to make a difference to that disengaged teen sitting in the back of the class with the hood over his head?

Marlon Brando and Woody Allen’s refusal to attend the Academy Awards to receive Oscars is legendary.  The greatest golfer of all time, Bobby Jones, the only man to win the Grand Slam, retired at 28, thoroughly uninspired by tournament play and the thought of winning more trophies.  Jean-Paul Sartre not only declined a membership to the Legion of Honor, he also refused the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 citing it went against his philosophy of how a true writer would behave.

What we strive for at Nuvana is to create games and tools that fit the unique ideals, principles and sensibilities of the organization that adopts it — and even more important, for the community it wants to engage.  You want a competitive game with high scores and badges?  Great, the Nuvana MVP can serve you.  And you over there — you want a tool that provides a thoughtful, collaborative journey without scores or medals?  Well, the Nuvana MVP works just as well for you too.

A deeper question might be, what does your community think a win looks like?

What we’ve realized over the years is that there is no one “win state.”  Belief in the One Win State creates too many losers.  The best definition of win state is derived through personal and/or institutional actions and behavior, and that individual’s or culture’s sense of achievement and quality.

I had the good fortune to go to an amazing high school that both my children were able to attend as well which embraced a controversial “no grade” policy.  Really.  You wrote papers, took tests — but there was never a letter or number stamped on the result.  Instead, assessment was a rich and involved process of self-evaluation mixed with detailed teacher commenting connected to an ever-present rubric.  The result?  There were no A-students.  There weren’t even D-students.  At least, they weren’t easily identified.  Still, every student knew where they stood — and the path they needed to follow.  This unique school fostered a culture of life-long learners who did not look to others for judgement and glorification, who were driven by a passion for inquiry.  A momentary failure was only an experience that deepened wisdom.  A so-called “success” was only a step on a path with many forks.

Rudyard Kipling’s words over the door to center court to Wimbledon are well known:  “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same…”  Understanding those two lines will lead to a higher understanding of Win State, without doubt.  But do you know how Mr. Kipling’s poem ends?

“…If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Totally committed action and relentless passionate engagement is the ultimate win state.  That’s why we at Nuvana believe…the New Win = greater good in the real world.

Any way we can get to that state, whether through a game or a collective journey where everyone is a winner — well, that’s our goal.

—  JvK

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The Best Game Platform


When we began designing the Nuvana MVP (Mega-Versatile Platform), we spent a lot of time looking at one game platform that had a lot of the features we wanted to embed in our product.  The more we looked at it, the more we saw design genius.

It is:

  •          Inexpensive
  •          Supports individual and group play
  •          So simple, it never comes with instructions
  •          Yet generates thousands of different games
  •          Can be played for win state
  •          Or can be played for non-quantified amusement
  •          Playable by all ages – from toddlers to adults
  •          Male and female friendly
  •          Creates social networks
  •          But also suitable for solitary use
  •          Builds math skills
  •          Sharpens memory functions
  •          Is small and exceedingly mobile
  •          So indestructible and foolproof, makes “Help Desk” unnecessary
  •          Access to technology not a barrier, yet —
  •          Excellent for desktop and mobile conditions
  •          Easily adapted to myriad graphic designs
  •          Can support branding or advertising (on flip side)

What’s this awesome platform?


  •          Oh, and it’s adaptable for real world activities too…

Hopefully, the Nuvana MVP is as fully featured.

—  JvK

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Three little words.  Barely enough to make a sentence.  But for a mission statement, it’s a huge mouthful:  “Change the world!”

Right from the beginning, we felt that our team, our platform, and our efforts should aim to accomplish a higher cause.

Believe me, there were skeptics.  Even the first coders we first hired could barely contain dubious snorts when we told them world change was our goal.  And who could blame them?  Some of these guys had built websites for global banks, coded for some corporate heavy hitters.

But within hours after launching our first game and the site was going wild with amazing activity, one of those skeptical techies called us, screaming over the phone, “Are you looking at the site!  Oh my God, you guys were right!  We’re changing the world!”

And that’s why, after all these years, we keep at it.  Each time we launch a Nuvana game, we see the incredible effect of individuals and communities making an impact on each other and the world around them.  What’s become clear and why our aphorism reads:  “Change behavior – change the world!” – is that powerful and lasting change in the real world comes about because of human actions.  And to create action where there has previously been inertia, you have to change behavior.

That’s what the Nuvana tool is all about:  changing behavior.  We use it to engage the failing student in a subject she previously hated.  We use it to change the eating habits of an obese individual.  We use it to encourage the researcher to share best practices and collaborate with someone he previously thought was a competitor.  We use it to gather apathetic residents and turn them into concerned citizens that work together to improve their community.

What behaviors are you looking to change?  What actions are you looking to provoke?  What will the world look like and how much better will it be when you transform it?

That’s why we named the company Nuvana.  It’s the new Nirvana that we all make together.

—  JvK

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The Birth of Nuvana

Back in 2009, when Jeff and I began Nuvana, we held a brainstorm with our talented team of designers, technologists, educators, gamers, and all-around, hardcore doers.  Our office was pretty much a big, empty space dominated by a ping-pong table we used as a conference table with nothing on the walls except for two huge white boards.  In the corner of one of the boards, I wrote what you see in the picture:



“Change behavior — Change the world!”

It’s been our mantra, our mission, the guiding principle that has led Nuvana from birth to where we are now.

Believe it or not, in the ensuing years, we’ve never erased that scrawl from the board.  At times, we trace over those words when they fade or when someone’s new idea bleeds into that box.  But it stays on the board and it will likely remain:  to remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Don’t get me wrong:  we love games and we especially love having fun which has helped us to gather the kind of cool folk that make up the Nuvana team.  But we all know on some level that what we are trying to accomplish is more than just amusement.  At its core, Nuvana is about constructing tools that change the world…for the better.  If that tool is wrapped in a game that is fun and engaging — wonderful.  But the tool below that candy-coating better be kick-ass.

In general, we believe there are three principles that create good tools:

1)  A good tool is powerful.

2)  A good tool is absurdly simple.

3)  A good tool is achievable.

Creating a tool for the field of digital media learning while adhering to these principles is what drives us every day.  Can we make our platform more effective?  Can we make it easier to use?  Can we make it more cost effective and more easily distributed?

Yup, it’s the old Better, Faster, or Cheaper conflict – take your pick.  In most cases, you only get two.

Well, with Nuvana tools – we want our partners to get all three – with the added bonus of a fourth benefit:  fun.

— JvK

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