Gibbs, KnoCo Bring Education to Gaming

By Andy Meek

Editor’s note: This is the third in a six-part series on entrepreneurs in the current round of Seed Hatchery’s “cohort” boot camp.


(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Memphians of a certain age – say, late 20s and early 30s – probably remember some of the computer games they played in school.

Things like “Oregon Trail” and, maybe when they were really young, something like “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”

Kenn Gibbs, the CEO and head developer of a game-focused startup in Memphis called KnoCo, certainly remembers. He remembers the “accidental learning” games like that can facilitate, and the critical thinking, memory and comprehension skills, among others, they can promote.

He thinks there’s enough current potential in games like that – especially given technological advancements that make them today a far better “edutainment” option than they used to be – that he’s started a company here in the hopes of making and selling his own.

From an outsider’s perspective, the timing would seem to be fortuitous. Separate from the kinds of games a teenager might play on an Xbox or a PlayStation 3 like “Halo” and “Call of Duty,” the prevalence of smartphones has turned huge swaths of the population – from the old to the young, businessmen to young adults and everyone in between – into casual gamers, be it through hit “mini game” titles like “Words With Friends,” “Farmville” or the latest craze, “Draw Something.”

For his project, Gibbs got together with Elliot Boyette, the art director and designer for KnoCo, and James Youngblood, the company’s composer, game designer and product manager, to start building what they hope will be the first in a line of educational computer games.

They’re well into development of the initial title, which they’re tentatively calling “Aerial Dogfighters” and which they’ve already been previewing for teachers and a variety of audiences to get them interested in the finished product.

To speed them on their way, they applied for and were accepted into Seed Hatchery, a boot camp for entrepreneurs based in the EmergeMemphis building Downtown that provides startups like KnoCo with seed funding, mentorship and valuable training.

This article is the third in a series of profiles The Daily News is running to offer a snapshot of the entrepreneurs behind the six ventures in the current Seed Hatchery cohort.

“We’re making fun, educational games that have an adaptive curriculum for kids,” Gibbs said, by way of summing up the basic idea behind KnoCo. “That way they can learn, but when they play they’re also having fun.

“Right now, there’s lots of educational games out there that teach you through what’s called digital flash cards. You solve a problem, and then something completely random happens. It could be a horse going faster. It could be a penguin jumping across icebergs.”

KnoCo’s first game, though, won’t be a simple “button-masher.” It will have a storyline, it will involve the gamer performing certain math-based tasks and perhaps most important, it will be adaptive and self-tweaking. It can spend more time, for example, on areas where the gamer appears to be having trouble.

Also, KnoCo’s principals are building a notification system for parents into the game to let them know how the child is doing.

Already, Gibbs and his team say they’ve spoken with a lot of teachers. They’ve also talked to educational psychologists to make sure the game hits the right marks.

Right now, the game is playable through a website, so it will be accessible to both PC and Mac users.

KnoCo can trace its genesis back to Gibbs and Boyette working at a company making iPhone games. One thing led to another, and they eventually decided to take the plunge on their own.

“For us, we have a kind of weird instance where our end user isn’t the person who’s buying the product,” Boyette said. “The kids are playing the games, the parents are buying and we’re working to also get a kind of validity from the schools.”

To that end, KnoCo is already making plans to partner with schools, which will get the game in front of its target audience.

“That way, the kids can go home and say, ‘Hey, I played this great game. Mom, I want it!’” Boyette said. “I definitely think we have a unique opportunity here.”