From Learning Games to Games for Learning

“I went from never playing games to running a board game community for six months straight,” laughs Senthil Kumar G stating the irony behind his startup MADIEE, which designs serious games focused on behavioral and leadership training for corporations.

The entrepreneur’s inclination towards revolutionising the education system dates back to his engineering college days. “I came to Chennai with many dreams,” he recalls. The first-generation graduate hailed from Kumarapalayam, a town near Namakkal. His excitement, however, was short-lived. “I valued education,” he says as he describes how his experience in an esteemed engineering program was not everything he thought it would be.

That was when his mentor and current vice chancellor at Anna University, Professor Velraj, urged him to make a difference. “If you aren’t happy with the system, why don’t you become an academician?” he suggested.

There was a light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps that was Senthil’s purpose in the grand scheme of things.

In the following years, Senthil dived into research opportunities in mechanical engineering. He worked with leading scientists at DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) and IGCAR (Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research) and travelled to the UK on a nanofluids research fellowship. He was a week away from enrolling in a Ph.D. program at IIT when he received admission to the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University in Delhi.

The Fellowship was well known for its flexible education system centered around the liberal arts. “The idea was to grasp the other subjects to become a professor,” he shrugs. What seemed like a whimsical deviation became the foundation of Senthil’s purpose in revolutionising the education system.

“I was successful as an engineer,” he says, “But the exposure to the liberal arts was an eye opener.” He had finally found the missing piece. The STEM-based education system had to become human-centered. At the program, he chanced upon a game designer. “I didn’t think much about games then,” he says, “But that was my introduction to the concept of gaming.”

In an attempt to understand the mindset of entrepreneurs, Senthil worked at early-age startups based in Mumbai and Delhi until 2017. “That was the year of the oil spill,” he interjects, referring to the fateful incident at Ennore in Chennai. “Technology had advanced. However, the oil was removed with buckets and mugs—manually.”

The paycheck no longer mattered. Inspired by the book Building Golden India by Shail Kumar, Senthil decided that he had to do something to leverage the majority young population of India. “Otherwise, the demographic dividend will become a demographic disaster,” he explains, pointing at the increasing involvement of the younger generation in crime and illegal activities.

The academician became an entrepreneur. He moved to Chennai and founded MADIEE—an acronym for Making a Difference in Engineering Education—pronounced like the Tamil word for mother’s lap. Over time, ‘Engineering Education’ changed to Educational Experience (but we’ll get to that later).

The goal was to teach the liberal arts to engineers through games. To understand game mechanics, Senthil and his partner, Ramalingam, imported around five hundred board games to begin a board game community. While building the community, MADIEE would spend six months on R&D.

The community was a hit, but the engineering ecosystem did not welcome the cause. The institutes and students found it hard to perceive the need for a system that did not focus on STEM. Besides, games were not a popular means of learning back then.

It seemed like Senthil was fighting a losing battle. However, his relentless efforts paid off. In 2018, UNESCO-MGIEP invited the startup to present its game at the Transforming Education Conference for Humanity (TECH). The following year, the Singapore International Foundation invited MADIEE to conduct games for the organization’s leadership. When he realised that corporations embraced the initiative, he was quick to pivot. He changed the acronym and set his sights on removing the stigma behind gaming.

Following the event, MADIEE gained popularity amongst the corporate crowd. Eventually, the company partnered with the Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India and the Tamil Nadu Government to instill the spirit of entrepreneurship among school children—taking part as a knowledge partner for the TN Ilam Innovators Challenge. In 2019, the game-based education company bagged an award at the TN Innovation Grant Challenge, as one of the top five innovative startups.

The rapid scaling and the vast digitisation following the pandemic forced the company to let go of its board game format. “After a point, it became difficult to maintain the pieces and be present for all of the events,” he recalls. The company decided to shift to digital gaming.

In 2021, the company bagged an award at the Toycathon under the ‘serious gaming’ category and is in its next stage of development—to expand from multiplayer to single-player games. The goal is to allow anyone (and not just corporates) across the globe to upgrade themselves by unlearning and relearning through games backed by research on behavioural studies.

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