More than just a game: Mpls. company strives to make culturally accurate, online learning tools
Maria Burns Ortiz recalls the moment in 2015 when an investor was willing to invest in 7 Generation Games. Up until that time, the educational video game company was a side project for Burns Ortiz and her mother, AnaMaria De Mars. But the investment came with a stipulation – they had to focus on 7 Generation Games 100 percent.
“That was kind of the scary moment, because you’re going to jump and you’re going to do it. We believed enough in what we were doing that we quit everything else and focused on that,” Burns Ortiz said.
Added De Mars, “We took a really deep breath, and it was tough, but it’s kind of a leap of faith.”
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During the time they were getting the company off the ground, they lived off their savings, De Mars said.
They began working on what would eventually become 7 Generation Games in 2013, and incorporated the company in August 2015.
Based in Minneapolis, the company creates educational video games. It initially focused on math. Now topics include science, language arts and history. But what makes 7 Generation Games different is they work to make sure the games are as culturally accurate as possible. They also have games that are bilingual – in English, Spanish, Lakota and Dakota.
The staff at 7 Generation Games is 90 percent Black, Indigenous and Latino and 55 percent women.
For example, when working with the tribes, if they don’t have someone on staff who is from a specific tribe, they will work with tribal elders, educators and students in those schools.
“You can Google all you want. But really, there's no substitute for having someone from those communities be part of telling those stories,” Burns Ortiz said.
When creating the Making Camp Dakota Nation game, Burns Ortiz said they worked with students at the Warwick School in the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation. Doing this is a big part of telling the narrative and also empowering people to tell their story, she said.
For the AzTech: Meet the Maya game, De Mars said they traveled to Belize to get information directly from the experts.
“We worked with someone who was a Mayan guide to the archaeological excavations there. In anything we’re doing, we’re working with individuals from that community,” De Mars said.
Although the games were initially being used by schools, the company has expanded its reach to different organizations, Burns Ortiz said. And the games are available to anyone through the Apple Store and Google Play.
The idea to use video games to teach science and math just made sense, Burns Ortiz said. Kids will play a video game 50 times to get further along, she said.
“You don’t see them doing that in education with worksheets. So we thought if we could take that excitement and drive to take that skill level that you just learned and improve a little bit and try again, that’s really where we could reach kids,” Burns Ortiz said.
The proof the games work comes in the form of the regular messages from teachers who tell them the impact the games have had on students, De Mars said.
Burns Ortiz said Wharton impact venture associates out of the University of Pennsylvania asked if they’d thought of doing a community round. A community round is crowd equity, where, in the case of 7 Generation Games, anyone can invest for $100 or more.
“We’re Latinas in tech, people are not throwing money our way no matter what anyone says about how easy it is to fundraise,” Burns Ortiz said.
There is always a lot of talk of investors wanting to diversify their portfolio, but the reality is quite different, De Mars said.
“Two to three percent of investor funds go to women owned businesses. And I don't know what percent go to Latino owned businesses, but I guarantee you, it's less than 100 percent,” De Mars said.
The idea for a community round seemed like a natural fit, she said.
“If we're building things for the community, maybe we should go to the community. And maybe they would like to see their community represented. Maybe they just think it's a good idea that somebody is working on actually helping kids in education, and they'd like to see that company succeed,” De Mars said.
Vicki Adame covers Minnesota’s Latino communities for MPR News via Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.