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Nintendo's former 'Fun Club President' wants you to Know-It-All Exclusive
Nintendo's former 'Fun Club President' wants you to  Know-It-All
September 24, 2012 | By Frank Cifaldi

When you make Super Mario jump over a pit, what are you thinking about?

Unless it's your first time playing, it's not very likely that you're thinking about the logistics behind the jump itself: holding the B button to run, pressing right on the D-pad to continue your momentum, pressing then holding down the A button for the precise amount of time needed, maybe even letting go of the D-pad then re-applying pressure to correct yourself mid-air. No, these things just come to you naturally while you think about higher function things, like "I need to find a power-up soon" or "better avoid that bad guy up ahead."

Step back and think about it objectively, and you'll realize that making Mario jump is a fairly complex process. But how did you learn to do it?

More likely than not, you didn't memorize the procedure in the traditional way: studying it, mapping it out, memorizing the steps in order by reciting them to yourself until they stuck. If you're like most, you mastered Mario's jump because you weren't consciously thinking about it at all.

It turns out that there are two ways of memorizing things. One way is the traditional, effortful method: using mnemonics, making connections and forcefully burning things into your memory. But cognitive scientists now realize there's a second, more automated method, where your brain learns in your peripheral through repetition without you realizing it. It's the same kind of learning method that ensures that once you learn how, you never forget how to ride a bicycle.

But can you tap into that function at will? Can you memorize concepts without even trying by employing this method, foregoing boring studying in favor of something a little more automatic? Can you "trick" your brain into remembering things without having studied them?

At least one game developer thinks so, and he's even developed a methodology: a simple but unique puzzle game that is kind of like a combination of Tetris and flash cards. He wants to turn this into a product, and on Monday he launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund it.

Who is this man? If you're an American of a certain age, the answer may surprise you: it's Howard Phillips, formerly of Nintendo. Yes, the same Howard that acted as the Gallant to Nester's Goofus every month in the "Howard & Nester" comic strip in Nintendo Power magazine, the same friendly, boyish face with red hair and freckles and a bow tie that appeared on every news segment in the late '80s and early '90s about whether Nintendo games were ruining your mind, or in countless newspaper articles giving spotlight to "the man who is paid to play video games."

And no, he's not the former senior vice president and general counsel of Nintendo and current CEO of the Seattle Mariners baseball team. As Phillips is quick to point out, that's the other Howard, Howard Lincoln.

It's a common mistake.

The Nintendo days

For most, the last time we saw Howard Phillips was in 1991, in the final Howard & Nester comic strip, literally riding off into the sunset after handing Nester his bow tie. But unless you'd had the chance to work with him, you probably don't realize that he's been actively producing games these last twenty years. And that's on purpose.

"I've enjoyed my privacy since leaving Nintendo," he tells us over the phone.

Phillips wore many hats in his ten years at Nintendo. He shipped arcade cabinets. He managed the warehouse. He established and ran the Game Counselors department that serviced people calling in for help on their games. He was the co-editor of Nintendo Power, and before that, the first (and only) president of Nintendo's "Fun Club." He was at the head of Nintendo of America's internal game evaluation department, literally playing through every game submitted to the company (affording him the official title of Gamemaster). He even produced games, working with outside developers like Rare on games with titles like RC Pro-Am and Snake, Rattle 'N Roll.

And as the public face of Nintendo in the late 80s and early 90s, a time when Nintendo was video games, Phillips found himself in the unenviable role of being the world's foremost advocate of games at a time when people (parents and politicians, mostly) were telling him they were nothing but mind rot. But Howard -- a video game enthusiast going all the way back to Pong -- didn't see it that way. A father himself, he saw them as perfectly healthy pastime for kids: good for them, even.

"I'd see these little cherubic kids glowing and smiling and happy. They're in the flow, they're being successful playing the games," he recalls.

Kids were bridging cross-generational gaps by speaking the common language of video games. Big bothers were helping their siblings. Video games made even the outcasts feel in control, empowered.

"All this wonderful, natural humanity was coming out of this experience," he says.

Phillips did what he could in the media's spotlights to convince others, but as the 1990s reared its head and games started to lose their innocence, it became harder and harder to do.

"I had a totally different feeling watching a 7-year-old play Killer Instinct than I did watching a 7-year-old play Super Mario," he remembers.

Games were changing, and Phillips' fame -- and with Nintendo Power subscriptions in over a million homes, being passed around in school yards to countless others, he was famous -- just got to be too much. A husband and father of two, he had a hard time going out in public with his family without being recognized.

"I felt obligated -- for the right reasons -- to help people fulfill their wish when they'd suddenly come across this public figure," he says.

"I was regularly giving my time at the expense of my family's time to satisfy the fans' needs. And that's something I didn't want to do. I wanted to spend more time working on games themselves, and making people happy because of the games, not because I would leave my wife and kids in the car at the gas station while I talked to someone and their kids for ten minutes."

Moving games beyond entertainment

Rather than convincing people in front of a camera, Phillips wanted to make games positive, to ship products that did a little good and, just maybe, changed the world for the better. And besides, Nintendo just wasn't the same anymore: through his ten years there it had grown from a small six-person start-up to employing literally hundreds and hiring a marketing director who used to push toothpaste. So when Steve Arnold at Lucasfilm offered him the chance to head its nascent Lucasfilm Learning division in 1991 and work on educational games, he left Nintendo behind.

Phillips didn't stay there too long. He bounced around a while -- shipping some regrettable licensed games at THQ, heading a West Coast development studio for Absolute, and running a short-lived Redmond multimedia company called Splash -- before settling in at Microsoft, helping to set up its evaluation system for PC and Xbox games.

There, while working on an interactive literacy initiative, he met and worked with Dr. John Bransford of the University of Washington, a psychology professor specializing in cognition and learning, particularly through interactive media. Bransford exposed Phillips to a lot of research that was being done with the cognitive sciences. In Phillips' brain, something just clicked.

"I did a roll-up of everything that I knew to be true about what makes games compelling... and I cross-referenced that with all this newfound knowledge I had with cognitive science," he says. "And the parallels are just phenomenal."

This left Phillips, someone who was never quite on-board with traditional "edutainment," wondering: if there's such an alignment between hundreds of years of learning sciences and decades of video game design, why aren't educational games rewarding learning experiences yet?

Ultimately the literacy project fell apart, "crashing under its own weight," as Phillips tells it. He left Microsoft and ended up as the studio director at Epic-owned Chair, shipping Shadow Complex and Infinity Blade, but the idea of a learning game that actually made learning fun never left his thoughts.


Now on his own, Phillips is re-emerging after twenty years out of the spotlight, strapping the bow tie back on, doing media interviews, even starting an IAmA on Reddit, and getting ready to release Gamemaster Howard's Know-It-All, a mobile app that makes a game out of habituated learning, based on a system he developed.

It's a simple tile-matching puzzle game that, in theory, will automatically help players memorize concepts through a combination of visual and auditory cues that happen as you play. For example, players might play with a set of guitar chord tiles that both show a chart and play the chord every time you place a tile down, or learn the Spanish names for common foods by constantly reinforcing a picture of the item along with a friendly voice pronouncing it clearly.

It's a concept that Phillips seems to genuinely believe in.

"I want to see a million people using this," he says. "I want to see kids everywhere doing their English language learning with this and being successful at it. I want to see people in the U.S. who are failing at math and engineering be able to do a lot better because suddenly they don't struggle with their times tables."

The game is designed to be intentionally open, with data sets for players of all ages: currently, it imports data and tile sets from a free online flash card network that already exists, as well as a few of Phillips' own creations. Most are designed to help players memorize things that might help them out but, given the (theoretical) power of this system, there are other possibilities.


The game affects a player's striatum: the part of the brain that learns things in the periphery. Habitual, everyday things that you might not need to pay attention to. This is the same part of the brain that puts you on autopilot when you're driving home from work or, to bring it back to Super Mario, automatically recalls which pipes lead to secret underground areas. It isn't as "conscious" as traditional hippocampus learning and recall: in a sense, given that it's automated, it implants things in your memory without you realizing it. It might even be open to suggestion.

"This could be used for evil!" Phillips admits when asked. "I can imagine McDonald's guys trying to get kids to say 'I'm lovin' it' 18 different ways."

"Or maybe it makes you think, or expands your world, or who knows what."

One early experiment in social change that Phillips has integrated in the game is what he's calling his "Poli-Gaffes," which has players matching a politician with a recording of a gaffe they've said in public. He's got two sets in there: one for those identifying as Democrats, and one for Republicans. At first, players cheerfully reflect on dumb things their opposing side has said.

"It's playing into your weakness: you want to hear more Fox News or Huff Post or whatever it is," he says.

But, play far enough into the game, and Phillips starts mixing in dumb things said by your side too.

"The end result is you'll realize, oh, it's not just Romney who said something goofy, it's Obama too."

The Future

Changing opinions isn't the only (again, theoretical) emergent use of this learning technique. Talk to Phillips long enough and you'll get him theorizing about Know-It-All being used in the medical field.

It is, after all, a brain modifying tool, one that ties things together in your brain in a way that is automatic. It could be used to treat people with brain trauma to regain lost language capabilities, or help someone with Alzheimer's recognize that the person coming to care for them every day is not actually a stranger, or help someone with autism be able to read facial expressions in a way that traditional learning wouldn't provide them.

"This is all a stretch," he admits. "I don't know if this is the case or not."

For now, Phillips is targeting traditional education with the App: in fact, he's hoping to be able to donate copies of the game to educational institutions once his initial $50,000 goal is surpassed.

Learn more at Know-It-All's Kickstarter page.

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Jeremy Alessi
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Ian Fisch
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Seems to me like another old guy who knows nothing about modern videogames, trying to pitch his crap on kickstarter.

His explanation of his 'learning system' is vague to say the least. How does the system work? How does the game play?

Sorry but I only back projects that I'd actually want to play.

Scott Sheppard
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I'm very happy to see this coming to fruition.

Saul Gonzalez
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My Masters' Thesis was in educational games and I'm sorry to say this project doesn't look compelling at all. From what could be gathered from the video, their prototype is a 90's edutainment version of flashcards. There is a vague reference to brain research, but it all appears far removed from the state-of-the-art on Serious Games. Besides the Kickstarter and celebrity focus, it's an old idea plus lots of wishful thinking.

It's sad since I had great expectations from Howard. Maybe he can get involved with the Serious Games community and come up with something great.

Howard Phillips
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Hi Saul - sorry to see you are so quick to judgement : /

Consider that I've been working with THE Dr. John Bransford at the University of Washington LIFE Center for a number of years and he is very interested in this novel approach.

I have been tangentially involved with the Serious Games effort since its inception but moved forward when I found little that interested me personally.

Good luck with your own efforts!

Luis Blondet
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Saul Gonzalez
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Hi Howard, thanks for the kind reply.

I judged on the basis of what was shown. If you can provide more details of the gameplay mechanics and how they're shaped by cognitive research, I'll be happy to reconsider.

Is Dr. Bransford involved in this project? There is no mention of him in the Kickstarter and this article implies your joint project fell thru.

Congrats on your accolades and likewise best of luck.

Howard Phillips
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To set the record straight, John gave me his go ahead today to post this on the Kickstarter project site.

"Howard Phillips is one of the most creative, knowledgeable, scholarly and community minded people I know and his Know-It-All game is extremely exciting. At first, it looks like mere flashcard technology--but we’ve come to see that Know-It-All is much more than that. Keep up the brilliant work Howard!"

- Dr. John D. Bransford, Shauna C. Larson Professor of the Learning Sciences - University of Washington. Formerly Centennial Professor of Psychology and Education and Co-Director of the Learning Technology Center at Vanderbilt University. Co-Chair of the National Academy of Science committee which wrote How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (2000)

Saul Gonzalez
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Hi Howard,

My apologies if I was too negative. I expected some more information on how the game implements the research to achieve the stated goals, how it is different from the flashcard approach it seems at first glance, and how it overcomes common pitfalls such as becoming repetitive.

You may have decided to glance over those aspects currently, but that leaves a void that made your pitch not so convincing to me personally. I do look forward to hearing more details in the future.

Howard Phillips
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Apology accepted!

More info is coming very soon in the form of references to academic papers - I hope you find it as interesting an intellectual journey as we have.

Regarding repetition. It is our contention that when it comes to the strengthening of automated "habit" memory that a high level of repetition is what we want. Exercising this repetition using if you will, the peripheral attention of the player has benefits in that it both avoids the laborious (actual decrease in glucose levels in the brain) exercise with the medial temporal lobe while gaining the benefit of hyper-repetition that speeds strengthening. That's the theory at least. Informal studies so far show the method to have great promise.

thx and look to the Kickstarter project page for updates with specific details...

Todd Boyd
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From someone who grew up reading Nintendo Power (and *loved* the Howard & Nester series), it makes me incredibly happy to know that you're still out there, fighting the "good fight". Best of luck with this -- I'll be looking for it on Android!

Howard Phillips
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Thx sincerely for your support guys - it is very much appreciated. The world is full of naysayers who attempt to raise themselves up by pushing others down (politics anyone ;) and so I truly appreciate it when individuals stand up square-shouldered to back an effort that has good intent but is new and yet-to-be-proven. That is what the Kickstarter community is all about and why I chose to go there for project support.

If you think the project worthy, please pledge your support today no matter how small and ask all your friends to do the same. Without individuals like you acting on your optimism, naysayers win and the world becomes a darker place...

thx again - h

Ian Fisch
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I think most of the negativity generates from your kickstarter video's utter failure to explain how the learning system works, or how the game is supposed to play.

Maybe you're keeping those things under wraps because you don't want your idea stolen, but if that's the case, then maybe kickstarter isn't the best place to look for investors.

I gladly back projects that I want to play, but you just don't give enough info.

Ali Afshari
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I'm backing this on payday later this week :)

Brandon Sheffield
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be aware that your money doesn't actually get taken until the project is successful, so you need to have the money in 29 days, not necessarily now.

Ali Afshari
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@Brandon: Thanks! I totally forgot about that. I'll back it now :)

Curtiss Murphy
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Is this related to habit forming? You know - I see a cue, which stimulates a pre-canned response, so hopefully, I achieve a reward. Taking a shower, driving a car, brushing our teeth - all habitual behaviors that we barely think about. Seems relevant.

For the naysayers - games make effective teachers. Flow, simplicity, stories, motivation - the core ingredients of both games and learning. That's why our Damage Control Training game worked so well for Navy recruits. One hour in our game led to 50-80% better performance!!!

Howard - Your approach has great potential and I wish you luck!

Refs: Consider 'The Power of Habit' by Duhrigg. Or google, 'Why Games Work - The Science of Learning' by me. :)

Howard Phillips
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Thx for the encouragement!

Yes, some call this second memory system "habit memory"

thx again - h

Curtiss Murphy
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Howard - What's the article title? Link is broken.

Howard Phillips
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Sorry - websearch "Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction"

warren blyth
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can anyone give me a link to an old (related) article?

I remember reading a lengthy article (in an old Wired, I think) about someone who had made a memory reinforcing tool. he debuted it at some industry trade show (in the late 70s? early 80s?) and nobody noticed because some other innovation was released at the same show.

The idea he had was that memories degrade at different rates for different people. Plus, it was not productive to review something too soon (didn't help) or too late (forgotten completely). Research had shown the best time to remember something was jusssst before you were about to forget it. So his software asked you a couple simple questions each morning, and got to know you over many months. Eventually it knew your ideal timing, and would offer up reinforcement questions at the proper interval.

No part of my memory of this article has proven google-able. :( help?

Frank Cifaldi
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Dear god I want to read this. Anyone?

Howard Phillips
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Supermemo? - The core methodology is "spaced repetition" which has since been replaced with "expanding exercise" - both related to Ebbinghaus' "forgetting cure". There are several new US companies that have sprung up recently offering apps and web-services that employ this spaced/expanding repetition/exercise methodology.

Know-It-All is different as it does not target the conscious effortful memory system which can be optimally developed over time using a spaced/expanding repetition/exercise methodology.

Instead, Know-It-All targets and exercises the automatic near-effortless memory system which unlike the conscious effortful one, can benefit from additional near-term exercise in order to strengthen memory.

thx - h

warren blyth
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I'm obsessed with the idea of crossing over between games and learning, so I pledged ($20). However the pitch seemed a little vague to me. I'd like to read more on these two modes of memory. Did i miss the exact terms that I could use to look this up? (edit: yes).
I'm guessing the pitch keeps it simple because it wants to appeal to many people. but it kind of makes me think of brain age in it's vague mention of science.

(edit: i'd like to retract my skepticism. They have provided the info. My first thought was that mario jumping, and bicycle riding, both seem to operate on muscle memory? So I was nervous they were pretending this was a new discovery. And I was worried a tile matching game was only good for memorizing terms. but there does appear to be much more to it.)

* I joined the Portal2 education group, and ran into the problem that it's great for demonstrating physics, but it's very hard to represent themes of classic german literature. or basic sign language. I'm nervous this Gamemaster project may have similar problems.

However, the concept is exciting. (and Valve Education just sent out an email about updates for their tools, which allow for changing physics of the game, and angles of launchers, and text boxes for commentary/explanations. and more. A good sign that if these modern learning games can establish themselves they will get more nuanced over time).

I think there's clearly a lot of potential in the game/learning crossover, so I'm happy to support the project. would like to know more about the science.

warren blyth
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oh, whoops. I see the article mentions the "Striatum" (which wikipedia offers up as part of the basal ganglia system of the brain. related to detecting the most pertinent sensory inputs? and maybe controlling what is in your working memory? ... commence science overload!).

Just last night I was trying to debate the effects of TV on the (child) brain with some Waldorf-endorsing parents (nothing against Waldorf. I was just debating their evidence that the US school system is borked, and that TV is evil). We ended up discussing the Reticular Activating System (subcortical thing. fun summary:
tool-the-reticular-activating-system/ ).

Seems like there a lot of disparate research into how our brains react to video & game inputs. Frustrating that I can't find a resource that brings it all together. (the Striatum is sub cortical, and the RAS is sub cortical. but are they related? and how?)

Howard Phillips
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This paper if nothing else related to Know-It-All, refers to the two distinct memory systems

The science of these two systems is evolving with each new paper released...

thx - h

Curtiss Murphy
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Warren - RAS makes a neat addition to my own obsession - Deliberate Practice. Thanks for the article link!

David Boudreau
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Hi Howard, I was an enthusiastic FunClub member from the third issue (first one in color I think). Since those days, I have had similar aspirations of games being used for educational use. I made an edutainment title, Fawnix, for Xbox Live Indie Games. Anyway it's very interesting to find out what you've been up to since the 80's- best of success with this endeavor!

Howard Phillips
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FYI - I just posted an update on the Know-It-All Kickstarter page that as a video of Know-It-All playing athe downloaded PoliGaffes content set FrankC mentioned in his write-up - I'm hoping this and more to come will spur creative thought regarding non-standard ways to play with Know-It-All...

Tahiya Marome
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This has legs. As an instructional designer with 17 years in special education I would point you to the methods and practices of special education. This often overlooked area of education is far ahead of the curve as its methods and procedures had to be invented in response to the learners themselves. Specifically to your project, precision teaching.

My students did teach me one thing that all educators have a problem with, and is especially true of learning sourced in play. The instructional designer, game creator, teacher, parents, whoever is attempting to transmit some material, is NOT in control. The brain and stimulus-consequence interpretations of each unique learner will cause that person to take in the material in ways the transmitter does not anticipate, apply it in ways they can't predict, and assign it meaning in ways they can't account for, or sometimes even understand.

Lastly, I have defined a difference between training and education that has important bearing on memorization and its role in applying learning.

Training is an effort to reduce the number of options for response a learner will consider in responding to a defined stimulus or stimuli. It's main function is to make the performer fast, accurate, and less encumbered with decision-making in order to increase efficiency of performed tasks. Rote memory is its main muscle.

Education is an effort to INCREASE the number of options a performer can consider when attempting to solve an idiosyncratic problem, or elaborate on a schema. It slows down reactions and broadens the opportunities for material to be included in decisions and assessments, analyses and synthesis. It's not about performance, but about development and additive complexity and depth.

Education is DEPENDENT on a sub strata of factual knowledge, a database of sorts, that is acquired by training, but can only be exploited by the educated possessor of that knowledge, and is observably more fully exploited by someone with higher native intelligence.

Memory is important for both, but the peripheral memory inputs to be exploited by your idea will best serve training on first blush.