SAN MATEO -- As the founder of Electronic Arts, Trip Hawkins is one of the all-time titans of computer gaming.
And even though his later companies, 3DO and Digital Chocolate, failed to reach similar heights, Hawkins hasn't lost his entrepreneurial zeal: On Wednesday, he's set to officially unveil If You Can, a new startup that uses video games to teach children "social and emotional learning skills" -- including, appropriately enough, perseverance.
"From the time I was a child, I was intrigued with the learning power of games," said Hawkins, recalling long hours playing Dungeons and Dragons.
But as a father several times over, he noticed that while there's no shortage of "games that are fun and entertaining, they don't have any value in the real world."
Hoping to change that, Hawkins founded If You Can in late 2012 but kept it more or less under wraps until its first product was ready for launch. "IF," an epic narrative game for the iPad that's scheduled to debut Wednesday in Apple's App Store, centers on a universe where dogs and cats wage a galactic war from rival planets called Dogma and Catatonia; children playing the game try to heal the rifts and restore the universe's healing energy field.
Hawkins calls "IF" "a handcrafted, private, interactive movie for the student." To ward off parental fears about bullying or advertising, the game doesn't include a multiplayer element, and users pay $5 a month for each new chapter after a one-month free teaser.
Concurrent with the game's release, the company will announce $6.5 million in venture capital led by Greylock Partners. If You Can previously has garnered investments from the co-founders of Netscape, PayPal and Starbucks.
Hawkins admits that despite the gold standard he set with EA, raising money for his new company was a challenge after several high-profile flops. 3DO tried to introduce a new kind of gaming console but ran aground, leaving Hawkins to file for personal bankruptcy. He tried again with Digital Chocolate, an early entrant in pre-smartphone mobile games, but stepped down as CEO in 2012 as the company sank into layoffs.
Both startups may have been too far ahead of their time, but the experiences led Hawkins to his latest incarnation.
"I'd had almost 20 years of unlimited success, almost beyond my comprehension," he said, "then I went through 20 years where success was elusive. It was humbling."
Eventually, he said, he realized that "the path to real happiness has to do with self-compassion. And you can't really get to self-compassion unless you recognize you're connected to everyone else."
If You Can co-founder Jessica Berlinski, a veteran of several education-related nonprofits, called empathy, compassion and ethical decision-making "stronger predictors of success than content memorization."
The startup's advisers include the former heads of MTV and Juniper Networks, as well as education consultant Janice Toben, who spent decades teaching social and emotional intelligence at Hillsborough's private Nueva School.
Hawkins, whose children attended the school, said Toben provided mounds of lesson plans to help the game designers decide what's appropriate for kids in different grades at different times of the academic year. He likened the process to using a massive Oakland Raiders playbook from John Madden when designing EA Sports.
"I think the concept is brilliant," said Michael Pachter, a video gaming analyst with Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles. He called games a natural medium to teach kids, especially with tablet computers increasingly ubiquitous.
"Obviously, Trip's company has to execute," Pachter added, "but he's pretty good at that."
Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.
To find out more about Hawkins' new company and about the "emotional intelligence" theory of learning, visit www.ifyoucan.org.