For 25-year-old Manuj Dhariwal, it started with a simple enough question—why were there so few word games in Hindi? English had complex crosswords, Scrabble, Boggle and a thousand variations thereof, but the world’s fourth-most spoken language had surprisingly little.
This was in 2005, when Dhariwal was a student at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati, working on a design project to create a board game for Indian languages. Five years later, his pet project has morphed into a fully fleshed-out board game that’s easing the pain of language teachers around the country.
“What better way to learn a language than through a game?” he asks, excited. Called Aksharit, the game is an Indian language version of Scrabble. “Playing board and card games were a part of our growing up,” he says, looking at his older brother Rajat, 27, who co-founded their company MadRat Games Pvt. Ltd along with Madhumita Halder, Rajat’s wife and classmate from IIT Mumbai.
The rules of the game are similar to the English version, yet the peculiarities of the Indian languages forced them to innovate and create an entirely unique set of gameplay mechanisms. Players pick seven “akshars” and form a word with it, but the distribution of letters is different. If they had 12 tiles each of commonly used letters, like the English language Scrabble, they’d have enough tiles to cover a king-sized bed. To get the scoring and distribution right, the team analysed Hindi newspapers to understand which letters were used the most. “The ones that are used the least are assigned most points while those that are commonly used get fewer points,” explains Haldar, who handles the design.
Wordplay: (from left) Rajat Dhariwal, Madhumita Haldar and Manuj Dhariwal with a game of Aksharit. Aniruddha Chowdhury / Mint
The biggest complication came with the “matras” or vowel signs. “It took us a while to figure out matras,” Manuj says, unwilling to reveal the specifics while they await a patent on design.
Like the English Scrabble, one player forms a word on the board and gets points based on the location. The next player attaches his word to an existing word. The catch lies in the fact that Indian languages have matras attached and even have half letters. “If the tile on the board has a matra or is used as a half letter, then it remains and the new word can only be made by including them in the existing context,” says Rajat.
The team never imagined they would be one day creating board games. When Rajat completed his postgraduation at Carnegie Mellon University and returned to India, he did not want a corporate job. He and Haldar, then working with a graphics design company, decided to teach at the Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh. “That was a great time. We had students who were experimental, an administration that allowed us to teach with our own methods,” says Rajat, explaining that the idea to do something related to education came to them between 2006 and 2009. “By around then, Manuj had come up with Aksharit,” Rajat says. In early 2009, he and Haldar took a sabbatical and travelled to Chhattisgarh with a prototype of the game in the hope of selling Aksharit to the state’s education department.
“We spoke to bureaucrats, educationalists and went over several trial sessions in government schools,” says Haldar. The effort ended in an order for 6,000 game sets that would be distributed across the the state and in Manuj quitting his start-up job in Bangalore. “We travelled across the country to get less expensive raw material, sat at factories, spent hours on the design and within months, sent two truckloads of games to Chhattisgarh,” grins Rajat.
Since then, MadRat Games has sold 12,000 Aksharit sets to private and government schools across the country and estimates that over 120,000 students now play their game. In August, they clinched a deal with Nokia. An Aksharit app now comes bundled with Nokia’s N8 smartphone, and is available on the Ovi app store.
“The Nokia deal gave us credibility, especially considering their long due diligence process,” says Rajat, adding that pitching the idea to companies has been much easier since. MadRat Games is also in talks with Intel, which is thinking of bundling Aksharit in the company’s branded netbooks and ILS (Intel Learning Services) where the game will be available in five Indian languages. They are set to release the board game version in 11 different languages, including Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi and Bengali early next year. Aksharit also has a “lite” version for young children that involves placing tiles on already made words. The company is hard at work on its next set of board games, and is putting together an online store so that people can buy the games there.
The team travels to schools with the offer of making languages easier to learn through Aksharit. “We have been thanked several times by teachers for making their lives simpler,” Haldar says, smiling.
Click here for more information or contact MadRat Games at 080-40989792.