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.
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.
The biggest complication came with the “matras” or vowel signs.
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.
“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.
Read the entire article here. You can also read more articles about Aksharit here and here. The Aksharit team is also looking for language experts to help them. If you are interested, please email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.