Learning Games That Shine

A game production studio head keeps learning relevant and fun. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Dan White of Filament GamesWhile an undergrad at Cornell, Dan White developed virtual science museums, primitive games that introduced middle school students to complex genetics concepts. “We tested with 4H and Boys and Girls clubs and the results were amazing,” says Dan. “The kids were highly engaged despite the complexity of the subject matter and limitations of the technology.” He knew he was onto something important, so he enrolled in an education technology graduate program at UW-Madison and studied game-based learning under the guidance of luminaries like Kurt Squire and James Paul Gee. “By 2006, the rhetoric was powerful but examples of quality learning games were scarce,” says Dan, so he teamed

Games spark curiosity by enticing learners to engage with a topic and then drawing them in and holding their attention until they understand the topic’s inherent interest value.

up with his co-founders Dan Norton and Alex Stone to change that — and Filament Games was born while he was still a graduate student. Their first project, a game about ocean science, was the subject of Dan’s master’s thesis and shortly thereafter parlayed into a $1,000,000 grant from the Kauffman foundation. Filament Games is now an award-winning game production studio that exclusively creates learning games. Their core competency is producing games that combine best practices in commercial game development with key concepts from the learning sciences. Their staff is comprised of individuals who are equal parts game and instructional designers — a “dual literacy” that allows their team to engineer authentic game-play mechanics, that is to say, with rules and interactions that directly correlate with specific learning objectives. While games are certainly fun, Dan takes us on a serious adventure with his discussion about the value of game-based learning.

Victor: What drives the development process of teaching and learning games at Filament Games?

Filament GamesDan: Learning outcomes. Every game we make is built to address a specific set of learning objectives, so we start by designing game mechanics (i.e., verbs) that allow learners to interact directly with said learning objectives. Example: for the learning objective, “understand the mechanics of day length,” we designed a model planetary system and granted learners the ability to manipulate the tilt and rotation speed of a fictitious planet. We want kids to think like scientists so we offer minimal direction and instead design missions that compel them to figure things out on their own. In the above example, learners are challenged to help a quirky alien build a custom planet that has 14-hour days.

Throughout development, we work with educators to ensure that we’re on track to make something helpful and effective.

Victor: What are the benefits of incorporating games into curriculum?

Dan: Student engagement is the obvious answer, but it goes deeper than that. Good games aren’t about conveying information. They’re not multimedia textbooks or interactive lectures. Good games are about preparation for future learning, which they accomplish by delivering foundation experiences and engendering curiosity.

Foundation experiences are visceral, first-hand experiences that make abstract concepts concrete. They are meaningful, memorable and relatable. If learning is about assimilating new information into an existing framework, foundation experiences enhance learning by helping novice learners quickly establish robust starting frameworks.

Curiosity is latent until sparked. Games spark curiosity by enticing learners to engage with a topic and then drawing them in and holding their attention until they understand the topic’s inherent interest value. This, in turn, causes the learner to pursue further knowledge on the topic of their own volition.

So, can games serve as an engaging way to convey knowledge? Absolutely, but their real potential lies in 1) giving kids rich, experiential foundations to build on, and 2) inspiring them to want to build on those foundations by activating their innate curiosity.

Victor: Any guidance or advice for educators who want to incorporate games into curriculum?


1) Don’t be afraid to get outside your comfort zone.

2) Don’t treat the game like a textbook or video; treat it as a learning activity.

3) Be discriminating. There’s a lot of garbage out there.

Victor: What trends do you see for educational gaming in 2014?

Dan: Games will become increasingly relevant as the education system evolves in response to the Internet. Educators will spend less time conveying knowledge and more time teaching students how to acquire, critically process, and create new knowledge on their own.

The prospect of developing learning games for the institutional education market will continue to inch toward commercial viability. This will be driven, in no small part, by a shift away from standalone game content to game-based curricula, which will be easier for educators to learn and deploy.

Educators will become increasingly game literate, making it increasingly difficult for simple interactive and skill-and-drill applications to position themselves as games.

Victor: Any new games in the works at Filament Games?

Dan: Always! We’re building a suite of game-based middle school science curricula called PLEx (Play, Learn, Experiment) and plan to release the life science content in the spring; we’re building a tablet-based, multi-player speaking and listening game called Discussion Maker that teaches critical thinking and argumentation skills; and we’re building a massively multi-player online STEM game called Radix and a cool physics game called Surge in partnership with a bunch of smart people at MIT and Vanderbilt, respectively…to name a few.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education in general these days?

Dan: Schools aren’t broken, they’re just anachronistic. Fortunately, in my experience, they understand that the world is changing and want to stay relevant. Here’s what we know: learning is not about cramming students full of knowledge and then asking them to regurgitate it on a test. That methodology is outmoded in 2014 and completely incongruent with the skills that students need to be successful outside of school. More importantly, it kills student curiosity and interest in learning, the two traits they reliably enter the system with and arguably the two most important traits they need to leave it with.

Standardized testing and the system of punitive accountability it fuels need to be phased out. Measuring performance rarely improves it, especially when the measurements are simplistic and superficial (standardized tests bear little to no resemblance to the tasks that modern workers perform in order to succeed as professionals and citizens; tasks that require creativity, systems thinking, collaboration, evidence-based argumentation and other higher order thinking skills). So long as teachers are prodded to teach to the test, education will continue to stagnate and students will continue to disengage. Evaluation is essential, but should be tied to formative touch points, portfolios, badges, grades, and other dynamic measures of learning and progress.

Victor: For fun: what was your favorite retro game (Atari, Ms. Pac Man, Asteroids, etc.) and why? What did you learn from it?

Dan: I suppose I’d say Pitfall because I’m an adventurer at heart. It taught me anger management because it was punishingly difficult!

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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