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ESA Heartland Series: An Interview with Dan White

Note: This interview first appeared in the Entertainment Software Association blog.

Showcasing the geographic diversity of the video game industry, the Heartland Series features interviews with video game publishers, developers, and innovators from across America, highlighting the groundbreaking work and innovation they bring to every corner of the nation.

This month, ESA asked Dan White, CEO of Filament Games in Madison, Wisconsin, about his experiences in the video game industry, the types of games and technologies the studio focuses on, and the role that video games will play in the future of education. Read the Q&A to learn more about Filament Games and how it creates some of the best learning-based video games in the industry.

Edited for brevity not content.

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you get your start in the video game industry?

A: My start was a little different than most. I was working at a supercomputing facility at Cornell University on a National Science Foundation grant to build virtual science museums. We built online multiplayer spaces where students in middle school could learn high-level genetics concepts like transposable elements, based on research conducted by a scientist named Barbara McClintock. The technology was really primitive, but the students we tested it with – 4H Club students and Boys & Girls Club kids – were really engaged and we saw a really high level of efficacy. I got thinking at that point “if this is bad and the results are good, imagine if we made something good!”

From there, I pursued a degree in education technology at the University of Wisconsin, because at that point I only had a background in 3D modelling and game production. While I was in school for my master’s thesis, I worked with co-founders Dan Norton and Alex Stone to create a prototype game about ocean science, a topic of personal interest. We presented the prototype at a conference called Games, Learning & Society Conference and someone in the audience invited us to present at the Serious Play Conference in Washington, DC. It was the last session of the last day – and if you’re a conference goer, you know that’s not the ideal time to present – but it happened to attract the interest of someone at the Kauffman Foundation, who invited us to apply for a grant to modify the game to pair with an ocean science curriculum being developed by National Geographic’s The JASON Project. Being first-time game developers and grant applicants, we went out on a limb and asked them for $1 million, which they gave to us. We ended up making nine different games with The JASON Project, and grew the company organically from there.

Q: Can you give us a quick overview of Filament Games? What types of games and technologies does the studio focus on?

A: Filament is different from most video game studios in that we exclusively develop learning games. Specifically, we develop games that teach people things, change behaviors, and introduce new mindsets. We are constantly exploring different ways to use the power of interactive game technology to improve people’s lives in some way, and have been doing that for about 12 years now.

Q: What do you think are the benefits of game-based learning over conventional methods? How do they enhance the classroom experience?

A: I think there are many, but I’ll focus on two big ones. One, most people are wired to learn through experience, and games are just little experience engines in which people can play with the concepts we want them to learn. By interacting with those concepts and playing with them in a safe, failure-agnostic space, we find that people internalize them in a deeper, more meaningful way.

The second thing is that games are ideally suited to impart high-level conceptual understandings. This is sometimes in conflict with the status quo in educational institutions, which sometimes prioritize flat content and maximizing high stakes testing outcomes. Games can certainly drill multiplication tables and vocabulary, but from our perspective, they’re ideally suited to teach high-level concepts like systems thinking and critical thinking – for example, games that let learners play with an economy or a stellar system. That’s really where we see the technology shine.

Q: Why did you choose Madison, Wisconsin, for your headquarters? Are there specific advantages this area provides to video game companies?

A: Initially Madison, Wisconsin, was a hotbed for thought leadership around learning games. For a period of time, there was a critical mass of researchers doing seminal work on learning game efficacy, including people like James Paul Gee, who is commonly considered the father of the space. There was also Kurt Squire, Constance Steinkuehler, Richard Halverson, Erika Halverson, and David Shaffer. Filament was born during that renaissance period at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and benefited tremendously from incubating in it.

Q: Do you usually hire from local universities or are your employees from around the country? Are there specific areas of study you usually target when hiring new employees?

A: Originally, we tended to pull more from local universities and colleges. Now, we are pulling from all over the country. I often like to say that Madison has a larger game development scene than it deserves, considering that it’s a small Midwestern town. Nonetheless, it’s home to Raven Studios, Human Head Studios, PerBlue, and a number of other studios. Bluehole, the people who make PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, is in the process of moving here. All these studios spawn spinoff studios, which is great because it attracts more talent to the area. The number one thing we look for when hiring talent is the portfolio. We want to see a portfolio that demonstrates that the person is talented, but also that they enjoy making non-standard games – games that accomplish something beyond just entertainment. People who demonstrate a passion for improving the world in some way through gameplay are irresistible to us.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: There are a lot of things I like about my job! Probably the top thing is the opportunity to take on a new subject area or set of learning objectives and build a game that is completely different from any game that has existed before. That’s the business we’re in. We’re not iterating on well-established genres, we’re exploring content and topics that have never been explored in game spaces before.

It’s also gratifying to see the games in action in a classroom and to see the transformation that takes place. We often have teachers tell us, “I’ve been trying to reach students X, Y, and Z all semester, but have never seen them engage like today.” Watching the kids play the games and seeing how energetic they get is always a blast. It’s especially fulfilling to witness kids who typically struggle with school come alive because of the games and get excited about learning for perhaps the first time in their academic career.

Q: Where do you see the future of games in the education space in the next ten years? Do you think more schools will adopt games as a tool for learning?

A: I do; I think it’s inevitable. I think school is oftentimes considered an anachronistic institution, but I see a lot of that changing both because of new technology, like game-based learning, and because more and more educators and administrators are waking up to the idea that if school doesn’t change, it will soon become outmoded in the 21st century. Students will not be well-prepared for the world outside of school, and as a result, our country will lag behind in global competition. Counter to that mindset is the push for punitive accountability and maximizing test scores and catering to the lowest common denominator. You see that conflict playing out in schools and districts across the country. Slowly but surely, we’re starting to see more interactive technology and concept- and skill-oriented (as opposed to content-oriented) learning tools like game-based learning infiltrate the classroom. It’s happening at a slower rate than I’d hoped, but what’s important is that the progress is steady. Like with any large institution, changing the status-quo takes a long time.

Q: What is your favorite video game of all time?

A: Thief by Looking Glass Studios is my favorite as much because of the context in which I played it as the game itself. It was an incredibly atmospheric game and I played it during a college summer break. I had zero responsibilities to attend to and campus had become a ghost town reminiscent of some of the places in the game. It was almost as if the world has stopped – like for Bastian Bux in The Neverending Story – and the game world was all that mattered. It’s so much fun to lose yourself in a game like that. Sadly, it’s hard to get the world to stop like that anymore!

Q: What is the coolest project you have worked on in the last year?

A: The coolest project is probably one we’re working on right now; RoboEngineers. RoboEngineers is a game where you can build robots in virtual reality (VR). Right now, it’s a game for VR Touch, so for the HTC VIVE and Oculus Rift, and you use your hands to manipulate blocks, wheels, motors, pistons, gears, etc. to build any kind of robot you can imagine. We want to use this game to introduce middle-school students to engineering concepts and design thinking, and to create a bridge between the informal low-level engineering practices you see in sandbox spaces like Minecraft and more formal expressions of those practices like robotics clubs. We’re also trying to get a more diverse audience of people interested in robotics and engineering as a profession.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring video game developers? Which skills should they invest in today to break into the video game industry and become successful?

A: Because we build very particular types of video games here at Filament, it may come as no surprise, but my advice is to really spend a lot of time thinking about what types of games you want to make. For me, it was always less about breaking into the video game industry and more about making a very particular type of game and having a very particular type of impact on the world. I think, regardless of whether or not you’re interested in exploring alternative spaces, like educational video games versus traditional entertainment games, it’s important to understand that different studios have very different philosophies and missions. Game development is hard work, so you have to be really passionate about what you’re releasing into the world. So, step one: figure out what types of games you want to make and then figure out what studios make those games. And if none of those studios exist, maybe start your own!


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