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Developer Dan White on Learning Through Gaming

To learn more about how video games can help educators meet standards-based learning goals, EducationWorld spoke with the executive producer of a company that brings quality gamification to the classroom.

For Dan White, executive producer and founding partner at Filament Games, video games are his passion. As a child, he envisioned himself creating video games and even came up with his own concepts. Today, he directs both business and development operations at Filament.

“Developing learning games is more akin to directing documentaries and designing museum spaces. Our win state is designing game experiences that inspire players to pursue extra-game learning of their own volition,” said White.

White’s experience has been that people naturally want to learn. This belief led his company to ground-breaking results, including many awards and strong endorsements from respected experts. Filament won the Developer Prize for the 2010 STEM Video Game Design Competition, the Software & Information Industry Association’s Most Innovative EdTech award in 2012, and the 2013 award for Best Gameplay at the 10th Annual Games for Change festival, to name a few.

Filament covers a variety of subjects, both in terms of games they make for others (Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics and National Geographic’s JASON) and ones of their own invention. When Filament began in 2005, the competition was sparse, and there was plenty of opportunity to shape the market based on the premise that educational games could be fun.

“The challenge, I think, is that it’s tempting to crush on fun. This causes developers to apologetically sugar-coat or otherwise obscure the learning mechanics by pairing them with ‘fun’ and often superficial game mechanics that have little or no educational value on their own. Our approach is different. We don’t treat learning like a tax,” said White.

Creating a game is a long process. After diving into research, both in terms of subject matter and learning objectives for specific grades, the folks at Filament work the game mechanics into an educational narrative. The creative side is as difficult as the development side, since children need to stay entertained to maximize the game’s effectiveness.

“Creating good interactive educational materials is more time-consuming and costly than creating static educational materials. Why spend the extra time [and] money? Well, by now you’ve almost certainly heard the adage ‘Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand’,” he explained. 

During development, games are tested by both educators and students, ensuring alignment with educational standards. Games address STEM, civics and language arts, among other subjects. The rigorous research and testing process ensures consistent game quality while allowing room for improvements. This is how White and his team discovered that giving students real-world problems to solve within the right contextualized settings enhances students’ interest as well as their receptiveness to learning.

“In our game Reach for the Sun, players tinker with a system that embodies knowledge about plant anatomy, growth and reproduction. The fun stems from trying to get better at the system so you can (pun intended) fruit more seeds (the game’s scoring metric and currency) before your plant succumbs to winter’s embrace. Of course, getting better means learning more about the system and, by extension, mastering the learning objectives,” said White about the award-winning game.

While White believes learning is self-stimulated, he noted that plain curiosity isn’t enough, and added that the teachers of tomorrow will guide students through deep conversations on material with which they can interact via EdTech.


Article by Jason Cunningham, EducationWorld Social Media Editor
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