Executive Q&A: Dan White, creating 'light bulb moments' for students to learn at Filament Games [The Wisconsin State Journal]
(Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Oct. 27--Dan White grew up playing video games and dreaming up his own games with pen and paper.
So it makes sense that White is co-founder, executive producer and until recently, chief executive of Filament Games.
The East Side company, 2010 Eastwood Drive, creates online educational games -- about 60 of them, so far -- in topics ranging from civics and vocabulary to science and math. Filament Games has 40 employees and expects more than $4 million in revenue this year.
"Reach for the Sun," an online game that teaches students about photosynthesis by growing a sunflower from seed to full flower before winter sets in, won an award for best gameplay at the Games for Change conference. It is the third major industry award for Filament from its project with the Institute of Education Sciences' Small Business Innovation Research program.
White, born in Fullerton, Calif., grew up in upstate New York. It was in college that his future career began to take shape as he got involved with a computer learning center at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
White has a bachelor's degree in education technology from Cornell and a master's degree in the same field from UW-Madison.
The father of a 14-month-old son, White is also big on outdoor sports, from swimming and sailing to tennis and rock climbing.
Prying Filament's computer geeks away from their screens, the company fielded a basketball team in the city league last year. "We were terrible," White said with a smile.
Q. What got you interested in developing educational games?
A. I worked at the Cornell Theory Center, the supercomputing center at Cornell. The center had a National Science Foundation grant to teach kids about genetics, targeting mostly middle school students. Game technology was rudimentary at that time.
The games were teaching extremely high-level genetics concepts, the type of material you'd get into in a college course, and we tested them with the Boys & Girls Club and the 4-H Club. The light bulb moment for me was seeing how excited these kids got about the material because it was gamelike, with 3-D graphics, presented in a virtual format. The students were interacting with it in a very gamelike fashion.
At UW, while I was in graduate school, I was working at an e-learning lab, the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory. But it was very traditional; they didn't make video games.
Dan Norton, Alex Stone and I are all gamers ourselves, since we were little. So we founded the company in late 2005. They had engineering and design experience and I had an art and design background. We decided to make learning games. We looked around and didn't find much out there -- the bar was really low. Technology was mostly being used for drill and skill. We wanted to make real games that have educational value.
For my graduate degree, I developed an ocean science game where players take on the role of researchers on an alien planet, trying to understand how the ecosystem works. I created a prototype and took it to a conference in Washington, D.C., to one of the last sessions on the last day. An employee of the Kauffmann Foundation was there. The organization was about to fund part of National Geographic's JASON Learning Project to create an ocean ecology system, and we were encouraged to apply for a grant to work with National Geographic. So I wrote a grant asking for $1 million, just to see what would happen -- and they gave it to us.
Q: How did Filament grow from there?
A: The first couple of years, we had a couple of clients and some consulting jobs. We helped an organization in Hawaii create a Nintendo DS game on literacy, targeted at fourth-graders, called "Cosmos Chaos," through a Department of Education grant.
With the help of Jim Gee (former Tashia Morgridge Professor of Reading at UW-Madison, now at Arizona State University), we got connected with a project called iCivics, the brainchild of retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. We created iCivics' most popular game, called "Do I Have a Right?" about constitutional rights. Last week, we were in Arizona for an iCivics board meeting and made a presentation to Justice O'Connor. Getting grilled by a Supreme Court justice is pretty intimidating, but I think we held our own.
In 2010, we started to add staff in earnest. Now we have about 40 employees.
Q: You create games about science, but you have no scientists on your staff. What do you look for when you hire employees?
A: The No. 1 thing is a passion for what we do -- using learning games to change education. A lot of game developers out there just want to make games that they play for fun. The technology is similar, but the end product is so different.
Q: How different is it to make educational games rather than entertainment games?
A: For one thing, the budgets are a lot smaller. At Filament, we are sub-niche because we target educational institutions and not parents. We have to think about educational standards, what technology is available to teachers and does the game teach what it says it's teaching? A regular game developer just has to make it fun.
Q: How do you make an educational video game? What is the process?
A: The project usually begins with quite a bit of research into the subject matter. We look for learning objectives, skills and concepts for students to master. We break those objectives into a series of features or game mechanics.
Among our staff members, designers determine what the game will do; engineers write software code and then three sets of artists go to work, drawing characters and background, creating ways for users to interact with the game and developing three-dimensional models and animating them. Sound is added as well as components to collect data on how a student is using the game. A teacher liaison helps determine whether the game is working in the way it is intended.Q: How long does it take to make one game?
A: Anywhere from one month to more than a year.
$4 million.Q: Where do you see the company a few years from now?
A: The educational industry is going to continue to evolve. There's definitely been a transition from print to digital.
As we head up toward 50 employees, we need to decide if we want to put the brakes on or expand up to 100. We recently hired Lee Wilson as chief executive officer, partly because we have two companies under one roof. In addition to contracts, we sell our own products directly to teachers. That part of the business continues to grow steadily. We'd like to double in size. I think our goal is to be a company that employs more than 100 people in Madison, four or five years from now.
(c)2013 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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