10 Good Minutes with Dan White of Filament Games

This interview is a guest post from Adrian Sanders from Kill Screen.

Shortly after his great Games For Change presentation called “Innovations in
Business and Funding Models
“, Kill Screen sat down with CEO of Filament Games
Dan White to learn more about what separates educational games from commercial ones and why making commercial games is downright boring:

Why did you decide to go into educational games as opposed to more
commercial games or AAA titles like Call of Duty?

Honestly, because I would be bored to tears. I enjoy playing commercial
games but if you’re working there, you’re working on something like
Farmville or innovating incrementally. Things are relatively set in stone in
terms of what you can and can’t do.

But in educational games, this feels like a new frontier – anything is
possible! Game mechanics can be really experimental, and totally new types
of game design fan be created. That’s what I’m interested in.

Isn’t Red Dead Redemption, given its production values, going to be more
effective than educational games for learning about the wild wild west?

Red Dead Redemption is great for giving you the feel of the era. At a museum
for example, part of it is facts and figures about the people and what they
did, but part of it is the ambiance and that’s what Red Dead Redemption has
in spades with is huge production budgets. They can make beautiful effects
and that’s great but when we talk about educating kids and specifically what
we’re trying to teach, there are places where Red Dead Redemption simply
cannot be successful.

If the objective is to get kids to understand the economic system of the
railroads at that time, can that game really deliver? No. Can we use something like Red Dead Redemption to inspire more thinking on that time period. Of Course!

Do you feel that games in the commercial space could do a better job than
educational games if they just tried?

The tricky thing is that you have to make a lot of conceits to make a game
fun in the first place. Making fun games is really really hard. Making fun
games that are educational is even harder.

Any game designer will tell you that if you have to throw away some
educational aspect of a game if it means the game will be more fun, they’ll
do it in a heartbeat. We don’t have that luxury.

At the end of the day, there’s learning about robots and how they work and
then there’s watching Transformers the Movie. Both are awesome. But one is
maybe more useful to actually help you learn how to make a robot.

What are your thoughts on the teacher in New York using Minecraft for

I think it’s awesome. In the same way as people using Civilization for
history and DDR [Dance Dance Revolution] for gymn class. The thing is,
potentially, all commercial games could be valuable for education. But it’s
about what those developer prioritize.

Traditionally the education sector has separated everything out and said
“here are the specific subjects, they don’t really interact but you need to
learn them.” And over time, via home schools, charter schools and a few
public initiatives, we’ve found that this isn’t a great way to learn. As we
look to integrate mediums and subjects, I think you’ll see more commercial
educational games and that’s where we want to be.

Do you find working in the education industry frustrating at time?

In any insitution there’s a lot of difficulties with change or lack thereof.
I think basically, you could break your face trying to sell products into
the system, which is why we have done work for hire, contract games etc. and
then also picking up funding to do our own project.

Our science games received department of education funding through an SBIR
grant – Basically all you need to know about the SBIR grant is it says “go
and commercialize what you make and pay us back through taxes.” – so a big
part of our job is figuring out how to commercialize what we make. And
frankly, there is no obvious market or channel. We’re trying to build that.

Let’s say Filament overnight is a success with a billion dollar venture
capital investment. What does that look like?

First of all, I don’t think we’ll ever run out of topics for educational
games. We need to build a core group of topics and iterate on them. If you
look at commerical games, genres like the first person shooter have taken
decades to refine. We occassionaly get a HalfLife, a game that perfects that
art – so I think for us, there’s so many topics we could engage, iterate on,
refine and make better and better.

I think one of the business side of things is that we want to build a
sustainable market for these products. There’s a number of foundaitons that
have been key in jumpstarting this space and we’re extremely greatful for
their involvement. Moving forward, in order for this to be sustainable,
people need to pay for it and see that value for their children. And
building that market is a big job.

If I had a magic wand, you would wake up tomorrow and there would be
thriving market where we’re all competing based on quality and the best
educational games rise to the top, and there’s money coming in from

How do you feel about the approach of top down decision makers?

There’s this strange idea of just using games as a channel or a means to an end instead
of as a valuable thing in their own right.

Yeah, I would have to agree that it’s a little odd. *Deep sigh*

Five years ago, everyone was asking: “educational games, do they really do
anything?” And more recently it’s more “Oh god, we’re losing kids, but they
love games, so let’s figure out how to bring them back however we can.”

There’s definitely a sense of panic mode in education because they see that
98% of kids playing games and there’s not a whole lot of support for that in
the education system.

My concern there is that we as developers and educators need to have a
dialog on what makes games good. Kids have extremely nuanced preferences in
what makes games good. Some kids love Minecraft, some love casual games,
some are playing games you and I have never even heard of. We need to
understand that it’s not a simple problem and won’t have a simple solution.

Adrian Sanders is a writer for Kill Screen. He’s on twitter.


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