Filament Games takes time to play and wins big

Despite your best intentions, educating employees on workplace sustainability can be a groan-worthy exercise.

“Turn off your computer monitor.” Yeah, sure.

“Remember to double-side print.” Do I look like some kind of IT expert?

“Recycle or compost your lunch.” Commence the synchronized eye rolling.

I see many corporate Green Teams struggle in their efforts to meaningfully engage their colleagues in sustainable practices in the workplace. If only we could make this sustainability learning curve fun, interesting, and relevant to our colleagues’ work.

Who better to take on this challenge than Filament Games, a Madison-based game-production studio that exclusively creates learning games? Developers at Filament Games take abstract subjects like math and science and transform them into interactive and goal-oriented computer games. For example, in Crazy Plant Shop, players take on the role of a botanist, manipulating chromosomes to create new plant breeds and analyzing genetic traits over multiple generations.

“Learning is already fun,” says Dan White, executive producer at Filament Games. White suggests that learning “does not need to be sugarcoated … instead it needs rich context, and that’s what learning games are powerful at providing.”

This idea is central to Filament Games’ design philosophy. And it’s one that the company’s Green Team has adopted. In an effort to educate employees on sustainability, the Green Team applied “rich context” to the conversation by asking the developer teams to create a sustainability-themed learning game during their annual game jam.

A game jam is an organized gathering of game developers, artists, programmers, and designers with the intention to create a full game in a short period of time — usually 24 to 48 hours. To be clear, Filament Games didn’t invent the idea of a game jam; it’s fairly common in the industry. There’s even a global organization that hosts game jam events each year in over 60 countries.

Filament Games hosts its own game jam each year as a way to engage employees in learning, skill development, and team building in a fun and failure-safe environment.

“Our projects are generally client-driven, so the game jam is a nice break for the developer teams to step back and create something with full ownership over the entire process,” says Maxwell Zierath, project assistant and Green Team member. Zierath lobbied to make this year’s game jam theme sustainability, aligning it with the company’s MPower Business Champions initiatives.

Teams had 24 hours to design and develop a sustainability-themed learning game, and they used Next Generation Science Standards to create the learning objectives. Teams were allowed to organize and reorganize as needed, and they were required to use the studio’s new HTML5 engine — a great way for the teams to get hands-on practice with this new tool.

Here’s what happened. First of all, the games that the teams developed and rapid-fire prototyped were simply stunning. As game designer Abby Friesen explained, most of the games created in the game jam focused on resource management within some system or economy. This level of holistic, systems thinking is spot on with how we work in the sustainability field. Still, while I love my job at Sustain Dane, I wouldn’t consider it very entertaining.

“Real-life systems aren’t necessarily fun,” Friesen explains, “so we make sort of a caricature of a real system, exaggerating some parts and taking out some of the mundane parts without being inaccurate or misleading.”

For example, one team created a game in which you manage a commercial fishery and have to expand your business without overfishing — Go Fish 2.0, anyone? Another creation that I particularly loved was a multiplayer card game in which players try to build their empire by acquiring and consuming resources, but if one player grows too quickly and depletes the supply of resources, all players lose the game.

“It was a symbolic way to get the players to understand that if we deplete resources trying to win, then we all may lose,” she says. Friesen, an experienced designer, says she had little grounding in sustainability before the game jam, but that the experience helped to engage her and her colleagues at a deeper level.



She explains, “Whenever we design a learning game, we go through this internal process of researching and internalizing the subject matter. We have to understand it to be able to create a metaphor for it and also to teach the concept to others.”

In short, the game jam required the developer teams to not only learn about common sustainability practices on a surface level but to really digest and process the subject matter in a meaningful way. And that has had a profound effect.

“The game jam really kick-started the conversation around sustainability at Filament Games,” said Zierath, who continues to look for ways that Filament Games can become increasingly sustainable.

There’s no saying whether or not these games will make it to market, yet Filament Games’ Green Team has definitely unlocked some new skills and advanced to the next level with this initiative. The game jam wins at engaging employees in sustainability as well as collaboration, ownership of work, learning new professional tools, and having fun.

Even if you don’t work at a boutique game design studio, can you think of ways to incorporate play into your workplace as a way to engage your employees on a topic — say, sustainability?

If you need a hint, check out Cool Choices — a sustainable behaviors card game that’s been successful in schools and businesses across Wisconsin — at

One final note: Filament Games is a 2013 MPower Business Champion, one of 17 area organizations that have worked with Sustain Dane this past year to become more sustainable in areas of energy, waste, water, transportation, food, wellness, and more. Applications are now open for the 2014 MPower Business Champions program. Visit to learn more. 

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