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Success Stories out of the ED/IES SBIR Program: Filament Games

Screen shot of In Reach for the Sun students 'do' photosynthesis.


Well-designed learning games are promising tools for engaging and motivating students. Filament Games' PLEx Life Science (Play, Learn, Experience) suite of learning games introduced middle school students to key scientific concepts and practices in the life sciences, such as photosynthesis (Reach for the Sun), the structure and function of cells (Cell Command), heredity (Crazy Plant Shop), the effect of viruses on the human biological system (You Make Me Sick) and an engineering learning environment (Backyard Engineers). PLEx also included a curriculum for teachers to integrate the games into classroom practice.

Since the launch of this product, Filament Games has pivoted to disaggregate the individual games, essentially changing the branding of the offering without changing any of the content or functionality. PLEx was retired as a brand, and the titles are now marketed under their own branding through

The games target middle school students since it is during middle school that many students disengage from science, especially students who struggle with reading and with traditional pedagogy. Informed by the Universal Design for Learning framework, Filament Learning games provide students with multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement, and provides assistive features such as in-game glossaries and optional voice-over for all in-game text. With game mechanics tightly coupled with targeted learning objectives, the games are designed to enable "well-played" to translate to well-learned.

Research and Development:

Filament employs an Agile software development process modified for the unique needs of creating effective learning tools. In Phase I, the researchers designed a prototype game, You Make Me Sick!. Four additional games were created in Phase II, each targeting a core topic in middle school life science. Researchers at Washington State University with expertise in special education and science education provided iterative input on pedagogical strategies, content, and the implementation of assistive features. Independent teachers and science experts reviewed the games at key points in their development. Once each game had a minimum level of playability, it underwent usability (studio-based) and context usability (classroom-based) testing with small groups of middle school students and their teachers. Usability testing was designed to evaluate user interfaces, scaffolding, game balance, and appeal. Context usability allowed testing of the robustness of the software in the intended environment.

The researchers at Washington State University conducted a field test of You Make Me Sick! Students in the experimental condition (n=300) played the prototype game paired with a unit chapter from the PCI Education middle school life science curriculum while students in the control condition (n=118) used only the PCI curriculum. Interviews with teachers and a subsample of students in the experimental condition provided feedback on usability and engagement. Results found that gameplay was related to gains for students in the treatment as compared to performance of students in the control group. At the end of the project, a pilot test of 341 middle school students was conducted in three schools and five teachers over a seven month period. Each teacher used between three and five of the games to supplement relevant chapters in their usual textbook. This test served as both a proof-of-concept and an extended usability test of the full set of games. Results demonstrated that the games functioned as intended and that students were highly engaged while playing the games. Teachers reported that the games enhanced the curriculum and motivated their students. Additional research is planned to test the efficacy of the intervention.

Path to Commercialization:

Filament Games is taking a three-pronged approach to commercialization. First, the games are sold via channel partners such as Nasco, and STEAM, both of which have substantial user bases. Second, the games are sold directly on the Filament Games webstore, and marketed via social media, webinars, and presentations at industry trade shows. Third, Filament Games sells their learning games in bulk to districts and wraps them in a professional development program created to help teachers implement games successfully. To date, the games have been played more than 1.2 million times.

Peer Reviewed Publications from this R&D:

  • Marino, M.T., Israel, M., Beecher, C.C., & Basham, J.D. (In Press). Students' and Teachers' Perceptions of Using Videogames To Enhance Science Instruction. Journal of Science Education and Technology.
  • Marino, M.T, & Hayes, M.T. (2012). Promoting Inclusive Education, Civic Scientific Literacy and Global Citizenship with Videogames. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 7, (3).
  • Marino, M. T., Basham, J. D., & Beecher, C. C. (2011). Using Video Games as an Alternative Science Assessment for Students with Disabilities and At-Risk Learners. Science Scope, 34 (5), 36–41.

Follow-On Funding:

Filament was awarded a Phase II SBIR in 2012 from the National Science Foundation (#IIP-1230463) to extend this work into the physical and earth sciences, and to explore ways to improve usability of learning games in classrooms by providing teachers with curricular bridges from gameplay to their existing curriculum.


  • National STEM Video Game Challenge Developers Award. Joan Ganz Cooney Center (2011) (for You Make Me Sick!).
  • Most Innovative Education Technology Product Award. SIIA Innovation Incubator Award (2012). (PLEx Life Science).
  • Best Gameplay. Games for Change Award Winner (2013). (Reach for the Sun)
  • Best in Show. Games+Learning+Society. (2014). (Reach for the Sun)
  • Top 100 Products. District Administrator (2014) (PLEx Life Science)
  • Silver Award. Serious Play Conference (2015) (Backyard Engineers)
  • Finalist Revere Award. Association of American Publishers (2015) (Filament Learning games)
  • Finalist Best Game-based Curriculum Solution. CODiE Awards. (2015) (Filament Learning games)