Welcome! Seriously! Playfully!

The Media and Information department at Michigan State University offers an undergraduate specialization in game design and development, an MA degree with concentration in HCI and emphasis on games and meaningful play, a PhD in Media and Information Studies, and a 3 course graduate certificate in serious games that can be completed on campus or fully online. June 15 is the deadline for Fall 2015 admission.

The Games and Meaningful Play group of faculty and students and the GEL Lab (Games for Entertainment and Learning) bring together diverse experts who design and study meaningful play and serious games.   Our motto is, CHANGE THE WORLD WITH US.  If you’re interested, we’d love to have you join us.

Serious Game Alumni #10: Bryan Novak

4965657af186b9092c7a96976ffe881c_XLBryan Novak’s time in the Master’s program and serious game certificate was marked by many interesting events and games. During his time here, he created an endless runner about harassment towards woman in the gaming community, a cool action platformer inspired by Megaman Legends, and a series of brain training games as part of team at the GEL Lab to help rehabilitate children in Uganda who were recovering from HIV and malaria. Bryan even got to travel to Africa and test it on location!

Novak also met Craig Tucker, the CEO of Tucknologies, a web design and software development company in Lansing. The two took TC 830, Foundations of Serious Games, where they co-created an anti-bullying game with another student. Now working as Chief Technology Officer at Tucknologies, Novak is in charge of selecting development platforms for projects, performing task estimations, delegating work to interns, and programming as well. As CTO, Novak has had a chance to work for OIC Movies, an American Sign Language company, and Compass Health and Technology Institute, who provide professional training for nurses and veterans, as well as developing software for Wealth and Wisdom.

“We’ve been fortunate to connect with people who also want to help make life better for others and the software we develop for them helps make those dreams a reality.”

While the company doesn’t exactly focus on games, Novak believes “we have been able to make use of a lot of the design theories and gamification techniques. On some of our more interactive applications, we try to find ways to encourage user participation by reinforcing positive behavior.” As a student in the serious game program, Novak explored the sphere of violence in video games and harassment of players in online games. Recalling his favorite course, TC 497, Game Design Studio, Novak says “I got to work with a really awesome team and we really wanted to push ourselves to make it a great learning experience as well as a fantastic game.” “

As project lead and designer [in TC 497], I learned a lot about managing time, breaking down and delegating tasks, getting regular updates, and coordination with the team when it all came together. It made for an incredibly creative and rewarding experience.”

A screenshot from Novak's TC497 game, Mechabots

A screenshot from Novak’s TC497 game, Mechabots

Piggy Scramble, an indie game in the making by Novak and several other alums.

Piggy Scramble!

On the side, Novak and several other MSU alums are working on a small indie game, Piggy Scramble. While most of his technical skills were gained as an undergrad at UW-Stevens Point, Novak says “Nearly all of my design knowledge came from my two years at MSU.” He hopes to put these skills to work, not only as CTO, but in Piggy Scramble and several other game projects.


“I’ve found that tabletop RPGs are a fantastic way to learn about game design and how players respond to those design. A lot of systems out there make for very fluid play, letting you adapt to your players as they adapt to you.”

As far as words of wisdom for current and future serious game students, Novak says it’s important to do task estimations and record hours. “At any job,” he says, “you will hear the words ‘How long will that take?’ Practice now so you have an answer then.” Novak is also positive about the present as a great time to be making all types of games. He says “It’s become a much more accessible medium to both develop for and to be appreciated by the public. Just keep making, testing, breaking, revising, patching, upgrading, sharing, and playing.”

Serious Game Alumni #9: Culver Redd


The alumni series is back! Opening this semester with the talented Culver Redd, who is currently a Software Engineer at TechSmith. Redd’s path into the Serious Game Certificate is certainly a unique one. Stemming from an early interest in physics, his motivation arose shortly after completing his undergraduate thesis in Computer Science, a game for physics and astronomy education. His thesis advisor introduced him to Meaningful Play, where he continued research for his thesis but was also floored by the wide variety of serious game projects displayed. Redd said “It wasn’t until attending Meaningful Play that I realized how many people were working to that purpose.” The experience was part of the reason that Redd applied to the program.

Within the Serious Games Certificate, Redd gravitated towards games for education and social justice. This resulted in Redd becoming part of a graduate thesis team here at MSU who sought to create an infinite runner game commenting on the poor treatment of women in gaming communities. But he also found himself working on more traditional games, such as platformers, shooters, and fighting games.

Now as a software engineer, Redd writes and reorganizes code, which also requires working with UX designers, instructional designers, stakeholders and his team. Looking back on the Serious Game Certificate program, Redd believes it “really helped round out my design thinking and understanding of user testing/research. This is invaluable now that I need to communicate with people doing design and research on a near-daily basis.”

“The Serious Game Certificate really helped me in rounding out my academic coding knowledge with a lot of project experience.”

Redd’s favorite course, Dr. Casey O’Donnell’s Implementing Interactivity, allowed him to take principles of serious game theories and put them to the test of design, iteration, and analysis. And while Redd is not working in games currently, he recently finished a personal project in which he liveblogged a game programming by example book, 3D Game Engine Programming. He believes that the Serious Game Certificate has not only given him the tools to succeed as a future game developer, and the opportunity to build on his skills as a software engineer, but it has also given him the opportunity to “access and learn from some of the best resources and networking opportunities, such as the CA program.”

CA stands for conference associate, a type of volunteer at the Game Developers Conference. Redd recalls attending and working the conference as one of the most meaningful experiences of his life. “The experience of that week as a CA,” he says, “it’s incredibly difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t done it. But you arrive there, meet tons of new and incredibly friendly people. You work at the conference until you’re exhausted but every CA is just so enthusiastic that you’re infected with energy to keep on.”

“There are people there [at GDC] from every walk of life, with an amazingly diverse set of experiences and interests, with connections and experience at every level and in every job role in the game industry. And once you’re a CA, you can continue to enhance those friendships and professional connections throughout your career.”

Redd wraps it up with these words of wisdom for serious game students: “My biggest piece of advice is to make lots of friends in the program and to attend Meaningful Play and whatever other conferences you can get to. Doing as much networking and relationship-building as you can will really help in the long run. Other than that, I just suggest working as hard as you can on your games and keeping an open mind – don’t be afraid to use mediums and mechanics for your games that aren’t traditional. Breaking out of those molds can lead to great and interesting things!”

Games, Seriously Joins the Web as a Meaningful Games Podcast

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Founded by Christopher Yap, games researcher and PhD candidate at Nara Institute of Science and Technology, Rachel Bazelais, Code Liberation teacher-in-training, Jon Padua, fiction writer and narrative expert, and Thomas May, Master’s and serious game certificate student in the Media and Information department here at MSU, Games, Seriously is a new podcast that seeks to advocate for games as a meaningful medium of expression. In short, Games, Seriously wants people to, well, take games seriously.

The idea for the podcast was born some time after the team met at PAX East, where Yap, Padua, and May gave a talk titled The Mythology In and Of Games: Why the Legend of Zelda is just as important as the Legend of Beowulf, during which they met future member Bazelais, who was one of the many people in the packed room. The presenters were inspired to give this talk to counter the stigma that “games and the greater concept of play have no substantive value, or are simply goofing off,” Yap said.

“Back in the day, sharing stories was by word of mouth. Now games are one of the more popular and expressive mediums to share narratives.”

-Thomas May, Rachel Bazelais

The audience during the team's PAX East Talk, The Mythology In and Of Games.

The audience during the team’s PAX East Talk, The Mythology In and Of Games.

The panel was successful in discussing the educational content that games can afford players, this being one part of the message Games, Seriously hopes to broadcast. Through monthly, hour long episodes, the podcast aims to discuss the encouraging and exciting capacity of games—such as for education and self-improvement— to make a meaningful impact on society. Games, Seriously will provide a safe space for people to discuss integral, significant issues in game, hopefully providing stimulation for future projects that will further the field as, Yap puts it, “an expression of human creativity, positivity, and progress.”

“The fact that MSU actually has a department for serious games is a testament to the progress of the field institutionally, a field that has really caught on to something special games can do for humanity.”

-Christopher Yap

Kick off the holiday break by tuning in on Sunday, December 14th for Games, Seriously’s first episode in which they discuss the factors which make games important, a intentionally general topic where each podcast member adds from their field of expertise—game narrative, indie development, traditional fiction and prose, and serious games. Future episodes boast an extensive list of game title discussions, including serious games, games for change, and entertainment titles such as Fable, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Metal Gear Solid, and more.

Stay up to date with Games, Seriously on their Facebook and Twitter!

Dr. Casey O’Donnell Debuts First Book: Developer’s Dilemma


At first titled Developers in the Mist¸ Dr. Casey O’Donnell, professor at MSU’s department of Media and Information, was asked to change the name of his first book by the publisher. “Change it?” He said, “That’s like coming up to me and saying I need to rename my kid after five years.” It’s weird. It’s awkward. And it’s not fun. This is precisely why Dr. O’Donnell attempted to crowd source his book’s title on twitter with the hashtag #NMFB, aptly standing for “Name My F-ing Book.” But while many of the suggestions were excellent, somehow the title appeared to Dr. O’Donnell through some other, mystical means.


Developer’s Dilemma, the final title of his book, is a play on the old prisoner’s dilemma where the optimal solution is for two parties to cooperate. However, if you know the other party will cooperate, you can always throw them under the bus. Dr. O’Donnell believes a similar process occurs in the game industry, where game developers throw each other “under the bus,” so to speak.

Game developers are good at recognizing systems, but really bad at looking at their own system, Dr.O’Donnell says. The game industry needs to be more reflective, more critical, in a “Is this how we want this function?” or “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” In a way, Developer’s Dilemma is asking game developers to ask their own questions, about systems, culture, and the like.

“For big businesses,” Dr. Odonnell says, “anthropologists are a plus. I mean companies like IBM, Microsoft, Google. Anthropologists can watch users and look internally. Most indie companies can’t afford that, but there are plenty of researchers wishing for access.”

But what exactly does Dr. O’Donnell mean when he says some game developers “throw each other under the bus?” He explains the culture of secrecy—long lived in the game industry. No one wants anyone else to know what they’re working on in case they’ll steal it.

“Game developers are scared of having their IP stolen, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t really happen. That usually comes after the games are published and out there.”

Partly due to the shroud of secrecy, many game developers are invisible, when there should be a push for transparency instead. Even though some companies, like Double Fine, have made documentaries, these are still constructed narratives. Twitch allows developer visibility, but it doesn’t capture all of them.

“Games have a huge impact,” Dr. O’Donnell says, “and yet, most companies are hesitant of having people come in from the outside.” He mentions Marvel’s latest announcement, listing all their upcoming films for the next decade or so. “The earlier you show your game,” he says, “the more excited people get. It’s two plus years of publicity, but of course, some things you keep secret.”

“There should be transparency into an industry of interesting people that should be visible.”

People like Ken Levine and Shigeru Miyamoto are the faces of their games, not the people on their teams. When asked, why transparency is so important, O’Donnell replies, “It is important in the same way that knowing what goes into any product is important. It is good for the workers and the players to know what goes into that game they’re playing. Kinda like food.” Developer’s Dilemma mostly pays attention to everybody who is invisible behind the cover of a game. O’Donnell says “Sometimes credits are not enough.” He says game developers should pay attention to the game they’re playing.

Game developers must be vocal enough. You are the industry. You make the games. Speak up.”

After all, “this isn’t anything like Grandma’s Boy.”


You can purchase it hot off the press, or take a look at some “boss fights” at Amazon.com.

MSU and Girl Scouts Come Together for Tech Day

Michigan State University’s Media and Information department welcomed a troop of Girl Scouts from Livonia this past Saturday, encouraging the girls to play and learn with technology. Led by Patrick Shaw, professor and owner of indie game company Triquetra Games, the girls partook in a day of robotics, animation, programming, and even a bit of game design.

As the day began, one of Shaw’s first questions included “What does a game programmer do?” One of the girl scouts excitedly answered, “He makes the coding that makes the game work!” Shaw smiled and added “Or she,” and the Girl Scout nodded in approval, adding “he or she” to her answer. It wasn’t surprising that she choose to answer this way. According to the 2014 Game Developer Salary Survey, only 5% of game design programmers in the US are women, and much of this has to do with the social and cultural view of STEM professions as male occupations. But this day camp sought to change that, and I had the pleasure of participating.

A couple of Girl Scouts are helping one another in Scratch, a visual programming tool.

A couple of Girl Scouts are helping one another in Scratch, a visual programming tool.


Saturday was all about dispelling the belief that boys are better at math, and by association, engineering, science, and the like. Math is hard for many of us, as one girl scout pointed out, and with Mattel authoring books that teach boys are better at math, it would seem we have a lot of work to do.  Math is hard, for some, but as another Girl Scout pointed out “girls can do anything boys can.”

Besides pushing down a negative narrative about gender, Shaw also sought to find out what these girls wanted most in a game, in order to better design Triquetra Game’s .BOT, an exploration and discovery experience for young women in which they can discover ancient civilizations, new technology, and build robots. Through two exercises—Be the Producer and Be the Engineer—we got an inside look at what young girls value in games.

Multiplayer, storytelling, and quests topped the list, with snapshots coming in last place. Even more interesting was a discussion within a group on whether cosmetic customization (changing the appearance of their robots) or 250 customizable robot parts would be the better feature. The discussion ended when one Girl Scout noticed that with 250 more parts, they could build many more robots, and also customize them. The girls agreed that more parts would be better than cosmetics. All of the Girl Scouts agreed that how well a game plays is more important than game graphics as well.

Interesting, right?

Game Developer Statistics

Image credit to Game Career Guide

From there, the girls went on to code dancing cats in Scratch, an online programming tool for kids. Like many of the other activities that day, this one let the girls create using technology, and I think it was the perfect tool for showing them one of the many possibilities that computers and technology hold for them. Every girl was engaged with the program, and many of them got the hang of the visual programming editor very quickly. Some Girl Scouts even made their own accounts!

And all this before lunchtime!