Serious Game Alumni #11: Lissy Torres


This is me! My face, right here.

I’m Lissy Torres, the graduate student who has been the social media “voice” of the Michigan State University serious game graduate certificate program for the last 2 years. I’m graduating this week! Carrie Heeter, director of the graduate certificate program, thought it would be appropriate to end the semester by having me interview myself! (Thanks, Carrie?)

And with that short intro, a bit about me, Lissy Torres, and my adventures in serious gaming at MSU.

Let’s start at the end. I defended my MA project last week, and I’m pretty sure it made at least one of my committee members blush.

I certainly didn’t set out to develop an R-rated game (for mature audiences only).  I’m actually a shy person. Trust me, I am not someone who regularly (or ever) uses pickup lines to meet people at a bar.  So how is it that I came to create Activists Looking for Action, a hilarious game that invites players to create pick-up lines based on serious issues? It all started with #activistspickuplines on Twitter.

I was inspired by all the great, funny pick-up lines that were being generated by the hashtag, which were also occasionally witty and contextual. I took the inspiration to one of my last classes, Implementing Interactivity, where I prototyped it for the first time and realized that it needed a somewhat close-knit group of friends to be successful, as well as a few other tweaks.

Affirmative ActionPolice Brutality









A couple of the cards from the game. A judge draws a card and players write and perform pick-up lines to each other.

Taking from my Serious Game and game design courses here at MSU, I created this awkward, potentially offensive, educational card game that kept players intrinsically motivated to continue. In my three playtests, all players enthusiastically played through the game. And with a little prodding, it seemed possible that the opinions of the players were slowly changing to view serious topics as something to be discussed and explored, one of the major goals of my thesis.

The best part is that the closer the group of friends, the more outrageous the pick-up lines became. And some players frowned upon them, and wagged their fingers, while other players laughed uproariously. It was clear to me that my thesis was successful, thanks to the help of my amazing committee, and also what I took with me from each class.

During my first semester, in Theories of Interaction Design, I developed a curiosity for background research and for designing games. In Understanding Users, I learned the tools for testing and interviewing. In my second semester, during Foundations of Serious Games, I discovered many theories, such as scaffolding, but also concepts of fun and how to build them into an effective serious game.


Looking back, it’s easy to see just how my thesis started. Activists Looking for Action is my solution to introducing the fun that can come with learning about topics that are typically not so fun. It encourages players to talk about them and discover them among friends, in a safe environment. The idea of Activists Looking for Action is to make people comfortable with the uncomfortable, and learn to like exploring issues and maybe someday even doing something about those issues.

Activists Looking for Action is being submitted to IndieCade, hopefully for showcase and more playtesting in October. In the meantime, feel free to make your own card set, submit your pick-up lines, or tell me how the game goes!

I’m grateful for my experiences here in the serious game certificate program and the Media and Information program. I’ve absorbed a lot from professors and my peers, online and in person, and even though I will miss being a student, I aim to take what I’ve learned and make something seriously fun.

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!”

Now THAT’s a Serious Game. Seriously.

Joshua Mills, Studio Director at Relevant Games

Joshua Mills, Studio Director at Relevant Games


Most tower defense games ask players to destroy or incapacitate inbound mobs in order to save towers, but a new upcoming game demands that players keep the mobs alive in order to win because the tower is actually a slaughterhouse and the mobs are your livestock. In Fat Chicken, you play a factory farm manager and your job is to keep all your cows, chickens, and pigs fat and full of antibiotics.

I recently met with current serious game certificate student and studio director at Relevant Games, Joshua Mills, to discuss the behind the scenes and inner workings of Fat Chicken.  At Relevant Games, the goal is to take a topic and create fun, engaging games. “In Fat Chicken,” Mills says, “we have this happy, cute world but the premise is hormones, antibiotics—you’re doing this horrible thing to them.” It’s through that juxtaposition that satire is successfully used to engage in the issue. The game itself concentrates on the three main viewpoints of factory farming, from the extreme—meat is murder—to the business side of it—there’s a demand, we need it—to the inhumanity of the practice.

Fat Chicken Key Art _Logo

Mills sees the game as a way to view an issue in a different light and consider what comes and goes on dinner tables. “Maybe I should know a little more about what I’m eating and where it comes from. Is there a way to meet demand and treat animals humanely if consumers as whole will demand that?” These are some of the questions Mills hopes players will ask themselves, confident that intrinsic motivations will touch the conscience of a larger audience than traditional media outlets alone.

“Draggers. If an animal dies close to the slaughterhouse, someone comes out and brings it in. Draggers are a real thing. We didn’t make that up.”

As he finishes the serious game certificate, Mills recalls some of the benefits he gained throughout the program as he simultaneously ran Relevant Games. “I’ve been doing the program alongside starting this venture with the company, and it’s been a huge advantage to have people who you can bounce ideas off of, who break down the serious aspects of games,” he says. “You have a group of people with such different views and perspectives; it just helps me see as a designer all the different facets of an issue. I can’t tell you how important it’s been ‘cause without the class conversations, I don’t know how we would have made this game.”

Despite the fact that Mills thought a fully online serious games certificate would mean that he would be learning in isolation, Mills discovered that it was much the opposite. He has had the ability to have discussions around, not just the class content and projects, but other people’s opinions on theories about games. Learning how to implement theory into serious games and being able to explore issues helped Mills in the design of Relevant Game’s newest creation.

“In Fat Chicken, you’re deciding to inject cows with hormones. Right or wrong, you’re doing it. Maybe shooting corn into an animal’s mouth is not the best way to feed it.”

Thinking about future serious game students, Mills ended with “All I can say is don’t be afraid to push your work in the direction you think it should be, not where it is. Don’t limit your thinking to what exists but at the same time, take from the ideas of others to inform new ideas.”

Fat Chicken will appear alongside the other peer-review-selected games at the Meaningful Play 2014 Conference, October 16th to 18th.

For more information on either the fully online or in-person serious game design graduate program, visit The deadline to complete applications for Spring semester 2015 is approaching fast—November 15th!

Serious Game Alumni Interview #8: Joy Hopkins


Another recent graduate of the serious games certificate, Joy Hopkins, works in the corporate world. Currently working at Intel, Hopkins is a financial mastermind, but like many of us, she isn’t tied down to just one field.

So how did Hopkins go from finance to education?

Well, as it turns out, Hopkins has always been interested in education. After graduating with a masters in business, she sought one in educational technology from Michigan State. Intel, like many other corporations, helped fund her new degree, and a conversation with her advisor led her towards serious games, which interested her immediately. “I was telling her about this idea,” she said, “to help Chinese youth with their social skills.” She was instantly sold on the idea of a graduate certificate in serious games.


Her journey began in Foundations of Serious Games, a class about the serious game industry and game design with a serious twist. In that class, Hopkins developed, prototyped, and created a board game about driving titled Test Drive USA. The game aimed to open a discussion among family and friends about the dangers of texting while driving. Hopkins admitted to having hundreds of ideas, but this one was the first to ever be made tangible.

“What I realized during that class is how hard it is to create a usable game. I had all these big ideas, and then whoops, the game kind of plays like Candyland but I’m trying to reach teenagers!”

Hopkins took that valuable experience to her next most memorable course, Understanding Users, in which students created solutions to a design challenge based on the needs and characteristics of a target audience rather than an already formed idea. The design challenge Hopkins chose was how to improve cafeteria recycling behavior at her division in Intel. She called the program she came up with Tarzan, a familiar name often associated with the environment. “I was able to do direct observation in the cafeteria,” she says. “It ended up being really fun, thinking about using 3D signage that people can see. I was so surprised at how much more often they got it right with Tarzan.”

Joy and Prototype - June 2014

“I never thought I was creative enough. I’m into numbers, but the serious game program helped me realize I have a lot of good ideas, and part of my strength is to put things together and make them a reality.”

After completing the certificate, Hopkins feels differently about creativity. “It’s given me the confidence to bring my ideas to life.” Every day, Hopkins applies what she’s learned to better manage projects and understand her users. But her ultimate goal is to apply this knowledge to her current job and also her up and coming company, the Delphius Institute, with the goal of creating online educational solutions to help Chinese youth who struggle with social skills due to academic pressure.

As far as advice to future students and those contemplating entering the program, Hopkins says “You can do it! Oftentimes, you have an idea and you just want to realize that idea and make it happen, but I would say the projects in these classes were very valuable and grounding. Believe in that process; it works.”

Serious Game Alumni Interview #7: Ziba Scott

Ziba Scott, owner and founder of Popcannibal, a game design company, chimes in this week as we continue delving into the interesting lives of alumni. With a Bachelor’s in Computer Science from the University of Chicago, and a “good deal of live theater along the way,” Scott graduated from MSU with a Masters in serious games. Reflecting on his coursework then, Scott finds it difficult to pick a favorite, due to all the different kinds of learning that took place in each. One year, his class game project, Crossroads Village even won “Most Meaningful Game” at the Meaningful Play conference.

“The classes I took gave me a lot of perspective about what it takes to work with people and ideas to really craft something intentionally designed and professionally executed.”

As a student volunteer for the international Meaningful Play conference hosted by MSU, Scott met  James Portnow, a game designer who has worked on a wide range of games, from the Call of Duty series to Farmville.. Scott recalls an interesting academic talk about exergaming by a student, Yoonsin Oh, and, while working at the conference registration desk, he got to check Robin Hunicke in to the conference, “which gave me something to chat with her about when I met her again years later. I talked with her about Elegy to a Dead World this year at her GDC session ‘Experimental Gameplay Workshop.’”
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