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!

15 Characters You’ll Meet in the Serious Game Design Program



Every program attracts a certain type of person, but the Serious Game Certificate attracts all kinds of people. Even so, here’s a list of fifteen characters you’re bound to run into as an online or in person serious game design student at Michigan State.


The Domain Specialist

This particular student comes to us from a different field entirely. For this student, their goals tend to be about bringing games back to their field, on how to use games to educate or help players. A good example of a specialist would be a speech pathology PhD student, one of which is actually in the program now.

Person on a Mission

This character tends to come in to the program already knowing exactly what they want to do.  Often, they have a game idea they are passionate about bringing to life. They come in knowing how they want to change the world.

The Novice

The novice doesn’t really know much about video games. It could be that they only know about popular culture references or what friends have told them about the field. They see the value in games and are passionate about learning more. This character type may not consider themselves a gamer, but may enjoy game design exercises, the research aspect of games, or the user experience building behind game development.

The Expert Gamer

The complete opposite of the novice, the expert knows all there is about games and then some. They may have grown up with games, know the intricacies of several different games, and identify the term “gamer.” Their interest in the Serious Game Certificate is all about creating entertaining games with a higher purpose. They know well what is and isn’t fun, and have come to learn about the serious side of play.

The Non-Gamer

Yes, there will be fellow students who really don’t play or even like games.  What are they doing in the program? They know games are powerful and important, and they want to understand what makes games work, to adapt and apply those approaches to domains they are passionate about.

The Business Edge

As the business edge, this student brings a similar skillset as the specialist. They have extensive knowledge of the business field, sometimes marketing and advertising as well. They view serious games as a growing enterprise which has much to give, and also much to earn. For the business edge, they can identify where, why, and how a specific type of serious game will work. Oftentimes, they come from areas of high entrepreneurial markets, such as China. This student is looking for what users need and how they can fill that niche.

The Fortune 500 Employee

This person has convinced their company that becoming more expert in serious games would be useful.  They may be in communication or marketing or UX design, in HR or sales.  They bring their experience in the business world to class discussions and their own project work.

The Renaissance Person

When it comes to skills, the renaissance person tends to be less “T-shaped” than they are “pie shaped.” This student can make art assets, design a game, program, and more. They have many different skills and are here to implement them in a serious game manner, but also share them with others.

The Next Generation Researcher

If data is involved, then the researcher is nearby. This character type discovers that they love to do research, connect theories, and learn about serious game fundamentals. When it comes time to perform actual research, be it on users or games, the researcher’s passion for qualitative and quantitative data is likely to lead them to go on to pursue a Ph.D.

The Doctoral Student

We often have doctoral students, either at MSU or at other universities, who want to add the serious game certificate to their graduate curriculum. These people could be studying almost anything – English, Education, History.

The Game Industry Professional

We usually have one or more students who work full time for a game company.  They are looking to add an understanding of how theories can inform game design, methods for understanding their players, and MSU’s perspective on game design with a serious twist.

The Professor

Yes, it won’t be unusual to have fellow students who are actually already professors.  They want to add serous game design and research to what they teach, or to get ideas about how to teach different things.

The Corporate Trainer

This person may already have a job as a corporate trainer. They may use games sometimes for training. They want to know more about theories of learning, game design, and what’s possible, to be able to create more effective and more fun training.

The Online Learning Designer

This person works with instructors to create online courses.  It would be awesome to be able to add online game design to their skillset, and where appropriate, to incorporate games or gamification into online courses.

The HCI Professional

Book author John Ferrara is an inspiration to these folks.  Ferrara was an HCI professional who became interested in games while developing a game to submit to the Healthy Eating Game Design Competition. He ended up writing a book called Playful Design that draws parallels between HCI and Game Design.


This is by no means a complete list, but from what I have experienced, a popular character set in the Serious Game Certificate program. It’s not surprising to me that this program is so diverse in student types, passions, and goals. And it’s this incredible mix of people that generates fun, exciting, and personal projects, be they in the classroom or in an online space.

Professor Carrie Heeter asked me to add that this diverse mix is fascinating to teach, and makes for very interesting class discussions. You can see why we encourage students to personalize their assignments to fit their learning goals.

Where do you fall on the spectrum? And who do you think you’ll meet next year?

Meaningful Play Comes to an End

As the unofficial official photographer at Meaningful Play 2014, you might have seen me creeping around, taking sneaky candid photos, or straight out pointing a lens in your face. But from behind my lens, I had a great view of interesting people, fun discussions, and what seemed to be a good time.

Outside of the presentations and panels, conversations kept the hallways alive, as people recounted their current experiences, talking about the themes of games, race, sexism, and others. And oftentimes, these conversations made their way into the twittersphere, many of which illustrated the emotions, thoughts, and fun of my photos.

twitter 1a

Besides fostering discussions between conference goers, there was also a game room, packed with non-digital games and tables that people could play, somewhat similar to the poster and game session that occurred on the evening on the 17th. This event featured many displayed digital and non-digital games that attracted players. It was here where I saw a large amount of smiling and curious faces, probably what I remember most from Meaningful Play.


The poster and game session enveloped much of the same atmosphere surrounding the conference, which was that of friendly, safe spaces to talk about meaningful games and games in general.  It was during these few hours and days that conference goers (researchers, game industry professionals, faculty, students, and players) came together to celebrate current games and games as a medium for more than just entertainment.


For more Meaningful Play, visit the Meaningful Play flicker stream and check out the #Mplay tweets.

Meaningful Play Monster Giveaway!

Only 14 days until the Meaningful Play Conference is here in East Lansing, along with its large showcase of keynotes, papers, panels, presentations, and games.

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But we want to know…

What does meaningful play mean to you?

Answer for a chance to win one snazzy Meaningful Play Monster T-shirt. This year’s theme: Meaningful Play Monsters (You’ll have to come to the conference to see the other two Monster designs).

Answers can range from the serious to the silly, from a definition to an experience, and anything in between–meaningful play related, of course!

Entries must be through one or both of the following means:

Leave us a “Like” and your answer on our Facebook wall,


Tweet #MPMeans with your answer and follow us on Twitter.

Anyone can enter! The winner will be selected randomly, maximum two entries per person (one on Facebook, one on Twitter), and announced next Thursday, October 9.

We’re looking forward to your thoughts and making one lucky reader 100 times swankier!