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!

Meaningful Play Program is Up!

In 34 days, Michigan State University is hosting the biannual conference, Meaningful Play, a three day extravaganza of presentations, panels, workshops, discussions, and game exhibitions from frontrunners in academia and the game industry centered around meaningful play, or meaningful interactions, or playful interactions.

Dr. Casey O’Donnell, Meaningful Play chair, is excited for the event, stating that the limitless potential of games makes them an important field of study. “What makes games beautiful is that they play well,” he says. “Life doesn’t play very well.” He continues, “what makes games really scary is that they feel good.  It feels good to be able to win, because you don’t all that often. It’s this quality that makes games so strong a force.” O’Donnell worries about the ethical implications behind creating games, creating compelling, perhaps even addictive experiences.  Part of this conference is exploring more about how we make sense of the systems we create.

“Why am I worried about slot machines? Because it’s the collapse of meaning. Games plug in to something that we need as a species. And the slot machine thrives on that need. At the same moment, we have this very powerful, meaningful, cultural form, and then we have the power, perhaps the temptation, to collapse meaningfulness back to addiction. Setting up the person who loses all their money to the slot machine. But the conversation is important—games are part of how we make sense of the world around us. And maybe some people do find sense in the slot machine.”

O’Donnell will be discussing these thoughts from his paper, Crafting Meaningful Play: Care and Meaning Making in/as/of/through Games, Thursday, October 16 during the conference, just one of many exciting and interesting talks, including 6 invited keynotes by researchers and game designers, 45 peer-reviewed papers, presentations on the latest game research, 13 exciting panel and roundtable discussions, 5 hands-on workshops, a poster session featuring 20 late-breaking advances and work-in-progress reports , and an exhibition of 41 innovative games.

Topics include game history, race, E-sports, gender, MMORPGs, as well as several fun, stirring new games—1000 Days of Syria, We’ve Got Issues, and Zombie Yoga, to name a few.

It will be easy to find things you want to see when you take a look at the full program, and between now and Monday, 9/15, early-bird pricing is available.

Still curious? Check out what others are saying about Meaningful Play below, and join the conversation with #MPmeans.

Meaningful Play 2014 Early Registration Ends Monday, Sept. 15

Meaningful Play 2014 is an interdisciplinary academic conference that explores the potential of games to entertain, inform, educate, and persuade in meaningful ways.

The conference takes place October 16 – October 18 in East Lansing, Michigan USA and is hosted by Michigan State University.

The conference is for game designers, researchers, and students. The conference includes:

*** Six thought-provoking keynotes from leaders in academia and industry, including:

Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games and Distinguished Professor of Entertainment Technology, Carnegie Mellon University
Mia Consalvo, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Game Studies and Design at Concordia University in Montreal
Colleen Macklin, Director of PETLab (Prototyping Education and Technology Lab) and Associate Professor at Parsons The New School for Design
Deirdra Kiai, game designer, writer, programmer, musician, and visual artist
Jan Sircus, Principal of Studio Sircus, former Senior VP, Creative Development for Walt Disney Imagineering
Erin Hoffman, Game Design Lead at the Institute of Play’s GlassLab Continue reading

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.”

Miss Media Summer Camp @ Night

This past month I had the pleasure of serving as an overnight counselor for the Miss Media summer camp, here at MSU. Miss Media caters only to young girls, ages 12 to 17, with some interest, large or small, in technology, specifically game design, TV production, web development, graphic design, and mobile development.  Each day, the girls explored a different field of technology and created projects that were featured in a media showcase at the end of the week.

But that wasn’t really my job. I got to interact with the girls after class. It was my job to keep them safe, happy, and entertained. However, the director, Amanda Krueger, along with the counselors, took it a step further to introduce fun, STEM-related activities in the evening. On Wednesday, we did 3D modeling. On Thursday, we made blinkies, bristlebots, and throwies, which are LED gadgets that the girls decorate with pipe cleaners. And nearly every night, we played video games.


One of our overnight counselors, third from the left, joins in the fun.

It was during this time that the girls bonded. While quite a few of them frequently played video games, for some, this was their first time. They were getting to know themselves as gamers and continuing to develop their love for technology. Over Nintendoland and Mariokart, they honed their skills for button mashing but also strategy. Over Just Dance, they threw everything they ever knew about controllers out the window. Not a single night went by that they didn’t ask to play.


There was teamwork. Frustration. Elation. Devastation. But ultimately, joy, at the ups and downs, ins and outs, that make cooperative video gameplay fun. And it is in my experience that I feel these few short hours helped instill in these girls the feeling of joyful determination, a feeling they took to class every morning, and despite how easy or difficult the projects would be that day, they could take comfort still in their growing technological powers.

It’s difficult to measure exactly what these girls made out with at the end of the week, besides projects and papers, but if I could take a guess, I’d say curiosity. And that alone makes the week worthwhile.