Girl Who Sees player screen

New Game from AU Alumni Highlights Filipino Culture

“In order to understand the destiny of a people, it is necessary to open the book of its past,” said Jose Rizal, a Philippine revolutionary. Two American University graduates are hoping to do just that through “The Girl Who Sees,” a Filipino fantasy adventure game.

Against a backdrop of military occupation and Filipino lore, “The Girl Who Sees” focuses on a young village girl, Quina, who helps a duwende (a dwarf from Filipino folklore) named Edgar translate a mysterious ancient scroll. In doing so she embarks on journey where she encounters the fantastical beasts of Philippine mythology.

Pattie (right) watches Girl Who Sees players at District Arcade

Pattie (right) watches Girl Who Sees players at District Arcade

Before she met Edgar, Quina’s adventure began at American University during the 2016 Global Game Jam. Pattie Umali, an SIS graduate student at the time, met Nathan Hahn and Cherisse Datu, her future development team there. Umali started “The Girl Who Sees” as a way to continue developing the skills she learned in AU game design classes.

“As a Filipina-American who loves media and gaming, I have always felt sore about the fact that there is very little representation of Filipinos and Fil-Ams in the media and virtually none in gaming. Given that the Filipino diaspora today is enormous and spread out across the world, I want to help ensure that there are opportunities for young Filipinos to engage with our culture in a fun, interactive way. I hope that playing a game like this will spark an interest in learning about Filipino history/culture and learning their parents’ native tongue.”

Umali’s project attracted the attention of Datu, an alumna of AU’s Game Design MA program. Inspired by the content, she joined the game’s development team this year. An avid game player, Datu feels that The Girl Who Sees can fill a hole that’s missing in popular culture at large.

“I’ve always felt that Filipino-American contributions to popular culture get left out or ignored. We’re the second largest Asian immigrant group in the United States, but for the most part we’re stuck as contributors to food featured on Fear Factor. My parents didn’t teach me Tagalog, because a Tagalog accent was seen as uneducated when I was growing up. Working on the Girl Who Sees is a way to reconnect to that lost opportunity.”

It’s been less than year since Umali and Datu received their diplomas, and the game that started at AU is still growing.

Their crowdfunding campaign starts on October 1st, the beginning of Filipino-American heritage month.

You can view their website at

Their IndieGogo campaign can be found here:

Game Lab at the Smithsonian American Art Museum 2016

Gaming Grabs Spotlight at Indie Arcade in Washington, DC

Getting a master’s degree in a cultural hotbed such as Washington, DC, has its perks, including many opportunities to take schoolwork into unexpected places. For American University’s MA in Game Design students, one of the most unique and hands-on events of the year is the annual Indie Arcade, hosted by the AU Game Lab and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM).

Much like other art media, video games have become more broadly accepted as art, not just code. Games represent the convergence of technology; interaction; and, quite simply, fun. The 2016 event had an audience of 11,755 visitors. Beyond simply showcasing cool games, this event seeks to give games their place among famous artworks by presenting them both as engaging and expressive.

“Indie Arcade is one of the largest events of its type in the country, providing students exposure to other game makers, a diverse set of players from all over the country, and a sense of community which is aligned to one of the greatest art museums in the country,” said AU Game Lab Director Lindsay Grace. The Game Lab helped create the event and hosts a booth highlighting recent projects developed by faculty and students.

People playing a game at the Indie Arcade event.

This year’s event is Aug. 5-6 at the museum’s main building, where a variety of arcade cabinets and consoles will be set up and displaying a wide variety of new games. Professors and students from the Game Lab help put on the Indie Arcade, from judging more than 150 indie game submissions to helping with promotion and staffing.

Robert Hone, a game design professional and professor at AU, said the Indie Arcade provides an invaluable opportunity for students to see how different people react to their work.

“These experiences help expose the students to the myriad ways people interact with the user interfaces of game designs and the level of engagement their designs produce,” Hone said.

The Indie Arcade and similar events also introduce abundant networking opportunities, which help students plan for the future and improve their game design skills.

“An event like Indie Arcade provides a ‘closed loop’ of demo and feedback that is crucial to iterative game design and development,” Hone said.

Learn More About the Indie Arcade at the Smithsonian

Find out more about the upcoming Indie Arcade at the Smithsonian:

Picture of Civilization IV and Bob Hone

What Bob Hone is Playing This Summer

When it’s summertime in Washington, DC, great activities include visiting parks and outdoor monuments, experiencing a Washington Nationals baseball game, and attending the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

But when you want to beat the heat, summer is also a great time to catch up on some video games.

This summer American University Assistant Professor and Game Studio Manager Robert Hone is playing “Civilization VI,” which he calls a “great simulation-based game with an excellent creation engine and clever NPC (Non-Player Character) AIs.” The “Civilization” series, crafted by well-known Sid Meier, allows players to build empires—and to engage in an array of related adventures.

Fast Fact: More than 20 years ago, GameSpot put “Civilization IV” creator Sid Meier atop its list of “Most Influential People in Computer Gaming of All Time”Hone said his interest in and admiration for “Civilization” is partly due to the game’s excellent balance of short, medium, and long-term strategies and tactics. He references “Civilization VI” in his Games and Rhetoric class at AU when he lectures about creating multiple timescales of player strategies and game feedback.

When Hone was asked to analyzed and recommend improvements to the World Bank’s “Urgent Evoke” alternate reality game, he actually used “Civilization VI’s” timescales of UX/UI as a reference point. It helped him illustrate how “Urgent Evoke’s” focus on only long timescale accomplishment rewards is lacking.

“They need to improve ‘Urgent Evoke’s’ reward system for short-and-medium term player actions and accomplishments,” Hone said.

Learn About the Game Lab

Learn more about how professors and students from American University’s Game Lab are helping shape the way video games changes affect our world. Visit today.

Mike Treanor

The Game That Professor Mike Treanor is Playing

Gaming on the go has never been easier. With several handheld consoles to choose from, you can play while you’re traveling, including on your cellphone.

There are several different games to choosFast Fact: "Cosmic Express was the official selection of the Indie Megabooth at the 2017 Game Developers Conference"e from on your phone’s app store, from casual “Candy Crush” to cult classics like “Ghost Trick,” there’s a game for everyone. This summer, American University Professor Mike Treanor is playing “Cosmic Express,” a puzzle game where the player lays out train tracks on a small grid so that a train can pick up and deliver various color coded creatures to their appropriate places.

“‘Cosmic Express’ is a puzzle game, and it is deceptively hard,” he said. “You can sit there and stare at the same 10 by 10 grid for 30 minutes, eventually you will just come up with the right answer.”

However, that didn’t mean that getting good at the game was random. It rewards the player for their efforts.

“When you go back to earlier levels, they are incredibly easy,” he said. “So by playing this game, striving to find the solutions which are always right in front of you, you are getting good at something. The sensation of that abstract process is the aesthetic of the game, and Cosmic Express ‘feels’ good to play.”

Treanor said that the game wasn’t necessarily unique, but that it was cool to see the “Made with Unity” logo flash on the screen.

“I know a lot of indie developers used to pay a lot of money to not have that appear at the start of their games, and it is good to see that trend may be changing. Unity is a cool tool that you don’t have to pay for, and, if showing a logo keeps it that way, let there be logos!” he said.

Learn About the Game Lab

Learn more about how professors and students from American University’s Game Lab are helping shape the way video games changes affect our world. Visit today.


Picture of Lindsay Grace

What Lindsay Grace is Playing This Summer

Some professors of video game design can dissect the mechanics of engagement, others can argue the strengths of specific design techniques, and others can tell you how to code these elements to make a game successful, but they all share one trait: they love to play video games.

This summer, American University Professor Lindsay Grace’s personal video game picks run the gamut from old-school throwbacks to up-and-coming newcomers. Grace, director of AU’s Game Lab, has been playing:

  • Broken Age” — A novel point-and-click graphic adventure
  • Gradius” — A shooting game with an outer space setting that Grace is playing on the original Nintendo Entertainment System
  • RC Pro-Am” — A single-player racing game that is playing via Sega Genesis

Fast Fact: • With its overhead perspective and other unique features, “R.C. Pro-Am” is considered a forerunner of many racing games, including the “Mario Kart” series.The distinct differences between these games is giving Grace a holistic approach to research during the summer break of 2017. For instance, “Broken Age” has a unique narrative that delves into how dystopic actions play out in a world that is seemingly without conflict.

“This is particularly interesting for both narrative and game design because we often create both of these around some form of conflict,” Grace said.

Although “Gradius” and “RC Pro-Am” are much older, with simpler graphics, Grace is gleaning much joy and many ideas form his time spent playing these games, too.

“‘Gradius’ and ‘RC Pro-Am’ are helping me re-experience algorithmic-level design and ramping up challenge in a satisfying way,” he said, adding that all three of his summer gaming forays are activating his creative juices.

“I’m considering combing all three of these game experiences into a game I’ll create this summer,” Grace said.

Fast Facts

  • According to GameSpot, “Gradius” was one of the most difficult side-scrolling shooter games available on the NES. “Contra” was the only game rated as more difficult.
  • Did you know that “Broken Age” began as a Kickstarter Project?

Learn About the Game Lab

Learn more about how professors and students from American University’s Game Lab are helping shape the way video games affect our world. Visit today.

Screenshot of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild gameplay and picture of Professor Chris Totten

What Chris Totten is Playing this Summer

Regardless of age, getting a new toy is one of the greatest joys in life. When  you’re a video game designer and professor, play and work sometimes intersect.

On a very related note, American University Game Lab artist in residence Chris Totten recently purchased a Nintendo Switch and has started off his summer playing a lot of “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

The Switch—new to the market this year—is designed to easily switch back and forth between TV console and handheld device. Totten is excited about one feature in particular: Once you transition it into a mobile platform, it still provides the flexibility to have one or two players on the screen.

“I’ve had some ‘Mario Kart’ sessions with students and friends on the go, and it’s fantastic. It really changes how I interact with my games,” he said.

Totten says “Zelda,” an update to a big-time classic from the original Nintendo Entertainment System, stays true to its roots and original charm while leveraging popular characteristics of modern-day video games.

“‘Zelda’ is a reinvention of a classic and seminal game series with a massive open world that still retains the sometimes-high-fantasy, sometimes-silly nature of the classic games,” he said.

Totten has written extensively about game worlds, level and environment design, and how those fields parallel real-world architectural design—and he’ll be citing the world from “Breath of the Wild” for years to come, he said. Easy-to-see landmarks allows players to orient themselves in space very well. Also, the game’s story is told not through cutscenes (noninteractive movies), but through the state of the environment.

Fast Fact: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was play tested as an 8-bit game. “Players are left to fill in a lot of story gaps in their heads, which leads to some really cool things,” Totten said.

With relatively simple, cleverly taught rules alongside complex systems such as weather and day/night cycles, this game takes place in a rich, understandable world.

“Moreso than many games, the world of ‘Breath of Wild’ feels more like a home than a stage where the players can run around.”

This summer, Totten has also been busy playing the video game entries into this year’s Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) Arcade event and contest, for which he is an executive organizer. These games are developed by independent developers.

“Many of those games are laborers of love, so we really want to celebrate that in the event,” Totten said.

Learn More About the Game Lab

Learn more about how professors and students from American University’s Game Lab are helping shape the way video games changes affect our world. Visit today.

Students hands work on a game board over a map of Washington, DC

6 Reasons Why a Game Design Certificate Matters

There are many aspiring game designers seeking a specialized master’s degree as part of their career journey, but what about professionals who only recently have considered changing course? For these people, earning a game design certificate is a perfect first step. Here are six reasons why:

  1. Games Matter.

    Never in history have games been more accepted, popular and readily available—and never has the opportunity to impact our world through games been so great.

    At least 155 million Americans play video games. With more than $60 billion in annual revenue, the game industry is gigantic and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 50 percent of Americans play video games on a computer, TV, game console, or portable device like a cellphone. Employment in careers related to game design are also projected to increase by 30 percent in 2018.

  2. Drive Change Through Play

    The Game Design program at American University (AU) is the center point of converging affinity for games, leadership and social action. It melds the strengths of the School of Communication and College of Arts and Sciences, as students from various passions and backgrounds—ranging from politics and science to art, history and international studies—add game design skills to their existing knowledge base.

    The result?

    Play that address challenges and leads to solutions.

    Many intriguing games have emerged from the program, including:

    Screen grab from Factitious game
    Real or fake, can you tell the difference between fake news and reliable news? Factitious is a game created by an AU JoLT fellow Maggie Farley and Bob Hone, an an AU game professor. The game was funded by a grant given by the Knight Foundation. Read more about the game or play it.

    Cardio Copter
    A screenshot of the spin cycle-based physical therapy game.
    Recent master’s student in Game Design Alex Cha created “Cardio Copter,” an interactive game that combined his interests in psychology and biology and games. It’s a spin-cycle-based gaming therapy in which Parkinson’s disease patients use their pedaling to guide a helicopter through a virtual city! Learn more about the game.

    Commuter Challenge

    Father hugging child

    Engaging games can create empathy, and students interested in the intersection of games and journalism collaborated on a project with local radio station, NPR’s WAMU 88.5. The outcome of research, interviews and several meetings was Commuter Challenge, an interactive narrative designed to have players make choices that affected the main character’s commute. Check out more about the making of the game.

  3. Flexibility to Design and Thrive

    A Game Design Certificate from AU can be earned in one year. The program, designed to help working professions develop design and development skills, is a natural way to move toward a new career path without fulling committing to a master’s degree in game design.

    Required courses for the certificate program include “Games and Society,” “Game Research Methods,” “Game Development” and “Games and Rhetoric.” Students can complement the certificate with three credit hours of elective courses.

  4. Learn From Uniquely Experienced Instructors

    Game Design students benefit from faculty with years of experience in the field. Faculty members’ backgrounds include the nonprofit, government and business sectors, authors, researchers and entrepreneurs.

  5. Explore Hands-on Training

    AU’s Game Lab Studio is a hub where students and faculty work together on ground-breaking apps and games—sometimes for well-known organizations that partner with the program. In the lab, certificate seekers can build a professional portfolio and develop expertise in all stages of development, from art to coding.

  6. Embrace Opportunities in Washington, D.C.

    One of the most important advantages of living, learning and working in Washington, D.C. is the vast potential to develop key relationships that can prove beneficial for years to come. Twenty-three game companies are based in D.C., as are many foundations, non-profits, museums and government agencies.

Learn More About the Game Design Certificate

If you’d like to learn more about pursuing a game design certificate from American University, visit today, or send us an email:

alex cha

Student’s Video Game Puts Parkinson’s Patients in Driver’s Seat

When you design a video game for recreational purposes, understanding your audience is important. When creating a game to use in physical therapy, audience is beyond important. Lives and well-being are at stake.

Alex Cha, who just completed American University’s Master of Arts in Game Design program, created “Cardio Copter” as part of a semester-long project in the “Designing Health Games” course at AU. Combined with Cha’s undergraduate background in psychology and biology, tutelage from professor Robert Hone helped Cha bring his concept to reality. That concept? A spin cycle-based gaming therapy in which Parkinson’s disease patients use their pedaling to guide a helicopter through a virtual city.

The helicopter drops cargo onto a building and fireworks explode.In “Cardio Copter,” the altitude of the helicopter is controlled by the speed of the pedals. Players must fly their helicopter over buildings while collecting diamonds and offloading them atop those buildings to boosts the point total and increases the spin-cycle resistance. Players can adjust the difficulty of the challenge themselves by choosing how many diamonds must be collected before releasing them.

In essence, “Cardio Copter” was built atop the tenets of J.L. Alberts’s well-known study about strenuous, “forced” physical activity producing greater symptomatic improvement than voluntary activity. Alberts had placed patients with Parkinson’s disease on a tandem bicycle with a researcher, allowing the researcher to modulate the level of intensity patients would face during rehabilitation sessions to create a challenge that was neither too easy nor too hard.

“By including this adaptive system within an engaging game, people with Parkinson’s can get the same kind of exercise that patients received in the Alberts study, in the comfort of their own home–and without the need for a clinical partner,” said Cha, who was encouraged by Hone to submit “Cardio Copter” to the Games4Health contest. Cha’s game earned the Best Commercialization Video Award.

Designing a health-related game requires careful attention to the audience, Cha noted. With “Cardio Copter,” simply participating in the game is a challenge for its physically challenged players. Thus, it must be easy to understand and without too many surprises.

The effectiveness of health games is due in part to their intrinsic motivating factors, such as personal well-being. “Cardio Copter” directly links points with symptomatic improvements.

“Ultimately, racking up more points could mean living a healthier, more active life,” Cha said.

Cha hopes to eventually work as part of a small, independent team of game developers/designers “creating games that use their design–not traditional, didactic language–as a lens to communicate how we see the world.”

Cha also envisions the world fully embracing game-based therapies someday.

“I hope to see patients fully engaged with the therapy process and benefitting from the immense library of data tracking and feedback that games can deliver,” Cha said.

The idea of active rather than passive learning is a major factor in Cha’s passion for persuasive play. As a child, he saw how the traditional classroom lecture system as too restrictive.

“Video games often took a vow of silence, teaching wordlessly with some expectations that the player was intelligent and eager to keep up,” he said. “They made learning exciting and effortless. As designers, it is our job to create stages that produce conditions that are favorable for the messages we want to express. But ultimately, we must relinquish authorial control to our players.”

In AU’s Game Lab, Cha has had opportunities to express his passion, talents and skills–and to learn from the experienced professional game designers. Also, through the Game Lab’s Game Studio, he has worked with a variety of organizations including the Educational Testing Service and the National Institute of Mental Health.

During summer programs at AU, Cha has even taught and shared his love of game development with students enrolled in his “Game Design in Unity 5” class.

“All in all, AU has made it easier to surround my life with games. Who wouldn’t love that?” he said.

If the video above does not work, please check out the trailer for Alex Cha’s game here on Youtube.

Learn more about how students and professors are changing the world through the American University Game Lab.

An illustration of characters discussing computer science and technology.

Game Lab Helps Lead Persuasive Play Conversation at SXSW

From sharing their own stories to experiencing new projects that have the industry abuzz, JoLT Fellows from the American University (AU) Game Lab took full advantage of their recent trip to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals.

Members of the JoLT team—including a game designer, a clinical psychologist, a comic artist/entrepreneur and a TV editor—held a panel event called “Engineered Collisions Between Games and News,” at SXSW 2017. They presented firsthand knowledge of how media organizations can leverage the power of games and play to transform the way audiences experience and engage with journalism.

Students engaging with Lindsay Grace at SXSW.

The JoLT project, part of the AU School of Communication in Washington, DC, was launched in 2015 to define and cultivate disruptive leadership in media and journalism. AU Game Lab Director Lindsay Grace, who was part of the SXSW panel, said the project’s work created quite a stir at the conference.

“We provided some clear, evidence-based insight into how games can engage audiences, inspire empathy and offer an experience that provides inroads to news topics,” Grace said. “Our Polygon game demonstrates engagement, and our WAMU game demonstrates this empathy and new ways to get audiences to understand content.

“Also, our new rerelease of Factitious, the game that challenges the user to spot fake news, definitely piqued audience interest at SXSW. Two Dutch newspapers wrote articles about the work.”

Besides presenting at SXSW, the JoLT team also took time to learn more about a variety of exciting games, trends and information from the gaming and persuasive play industry.

Student interacts with a digital "I want you for the U.S. Army" sign.

“Virtual reality and augmented reality continue to get lots of attention. This includes low-cost solutions like Google Cardboard,” Grace said. “I’ve also seen a growing understanding that games aren’t just for entertainment, as people are considering them for engagement strategies—the same concept we’ve been encouraging through JoLT and the AU Game Lab.”

The wide swath of emerging ideas within the realm of interactivity has Grace and the Game Lab looking with optimism towards a future of gaming ubiquity.

“Ultimately, within the next decade, I suspect game strategies will be regularly employed in engagement,” he said. “Our hope is that many organizations will view game designers as common and necessary as a marketing or IT team. In 10 years, it may be surprising if you are involved in engagement yet don’t have a game designer on your team.”

Learn more about the AU Game Lab here and more about the JoLT program here.

bob hone

Interactivity in Healthcare Turns Games into Treatment

The impact of gaming on health and education is far beyond theoretical for American University Professor Robert Hone. As the former creative director for Red Hill Studios, a boutique interactive design company, Hone used numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation to develop innovative software that not only entertains, but helps children learn and patients improve their health.

Hone recently joined the faculty at AU’s Game Lab to help the next generation of innovative health and educational game designers unlock this medium’s seemingly limitless potential. Interactivity has taken the world by storm. In healthcare, visionaries such as Hone — along with his students at AU — are finding innovative new ways to address cognitive issues such as severe anxiety and pain management, as well as progressive neuromuscular conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

“Over the next few years, I expect to see more behavioral games emerge that leverage advancements in neuropsychology and behavioral economics to help people break free from unhealthy habits and build new healthy behaviors to combat chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease,” said Hone, who manages AU’s Game Studio and teaches in the Game Lab.

Years ago, the notion of video games as treatment may have seemed frivolous or unrealistic at best. Today, health “gaming therapies” are finding widespread use in numerous health fields.

“The ubiquity of games has lowered people’s resistance to nonstandard forms of treatment,” Hone said.

Even so, games are not the end-all, be-all for healthcare — and they’re not always the best available option. Hone said the deepest benefits are for people who are dealing with a disorder.

“To develop an effective health game, you should think of it as a form of therapy that needs to be done or played repeatedly over a period of time. Just as you wouldn’t expect to get in shape with one visit to the gym, effective health gaming therapies engage patients over a long period of time to get a sufficient ‘dose’ of treatment,” Hone said.

Constructing a successful game-based treatment plan requires building a “difficulty staircase,” which involves a progression of gradually more difficult levels. As patients improve, that progression to harder levels keeps them engaged.

“It’s like building an entire ski resort,” Hone said. “You have to build the bunny slope, intermediate hills, advanced trails and the double diamonds.”

Games that fit this model are proving to be effective motivators for taking medications, rehabbing and exercising. To boost engagement is the simple yet powerful goal.

“Health games are good at helping people get engaged in things they want to do but that they have trouble getting motivated to do on a regular basis,” Hone said. “The opportunity is where people have specific diseases that require a lot of effort — a lot of repetitions. Stuff that takes a long, long time.”

Patients with Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the central nervous system that hinders movement, tripled the amount of exercise they performed over a 12-week period in a game designed to improve their ability to get up and sit back. Hone worked on the game in conjunction with the University of California San Francisco. His other healthcare-related endeavors have included a game he designed to improve balance in children with cerebral palsy.

Much like most people who play them, patients often embrace games as a distraction. Focusing on something other than their pain helps many push through the challenges of treatment.

“The ability of games to enable players to reach a highly focused “flow state” serves as a productive form of distraction,” Hone said. “A well-designed game can keep patients engaged for a long time — not just 20 minutes, but perhaps as much three to four days a week for 12 weeks.”

There’s also great potential in cognitive games. Hone and two AU students two students from Hone’s “Designing Health Games” course recently developed a neurogaming therapy with researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health. The therapy includes custom-designed hidden number puzzles that help children with severe anxiety reduce their overactive “fight or flight” responses. This gaming therapy is currently being evaluated by the NIH in a formal clinical trial.

Those same two students course recently created fundable health games: one to help people combat Parkinson’s disease with structured exercise, and another to relieve stress by learning slow, deep breathing. They are discussing converting these prototype games into actual products through collaboration with outside companies.

The aforementioned breathing game, which matches the player’s breathing pattern with what’s on the screen, utilizes a new sensor that is highly accurate and cost-effective. It’s the type of advancement that first got Hone excited about engagement back in 1992, when he started down the path of video game and UX design.

For this MIT-educated chemical engineer and award-winning TV producer, director and writer, embarking on a new, then-obscure career in video game design 25 years ago was a bold move rooted in a passion for what’s possible.

“When people are playing interactive games, they’re completely focused on the task, and they’re not very self-conscious. You can read their facial expressions to get an honest reaction to what you’ve created, good or bad,” Hone said. “It turns the game designer into a kind of live performer, like a dancer or a stand-up comic. I relish those opportunities because they give me the energy to keep innovating.”

Learn more about the potential for gaming and interactivity to improve communities. Explore a master’s degree in Game Design from American University.

Benjamin Stokes

D.C. Festival Shines Spotlight on Gaming for Civic Engagement in Cities

Pokémon Go was all the rage — but now what? Cities are increasingly asking how play might engage residents with open data, city services and each other — beyond mass media games.

At DC Ideas Fest on May 6, game designer and civic media scholar Benjamin Stokes will present “Gaming for the City,” an exploration of ways in which games can spur connections and shape change in Washington D.C.

“Gaming for the City” will continue the momentum begun in January at the Games+ Summit, which brought together some of D.C.’s most innovative thinkers in play – from museums to health, cities, education, journalism, storytelling and more.

Stokes, an assistant professor in American University School of Communication (AU SOC) and at the AU Game Lab, co-founded Games for Change, the movement hub for advancing social change with games. He has described how cities have evolved with games in three phases:

  1. Broadcast Mode: When games promote a message.
  2. Play-Based Volunteerism: When games advance real-world goals, like identifying potholes, budgeting, or gathering input in city planning.
  3. Connecting People: When play introduces residents and facilitates flows of communication and activity in physical space.

The notion of gaming to improve communities is a natural fit within the inaugural DC Ideas Fest, especially for its pillars of arts and innovation, and inclusiveness. This two-day event will include presentations from nonprofits, businesses and activists on issues ranging from affordable housing to after-school programs.

“Play is deeply cultural, and one of the most effective ways to overcome social barriers,” said Stokes.  “In a digital age, our play can increasingly spread media and share stories about the city we want DC to be.”

Through his new AU course, “Playful City: Designing Media for Stronger Neighborhoods and Community Impact,” Stokes puts his theories into practice alongside students eager to deploy games as part of community strategy. The hands-on course includes games for tourism and economic development, race relations and resisting gentrification, local history and community organizing.

Participate in ‘Gaming for the City’ on Saturday

Benjamin Stokes will speak about “Gaming for the City” from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday in the Carnegie Library, Gallery 3, in Washington D.C. Register today!

Learn About Master’s Degree in Game Design

Along your path to persuasive play-based change for communities, you can receive a master’s degree in Game Design from American University.

Game Lab student Joyce Rice draws with colored markers on glass

The Anatomy of a Game Design Student

What makes up a game design student here at American University? Well, for starters, students pursuing an MA in Game Design here at the university come from all sorts of academic backgrounds: psychology, journalism, politics—you name it. They are compassionate, creative and passionate about the work that they pursue.

Learn more about the MA in Game Design program and the Certificate in Game Design. 

Our game design students are good listeners, are able to handle peer review and constructive criticism, are creative, compassionate and have an advantage in the game design field.


People play the game Spark at the Newseum

Journalism, Games and Play Collide at SXSW

Some casual onlookers of South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference & Festivals may think of this yearly showcase for the interactive, film and music industries as a haven for bands with odd names and people wearing intriguing shoes, but it’s much more than that. SXSW is a high-profile spotlight for some of the most creative people and organizations in the world.

This year, JoLT Fellows from American University Game Lab hold one of the more outside the box panel sessions. “Engineered Collisions Between Games and News” at SXSW on March 13, 2017, will dive into this cross-sector initiative’s efforts to help media leverage the power of games and play to transform the way audiences experience and engage with journalism.

Experts From Many Industries Apply Games and Play to Media Challenges

Trends in journalism, social media and technology certainly aren’t slowing down or becoming less complex, which means the outlets available to consume and interact with news must become incredibly nimble — far more so than in the past.

The JoLT project, part of the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C., was created in 2015 to define and cultivate disruptive leadership in media and journalism. Through JoLT, which builds upon AU’s Game Lab, diversely talented and experienced media leaders, game designers and students are collaborating on projects that both diagnose problems in media engagement and prescribe potentially paradigm-shifting solutions and tools.

JoLT facilitates “engineered collisions” between media and systems professionals, multi-disciplinary workshops and legacy media organizations. The resultant projects have been fascinating, with topics ranging from iterative design and “thinking beyond the page” to reader efficacy and reward systems.

What the JoLT Initiative Has Uncovered

Square Off, Factitious, Spark, Commuter Challenge

Opportunities like the panel session at SXSW are further proof that JoLT’s work is gaining traction. In less than two years, the group has already progressed toward understanding and shaping change. Here are a few examples of what JoLT’s team has learned and worked on thus far:

Human-Centered Design

The ability of game designers make the player the main priority relates to journalism, in which news experiences should be crafted with participants in mind. What that translates to is focusing on providing a wider range of choices and using feedback to quickly adjust those experiences.


With inspiration from game designers, the JoLT team is exploring how to combine context, goals, challenges and rewards in a way that encourages consumers’ ongoing involvement. The idea is to get people as absorbed with news as they are with the fantasy games with which they are so enthralled.

Fellows recently collaborated with WAMU 88.5, NPR’s Washington DC affiliate, to create Commuter Challenge, a narrative-driven game about the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s multi-year SafeTrack initiative. The game uses original reporting to create a character that the player helps guide through their commute with constraints like time and money that must be budgeted throughout the week. The player becomes not only the audience for WAMU’s original audio story around Metro’s SafeTrack but also an engaged player.


Interactivity is the new normal. It’s much more engaging than the traditional one-sided broadcasting of news to the general public. With that in mind, the JoLT fellows designed News Park, which allows passersby to play a card game that shows them how much water is required to make their favorite foods. The game then deftly transitions participants into information and dialogue about news consumption, which is the project’s underlying goal.

The JoLT team also put together Factitious, an online game that asks people to identify fake news stories.


Like game players, news consumers want to not only receive information, but also actually be able to respond. Online polls are a good, albeit simplistic, example.

Another example would be the Square Off that the JoLT team designed in collaboration with VOX and Polygon to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the classic role-playing game Final Fantasy 7 in early January. After people read the article, Final Fantasy 7: An Oral History, they can engage and put their newly found knowledge to the test with Square Off at the end—or even test what they know in the beginning before diving into the article for more information.

Journalism is at its best when it helps news users do something — anything from sharing an article to donating money to a nonprofit.


Play fosters experimentation, but in a contained world — not unlike what many news organizations find themselves doing amid rapidly changing tools, expectations and parameters.

JoLT fellows created a game/workshop called Spark to encourage nimble, innovative ideas, decisions and responses to constantly changing constraints. Spark presents a series of lively, fun design challenges, which participants address as they hone their ability to improvise and adapt.

Panel Will Discuss Games and Journalism at SXSW

Members of JoLT’s team will dive further into its research and projects that address problems in news and community engagement at SXSW on March 13, 2017. The panel will include a game designer, clinical psychologist, comic artist/entrepreneur and TV editor.

Lindsay Grace

Game Lab Director Helps Translate ‘Persuasive Play’ into Social Action

Too many people allow their special talents to be underutilized or even unused — lying dormant and only ever emerging in mundane ways. Lindsay Grace, a social impact gaming pioneer, is not one of those people.

Grace’s gift for creating art through video games and passion for social change led him to develop the American University (AU) Game Lab and Studio in Washington, D.C. Through it, he’s helping build a movement of gamers and innovators who leverage social impact gaming, or “persuasive play,” to encourage progress marked by open-mindedness and new perspectives.

The result is a new generation of gamers working to employ the power of play to enrich people’s lives.

“As the multi-billion dollar games industry continues to grow, socially responsible games are creating awareness for environmental, educational, and corporate social responsibility initiatives,” said Lindsay Grace, Director of AU’s Persuasive Play Initiative. “Digital games are becoming a new way to conduct activism and spur social change.”

The Game Lab was a natural step in Grace’s journey, which has included impressive personal achievements amid continual efforts to affect lasting societal change. His career as an innovator began as a preteen, dabbling as a self-taught video game designer. He’d become interested in gaming during his hospital visits due to systemic-onset juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA).

Grace’s hunger for innovation evolved into a dance club website he and a friend ran as college-age kids. His path also has included jobs unrelated to tech/gaming — such as working with mutual funds and industrial supply logistics — but eventually his diverse background brought him back to what he’s loved since childhood: creating games and fostering new ideas.

More Than Entertainment

Yes, Grace has more than 20 games on his resume — along with degrees in computer information systems and electronic visualization. Yes, his games have yielded numerous awards and landed him hundreds of opportunities to write, speak, advise and opine about gaming. However, it’s the scope of what’s possible— the potential of games to change attitudes, behaviors and trends — that keeps him striving.

As an associate professor at AU — previously he taught at the Illinois Institute of Art and Miami University — and founding director of the AU Game Lab and Studio, Grace has a rare chance to simultaneously nurture young talent and fulfill his own robust research goals. The result has been breakthrough work with seemingly unlimited potential in the world of social impact gaming.

Persuasive manifests itself in revolutionary work such as Grace’s “Black Like Me,” a simple puzzle game that subtly addresses racial prejudice. Players are asked to match colors — there’s a limited palette — which becomes more and more difficult the longer they play.

“Big Huggin’ ” is another example of Grace’s flair for thought-provoking gameplay. It has the journey style of traditional games such as “Super Mario Bros.” but with a heart-warming twist: Your character has to hug a teddy bear, not destroy it, to overcome obstacles.

The Diverse Potential of Games

By implementing games in situations where they traditionally haven’t been utilized, Grace and the AU Game Lab have been able to work toward observable social impact — and the world is taking note. The lab received a Knight Foundation grant to study the relationship between games and journalism, and how the industry can adapt in swiftly changing world.

The Game Lab also has worked with the Educational Testing Service and the World Bank. Further, as part of an initiative with the National Institute of Mental Health, the studio recently developed a game-based way to support the clinical treatment of anxiety.

From race and religion to nonviolence and mental health, game-based solutions can be applied to virtually every issue. It’s a powerful tool, the benefits of which have only just begun to be realized. Organizations and events such as Global Game Jam — Grace is on the board of directors — are beginning to catch on; this annual weekend event in Washington, D.C., draws more than 36,000 participants from all over the world.

The world of gaming doesn’t need to be dominated by one or two key demographics. I think in the long term it can’t be, if it’s going to be mainstream.” said Grace

Forging Future Game Changers

At the Game Lab — an unprecedented blend of efforts through the School of Communication and the College of Arts and Sciences — students receive specialized, hands-on training that wasn’t available when Grace’s unique career unfolded. Now that he has seen what social gaming can accomplish, he’s eager to help the next generation of developers take persuasive play to another level.

At the very least, he hopes to see every one of his students discover something important about themselves and the world around them.

“I want to see people who don’t necessarily consider themselves as game players, joining in the conversation. Because, there’s a reason they don’t consider themselves gamemakers and maybe they aren’t gamers, maybe because they just don’t know about all the other opportunities in games and maybe they just haven’t experienced it,” says Grace. “And so I’m really about just telling everybody that ‘You know, come on in. The pool is warm.’ We’re very welcoming and we’re very much about new ideas.”

Explore a Master’s Degree in Game Design

Are you passionate about the ability of games to bring about behavior change, expand awareness and make a difference? Explore a master’s degree in Game Design from American University.

Participants gather around computers at the Smithsonian Indie Arcade exhibit.

4 Ways to Build Your Gaming Network in Washington DC

Not only is Washington DC home to American University’s game design program, it has a ton of meet-ups and events for gamers outside of the classroom. If you are looking for a way to show off your creation or just hang out with fellow gamers, the Washington DC area’s vibrant gaming culture ensures that you can always find others with the same interesting.

Check out our list of some gaming community events in the area!

District Arcade

If you are a DC area video game developer looking to show off your games, the District Arcade is a can’t miss event and free for all attendees. In August 2016, the District Arcade set up shop in Bravo! Bravo! for an all day Saturday event focused on showcasing new, experimental indie video games from the DC area. Play your own game with fellow DC area gamers and see what they like about it – or discover ways to improve it! It’s a recurring event, so stay tuned for more updates on the IGDA DC website as it comes in.


Chris Totten presents at MagfestChances are, if you are tuned in to the gaming community in the DC area, you have heard of (or attended) MAGFest, the Music and Gaming Festival. MAGFest is a celebration of video games and video game music held annually in the DC area since 2002. It’s a non-profit event for East Coast gamers run by fans for fans, so the focus is really on the celebration and appreciation of the community. As we’ve noted in previous blogs, AU’s own Chris Totten and Lindsay Grace have sat on panels for the event in the past. Get more information and the dates for the next MAGFest on the website!

NoVa Game Fest

The NoVa Game Fest focuses on STEM activities and careers along with traditional gaming. This offers attendees a broad look at gaming in general and the different ways in which gaming can create positive change and solve problems in the world. Attend the NoVa Game Fest to not only see some new games, but also to really learn about how gaming and STEM are evolving together. The 2017 NoVa Game Fest’s date has not been released yet but will be announced on the website, so stay tuned!

Various Meet-ups: Gaming in Public, Coders and Keggers, Unity3D

Along with the more established events listed above, the Washington DC area also has a lot of informal meet-ups for gamers and people interested in learning more about games in general. Check out Gaming in Public, CDK: Coder/Designer Keggers and Unity 3D. Gaming in Public is for people looking to meet new friends and gamers in the DC area. Coders and Keggers welcomes game developers and more (of legal drinking age) who want to relax outside of work with fellow “coders, hackers, graphic designers, programmers, technologist and entrepreneurs.” Unity3D focuses on learning, talking about and sharing tips and tricks for the Unity3D game engine.


Explore a Master’s Degree in Game Design

American University’s Game Design program is positioned in the growing gaming community within Washington DC. Whether you are a Game Design student, a casual gamer or just interested in getting involved with activities and events around DC, be an active participant in the burgeoning gaming scene.

Are you interested in how games and play can affect change in communities and beyond? Explore a master’s degree in Game Design from American University.

People listen as AU Professor and Game Designer in Residence, Christopher Totten speaks.

Games+ Summit 2017

More than 120 professionals, educators and students gathered for the inaugural Games+ Summit hosted by American University Tuesday, January 17, 2017. The attendees represented a variety of industries, including federal agencies, non-profits, healthcare, technology and more.

Individual sessions at Games+ Summit explored issues at the forefront of game theory and practice and how games intersect in sectors of museums, health, cities, education, journalism and storytelling. The day featured seminars, presentations and one-on-one engagements that ended with an evening reception.

A man listens as another man speaks across the table.

The event was held in Crystal City at the startup incubator, 1776, which is known for solving problems related to health, education and cities. Games+ was specifically created by the American University Game Lab for women and men working in government, NGO, non-profit, educational and private-sector positions interested in games.

View more photos.

Three people are having a conversation and another man looks at the camera.A speaker presents on stage to a large crowd.People gathered in a room listen as one person speaks.

Explore a Master’s Degree in Game Design

Are you interested in how games and play can affect change in communities and beyond? Explore a master’s degree in Game Design from American University.

Don't Be Dumb or You Will Parish screenshot from Dumb Ways to Die

Games Plus Cities: Play and Social Connections in Communities

Play can bridge divides, from chess in the park to major league sports teams. Now the digital side is raising new opportunities for cities.

Digital games are everywhere — on phones, tablets, laptops, TVs and more. Growing mobility enables people to take games everywhere from living rooms to waiting rooms, and widespread connectivity makes it possible to play in the real world.

The power of gaming is undisputed, but the concept of using games to improve communities is just now building policy interest. There’s a new class of games that have impact in the real world. From policy innovators to video game architects, experts like American University professor Benjamin Stokes are investigating the power of game design – including to boost economies, build networks and break down cultural barriers.

However, it’s not as simple as declaring “it’s a game,” and waiting for players to rush in.

Stokes — co-founder of Games for Change, the movement hub for advancing social change with games — has identified three phases of evolution for many cities.

Phase 1: Broadcast Mode

The starting point for many cities is in public campaigns – like safety or health services. A famous example is the insanely popular Dumb Ways to Die, a game about train safety that has been played hundreds of millions of times.  Broadcast games typically try to “get out the message,” but rarely give players a way to get more involved.

Broadcast or “push” mode is more focused on sheer number of users than on connecting people.

Phase 2: Gamifying City Work

Most tools to “get involved” in cities are not (yet) playful.  Their main accomplishment is that they get citizens to do work normally done by city staff. For instance, an app such as 311, which is used in Washington, D.C., and thousands of other cities, allows residents to easily identify potholes and downed tree limbs or request help with a variety of issues, Stokes said.

Turning city work into playful volunteerism has been critiqued as manipulative “playbor.” In the longer-term, Stokes warns that simply adding game elements to boring tasks is not sustainable. “Either the game has to be fun on its own,” he said, “or the work has to be meaningful – aligning the two is profoundly difficult.”

For communities, meaningful interaction is often social.  For games, it is increasingly possible to scaffold person-to-person communication.

Residents playing with Macon Money

Macon Money is a highly successful example of how a civic game can be weaved into the social fabric of a community

Phase 3: Connecting People

For a game to maximize its potential to stimulate the economy and bolster cross-demographic connections, there are several points to consider, Stokes said, including:

  • Does the game match how local people are communicating, both digitally and face to face?
  • Does the game focus on engagement over gathering data?
  • Does the game connect the digital and the physical through play?

Macon Money, supported by the Knight Foundation in Macon, Georgia, is a highly successful example of how a civic game can be weaved into the social fabric of a community. The game’s organizers released an actual currency called “Macon Money” into the community. Only half bonds were handed out; once paired with their matching half, the full bond could be redeemed for money at local businesses.

As residents worked to find the other half of their bonds, they melded digital communication — Facebook and other platforms — with face-to-face meetings and even word of mouth. The game was built to encourage cross-pollination between zip codes and social demographics, Stokes said.

The goal was to turn financial capital into social capital — and it worked. More than 3,500 residents played, with 45 percent of connections bringing together people from different zip codes — people who likely never would have met outside the game.

The financial impact was clear, too. Macon Money involved 40 businesses and spurred $60,000 worth of transactions. Among the 46 percent of participants who spent their Macon Money at a place they’d never visited before, 92 percent said they returned to that business later.

Macon Money is just one high profile example of what communities can accomplish by implementing games in the real-world, building social ties while making a difference. The more that residents feel that they belong and are part of effective groups, Stokes said, the closer they are to true empowerment: when the community can unite around shared concerns and fight for common interests.

Register for Games+ Summit

Learn more about the potential of games in cities at the Games+ Summit on Tuesday, Jan. 17, at 1776 in Arlington, Virginia. Some of the nation’s most influential names in game design theory and practice will showcase the latest concepts, designs, and prototypes that combine the energy and innovation of games with the key sectors of museumshealthcitieseducationjournalism and storytelling.

Games Plus Summit | January 17, 2017 | Washington, DC

Explore a Master’s Degree in Game Design

Are you interested in how games and play can affect change in communities and beyond? Explore a master’s degree in Game Design from American University.

Screenshot of Overland game

6 of the Best Indie Games in 2016

Indie video games are the heartbeat of the industry. Because of this, the anticipation level for a well-publicized indie game sometimes outpaces the quality of that game by miles and miles.

Still, don’t allow the real or perceived failures of some indie games sour you to the category en masse. Let’s take a look at six of the best indie games of 2016:


Screenshot from The Witness of river in the forest

The Witness

The latest mind-bending offering from indie game legend Jonathan Blow is a veritable feast for the senses. Puzzle fanatics go wild for the intellectual paces that “The Witness” puts players through, while virtually anyone can appreciate the game’s sheer beauty of vibrant colors and robust scenery. Set on an island, “The Witness” requires intellectual buy-in from its participants, but most find the experience worth the price of admission.


Screenshot from Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter

This highly anticipated RPG melds the past and present. Often compared to 16-bit Nintendo classics such as the “The Legend of Zelda,” “Hyper Light Drifter” provides straight forward gameplay that is easy to engage yet difficult to conquer. However, the old-school feel of its graphics belie the game’s complex structure, dark, neon undertones and extreme attention to detail. “Hyper Light Drifter” is old-school with a purpose.


Screenshot from the game Orbit


People love talking about black holes; here’s their chance to play with them — or, at least, around them. “ORBIT,” one of the winners of Google Play’s Indie Games Festival, is one of those wonderfully crafted games that can easily be enjoyed on your phone as you wait for your name to be called at the dentist’s office. While working to stabilize orbits around black holes, you’re simultaneously making captivating art — all while taking in classical music.


Screenshot from Cuphead


Early previews of “Cuphead,” set for release in mid-2017, have everyone digitally salivating over the game’s ingenious ode to 1930s imagery while meeting modern-day gameplay expectations. Its run-and-gun structure — filled with boss battles — isn’t anything out of the ordinary; what has everyone clamoring is the sheer impact of the hand-drawn art and frenetic fight scenes. The game’s main character is striving to pay off a debt to the devil, but this game appears to be sent from heaven.


Screenshot of Overland game


Each level of this “squad-based survival strategy game” takes place on simple yet gorgeous small squares of space situated in a variety of environments throughout North America, which has been ravaged by a horrific natural disaster. The resultant world, in which monsters roam the land, requires a series of mind-wrenching choices — and no two encounters in the game are ever the same.

The confined spaces in which each encounter takes place make the game easy to embrace while incredibly difficult to master and, as you expect from survival games, mentally draining.


Screenshot of Adr1ft


“Adr1ft” is another survivor game, but unlike any other. This first-person experience is about an astronaut who is “floating silently amongst the wreckage of a destroyed space station with no memory and a severely damaged EVA suit slowly leaking oxygen.” As you try to find key resources, make repairs and eventually return home, you become immersed in the beauty of your surroundings. While some feel that “Adr1ft” doesn’t offer enough action, it’s hard to argue with this VR-ready game’s incredible scenery and unique concept.

Regardless of the console or platform, innovation within the realm of indie games continues to entertain, inform and enlighten.


Are you passionate about the ability of games to bring about behavior change, expand awareness and make a difference? Explore a master’s degree in Game Design from American University.

AU Game Lab Students in a workshop

Games by the Numbers

The Game Lab at American University leverages proximity to public and private sector leaders to bring games to traditionally non-game contexts for new levels of engagement. Interested in joining our community? Learn more about the MA in Game Design program at American University.

continue reading Games by the Numbers


Q&A with Game Design Student Rae Heitkamp

Rae Heitkamp, American University Game Design MA alumnaRae Heitkamp is one of American University’s innovative Game Design students. In our interview, she shares what drew her to the program and imparts her wisdom to future applicants. Her student perspective provides a crucial window into the burgeoning field of Game Design.


Your background is in biomedical research. What prompted the switch to Game Design?

One of the realities of research is that it costs quite a lot of money, especially biomedical research, and there isn’t much funding to go around right now. It’s an extremely competitive field with relatively low financial return on time invested, and it seems that scientists spend a lot of time hunting down funding when they would rather be in the lab.

I was thinking of applying for a doctoral graduate program in biology or something similar, but I decided that I needed to find an opportunity with more autonomy and independence. I wanted to be able to get from an idea to an outcome on my own, and I wanted to do it faster than I can in research.

One day in June, I opened my email and I had a message from American University inviting me to apply to their brand-new Master’s program in game design, beginning in Fall of the same year. When I got that message, everything clicked. I applied right away and was accepted. The rest is history.

Has the program met your expectations?

I hoped that I would learn how to design video games, which I definitely did.

What I wasn’t expecting was the amount of time this program devotes to the philosophy of games and play. To make a good game, you have to know how to communicate with the player through the medium of the game. There need to be clues for the player about how the game works, but you can’t give everything away up front. Part of the fun in playing games is figuring out what you’re playing with. The other fun part is getting good at it. The time I spent in this program reflecting on games, video games, interaction and play–in the cmpany of so many bright minds–is something I value a lot.

How has your internship experience helped contribute to your education?

I’m doing an internship right now with a small studio, Molecular Jig. It’s run by Melanie Stegman, who has a doctorate degree in biochemistry. The studio is developing a game called Immune Defense. In the game, you use the cells and proteins of the immune system to capture and kill bacteria and other harmful invaders. Working with Molecular Jig has been a really important experience. I get to see how a small studio is run and how the design process is managed. Their style is very different from mine and it’s been a good test for me to learn how to work with other people on a shared goal. I’m working on level design for that game, but I’m also doing some coding as well. Melanie is a great mentor and I’m really grateful I got the opportunity to work on this game with her and her team.

What classes have stood out for you?

I think Games and Society was the most challenging class for me, but the focus of the class is fascinating. It’s a good first class because it puts what you’ll be doing for the rest of the program into context: Games are intimately woven into human history and culture. Play is an important part of being human.

Two other classes, 3D Modeling with Chris Totten and Game Design with Mike Treanor, were both taught in the same semester and they were both really challenging. In one class, we were learning how to use this complex software to create 3D models. There were all these hotkeys and shortcuts to remember, never mind the challenge of learning how to think about creating an object from nothing in three dimensions. In the other class we were learning another complicated program, Unity, for building 3D games. There were a lot of students taking both classes at the same time, so we all kind of agreed that it would be really cool and make sense for the two classes to have a single final project. That way, we could have our 3D models embedded in a working game–a game with actual polished 3D art. I think a lot of professors would have insisted on separate projects for their own classes, but Chris and Mike really put the best interests of the students first. The results were all-around really impressive.

What has been your experience with schools at AU outside of the Game Design program?

I took two classes outside of the game design program, both also in the School of Communication. Actually, both classes were in strategic communication–one an intro class and the other about advertising. For the advertising class, my final project was a card game called “Pitch It!” and a team of students in the class helped me prepare a strategic advertising campaign for the game. I’m having a prototype of the game produced this summer, with the support of an SOC faculty member. I can’t speak highly enough of the school and the people.

What would you want prospective students to know as they consider applying to the AU Game Design Program?

I would encourage anyone who is interested in this program to check it out. It’s an extraordinarily diverse group of students, with all kinds of academic interests and skills coming in. Don’t be daunted at the thought of programming, you’ll learn.


Q&A with Game Design Student Kelli Dunlap

As a Game Design student and a JoLT fellow, Kelli Dunlap embodies the program’s commitment to socially conscious gaming. We spoke with her about what brought her to AU, her expertise in video game psychology and how joining the Game Lab has prepared her for the future.

Why get a Game Design degree and why choose AU?

It was actually a bit of a serendipitous accident. I graduated from my doctoral program in August 2014 and was looking for a job when I found myself at game-related event hosted by the Red Cross. Lindsay Grace was a speaker there and I had the opportunity to speak with him after the event. He told me about a new program at AU, the Journalism and Leadership Transformation (JoLT) initiative, and that they were looking for people interested in game design, journalism and changing the world. Although I didn’t have the journalism chops, he encouraged me to apply. I did, and received confirmation over Thanksgiving that I’d been selected as a JoLT Fellow. This meant I would enroll as an MA student in Game Design as well as work on projects related to social impact games and the realm of journalism. That’s how I came back to AU!

Would you consider yourself a gamer?

I’ve played video games for as long as I can remember. Gaming was something I did with my brother at home, with friends from school and was a big part of my undergraduate experience at AU. I actually met my current husband playing Halo during undergrad. I was a psychology major and in the Honors program, so when I had to propose an Honors Capstone project, I wanted to do something in the world of psychology and games. That project really fueled my interest in video game psychology as a whole.

Is it necessary to have a special focus before entering the program?

Not at all. I think the program is a good fit for students who have a genuine, broad curiosity about games. Some of my classes involve coding, some involve drawing and art skills and some are research-based. It’s a program for developing a solid foundation in the world of games with flexible personal and academic exploration.

What’s the most valuable skill you’ve learned within the program?

The ability to talk about games and play in a way which addresses common misconceptions about their frivolity or “childishness” has been supremely beneficial. When working with organizations or individuals beyond the Game Lab, I’ve definitely found myself having to address misconceptions about what games are and what play is, and confront negative stereotypes regarding both. This program provides the vernacular to discuss games and play in ways which can be understood outside of the game space.

What class experience outside of the Game Design curriculum stands out?

This past semester I took a Kogod business course with Professor Bradley. Learning to run and market a business was something I felt was important to my future success in the field of games and psychology. Even though it was not a traditional class for a game design student, I was able to seek out a course specific to my training needs.

Have you visited any Game Design Conferences?

Thanks to the Game Lab, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the 2016 Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco last semester. Along with the two other JoLT Fellows and Lindsay, we spoke about community management issues and what the game industry and journalism industry could learn from one another on this topic. I’m fairly certain I would not have had a chance to attend GDC, much less present, if not for being part of the AU Game Lab.

Also, I was able to volunteer at the Indie Arcade at the Smithsonian American Art Museum last semester and am currently working on both a game and a conference paper for a developing project at Indie Arcade.

How has your interest in gaming changed your life?

My interest in gaming led me to the Game Design program, and now, I feel equipped to face whatever my future brings. Through this program, I’ve made so many like-minded contacts that finding a way forward doesn’t seem daunting. I’m currently on an internship with the Educational Testing Service for the summer working on projects related to game design and assessment. The knowledge I’ve obtained and the skills I’ve developed as a student in the Game Lab have given me the confidence to talk about game design issues as they pertain to assessment with peers and supervisors, and has given me the unique perspective of someone who simultaneously inhabits both the psychological assessment and game design worlds.

Want to follow in Kelli’s footsteps? Apply to the American University Game Design Program today!

Game Lab at Indie Arcade

6 Game Conferences You Should Know About

If you are serious about games, you need to check out the best game conferences. To make the most of your opportunity, it’s crucial that you find the one which is right for you. Luckily, American University’s Game Lab team has checked them all out and can give you the info you need.

AU Game lab students present at GDC panel1. GDC

The Game Developers Conference, GDC, hosts pros from all corners of the gaming world. Everyone from audio designers to business executives attend. Based out of the tech-hub of San Francisco, GDC is the perfect forum for graduate students to learn and gain access to a wide range of awesome opportunities. The American University Game Lab travels to this conference for those opportunities. Lindsay Grace, founding director of the American University Game Lab and Studio, has even spoken on panels at the conference. He’s a game-creator whose work has been inducted to the Games for Change Festival’s Hall of Fame. What’s Games for Change? Keep reading to find out!

AU Game Lab faculty and students at Games for Change 2. Games for Change

Games for Change is a non-profit corporation that puts on a yearly festival specifically for those who believe that gaming should both entertain and be a tool for social progress. Benjamin Stokes, an assistant professor in the AU Game Lab, co-founded Games for Change to bring together forward-thinking designers. Hosted in NYC, this fest is for anyone who has a knack for creating change through games. AU grad students hosted a table in 2015, and are constantly involved in this can’t-miss event.

But what if you’re looking to find the next Braid or Super Meat Boy? Then you need to venture into the realm of indie gaming. Two top indie conferences are Indiecade and Indie Arcade.

Screenshot of Prom Week by Mike Treanor3. Indiecade

Indiecade is the largest event of its kind. While there, you’ll get to meet legends of the indie gaming world, and demo over 200 innovative games from around the globe. Maybe you’ll even submit your own work, like Game Lab Assistant Professor Mike Treanor, whose game, Prom Week, was a finalist or Assistant Professor Benjamin Stokes whose game Sankofa Says was featured at the festival.


AU Game Lab at Indie Arcade4. Indie Arcade

With more than 11,000 participants in 2016, Indie Arcade can’t be beat. Supported by the trailblazing team at the AU Game Lab in partnership with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this yearly pop-up arcade celebrates America’s independent game developers and creates a perfect forum for experiencing the future of gaming. For a closer look at the festival in action check out this short video.


Chris Totten presents at Magfest5. Magfest

Not your typical conference, Magfest blends gaming with music to provide an awesome mash-up. Chris Totten, Game Designer in Residence at AU, presented his game, Dead Man’s Trail, at the Indie Game Showcase of the 2016 Magfest to rave reviews. Chris and Lindsay Grace have also sat on panels for the event. Its DC location makes it convenient for all members of the AU Game Lab.


AU Game Lab faculty member Mike Treanor6. DiGRA + FDG

How about something brand new? This year, the DiGRA (Digital Games Research Association) and FDG (Foundations of Digital Games) conferences will join forces for their first ever joint international conference. Hosted in Scotland, this collaborative academic conference has six tracks including game design, game criticism and analysis, game technology and artificial intelligence. One of the hallmarks of the event is the Doctoral Consortium, headed by AU Assistant Professor, Mike Treanor, who will work with students in the early stages of their Ph.D. The AU Game Lab is also co-sponsoring a hallmark of the conference, Blank Arcade, being co-curated by Lindsay Grace.

The other hallmark of this event is the diverse workshops it offers. If you can make it, don’t miss the Social Believability in Games Workshops that AU’s own Joshua McCoy helped organize. We all know games are better when the characters are believable, but how do you make an authentic character? Find that answer and more with this immersive workshop at this robust conference.


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5 Reasons to Get Your MA in Game Design

The Game Lab at American University is developing a new generation of leaders in the evolving industry of social impact gaming. Interested in joining our community? Learn more about the MA in Game Design program at American University.

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Jumpstarting Change: Game Lab Students Showcase Findings on Community Engagement at GDC 2016

The JoLT initiative started in 2015 with the question, “Do the worlds of game design and journalism have anything to learn from each other?” The answer is yes, and three students from the American University Game Design program got to present the initiative’s findings this year at the Game Developers’ Conference. The conference, known as GDC, is the nation’s premier professionals-only gaming event and attracts over 26,000 people annually to network and share ideas.

AU game design students Joyce Rice, Cherisse Datu, and Kelli Dunlap are JoLT Fellows, which means they work with the JoLT initiative as part of their curriculum. The three women went to downtown San Francisco in mid-March to present their findings in the heart of tech industry territory alongside Game Lab Director Lindsay Grace.

Rice is the Creative Director of Symbolia, a magazine that merges comics and news; Datu is an international journalism professional interested in multi-platform news innovation; and Dunlap has a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and focuses on mental health and gaming. Over the course of the past year they created and researched games that promote critical thinking about important world issues.

Their panel, “Community Engagement at the Intersection of Games and News,” explored community engagement both within the game space and without. How do you manage information to guide users to feel a certain way about a cause? What are effective styles to catch consumers’ attention on what was once considered stuffy topics? How can games further a social cause or foundation? Alongside their presentation, the panel featured a roundtable-style feedback session afterwards.

The experience was significant for Rice and company for several reasons. First and foremost, students rarely get to host an event at GDC, and earning the spot shows that their work is innovative and valuable to the community as a whole. Too, GDC itself is a fertile ground to share ideas and learn from industry leaders. It’s also the country’s best networking opportunity for game developers new and old; Microsoft and many other well-known companies are within walking distance.


JoLT is a collaboration between American University’s Game Lab and the School of Communication, and is funded through a $250,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Hosted at AU, JoLT brings together faculty, students, and industry professionals from both worlds.

At first, this might seem like an odd pairing of disciplines, but game designers are very good at engaging their audience in a way that leaves a lasting impression; however, the industry has a longstanding issue with addressing social responsibility. Meanwhile, journalists often center on human-focused issues, but the industry struggles for engagement and guided understanding, as well as lasting impact once away from the article.

JoLT’s first year brought together academics and industry professionals from both sides along with GameLab students to identify what we know, what we didn’t know, and our potential to do great things in the world through gaming. And then, they built games.


The JoLT team discovered that when news is changed from a standard, linear narrative to an interactive experience, it can both change people’s perspectives effectively and promote consumer action.

For instance, the game Cow Crusher illustrates the barbaric practices of slaughterhouses in way that is much cuter than real life, but still shifts one’s understanding in a targeted way.

Meanwhile, Factitious, one of the ongoing outreach projects developed through JoLT, uses an online game designed to work in classrooms—it teaches high school students how to spot fake or fabricated news. Such media literacy is crucial to having an educated citizenry, who in turn consume more—and more intelligent—media. Which, at the end of the day, may promote more investigative and social-minded news media being funded and created, which benefits everyone.


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