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.