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.


Interested in the Gaming? Start your path to gamer glory at the American University Game Lab.

Get Your MA in Game Design at American University

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.

continue reading 5 Reasons to Get Your MA in Game Design


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.


Interested in the Game Design MA at American University? Apply today!