Growing by Gaming

Growing by Gaming
by Gabrielle Johnson

During a recent October weekend, Michigan State University (MSU) played host to more than 200 guests representing at least 10 different countries and 20 different states at the international Meaningful Play video game conference.

The event brought together developers, designers and fans of all types of video games. But the focus was on educational games.

“Meaningful Play is focused on games that have higher meaning—games that can educate or inform people in a new way,” says Brian Winn, MSU professor, conference organizer and director of the Games for Entertainment and Learning (GEL) Lab at Michigan State University. “The military has done training with video games for years, and more and more businesses have started putting content online. There are even some firefighter training-simulation programs that have been developed.”

In addition to using Web-based academic programs like ANGEL, MSU has established itself as a leader in the area of game design and development. In 2004, MSU launched an undergraduate Game Design and Development specialization. Last year, MSU started a Serious Game Design Master of Arts program.

Currently, there are 80 undergraduate students and 20 Master’s students enrolled in these programs. In 2005, MSU hosted a Future Play conference, which was focused on what was coming next in the gaming world.

“With the launch of the new masters program in serious game design here at Michigan State University in 2007, we decided it was time to start another conference,” says Winn. “Meaningful Play is unique in that it is where serious meets fun. That is, it is a blend of what is going on in serious games and entertainment games.”

The Future of Gaming

“Serious game development, as well as the more traditional entertainment game development, is an area of potential growth in Michigan,” says Winn. “The new film and digital media initiatives recently passed by the state make Michigan an attractive place to set up shop."

Keynote speakers at the East Lansing conference included Richard Hilleman, Chief Creative Officer for Electronic Arts, the largest gaming company in the world, and Tracy Fullerton of the University of Southern California.

Conference participants were given the opportunity to submit games, prototypes, posters and papers for competition or for exhibition. Competition entries were judged by an academic panel, and winners were selected in the areas of Most Innovative Game, Most Meaningful Game, Best Student Created Game, and Best Overall Game. A fifth winner was selected by a vote of all conference participants—the People’s Choice Award of Meaningful Play.

Panel discussions included such topics as “Designing Games for Health”, “Talent, Incentives, and Infrastructure: Growing the Game Industry in Michigan”, and “Game Face(book): The Intersection of Games and Social Network Sites.”

“This is a great opportunity to bring prominent people doing interesting stuff to the Lansing area,” says Winn. “We’ve got the chance to meet these people, make connections, and highlight what we’re doing here. It is particularly a wonderful opportunity for students to network and show off their talents.”

Areas of expertise among MSU’s undergraduate and graduate gaming students include games that teach proper hygiene to childcare workers and educate people on issues in third world countries.

Others persuade players to donate to support relief organizations, teach safe sex behaviors to young adults, teach Chinese as a second language or English as a second language, a research project to develop games that exercise your brain to help maintain cognitive abilities as you age, and a research project looking at the health benefits of games such as DDR and WiiFit.

Creating, Hooking and Keeping Gamers

The faculty members in the MSU gaming programs are highly trained and remain on the cutting edge of their industry. They attend and present at numerous conferences and remain involved in their student’s projects.

They are also in the process of hiring an additional faculty member. The facilities and programs in place at MSU make the university uniquely situated to recruit and train students in the gaming specializations, and Winn envisions the Meaningful Play conference becoming a regular, nationwide event.

The City of East Lansing is also reaching out to the gaming students graduating from MSU. Jeff Smith, project manager with the City of East Lansing, recognizes the importance of this budding industry and keeping these young professionals in the Lansing area.

“We want to form a partnership between the City of East Lansing and Brian Winn’s students in the Game Design and Development program,” Smith says. “We want them to stay in East Lansing and start their businesses here.”

The City of East Lansing worked closely with MSU in the planning of the conference. Although most sessions were held on campus, the opening reception was held in the newly-opened East Lansing Technology Innovation Center, which houses several successful area technology companies such as Enliven Software.

"Business incubators, like the new East Lansing Technology Innovation Center, are also making it easier for entrepreneurs to launch new companies in this area," says Winn. "MSU's academic programs in game design and development and serious games will help keep these companies well-staffed with the expertise they need.”

“The Meaningful Play conference is an international event that really helps to solidify this area as a leader in the industry,” says Smith. “It’s a business and a culture that we are trying to cultivate in East Lansing.”

Tentative plans are being made to hold another video game conference in East Lansing next year. “Meaningful Play is really focused toward educational video games,” says Smith. “Our conference that we are planning for next year will be more entertainment-driven. We can learn from the Meaningful Play conference and use it as a guide for next year.”

“I’d like to see Meaningful Play continue and move to other institutions,” says Winn. “With our level of talent and interest at MSU, we have put ourselves into a league with other leading institutions, like Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech.”