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At Meaningful Play: The Midwest

Explore the Midwest's development scene through a retrospective look at years of attending and organizing community-oriented events.

Mars Ashton

October 30, 2018

12 Min Read

In this series of articles, Mars Ashton does a deep dive into a number of topics related to submitted papers, talks and games found at this year’s Meaningful Play Conference at Michigan State University. For this article, Mars offers a retrospective look at years of attending and organizing events throughout the Midwest game development scene, providing insight into the benefits of being in a mid-sized community, how you can benefit from their slower pace and brings up general know-how in regards to get most out of any conference experience.

As an academic I find myself regularly pushing messages out into the void and hoping that one day, just maybe, some of those messages will be heard. It can be difficult to really grasp whether or not someone truly understands a concept. Verifying this relies on perception, timing and the production of an adequate piece of evidence of that understanding. To show me you really get it is to surprise me with the realization that you are doing something under the umbrella of the concept. Recently, a group of students came me to looking for opportunities for internships and part-time work. Quickly the conversation shifted into: “Oh, we are going to GDC this year! There is a big group of us going. Like, 16 or more.”.

Imagine how proud I was!

To go to the Game Developers Conference (GDC) is to become part of the whole, you could say. Some decide once is enough, others make it a regular occurrence, and some are intimidated by what could become of the experience or what they could miss out on. The very act of acknowledging you are going to go sends you along this long, winding path of preparation, planning and mentorship from those that have walked that path. My students, whose group is growing and growing as time goes on as news is spread of their crusade, are experiencing something very similar. Our team of adjuncts have been offering them advice, sharing stories and stressing the importance of them going and being a part of the event in any way. Going to GDC is an investment in time, money and a test of your physical and emotional endurance.

Personally, I get anxious thinking about going. For the last two years my experience has been wonderful thanks to my friends and the welcoming and supportive nature of those I reached out to connect with during my brief 2-3 day stay. I bounced around between familiar faces and new connections, found myself crashing a Google event (a long, but great story) and hung out with Digital Extremes, the developers of one of my favorite games of all time (a short, but immensely meaningful story) in a very casual, intimate setting. I fear that, given all of the potential outcomes of the time I get to spend there, I won’t end up on a good timeline. I fear that, somehow, I will end up getting a bad ending and be unable to restart a save game or get back that lost time. The weight of this is internal, of course, and circumvented by my network and planning my trip around the company of friends and my daily affirmation that “it’ll be good, even if you have to eat a meal alone”.

For smaller events, like Meaningful Play or GDEX, this anxiety is completely non-existent.

Not all of us live in or want to have or establish a career foothold in key geographic locations for game development. If you’re working for or looking to work for larger, well-known companies, living in these particular areas are the reality of the situation. While some studios have established their own foothold in areas like the Midwest, you won’t find events in those areas that are anywhere near as large as GDC. However, these events have similar offerings like expo halls, game showcases, speaking engagements and networking events. For many, the size difference alone could make it easier to engage with attendees, exhibit your own work, or generally be more accessible.

So, here is the core message at the heart of this post that I am tossing into the void in an effort, a hopeful effort, for someone to hear: Go to small to small-to-mid-sized events too. If you’re already part of them just remember to embrace their strengths and take advantage of them before they grow or dissolve. You never know what could come out of it.

Meaningful Play presented me with an opportunity to run into old friends, get more familiar with people I’ve worked for and meet new people (from all experience levels) at a more relaxed, engaging pace. I was fortunate enough to be showing off my own work and the work of my students at the Game Expo and providing talks on the following topics:

  • Design Thinking X Game Design

  • Gamedev Community Development 101

  • “Why I Cancelled An Award-Winning Game” A Postmortem

Having these allowed me to be present in an official capacity but it also gave me a certain level of magnetism when it came to the other attendees. I was surprised to find some of content to be well received and I had been approached by a number of wonderful, talented people from all walks of life about a number of the subjects. Clinging to these connections, I made a point to invite anyone along for post-talk lunches, dinner or talks. A few times people were hesitant to follow, but as soon as I made it clear that “everyone is welcome!” the dynamic of the conversation became exceedingly positive, supportive and warm.

While this sort of thing happens often at larger events in even larger cities, what followed was very different.

Meaningful Play is designed to provide a number of opportunities to talk after sessions before the next one ramps up. It is easily just as walk-able, giving conversations enough time to resolve and organically occur. Almost every group I travelled with picked up another party member or two when we sat down. We recognized familiar faces and invited them over. We said “of course!” when they were polite and asking if it was okay to join. Given the turnout, almost 250, odds are your group won’t even be that big. No rush. Not a big crowd. Never feel like a stranger. This is a big deal if you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by an event like GDC. From what I have been told, many veteran GDC-goers I know actually try to avoid the main halls and use the opportunity to have some of these more intimate discussions.

Ultimately, nobody was really missing out on anything. We all became closer by being closer together in a smaller, well-designed event.

When I was getting my BFA in 2006 Michigan seemed like an up-and-coming community. The Michigan Story, as it were, became apparent to me. Veterans of AAA titles, big deals to the young and inexperienced Mars that I was, were living in Michigan for family. Their spouses had careers here, they wanted to raise their kids near family or they just wanted to be home.

One of the community leaders, now a Design Program Director for a large information technology company, was organizing community events to bring these people together. Students, like me, were also brought into the fold, which lead to some of my initial experiences in the industry, helped me grow confidence (by making a series of mistakes) regarding my worth and skill set and allowed me to take on leadership roles to strengthen communication skills. Without her guidance and efforts in this realm, I wouldn’t be writing this or doing what I do for a living. For someone to take that on, bring the International Game Developers Association Detroit Chapter into the fold, establish an annual conference and introduce students to the industry despite a very, very private college pulling the strings, is legendary.

Her efforts have defined my own community leadership goals and lead to me co-founding the IGDA Ann Arbor chapter and now revitalizing the Detroit chapter.

Getting 40-90 people together each month has been a tremendous success for the area. Universities throughout the state, like Ferris, University of Michigan, Eastern, Michigan State and others have all come together to showcase games, collaborate and bridge the gap between different parts of the region. Meaningful Play further strengthened this relationship as Lawrence Tech and the IGDA chapters were invited to showcase content and presence at the Pure Michigan Game Exhibition and Celebration event, sponsored by the Michigan Film & Digital Media Office. Many conversations throughout the weekend were about things people weren’t aware of. Meetups, events...generally awesome things that the folks I was speaking with were always curious and interested in.

A big part of the Midwest story is an exodus and inevitable return to home. Michigan is no different. The success of my students and many other individuals in the region seems more and more focused on finding work at startups, studios in adjacent fields and creating their own opportunities through freelancing, working remotely and more. Many of the leaders in the area are hoping to supplement and support these endeavors in any way they can. Knowing them, being able to help them, and contributing to the community cause is important and key to establishing a certain level of job security, even. Michigan, Ohio, the Midwest is not a dead zone of development. We are just as connected to the industry as anywhere else.

You just don’t know where our offices are.

A few key players that have opened my eyes and made a tremendous impact on the Midwest’s community from my perspective (contact me if you’re familiar with others!):

Garrett Hoofman:

I met Garrett Hoofman, who organizes regular working and presentation meetups in Grand Rapids, and I met through IGDA’s sessions. His efforts to build and maintain the GamedevMI Discord server and website mirror my own goals.

Chris Volpe:

Co-founder of Multivarious games, the leading game development company in Columbus, Ohio and President and Co-Founder of the Ohio Game Developer Association which strives to build a community of game development within the area. Chris runs GDEX, the largest developer expo in the Midwest, along with a team of talented, passionate and simply awesome people.

Larry Kuperman:

I met Larry through a Michigan-based Slack group where he introduced me to the student-run A2 Game Designers group. After working with them to create monthly meetings, we established the Ann Arbor chapter of the International Game Developers Association before his departure (and mine) after a little over a year. A technology business manager for Night Dive Studios and Consultant for The Powell Group and industry veteran, one of my favorite quips of his relates to his own claim that his skillset is pretty much just “I know someone for that”. Humble and helpful, he has since moved to Las Vegas to run the IGDA chapter there.

Carrie Heeter:

I could probably write a book about Carrie’s impact in the area and beyond. She holds a Ph.D. in Mass Media (1986) and a BA in Communication (1982) from Michigan State University. She has contributed to the Midwest’s development community through her role as founding director of MSU’s Communication Technology Laboratory (which she ran from 1980 to 2005) which is now the Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab and she directs MSU’s fully online graduate certificate program in Serious Games.

Jacob Pollak:

Jake, Assistant Professor at Ferris State University, runs the Michigan Creative Expo, which offers free (or super affordable if they start to charge for it) tables at a one night event to showcase your creative work. Games, art, products, you name it. He is wonderfully helpful and always willing to collaborate with others.


  • Look into smaller and medium-sized events in your area. Conferences, conventions and community meetups~

  • Universities are a great place to look for isolated communities and people looking to make things happen!

  • Be aware of deadlines for proposed talks, papers and requirements for showcasing your games at events. Being involved in the event in some form will help draw connections between you and the other attendees.

  • Look into meetups for VR/AR/Motion Graphics/VFX and such too as there is plenty of overlap in skill sets and experience.

  • If you’re shy or unfamiliar with anyone in a crowd, follow the golden rule: ask people questions about themselves to spark up a conversation.


Midwest Events List (contact me at [email protected] if you have more to add):


Event Name: Meaningful Play: Designing and studying games that matter

Location: East Lansing, Michigan at the MSU Union Building

Dates: Early October Bi-annually

An academic and industry-focused conference bringing game designers and game researchers together. The format features prominent keynote speakers mixed with breakout sessions of individual speakers, academic papers, and panels and game night exhibition. 250 attended the conference in 2018 from over 12 countries and 28 states.


Event Name: GDEX: Game Development Expo

Location: Columbus, Ohio at the Columbus Convention Center

Dates: Late September, Early October Annually

A wonderful blend of a consumer and professional-oriented conference with a weekend-long exhibition hall and numerous talks spread throughout the weekend. Friday’s schedule features a dev-focused Dev Workshop day, affordable options for showing off your work on small and large scales are available, plus Independent developers receive a huge discount on booths.


Event Name: MDEV: A Midwest Game Developers Conference

Location: Madison, Wisconson at the Alliant Energy Center

Dates: Mid-Late October Annually


Event Name: Pixel Pop Festival

Location: St. Louis, Missouri at the Saint Louis University Busch Student Center

Dates: Late July Annually


Event Name: Michigan Creative Expo

Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan at the Grand Rapids Public Museum

Dates: Early May Annually


Event Name: LTUX: Lawrence Technological University Expo

Location: Southfield, Michigan at Lawrence Technological University

Dates: Late April Annually


Event Name: IGDA Detroit Meetups

Location: Southfield, Michigan at Lawrence Technological University

Dates: Every 2nd Tuesday of the Month

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