From Players to Creators: Diving into the Video Game Industry

Digital Citizen

With Frank Lee, Shawn Pierre, and Jessica Creane, we discuss the future of the video game landscape and the transition from game player to game maker. We explore what draws people into the gaming space, what video games mean to the people who play and create them, and what gaming organizations are doing to push the narrative.

Episode Notes

Discover the real-world applications of gaming, how to get into the game making community, video game conferences that you need to know, events that test game makers’ skills, and suggestions from coaches in the video game world.

▶️ Guest Interview

🗣️ Discussion Points

  • Special guests Frank Lee, Shawn Pierre, and Jessica Creane are three video game makers and educators from the Philadelphia area.
  • Generally, a video game is a game played on a computer device. Many people play video games to connect with others. Video games provide an outlet for creativity, power, and control in a very curated way that we often don’t get in daily life.
  • The barriers to creating games have significantly decreased in the last five years. Sometimes, creators have an easier time getting their work out there and placing it into a storefront for free. However, this also means that there is more competition in the field than ever before.
  • If you want to make games, try to mod games that already exist rather than creating something new from scratch. This will allow you to experiment without having to build tools yourself. If you enjoy that, then you may start creating entire levels. If you’re not comfortable with this creative software yet, start with board games and think about how systems are used to engage people.
  • Shawn says by educating people on video games, you teach them to think critically and solve problems for themselves in a coaching role.
  • In discussing coaching work, Jessica talks about how she supports people with the execution of becoming game makers. She helps them find buoyancy in transformation and reminds them that even in fictional games, everything is real– the team and the people who will play the game are real.
  • Frank also suggests being proactive in the types of games that kids play and what can be a positive and negative experience for them.

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Ricardo Signes: Welcome back to the Digital Citizen Podcast. I’m Ricardo Signes from Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Here with me is my colleague Haley Hnatuk. Haley, let them know who you are.

Haley Hnatuk: Hi, everyone. I’m Haley Hnatuk, Fastmail’s Senior Podcast Producer, Marketing Specialist, and the Co-host of Digital Citizen. We’re so excited to bring you our third season filled with even more fantastic guests. Rik, who are you going to be talking to today?

Ricardo Signes: We’re talking to Frank Lee, Shawn Pierre, and Jessica Creane, who are three incredible video game makers and educators from the Philadelphia area. Now, I am a longtime computer gamer, probably starting with Colossal Cave, but Suspended, which is 40 years old this year is probably still my favorite game, and certainly my favorite Infocom game. I tried to write a sequel in Inform, I didn’t really get anywhere, but it’s still on my laptop, and someday I might finish it. What about you, Haley? What’s your video game life?

Haley Hnatuk: The first video game I got into would’ve been Super Mario Brothers for the Nintendo Wii. It’s also probably my favorite game because it’s the game that I come back to the most, and I think randomly getting friends together and having people play Super Mario Brothers, it’s like always going to be a good time. Yeah, I got to say, Super Mario Brothers is for probably my favorite game and also the first game that I ever played.

Ricardo Signes: Have you taken the Super Mario Maker?

Haley Hnatuk: I have not.

Ricardo Signes: You should make your own Mario game. You can make it look just like new Super Mario Brothers. Very good.

Haley Hnatuk: We all just want to be in wonder. What else will you be talking about today?

Ricardo Signes: We’re going to talk about what draws people into playing games and what video games mean to the people who play them. We’re going to dive into what led these folks to make the transition from video game player to video game maker, and then at the end of the episode and in every episode this season, I’ll give you some takeaways, things that you can actually do to be a better digital citizen. You can also find those at the website,

Ricardo Signes: Today, I am here with Frank Lee, and Jessica Creane, and Shawn Pierre, all of whom make video games. And I want to hear more about this. Frank, could you tell me about you and your work at Drexel?

Frank Lee: I’ve been at Drexel since 2003. I initially started as a professor in computer science during which I co-founded the game design program. And in 2013, I founded the Entrepreneurial Game Studio, where it’s essentially an education incubator. In the 10 years that we’ve been in operation, we’ve had about 15 LLCs that have been formed within it, two successful Kickstarter campaigns, as well as a couple of third-party publisher deals.

Ricardo Signes: I can’t wait to learn more about your work at Drexel. For those of you not familiar with Drexel, it’s a university in Philadelphia. Jessica, can you tell me more about your work at Drexel and your consultancy?

Jessica Creane: Yeah, absolutely. I also teach at Drexel University and I teach a variety of game design classes. My favorite class to teach, I only get to teach when Frank is not around for a term, which is experimental games. That is a space that I really love being in. And so, the studio that I run, IKantKoan Play really focuses on adult play and how it is that we can challenge ourselves and contend with really serious or heady subject matter, things like climate change, philosophy, falling in love, all of the things that are objectively challenging to handle or to integrate into our lives, and making those things communal and social and playful and weird.

Ricardo Signes: Shawn, it’s great to see you again. For all of our listeners who don’t know, Shawn and I worked together many years ago at Pobox, which is now part of Fastmail. Can you tell me the work that you are doing in the gaming department at NYU?

Shawn Pierre: I work at the NYU Game Center, and I am teaching a few classes. I really love to push our students to be experimental and do things that they don’t think might do well in the public sphere, because I feel school is a great place for you to fail at experimenting. And I’m not saying to fail your classes, but to try something weird and unique and wild, and if it doesn’t work, great, it doesn’t work. But you gave your all, you try to do something really cool. And you’re in school right now, you’re not trying to sell this and you’re not trying to keep your company running by putting this game out. The students are awesome. They’re always doing amazing things, always inspiring me. I feel like I need to keep up with all my own personal work.

Ricardo Signes: That’s so exciting. I’m taking it all in, but I’m going to start off by asking you all, what makes something a video game?

Frank Lee: So, a video game is game that’s played on sort of like a video monitor through some sort of a computer device. The history is fairly straightforward as well, so the commercial video game was, I believe Pong, Terry Pong, which came out in 1972-ish —

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Frank Lee: … and so on. So, that started the commercial age of video games. But before that, it was at the more academic, essentially college students with lots of time on their hands, with huge amount of computing resources in the 60s and the 50s, trying to create essentially fun pastime games. But, if you go back and take the video out, game has been played basically since beginning of human civilization. Video game is just the most recent form of play that is using the current technology for entertainment and for play.

Jessica Creane: It also makes me think about the difference between games and play. Games are very systematic, so when I think about a thing that is a game, it comes with a system. Whereas when we play at anything, there can be more emergence.

Shawn Pierre: I get why that question can be a little, I won’t say controversial, but there are some video games that I think people played who may consider them not to be video games. For example, Proteus is an amazing video game that I played, and some people might call it a walking simulator, which is I think is a genre of a video game. But there are some folks who might say, “This isn’t the game. You’re not doing all the traditional game things. You’re not running, you’re not jumping, you’re not making decisions that influence something else later down the line. You’re basically walking and enjoying the environment and watching things interact with each other, and then moving to someplace that maybe progresses the world to the next point.” But I would still consider that a video game. So, I think the definition of video game to me is pretty broad, where it doesn’t necessarily have to fall under the umbrella of what you see the Marios and the God of Wars do.

Jessica Creane: There’s also a space I think where we think about video games and we think about gamers, and those things often go together, but not always. Candy Crush is a video game, and so a lot of people who are like, “Oh, I don’t play video games,” do play video games, they just play mobile games.

Ricardo Signes: You mentioned the very sub-genres of video games, but when people play a video game, what are they typically looking to get out of it?

Shawn Pierre: Some people play games to connect with real life experiences that other people have. There’s a lot of interesting games that I’ve played. There’s this arcade in Brooklyn called Wonderville, and they have a lot of independent games there. There’s this one game that I need to look up the name and I totally forgot because I just showed it to somebody, but it’s a game about being a person of color with hair that’s cool and interesting and people always wanted to touch it, right? And the whole point of the game is for you, this one’s motion tracking and all that, and use your hands to swipe away other hands trying to touch your hair. And that game can be fun, and it is fun. It’s a weirdly cathartic experience where you’re like, okay, this is something that people of color have experienced all the time, people just trying to touch their hair for, “Oh cool, your hair is so interesting and different. Can I touch it?”

Shawn Pierre: While some people play games just for fun, there are some games that I think people play to have some sort of connection between the real world and things they face every day that they can’t really just, I guess it’s hard to put into words and maybe that’s not that difficult to put into words. But it’s something that you experience and other people can come in and understand and see what it’s like. I’m trying to say that it’s an experience that not everyone has to go through, but playing the game kind of gives you a bit of an understanding of what it’s like to go through it.

Jessica Creane: I think broadly speaking, a lot of us play video games in order to experience a state change, but there’s something that I’m not getting in my life outside of video games that video games are providing me. I think for a lot of it, for me, it fosters other connections. What is a way in which video games are fostering my connection to other people, and often it’s that I play video games with others. I very rarely play by myself.

Frank Lee: At least one view that has been suggested is that people enjoy games fundamentally because it reinforces the survival traits that essentially people sort of come through. It’s an evolutionary view. People enjoy things, or people learn to enjoy things that will help them survive, all the way from the start of, I guess, human civilization.

Frank Lee: So, for example, the fact that you’re able to identify patterns in nature will help you survive. I distinguish predators from safe areas, will help you survive. So, all the mental, all the physical, and even social aspect of being together as a society or as a group, help us survive versus being alone. So, enjoying games are reflected and are reinforcing those skills, at least from evolution point of view, the things that will help us even a little bit to survive. That’s, I guess, at least one view that I felt reasonably convincing of why people, at a core level, almost like a conscious level, enjoy games.

Ricardo Signes: When we take the question of why do people like video games and we kind of strip it back to “because video games are play and people like play and people like play because part of the nature of the animal that you are”, do you think there’s something in common beyond maybe exactly where you sit in your culture that leads people to enjoy video games specifically?

Jessica Creane: One of the reasons is that it provides an outlet for creativity and power and control that we don’t get in a lot of other places, that we get very specifically and in a very curated way in video games. Not every video game, but there are so many where we are the stars of our world, whereas if I’m doing something like reading a novel, it is an active experience, but I’m not going to change or shape that story. If I’m watching a movie, it’s happening at me and with me, but I’m not going to change the outcome of that. But video games give us agency in a big world with the possibility for a lot of complexity, and there’s certainly some tabletop games that do this and TTRPGs [tabletop role-playing game], like role-playing games, are live and in person that hit on this as well. But video games are massively accessible.

Jessica Creane: You can play the same games as your friends at the same time. So, this is a bit…there’s the ability to stay deeply connected and to be a part of the zeitgeist and have an experience that is both common to others and totally individual to you.

Ricardo Signes: Right.

Jessica Creane: And I think video games do that in a way that not a lot of other artistic forms yet do.

Shawn Pierre: What you said there reminds me of, during early days pandemic, Animal Crossing came out, I guess, at the perfect time.

Ricardo Signes: April 20th, I remember, very clearly.

Shawn Pierre: Yeah. And that was probably the only way that a lot of my friends and I were able to keep in contact with each other, all right, or visit each other. We would still talk through online means or phones or whatever, but you could visit your friend’s islands in Animal Crossing. And we would hold parties where people would show up and everyone would bring a bunch of their stuff that they don’t want, and they would swap items. And there would be people playing games, people digging holes on others’ islands. Yeah, swapping fruit and all that. Yeah. And there was this connection that we lost because of the whole pandemic that we were able to gain back in some way, shape, or form through Animal Crossing, which was really convenient and I think special, at that time.

Ricardo Signes: Those are a bunch of reasons that people like to play these games. What has driven the three of you to want to make these games?

Frank Lee: What I do want to say is that, unlike Jessica and Shawn who are wonderful indie game developers and so on, I’m first and foremost an educator. What I get to enjoy as an educator is, basically I have my students create games and I play them. So, my role is as a player more versus more as a game maker, so I will defer to the game making aspect to my wonderful colleagues that are here.

Jessica Creane: I started out in theater and I’m still in theater, I still do theatrical work. I think of this kind of work as, I think of myself as being someone who makes play and plays of all different forms. I’m pretty medium agnostic, so I work in immersive and interactive theater. I work in tabletop games, I work in video games, I work in mobile games. Whatever the form is that will best fit the function, that is what feels right. But I think what drew me to play and interactivity has been a real life journey. In games, everyone is a player. Not just actors up on stage, there’s no fourth wall, everybody plays, everybody builds the world, everybody interacts and engages in a way that feels very, usually, hopefully very good and very communal. There are rules to the world, there are set structures, there can be incredible stories, but it’s not finished until the players come in. And so, that was a real aha moment for me as a theater maker. And so from there, I started making interactive works of all kinds. There’s all of these nuances to the way that the world operates that often have us feeling very isolated. And so, I think what play and what games do are open up spaces, these little portals to these other worlds, where we get to explore those things in a structured way, with people that we love and care about, or with strangers, if that’s what it’s called for in the moment, and we get to tackle those things and become the kinds of people that we want to be.

Shawn Pierre: I think the thing that drives me to games is manipulating expectations, and that sounds kind of mean, but it’s not, I promise. It’s weird, because the games that I wind up making are very communal in a way where people are interacting with ways that they never thought they would be interacting with each other. Actually, even whether it’s single player or multiplayer, because with single player games, there’s a bunch of things that you could talk to your friends about afterwards, and you can have conversations that you didn’t expect to have. But in the multiplayer experiences, I really enjoy setting up expectations, and then just seeing what happens when everything changes and everyone has to do something completely different and not what they expect. And manipulate them in a way where it’s fun for them to play and also fun for people to watch as well.

Ricardo Signes: Those are some pretty different answers. Do you think there’s a common thread in what brings people to want to make games?

Frank Lee: If you sort of look at the kind of really the variety of work that I’ve done, including putting Pong and Tetris on a skyscraper, or using Minecraft to help kids with hemophilia, it’s just that I am interested in game and game technology, and gameplay game technology, and using it as a tool for all the other things that I’m interested in doing, whether it’s healthcare, education, even just art. Now back in 2020, I was concerned about the state of social media, so I decided to singularly tackle to try to make social media more civil. What I had done was to project on the side of a building a live Twitter feed where we put post questions about, for example, how do you talk to people that you disagree with? Or even something as simple as, is pineapple real pizza topping? And then, have that essentially discussion going, and then try to project onto, have almost a public square. It’s not just on a virtual space, but it’s set on a real space. That was proposed in 2019 to go on at SIGGRAPH, which would’ve been in DC in July, in 2020. And 2020 was the election year. So, I wanted to have that essentially up right in front steps of the White House and the Congress, to talk about real issues and so on. But then, March 2020, we all know what happened, everything shut down. So, I actually did that event in Philadelphia. So it wasn’t as widespread as I wanted, but it’s those type of kind of really weird tasks. My work tends to be much more speculative, really the deep end of it. So, I think all of us are coming from our love of sort of playful interaction, but are arriving at using different tools and different executions with those tools.

Jessica Creane: Yeah. From what I know about the three people up here right now, there is this like certain degree of mischief that comes in, which I don’t think is present for everyone who makes games. So, it’s that, and I think it makes me think of the public. Everything that we do is public in some way, and there are certainly the designers that design internally, like these are games and plays and puzzles and things for an organization, but it still reaches other people. And so, there’s a direct connection to a public and audience that feeds the work.

Ricardo Signes: You’re making a game. To what extent do you need to have or do you usually have a specific audience in mind for the specific thing you produce?

Shawn Pierre: A lot of it might depend on what state you are in terms of your indie game development career of some kind. For example, if you’re later on and you have a studio and you have people who are working with you, you might need to think of something that reaches a broader audience because you need to make sure that you have — that you can sell the game, and then money can come in and you can continue working on stuff.

Shawn Pierre: If you are earlier on in your career, you can just make something that you think you will like. And often, that approach can still wind up reaching a lot of people that you didn’t expect to reach, and you can build some sort of niche audience that, where they’re just fans of you and your style and your weird stuff. And you can do that and make a living based off of that.

Frank Lee: It really depends on how much commercial pressure that you’re under. I think, with the Pong event and Tetris event, my audience was City of Philadelphia. I wanted, the reason why I picked Cira Center, what’s unique about Cira Center is that, because it’s right next to the train station, there’s no other tall buildings around it, meaning that it’s visible pretty much anywhere around Philadelphia, versus if I had a building in the middle of Center City, then it’s blocked by everything else.

Frank Lee: Given that, while we were doing Pong and Tetris for a couple of hours in 2013, 2014, people were from all over the city, from the Fairmount area, from University City, from Center City, driving on I-76 were taking videos and posting that up. And what was interesting to me, what was cool about the idea was not so much that I had a big game on a building, but the fact that, because it was a big game on a building that’s visible, it’s a game that people would know, right? So, Tetris and Pong are something that, even if you never played Pong and Tetris, you recognize what it is, right? So, for that couple of hours, we had thousands or tens of thousands of people sharing in that experience, almost like a stadium experience, but more scattered out through the city.

Jessica Creane: This is a very interesting question. Today, I think today I’m doing so much work on multiple projects around this question of personas and who is this piece for? This my whole… The whole rest of my day while I’m not here is really digging into personas. I think it’s really easy to fall into the trap of building something that is “universal” and forgetting that it is the personal that is universal. And so, if we start from these very precise and specific details and questions and philosophies, then we get to build out to something that is bigger. But if we start with something that feels really big and broad, it’s really hard to make that thing feel personal. I tend to build from that space of really deep curiosity and really deep trust, as an artist, that this thing that I have a question about and that I’m grappling with, I could not possibly be alone in this. But I have to be true to the thing that I’m seeking, which I think happens even in spaces where I’m not in full artistic control. Because I think what Shawn was saying really resonates, and what Frank was saying about this question of how much autonomy do we have as a designer in this moment? Are we working for another entity? Are there other goals that are being put forth that are bigger than that? And so, I think part of the joy of this is getting to deconstruct some of those myths. And ideally being able to take some of this work that we do that is very, very passion driven as well as being driven by like a deep expertise in this space, to places where it is less understood. So yeah, I think those are the moments where it becomes really valuable to question what a target market means.

Shawn Pierre: We’re connected much more than I guess we were 5, 10, 15 years ago. Like every day, everything’s going much more connected, and the barrier to making games has gotten lower. Significantly lower, where there are a lot of programs and applications that are free to use and there are tools and plugins that you can use to make something that you want without having to do a lot of the legwork that was necessary beforehand. So, it’s really, it’s much easier. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s easier for you to get a lot of your work out there and put it up on a storefront for free or for $1.99 or something. So, it’s easier for people to discover your work. It’s easier and more difficult, because there’s a lot more, so there’s a lot more noise.

Shawn Pierre: It’s easier for you to have an idea that you feel is really personal to you, that really resonates with you, and put it out there and then find people out there who also feel the same way you do. And you might think, “Wow, no one might ever feel this,” or, “No one’s ever going to like this.” But then, you have someone out there’s like, “Oh, I really love this,” and then you have another person, and then all of a sudden, there’s this weird connection that you have with strangers who really buy with something that you made, I also just want to say, I think it’s okay for people to make games that you don’t plan to ever sell or reach anybody with. People do that with art, with music, with poems, they write poetry for themselves. I think it’s totally okay if you’re able to, if you’re not, again working with other people who are all financially depending on each other. I think it’s okay to make a game for yourself and say, “I made this. This is for me. It’s for no one else. Cool.” And that’s it.

Frank Lee: There was an important point that I think Shawn made that I want to emphasize. I feel like I might be showing my age, but back in the old days, there was a time where, for example, the licensing for a Unreal Engine would be $300,000. There’s no way, like, an individual will pay $300,000 for the license to make games. There was a small area, like shareware and other type of things that existed, but certainly it was negligible. Probably I can associate this with Unity. Unity sort of came out and made it free to use, that exploded both the type of really independent games, interesting games for themselves or as an expression have come up, but also a lot of noise as well. But so, that’s the reason why you have some really interesting and wonderful games, personal games. That Dragon, Cancer, which was a game developer that basically created a game to reflect his experience of his son, I think was three years old at the time, that had cancers. He basically created a simulation of the things that he was going through. There’s a game by Anna Anthropy, I think, similar to that of, trying to transition and try to create a game to reflect the aspect of it.

Ricardo Signes: Talked a lot about the motivation people have to play games and to make games. I can only imagine that many people who love games would like to make games and don’t know how. And now, we’re talking about the big increase in free or cheap or easy ways to make games. What advice do you have to people who think they want to make a game and don’t know what to do next?

Shawn Pierre: One of the, I think, easiest ways to figure out whether you want to make games and where to go next is not to, if you’re intimidated or worried about trying to jump in and make something and downloading Unreal or Unity or Pico or GameMaker or something and playing that, is to try and mod something that already exists. For example, I don’t know if you remember this, Rik, but when we were at office on…

Ricardo Signes: Chinatown?

Shawn Pierre: Yeah, yeah. I was messing with, I forget if I showed you, but there was a Left 4 Dead, they had the whole tool system, whatever, and I made the building.

Ricardo Signes: I remember that.

Shawn Pierre: Yeah. So, Left 4 Dead is a co-op zombie shooter, and you can make mods, and I built basically our building in our office and then a little bit outside the office where, you know, zombies were. Yeah, and I think you had the most fortified position because, yeah, I figured you’d be —

Ricardo Signes: Just luck.

Shawn Pierre: … Yeah. But modding actually was really neat. And what it allows you to do is not have to build a ton of tools yourself, and you can deal with, I mean, you can get really into the weeds with it, but you don’t have to. And you can build levels of your favorite games and see how that works and whether you enjoyed that part of it. And then, maybe you can go into more detail with it and get into a bit of the logic, because I guess, with the Left 4 Dead editor, it was Hammer I think, you can lay out something called a navmesh [navigation mesh] and choose where all the zombies spawn, and some of that logic too, so you can get into more nitty-gritty details with that.

Shawn Pierre: There’s also games like Super Mario Maker, where if you enjoyed playing the classic Mario Games, you can make those levels, and then you could put them up online and share them with people. And then, you can get some feedback, whether it’s superficial feedback because of Nintendo, you can still get some feedback and see how many people enjoyed it.

Shawn Pierre: Modding games and seeing what games have a level editor of some kind can be a great entry point into seeing whether you like some aspects of game design and creating games. There’s a whole bunch of other parts of making games that you could jump into without having to download some wild tools. Twine is an amazing tool for narrative games, so if you really want to get into the narrative game design, you could download Twine and mess with that. So yeah, I would say other than just go ahead and start making things because things are free or whatever, you can take a small step and see what games that you enjoy that you could mod or make custom levels for, or do some, not fanfic, but you could say it’s like the fanfic for some game.

Ricardo Signes: Sure.

Shawn Pierre: Even though you’re making some cool levels that might not ever be in a traditional Mario game, and it’s really cool and you really like it. And then, you start thinking, “oh, what if I was able to do this?” Mario Maker can’t do this, but maybe there’s a way I can do this on my own with another tool, another engine, or another way. Yeah. So, I think modding and level editing is a great way to jump into it if you’re curious about what it’s like to make something.

Jessica Creane: Yeah, seconded. Those are such great suggestions. One of the first things that I have my students do in intro to game design is to mod tic-tac-toe. And all they have to do is add one or two rules to tic-tac-toe, and that’s it. And then we play them, and we see if we break them or if they’re super fun, and then they can iterate on that and make different changes, and the games will get weirder and weirder over time. But it starts to challenge design thinking. There’s a lot of animators, illustrators, writers, all of these different roles within game design that don’t require you to code. If you are thinking, “This is really intimidating because I don’t know how to code yet,” there’s a world in which you can access all of these things that Shawn is saying and start to develop those skills.

Frank Lee: Shawn and Jessica did a wonderful job of selling mods and other type of approach to digital games. I’m going to do a very hard sell for board games, because even with modding and so on, there is going to be a technological barrier, right, you have to be familiar with or comfortable with some of these tools, languages, and so on. Whereas there’s nothing for board games. Everyone has played board games, everyone has played Monopoly. But what board games are able to do is to teach you, or at least think about game as a system and using that system to engage people and entertain people. And I feel like some of the most interesting games are coming out on the board game side. You have a game about bird watching that just really blew up during the pandemic.

Frank Lee: I think board games and making board games are one of the best ways to try to at least begin thinking about game as a design, as a system. And certainly, I feel like, especially since the pandemic, maybe even before, we are having almost like a renaissance, at least within the US, of board games. So, it goes back to the notion that I think we all mentioned of looking at games more broadly beyond video games, to look at all games including board games.

Ricardo Signes: You’re all educators who teach people to make games for a living. What do you each look to get out of that experience?

Frank Lee: For the past 10 years is trying to get more diverse voices into games and game industry. That is trying to help mentor, try to help assist minorities and women, and I want to applaud Haley and everyone else who picked this panel because we have great diversity here that does exist either in the game industry or in the tech industry. Certainly, my passion for the past 10 years is try to identify talented people, especially talented young women and minorities, and then try to encourage them to go into the game industry at the university level, but also work with TechGirlz, which is a nonprofit based in Philadelphia, to try to encourage young girls at middle school level to go or think about STEM as a career.

Shawn Pierre: I’ve always, always, always been interested in discussing and learning and seeing what other people think about game development and game design and everything. And when the pandemic happened, people lost a lot of work. I lost a lot of work and I was lucky enough to have some people reach out to me in terms of teaching. And through that, it was really interesting seeing what people younger than me thought about games in general and how they went about wanting to make the things that they thought were interesting.

Shawn Pierre: As much as I feel like I’m teaching them, I feel like they’re teaching me a lot of stuff as well. It’s not a one-way street. It really goes both ways where I’m learning a lot more either about myself or about what other people think about games and their design philosophies. And I think that I’m able to help people, like, sharpen some skills and actually they’re able to keep me sharp and help me stay up to date on whether one, all the hot new games that are coming out that I just don’t have time for anymore, but also where people’s minds are at in terms of making games and how broad it’s gotten in terms of the games that people want to make and the games people want to play.

Shawn Pierre: So for me, it’s really like a great back and forth, interacting with students and learning more about them and what they want to make and helping them make the things they want to make. And I think that’s probably one of the best parts about it, when people have an idea and they’re trying to get it somewhere and I’m able to help with that and we’re able to find the connections that they might not have been able to find on their own because there are things that I’ve dealt with that they haven’t dealt with before. And I’m able to guide people along that path and that’s a really special moment. And when people come out with something that’s really cool that they’re excited to play and I’m excited to play, that’s just a wonderful thing, especially at the end of the semester when we have our showcases and everyone’s really excited and they’re showing off their really cool work, watching all these seeds and ideas blossom into something really special, right? How cheesy that part sounds.

Jessica Creane: Part of what is really fundamental, I think, to this space and learning in general is that we are helping people to think critically, to think generatively, to think generously, and to be able to solve problems for themselves. And so it puts me into this space where I practice being very zen. I practice being a coach rather than a hardcore professor standing at my podium talking to them, but really helping them to understand the worlds that they’re trying to build, why they’re having challenges within their team right now, what their role is in that and what to do when their expectations and reality don’t meet. And so rather than raging at the world to say, “Oh, okay, this person isn’t showing up,” do we actually have evidence that they’re going to show up next time? Great. Are you going to design this game around them showing up next time or not?

Jessica Creane: And so helping them to figure out like what a process is that allows them to facilitate creativity and allow the work to actually flow and to be in those conversations about what a piece can be with their teammates, with the class, with me, those things feel really incredible and I think that’s a space where I feel like I’m really excited to be a part of academia that is connected to the industry because the industry hasn’t always had that.

Ricardo Signes: You’re talking about seeing people make the kind of games that they want to see in the world and the diversity of opinions that lead to making better games. Do you have any hot tips, not just for me personally, but for the rest of the listeners on how to find out about these?

Shawn Pierre: There’s this game festival called IGF, the Independent Games Festival, and basically it’s a festival celebrating great independent games, and I think that’s a great resource. Right now, I’m the chair of the IGF. So people submit a bunch of really amazing games and then a bunch of their peers judge and jury, they review the games and then they nominate games for awards and some games win awards for best design, best audio, and all that. But that is a great resource in terms of learning a lot of what the indie game community is doing, a lot of great games that they’re making.

Shawn Pierre: And every year I’ve been part of the IGF, this is my second year as a chair, but before I was doing some jurying and judging, but there’s a lot of great, amazing things that come out of the IGF. You’ll have hundreds of games submit, and then some games that you do know of, Spelunky, they submit. That game was submitted, won an award. Hades, I think, submitted and won an award, but then you have a bunch of other games that you probably never heard of that are really wild.

Shawn Pierre: One game I’m playing right now, partially for school but partially because I really like it is called Stacklands and it’s a simulation deck-building-type game where you have cards and you’re pulling cards from the deck, and you pulled an onion and you could plant the onion, and then you could mine for rocks, and you combine the rocks with the wood and then you make a shed, which gives you more resources, and all of a sudden, oh no, a wild portal appears and then a weird goat monster will come out of the portal and you collect coins. It’s a great game, Stacklands. I say look it up.

Shawn Pierre: But yeah, IGF is a great resource and just take a look at all the games in the past that have been either nominated for an award or got an honorable mention or won an award. And they’re all really great things. The Nuovo category is the category for games that are pushing the boundaries of what independent games can do. And last year, a game, Betrayal at Club Low, won both the Grand Prize and the Nuovo Award. There are some really good games there.

Shawn Pierre: I think I would probably play… I wish I had the time for all those games, too. It gets really difficult to find time for them, and some of them are short, which is actually really nice. They’re shorter, fulfilling experiences where you don’t feel like, “Oh, I need to spend 40, 50, 60, 200 hours playing this one game.” I could jump in, play it, really enjoy it, get everything I wanted out of it and share it with somebody else and then play another game.

Frank Lee: So I was going to just say, because I feel like Shawn is underplaying how important I feel like IGF is, I consider the Independent Game Festival to be the premier game award in the world because what it allows to do is they bring together some of the most creative people in the game industry to look at and highlight the games that are, I think, essentially pushing the boundaries of games, pushing the boundaries of gameplay, putting in the innovative aspects and ideas in games and so on outside of the traditional commercial, the game industry. Certainly I’ve been deeply influenced by IGF. I think when I attended IGF back in 2004, 2005, that was my impetus of creating an experimental game design class and so on. IGF is an absolute jewel, I think, of the game industry and certainly we are blessed to have Shawn and others devoting their time to essentially keep that going and making that happen. IGF is just absolutely wonderful and I would recommend any game that’s been on that list since the beginning.

Jessica Creane: There are also some other organizations that I’ve found really helpful, especially as I was coming into the games industry. One of them is Games for Change, which is a network that does… They have conference every year, but you can also go online at I believe, and find a holistic games that fall into the category of impact games or serious games. And then the one in Philadelphia is all tabletop games, so it’s fully analog so you can really get a sense of what is the gameplay, what is this scene that Frank is saying we’re having, this incredible renaissance. Come play these wild, beautiful games.

Jessica Creane: And then sort of an conventional hit, I think, is, which is tied to this organization called No Proscenium and they compile all of these works that are playable and interactive experiences, some of which are digital, AR, VR, MR, and some of which are full-on live and in-person. They’ve done an incredible job of collating all of those materials and saying, “This is what’s playing right now. This is what’s happening. If you live in each of these different regions in the world, go check this and this out. This is when they open, this is when they close. This is the review, this is the podcast about it.” And so I have found that to be an invaluable way to stay connected to the world of interactivity.

Frank Lee: And just to shout out some of the Drexel students, a Drexel team was one of the finalists for IGF Best Student Games, which I considered the best or the most important student game competition in the world. And also, a team from Drexel was also the winner of the Best of Game Design at Games for Change two years ago.

Ricardo Signes: So I want to ask you about a couple of the specific things each of you do. Shawn, I’ll ask you about another one of your organizations, Philly Game Mechanics. What does Philly Game Mechanics do to create a space for game designers and what does it do in general?

Shawn Pierre: Philly Game Mechanics, yeah, it’s a local Philly-based organization and the whole goal is to further the development of local game creators. Whether you want to go on and make this your career or whether you’re a hobbyist, we want space for everybody. A lot of people who have gone to do things say that they’ve learned a lot as part of being in Philly Game Mechanics and being part of the community and working with other people, taking part in the Game Jams. Game Jam is where you make a game over a short period of time. Traditionally, it was known to be short, maybe 48 hours a week or something, but there are game jams that expand into several months or something.

Shawn Pierre: But yeah, we would have these events where everyone would just be able to further their own personal game development or their small-team game development and learn a lot. Game jams are great for rapid iteration, learning what works, what doesn’t work, building a set of tools and skills that you know you’ll be able to carry forward to your next game or your next project.

Shawn Pierre: And right now, while other stuff has taken me away from it, but what’s really great is that it’s really community-driven organizations. Often people shift in and shift out and come in and out and help push things forward and run the community. If you go to, you’ll see all that information. And what’s great is that we had a fiscal sponsorship, so we’re able to get grants and we can get money that we can help put back into the community and help people make games that they probably wouldn’t be able to make on their own, so I like to really think of it as a good jumping-off point.

Jessica Creane: I would say Philly Game Mechanics played a huge role in me being a game designer today. There are a couple of things that have done that in my life. Philly Game Mechanics and the one game design professor I ever had, Adam Nash, who took a look at the weird stuff I was making. And I know a lot of people who teach game design and I don’t think everybody would’ve looked at that work and said, “This is really weird, keep at it.” I think they would’ve tried to school me on the way that games are made and what is and isn’t a game, and he never did that.

Jessica Creane: And the Philly Game Mechanics, the moment I walked into that space, it was so kind. I actually had no idea that the game community or the game industry had the reputation that it does for viciousness and for being unwelcoming for sort of an unreasonably long time because of this one professor and because of Shawn and the other folks who were running this community because they were so kind. And they invited me right in. No one was like, “Oh, you’re not a game designer.” They’re like, “Oh, you come from theater? That’s amazing. Welcome. We’re so excited to see what that overlap is. We’re doing a game jam. We encourage everyone to invite new people in and be very welcoming,” and they actually live those values.

Frank Lee: Philly is not a game industry town. So back in 2007, 2008, I brought state senators and state congressional members to Drexel to try to educate them on the importance of the game industry or the future direction of entertainment, the future and so on. We try to usher in tax breaks for game companies. That just did not get signed. So yeah, at that point, I decided that essentially the top-down approach of trying to convince the governor or trying to convince state officials of the importance of game industry was not working because I had no control. I could make all the arguments that I want, but the other ones who were going to make the decisions.

Frank Lee: So I abandoned that approach and then decided on the bottom-up approach. Why don’t we try to grow a game industry on our own from scratch, meaning try to find and nurture small companies and they become the next Rovio, right, that will establish gaming in Philadelphia?

Frank Lee: And that actually became the impetus for Entrepreneurial Game Studio. That’s the reason why I’m trying to mentor lots of students to create game companies, and hopefully one of them or some of them will stay, and later on one of them will become the big anchor that will hold the game company together because that’s something that’s within my control, that I could bring students together, I could try to help them to start game companies and mentor them and so on, but it’s always been a mystery to me why we have so many university students that are passionate about the game industry. We have an underlying passionate independent game makers in Philadelphia, but they all end up leaving and Pennsylvania is not doing enough to try to retain the brain drain. Essentially, they go to Microsoft, they go to Texas to work for id [Software] and other companies and so on. So we train them, but then they go somewhere else with their basically economic power and so on. It’s always been a frustrating point for me and hopefully, in the future, we’ll be able to change minds at the state level, but other states are supporting and they’re seeing the future of having that industry as part of their economic portfolio.

Ricardo Signes: I’d love to see it happen. I love the city. I am going to switch gears now to talk about your coaching work, Jessica. What does that work look like? What are the key topics that you typically coach on?

Jessica Creane: If I was coaching you, for instance, then you might come to me with a particular challenge. “We have this game that we want to release. We actually don’t know how to start. It’s just an idea right now. We feel amazing about it. 100% success rate. This is going to work.” It’s really just about the execution. And sometimes the question is something that is very different than what they actually need. The question is, “Can you tell me how to execute this in six weeks? Can you tell me the one thing that I’m missing in order to solve this problem?” And it’s never that simple.

Jessica Creane: And so I think what play-based coaching does is look at where are you feeling joy, where are you feeling excitement? Where are you feeling obligation to create things and how do we tease those out and how do we find clarity in the total muddle of our brains as creators or as leaders? I think part of my job is to stay to find the buoyancy in transformation, What is the product now? Where does it want to go? What is a way that that can actually be a creative and fun process versus a world in which we are totally pushing through and slogging through in order to make something happen?

Jessica Creane: And I think the way that I will usually integrate these things is that sometimes there’s a really clear question or coaching practice, and the way that I can usually get to a space where I know what to do with a person or a group in this moment is because I’m doing so much research on the other side that lets me draw from a massive toolbox at this point that I’m always adding to, and that research all gets done in the world of making games and making play-based experiences. And all of those things are in the vein of connecting people and helping people to do hard things.

Jessica Creane: And so then I developed this sort of question set from an immersive experience. And so there’s this constant interchange between things that are play and things that are embracing the unknowns in the world and the spaces where we feel really hard and set and serious.

Jessica Creane: And so that’s what feels really exciting to me about doing coaching work is that there’s this incredible fluidity between the narratives in the games that we play and the way that we make connection when we’re playing games, when we’re doing immersive experiences, when we’re doing things like escape rooms, right? There’s all of these things that we can see systems, structures, and communities working in play spaces, and to be able to draw from the very specific mechanics, tools, narratives, et cetera that make those work in those spaces and apply them to individual relationships or group dynamics that is just deeply delightful and I think really satisfying. I think we can’t be creative if we are in a mode of certainty, and so we have to be in a space where we think that something is possible and that the unknown is very present in order to do something new. A lot of this work is around doing the things that games do naturally, which is to say we don’t know what’s going to happen around this curve. We don’t know what’s going to happen if you say this thing to this person, but we have a pretty good idea that we’re in safe hands to make those choices.

Ricardo Signes: Okay, this podcast is called Digital Citizen and we’re going to ask about digital citizenship. Our final question is when people are engaging with games, whether they’re playing them or they’re creating them, what should they do to be a good digital citizen and show responsibility to themselves and to other people?

Jessica Creane: I think it’s helpful to remember that everything is the real world. So even if you are creating things, moments that are fictional or you’re working with a team to create a game that feels like a little pocket world outside of reality, that team is real. The people who are going to engage with it are real. Everything about it is real. So honoring that and not thinking that you are somehow exempt from any rules of physics or relational dynamics, you are not. Everything is real.

Frank Lee: I guess I will just add from a parent perspective, just be aware what games your kids are playing and you yourself have to essentially play that game and those games and so on. So as a good digital citizen, the general rule is everything in moderation, a game in moderation. At the same time, just as a digital citizen and parent, be much more proactive understanding the type of games that kids play and what can be positive about the experience for them and what can potentially be a negative experience for them and so on.

Shawn Pierre: Yeah, those are both really good answers. There’s a lot that we could go into, like you said, making games, crunch is bad. Don’t spend 80 hours in a week working on a game, whether you can’t… Companies shouldn’t have people crunch. Some do.

Shawn Pierre: And I guess maybe going off of what Jessica said, whether a game is an abstraction or a simulation of something, everything is connected to the real world, and you, as part of the real world, should not think that once you enter the digital space that anything that influenced you outside of digital space is null and void. Rather, you should take that, embrace it, and have that in your mind as, maybe as you’re working on something.

Shawn Pierre: Just thinking about the working and stuff angle, something that I’m always telling my students and I hear from other folks is that there’s a lot of other experiences that the world has to offer you, and the best games that you can make are ones that don’t just come from your past experience of playing games, but from your experience of living life outside of games and doing other things, whether you might think they’re mundane, like taking a walk through a park or something wild like skydiving or whatever, take those other experiences that exist outside of your time in games, whether it’s digital or tabletop or big social games or something, and use that to influence where you want to move next in the future.

Shawn Pierre: Some of the best games I’ve played come from someone thinking, “Oh, I wonder what it’s like to kick a can into a hole.” And then that’s not a specific example. That’s just the first thing that came to my head for some reason. But there’s so much that the world has to offer and being a good digital citizen, I think, also just means being a good world citizen and embracing what the world has to offer and learning from what the world gives to you and sends your way, whether it’s good or bad. You take that and learn from it and do your best to absorb that and then maybe express that in some sort of digital way, shape, or form. And sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s difficult, but I think people have a responsibility to do that as opposed to just thinking in the, “Okay, let me think of these past games. Now how am I going to make my game?” Use them as references and whatever, but use the real world as references.

Ricardo Signes: I hope you enjoyed the interview.

Haley Hnatuk: Another amazing show, Rik. I really love the discussion that you had today, can you tell me about a time that you tried something new that you weren’t sure that you’d be good at?

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. Look, I’m bad at a lot of stuff and I try to try new things, most of which I’m bad at, which is okay. The thing I’ve gone back to the most is maybe baking, for which I blame the Great British Bake Off. After a couple episodes in, I always think, “You know what? I should make a cake. It’s going to be so good. I’ve been watching cakes for hours,” and I try and make a cake and I’m like, “Yeah, it’s fine.” Look, you could eat it. I don’t throw it in the trash, but I’ve done it. And then I do end up with a piece of cake and a year later, I’ll make another cake. I’m not great at it. I’ll try it again. At some point, I’ll find something I can make. How about you? What are you stuck on?

Haley Hnatuk: I try to try a couple new things every year. So this year, I’m planning to actually next week go to my first figure drawing class, which is a thing I’ve never tried before. I’m actually not very good at paper-pencil drawing, so I don’t imagine I’ll be great at drawing human beings.

Ricardo Signes: Just avoid the hands.

Haley Hnatuk: The last time I tried to draw hands was a disaster, but also faces, faces are hard, but I guess you don’t have to draw the faces when you’re figure drawing. I don’t know. So I’m going to see how I do with that and I’m really excited for that new adventure. I’ve had pretty mixed results at various art things that I’ve tried in the past. I’m really bad at knitting, which apparently is a thing that nobody is bad at, but it’s not my strong suit, but also considering potentially trying crochet because apparently that’s easier.

Haley Hnatuk: So let’s rope back into the interview that you just had, Rik. What were some of the key takeaways of that interview?

Ricardo Signes: Yeah, first one is a shout-out to Philly people. If you are a Philly local and you want to support a great nonprofit doing important work to get more diverse voices into the gaming space, you can check out That’s with a Z. We’ll have it in the shownotes. Secondly, if you’re looking for a place to find recommendations for fun games, new games, check out the Independent Games Festival, which is, and you can find a link in the show notes for that too.

Ricardo Signes: And if you are interested into getting into game-building, whether or not you think you’re going to be good at it, look for local affinity groups in your area. Right here in Philly, we have the Philly Game Mechanics, and there’s groups like this everywhere. Find other people who want to do this. They will be supportive and helpful and give you an audience and give you feedback, and it’ll help you find some help to do the thing you want to do. That’s the end of the show. We’ll see you in two weeks for a new guest and some more actionable steps to becoming a better digital citizen.

Ricardo Signes: Thanks for listening to Digital Citizen. Digital Citizen is produced by Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Our show is produced by Haley Hnatuk. Special thanks to the incredible team of people behind Fastmail. Digital Citizen is hosted by me, Ricardo Signes.

Ricardo Signes: You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast player, and for a free one-month trial of Fastmail, you can go to And for more episodes, transcripts, and my takeaways, you can go to