Mike Sellers

Mike Sellers Teaches 21st Century Thinking Through Game Design

Spotlight, December 2015

Michael Sellers, a Media School professor of practice, has a long history in the gaming industry, which has led him to highlight systems thinking and diversity as key to successful games and, perhaps, success in other areas.

Sellers’ background includes working on Meridian 59, the first 3-D massively multiplayer online game (MMO), to working on The Sims 2 as the lead designer. He’s started and sold companies, done AI work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Government, and done consulting, all while orienting himself toward a career in academia.

“One of the reasons I’m so excited to be at IU is that this gives me the opportunity to take some time to do some things that I wouldn’t have time to do in industry, because the time pressure in industry is so high,” Sellers said. “These are some things that are a little more speculative—I think they’ll go someplace interesting.”

Due to his experiences within the industry, Sellers has become an advocate for diversity and bringing more women into the field.

“I believe this is something we should push from the ground up, certainly at the undergraduate level, preferably even earlier than that,” Sellers said.

Sellers has found that work environments with more women and more people from diverse backgrounds and cultures results in richer voices and better work.

“Our design conversations very quickly went beyond what I would typically expect in a group of all guys—this happened over and over again,” Sellers said.

When Sellers worked for Maxis, he said, his executive producer was a woman, two designers working for him were women, and his general manager was a woman, which was unique in the games industry at the time.

“From there, I went to a studio that had a much lower proportion of women, and the difference to me was stark, both in terms of the culture of the place but also in terms of the work we did,” Sellers said.

Sellers believes increasing diversity will improve and diversify games.

“We’re at a very early stage of game development, like the movies were, perhaps, in the 1930s or 40s—we’ve had some kinds of games, but now we’re willing to broaden our palate,” Sellers said.

Even within the last few years, Sellers noted, he has seen more kinds of games developed as the field becomes more diverse, including games that don’t include violence or that feature new types of storytelling.

Besides his focus on diversity, Sellers is excited about systems thinking and its connection with games. With his curriculum, he makes the point that systems are all around us.

“Understanding systems and how to think in systems is as important to the 21st century as literacy was to the 20th century. If we can’t think in systems, we aren’t going to do very well,” Sellers said, mentioning climate change and the financial crisis in Greece as examples.

He believes games are an ideal way to teach systems.

“I don’t know of any other avenue that even approaches how well we can have people understand and experience and be able to create their own systems,” Sellers said.

Regarding what games can offer education, Sellers said that game developers have come to realize that all games teach, whether they like it or not.

“The question is, how intentionally are we teaching things,” Sellers said, “and what are we teaching?”

The difficulty with developing educational games, he explained, is that the industry relies on revenue to create more games—which sometimes mean taking shortcuts and bypassing educational opportunities. Still, he is optimistic.

“I think as we continue to learn more about the art and science of creating games, and as we learn more about education, those two things will continue to grow closer together,” Sellers said.

Mike SellersMike Sellers is a professor of practice in the Game Design unit within the Media School.