Design Focus



The central theme across all my scholarly work is the use of interactive media to design innovative, educational experiences. My work explores the following:

  • The creative process for designing interactive learning experiences, most notably how can one balance the often competing goals of learning, pedagogy, and end-user experience to develop engaging, effective learning experiences;
  • Applications of interactivity, most notably how can one transform particular linear content and learning or health goals into transformative, compelling interactive experiences;
  • New uses of emerging technologies, most notably how emerging technological tools and techniques can change how we conceptualize and design interactive learning experiences.

My scholarly work has focused on two primary areas, serious game design and interactive health communication.

Serious Games

Serious Games are games with a purpose beyond entertainment, including but not limited to games for learning, games for health, and games for policy and social change. Designing effective, engaging serious games requires theoretical understanding of learning, cognition, emotion, and play. Along with great game design, serious games need content and pedagogy expertise, design research, and impact research. Given my past experience in developing interactive educational content and expertise in game design, I am excited to contribute to this emerging field. Below are highlights of my recent creative work in the area:

  • “The Fantastic Food Challenge: Using Games to Improve Food and Nutrition Habits of Adults” is a CD-based game, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Michigan State University Family Nutrition Program, designed to motivate young adults to learn about nutrition, food safety, food preparation and comparing food prices. The “Fantastic Food Challenge” won the 2004 Interactive Multimedia Best of Competition Award at the Broadcast Educators Association Festival of Media Arts and was the focus of a recent research project, funded by a Families and Communities Together Coalition (FACT) grant, that explored the effectiveness of print, website, and game modalities in nutrition education.
  • Life Preservers” is a web-based endogenous learning game, funded by the National Science Foundation and developed with my colleague Carrie Heeter, about the natural evolution and adaptation of life on earth designed to meet specific educational, game design, and research goals. “Life Preservers” was selected by peer review for exhibition as an innovative game for learning at the 2005 Games for Learning and Society (GLS) Conference and FuturePlay 2005.  “Life Preservers” was created to serve as a tool for research about games and learning, and has resulted in several peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations on that topic. What we learned about the serious game design process for “Life Preservers” was the focus of several academic conference case studies, a presentation at the Game Developers’ Conference Serious Games Summit, and a journal article in Innovate. 
  • “Mudcraft” is a web-based and downloadable game designed to explore how to create a real-time strategy (RTS) game for a casual game playing audience. While Mudcraft is primarily a game played for entertainment purposes, the game employs a subtle pro-social message about conservation, the use of renewable resources, and our relationship with Mother Nature; hence Mudcraft also can be classified into the “games for change” category of serious games. Mudcraft has won a number of independent game awards and has been played online over one million times.
  • “Voyage Beijing” is a web-based endogenous learning game designed to simulate a first business trip to Beijing, China. With more companies establishing business in China, an increasing number of American business people are visiting China; among them many are visiting for the first time. Although China is known as having a profound ancient culture, the country is also becoming modernized and internationalized quickly with the rapid social and economic development. The modern culture intermingles with the ancient culture, bringing many changes that may result in complicated cultural situations. This can be intimidating to visitors from other countries and cultures who are trying to understand and adapt. For business people, knowledge about a culture can make a difference in their business prospects. As a player of Voyage Beijing, your mission is to travel to Beijing and arrange a business deal with a potential Chinese partner. The primary way to achieve success is to build a good impression with your Chinese hosts while gaining knowledge about Beijing. Voyage Beijing has appeared in peer-reviewed exhibitions at Indiana University’s IDEAs Festival and the FuturePlay 2005 Game Exhibition.
  • “MyBetterMind” is a prototype of a subscription-based web service that contains a suite of cognitive exercise games for individuals hoping to preserve neurocognitive functions as they move from middle to late adulthood. Currently, I have created thirteen prototype cognitive games. The suite of games won first place for the Future Game Impact and Application Award at the 2005 International FuturePlay Conference. I am currently working on a number of funding sources to further develop, deploy, and research the cognitive games. Another possibility that is being explored is licensing the intellectual property to form the basis of an “MSU-blessed” startup company that will bring the service to market.

I plan to continue to seek funding to develop design exemplars of serious games across a variety of content domains, helping to adapt existing genres and invent new learning game genres. I also am working to translate my design experience into resources that will help advance the process of serious game design and the teaching of design. To that end, recently I developed a serious game design framework and methodology, which I have presented in a number of workshops around North America (New Media Center Conference 2006, FuturePlay 2006, MSU Lilly Seminar Fall 2006.) Each workshop was highly attended. I received strong positive feedback on the framework and methodology. Many mentioned they planned to adopt my materials into their practice and/or teaching.

In a similar but slightly different vein, I also am working to translate other people’s research into resources that will help advance the process of serious game design and the teaching of design. I was granted a National Science Foundation research dissemination grant, with my colleague Carrie Heeter, to communicate key research findings on gender and games to the game industry and game design educators. Efforts such as this will contribute to advancing both the academic discipline and commercial industry.

Interactive Health Communication

In the area of interactive health communication, my collaborators and I have developed new approaches to providing health and medical-related information through interactive media to a variety of audiences. Below are highlights of my recent work in the area:

  • “Completing a Life: A Resource for Taking Charge, Finding Comfort, and Reaching Closure” is a web site and CD-ROM, funded by Henry Ford Hospital and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and developed with my colleagues Darcy Greene (Journalism) and Karen Ogle (Osteopathic Medicine), that provide a rich resource for people who are living with advanced illness, addressing practical, emotional, spiritual and medical issues.  Personal stories told by terminally ill individuals and their caregivers and family serve as a virtual support group. The resulting product, developed through a unique partnership between the Communication Technology Lab, MSU Osteopathic Medicine, and Henry Ford Hospital, includes a carefully crafted interplay of content, navigation, interactivity, and look-and-feel to create an approachable, empowering resource for an emotionally charged, difficult yet vital topic. The design process and approach taken with “Completing a Life” has been written up and presented at numerous conferences, including CHI 2002 and ED-MEDIA 2002. Details about the “Completing a Life” project and its creative merit are contained later in the omnibus file.
  • “Diabetes and You: Ensuring Low Literate Adult Access to Online Health Information” and “Pediatric Care - Online Child Care Center” funded by the Michigan Department of Community Health and developed with my colleague Pam Whitten explores methods of communicating health-related information through the Internet to a low-literate audience. Although illiteracy is a barrier to computer use and low-literate individuals may be less likely to own a computer, a current lack of computer use is not an insurmountable barrier to future use.  Since health information is one of the top reasons for internet use in the general population, it seems reasonable that development of accessible, useful health-related materials for low-literacy populations would be a way to begin to eliminate the “digital divide” between more affluent populations who are computer users and less affluent populations who are not. In these projects we developed prototype interactive, health education web sites for low-literacy individuals and performed usability research to verify and enhance the design approach which has been written and presented at several conferences. Recently, the Pediatric Care site won second place in the “creative” category of the 2006 AEJMC Best of Web Competition.
  • “Blood Explorer: A Computerized Atlas of Peripheral Blood Smears” which I produced with Michelle Butina in Medical Technology, is a software-based job aid for clinical laboratory scientists. It helps hematologists diagnose abnormal and immature blood cells, identify unfamiliar or rare cells and inclusions, and compare and contrast morphologic features of different blood cells. The unique set of interactive tools unlocks information once stored exclusively in large medical reference books and makes that information more accessible and efficient to retrieve for timely diagnosis. The software has been enhanced to contain a number of interactive quizzing tools and is currently published and distributed by The Colorado Association for Continuing Medical Laboratory Education, Inc as a continuing education hematology/hemostasis self-study course.
  • The Brain Biodiversity Bank Atlas” funded by the National Science Foundation provides scientists and students interactive web-based tools to study and examine whole brain photographs, rotating views, coronal sections and information about 175 brains from over 100 different species of mammals from one of the world's largest collections of mammalian brains. Serving as interactive media designer and programmer, I worked with brain physiologists John Irwin Johnson at Michigan State University, Wally Welker at the University of Wisconsin, and Adrianne Noe at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., on the development of this online resource from 1997 to the present.  My area of contribution included interface design, database integration, and image processing.  The Brain Biodiversity Bank Atlas was the featured collection in the October 2001 issue of D-Lib Magazine, published by the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, and highlighted in Netwatch section of Science (Science 293: 5527).

Interactive health communication represents a key content domain of serious games, referred to as “games for health.” Many of the health communication projects described above are not games. As I move forward, my work in this area will focus on games for health. To that end, a number of my recent proposal writing activity has been in the area of games for health.


As you can see, my work in serious game design and interactive health communication consistently receives peer recognition at academic and industry-oriented conferences and exhibitions for its creative merit. In several cases, my work also leads to scholarly research publications and presentations, advancing the respective disciplines.

While the research-creative work described above represents my current focus, a number of interactive media projects I developed prior to becoming an assistant professor continue to have impact on the world. These projects include the “American Sign Language Browser” web site and “Personal Communicator” CD-ROM, “Microbe Zoo” web site and CD-ROM, “Easing Cancer Pain” web site and CD-ROM, and “Breast Cancer Lighthouse” web site which continue to receive awards and recognition.