Photo of Nic VanMeertenDoctoral student Nic VanMeerten

Game changer

Doctoral student Nic VanMeerten explores video games for the greater good

Like many 14-year-olds, Nic VanMeerten liked to play video games. Unlike most kids his age, he took things a step further.

“I started a team to play games competitively,” says VanMeerten, now a doctoral student in the psychological foundations of education program.

In high school, VanMeerten’s passion for games helped him connect with other like-minded enthusiasts online and made him more comfortable meeting new people.

“It wasn’t just entertainment, it was an opportunity to interact with others and to learn,” he says.

VanMeerten graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Then, with the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System, he conducted research on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Although he enjoyed the research, he knew something was missing, so he began searching for other careers. While attending the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, he met a researcher who was researching how to reduce toxic behavior in a multiplayer game called League of Legends.

“He helped me to realize I could pursue a career researching how people behave in digital games,” he recalls.

Now VanMeerten is out to investigate how people learn in video games and how this information can be used for the greater good—to make learning fun.

Turning passion into a path

As an undergrad, VanMeerten co-founded GLITCH, a non-profit organization that promotes video games as a culture, career path, and creative practice. GLITCH was started because of the experiences of VanMeerten and his friends in other gaming communities.

“There are a lot of people at the U who enjoy games,” says VanMeerten, “and we wanted to bring them together.”

Today, VanMeerten runs GLITCH’s public education series, the Immersion Program, along with many other aspects of the organization. His relationship with GLITCH also connected him to a scholarship opportunity that allowed him to attend the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this past year, which provided insight into commercial games research to complement his experiences in academic games research.

Alongside his experiences with GLITCH, VanMeerten has been able to pursue his research interests under his adviser and mentor Keisha Varma, associate professor of psychological foundations of education in the Department of Educational Psychology. Her openness to new ideas has allowed him to explore opportunities and projects. In his first year, for example, VanMeerten worked with the Minnesota Historical Society on a game analytics project.

“It was a great first-year project that helped me to explore learning games,” he says.

Connect, design, learn

This summer, VanMeerten is running another cohort of emerging talent through the GLITCH Immersion Program and getting ready to launch the first of many studies for his dissertation.

“Eventually I would like to work in the industry by improving designs, experiences, and learning through research,” he says.

VanMeerten’s current research focuses on the process of learning in video games. Recently, he received two grants from the University’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) for projects to improve the research and design of digital games at the U. He leads one of the projects, the Digital Games and Learning Collaborative, which addresses the need to bring researchers interested in studying digital games and learning together across campuses and departments through a series of workshops and events for faculty and students.

He is also a co-convener of the Inclusive Game Design Collaborative. The project emphasizes the importance of actively involving players and communities in the design process to ensure diverse and accurate representation in games. The group’s Game Jam events will invite community members to design prototypes of games with local game designers.

“Game Jam events give people the opportunity to make friends, learn new skills, and create something amazing that they can add to their portfolio,” he adds. He is always looking for opportunities to connect with others who have found success in the gaming industry.

Read more about GLITCH and the Department of Educational Psychology.

Story by Bridget Scott | Photo by Susan Andre | July 2016