MIT Sloan Gaming Industry Conference 2024

I attended the second MIT Sloan Gaming Industry Conference, an event run by the MIT Gaming Industry Club. The following captures my notes and thoughts on the event’s panels and keynotes.


The theme for MGICON 2024 was Big Questions for the Future of Gaming. For a little more context, the conference was hosted by students of the business school of a top private university. For a business event, it had a surprising variety of topics and speakers but there was still an undertone of commerce in most discussions.

Gaming for Good Panel

The first Big Question to be addressed was “How can we promote social good through games?”

The moderator was Dr T.L. Taylor, a sociologist and professor. The panelists were:

  • Irena Pereira, an industry veteran running Unleashed
  • Mike Pappas of Modulate, makers of ToxMod, one of the event sponsors
  • Alex Dunn, founder of Cephable, adaptive control software
  • Vadim Palikov, a Civ fan and CEO of Legends of Learning, an educational mini-game platform

It’s worth noting that all 4 panelists are CEOs of their respective companies. It’s unusual to see “social good” come out of CEOs but each company was solving a specific problem related to helping others. Unleashed was about fixing loneliness, Modulate was about monitoring toxic voice chat, Cephable was about enabling play for gamers with disabilities, and Legend of Learning for making learning engaging for students.

So if the answer to the Big Question that was posited was to start a company that helps others, I suppose it’s a valid one even if it wasn’t explicitly stated; the panel mostly went over the CEOs’ respective journeys and the financial challenges of social good. Legends of Learning’s subscribers cover costs for all their students. Loss from toxicity churn and violation of government regulations both spur Modulate while Cephable found financial success with lower-cost products and making banking apps successful.

What I found funny was a phrase from my first job that popped up: chocolate-covered broccoli. This was about educational games, of course. We could be seeing a future where textbooks (digital or otherwise) get replaced by games because the latter are more engaging and help learning stick, as Palikov put it.

Gamifying the World Panel

The Big Question was “How are games transforming other industries?”

The moderator was Dr. Andy Wu, an energetic associate professor at Harvard Business School (which is like MIT Sloan’s supposed rival). The panelists were:

  • Stephanie Liu Cossart, former Senior Product Manager at Duolingo, the language learning platform with the infamous green owl
  • Taylor Perkins, Director of Games & Emerging Media at Paramount, the 100-year-old entertainment company
  • Dr. Peter Smith of Limbitless Solutions’ Game Dev unit where games are made to aid prosthetic users
  • John Henderson, CEO of Battle Road, makers of AtomEngine, a Godot-based world engine with aspirations of the Metaverse.

Drawing lines from Duolingo and Limbitless to transformative games is quite straightforward. Liu Cossart’s experiences supported how games can change behaviors and Duolingo is often used to alleviate teaching labor shortages in many countries. In particular, gaming can change something “painful in the past” to something useful. Dr. Smith’s company uses gamification to help children with limb differences learn gestures. The beauty here is that failure at hard tasks can be less painful in a safe video game. The hardware can go beyond limb differences to help individuals with carpal tunnel syndrome, for example.

When asked about the intersection of gaming and media, Perkins spoke of how media is the connector between viewers and gamers. Movies and TV shows bring in new fans and convert them to gaming. This, to me, was the opposite of the Big Question in that it’s about entertainment empires transforming games. But it did get me thinking about how important media can be for indie developers.

The moderator asked an odd question about incumbents of the industry versus entrepreneurs, perhaps in an attempt to make the panel more business-relevant. Apparently, entrepreneurs have the advantage with AI. Back on topic, Henderson talked about open-source game technology (specifically Godot) and how it can reduce risks for businesses.

To conclude the session, the moderator asked each panelist to dispense some advice to students in the audience. Paraphrasing here but they were:

  • Follow your happiness and ignore the noise of the MBA program
  • You don’t need an MBA
  • Work your way backward: find people who do what you want to do and ask them what they did
  • Getting experience first, so start wherever you can start; nobody knows what they’re doing in unexplored spaces

During the short Q&A time, someone asked about cross-media strategies in a world of plentiful content. The answer was to give each piece of content its own time i.e. don’t dump all the content at the same moment.

Keynote by Keisha Howard

I happened to see Keisha talk at BIG Fest during GDC 2024 so it was nice to see her up on stage again. She spoke about Sugar Gamers and how it was not driven by ROI but by finding community. Something she asked that resonated with me (and was somewhat antithetical to prior panel topics) was what problems were new technologies actually solving.

She spoke of how DEI has somewhat lost meaning especially since leaders don’t include themselves in the conversations; they immediately “other” themselves. She also brought safe spaces as a place to take a break because real growth happens outside the safe space and by challenging oneself. There was a good conversation about vitriol online and how it’s necessary to have real/offline communities to balance that out.

Other key points included:

  • You don’t need resources for advocacy
  • Don’t chase celebrity wins and trends; consistency and commitment go farther
  • Gamers are diverse and intelligent with high levels of discernment; don’t pander

Future of Game Tech Panel

The Big Question for this panel was “Which technologies will revolutionize future game worlds?”

The moderator was Kyle Gordon, a Sloan alumni and Playstation Studios strategist. Panelists included:

  • Desiree Dickerson, CEO of THNDR which features P2P Payments API
  • Chris Covert, Director of Advanced Game Technologies at Inworld AI which works on AI NPCS
  • Bella Mascheroni, a consultant with history at Xbox, Twitch and Unity
  • Ryan Canuel, CEO of Petricore, an XR game studio

There was some discussion about the constant innovation cycle where slow market catch-up means that by the time new technology is adopted, it’s already too old and its newer (and presumably better) replacement is here. This is part of the reason why Microsoft found cloud streaming compelling because it didn’t need the newest hardware.

The moderator asked the panelists about new business models and monetization trends, to which responses included:

  • Many smaller rewards were more effective for retention than fewer, larger ones
  • Running AI solutions is very expensive so its monetization is very difficult
  • Subscription models don’t scale quarterly and balancing soft and hard currency (i.e. in-game versus real world money) is still crucial to stay solvent
  • XR needs its killer app; even though headsets are quite prevalent and comparable to consoles, they’re not ingrained in terms of usage

Interestingly, the moderator asked Covert about pushback against AI for the handcrafted experience to which he responded that his tools are for empowering artists and not for replacing them. This pushback also came up during Q&A where Covert was asked about Inworld’s training models and potential misappropriation of other artists’ works. Covert responded that they don’t make the models and the customer’s knowledge-base is used. This is how conversations are relevant to the specific game. For example, coke soda cannot be talked about in a fantasy setting.

Again, I found it tricky to glean direct answers to the Big Question and found that it was flipped during discussions; panelists talked about game worlds that revolutionized technologies, not the other way around. For example, it was brought up that games are used to acclimate users to new technology such as Solitaire helping users learn how to use Windows and training them to get better at using the mouse. I think the most direct answer to the Big Question was that AI could be used to craft game experiences that feel like they were built specifically for an end user.

Economics of Games Panel

“What makes the economics of games work?” was the Big Question.

I thought this was going to be about in-game economies but it was about financial decisions for producing games.

The moderator was Ashley Meng, one of the MIT GIC leaders who was also the only moderator to get questions digitally from the audience. This was a good way of streamlining the Q&A part of the panel. Panelists for this one included:

  • Jackson Vaughan of Konvoy, a gaming Venture Capitalist fund
  • Andrew Lind, co-founder of Balance Patch and Riot Games’ product strategist
  • Alex Takei, xBlizzard and Business Director at Ruckus Games
  • Victoria Caña, Lead Game Producer at Riot Games

Some of the points that the panelists went over:

  • Disney invested in Epic, a move that shows that “brands in gaming” (digital realms) is desirable
  • Esports tends to happen at the end of the dev cycle but you really want alignment between the game team and the esports team.
  • Capital efficiency is key. Weighing between specialists and generalists is one way to keep costs low.
  • Investors are looking for either young/scrappy/fast (cheap) teams to make new things or top AAA veterans to make genre hits
  • Selling yourself well is crucial. You want the investor to want to invest in you.
  • Esports teams are partners and you want them to raise awareness and chase revenues outside your ecosystem
  • Being fun isn’t enough or . . . how do you make a billion-dollar game? You want users to feel good before, after, and during purchases.
  • Focus on MVPs, be strategic and make the most of your runway (money)
  • Being a game producer is like herding cats
  • Disrupt, innovate or find a Blue Ocean; disruption comes from the inexperienced and innovation from the established is always going to be very little
  • Don’t let your back-end infrastructure slip at launch

To conclude the panel, the moderator asked the panelists if there was a decline in growth in games. Panelists seemed to agree there was no decline, perhaps a course correction, and that funding is up 95%. There are opportunities to zig when others are zagging.

During Q&A, a question was asked about when to start a new IP or re-using an existing one. The answer was when a new voice or new vision is needed for the product.

Gamers Represent(ed) Panel

The final Big Question: How do we drive forward DE&I for players and developers?

The moderator was Steven N Branch, Senior Associate Director at MIT Sloan School of Management. He did a good job of keeping the energy going and this was probably the most fun panel of the day. The panelists were:

  • Dr Mitu Khandaker, CEO of Glow Up Games, makers of the Insecure game
  • Brittney Morris, Advanced Writer at Insomniac Games
  • Johnny Liu, Product Manager at Rainbow Unicorn Games
  • Ryan Johnson, CEO of CxM

Writing outside of one’s experience came up a couple of times. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help but it’s the right thing to do. It’s also important to seek consultants as well as listen to their feedback and make changes as needed. Also, don’t be afraid to get it wrong.

There’s also a trending change in representation from generic to specific characterizations. Venba was brought up as an example of this authenticity where the characters were not generic South Asians but specifically Tamil. Games are creating the next generation of culturally-aware people so authentic storytelling is important.

In what I found to be an interesting twist, the moderator asked what do you do when VCs can’t find value in your work i.e. you didn’t secure funding from investors. The responses ranged from building without money to raising money in other ways such as crowd-funding, holding other jobs and relying on familial support.

Each panelist talked about their mentors when asked to identify them. They were asked about measuring authenticity and the answers varied from visible social impact to in-game telemetry. My big takeaway about authenticity is that it can be achieved by saying something that could only be said by you, your characters or your story.

Keynote by Kate Kellogg

Kate Kellogg is the COO of EA and gave a talk about Forever Questions in gaming, questions like:

  • What is Play?
  • Why do people Play?
  • Who is (and isn’t) Playing? And so on.

Kellogg coordinated a fun Rock-Paper-Scissors battle-royale with the audience. I lost after two rounds and eventually so did our team. The point was that a silly game (win or lose) can create connections.

When talking about how play is changing, an interesting parallel was brought up. The Sims is a dollhouse, shooters are a form of tag and Pokemon Go is a variant of Hide-n-Seek or bird watching.

There was a slide about “What we will play next?” and Kellogg talked about how disruptive Minecraft was and mentioned new styles of competition such as influence and how to present it in games.

The keynote concluded with a Borderlands eulogy, driving the point home about the connections that games help make and to take our responsibility as game developers seriously because better games will make a better world.


I learned a lot from the event and enjoyed most of it. I got to meet other local game developers and explore the MIT Visual Arts Center. I maintain the opinion that not all topics were explored properly. Also I know some self-advertising and puffery is going to happen at these events but some of it was ehhhhh.

All in all, it was a net positive and I would attend this event again in the future.