About Research Creative Teaching Service
My Story Education Career Skills

MJ Johns


I used to make games, now I make game designers (I do still make games also). I am a non-binary experience designer and educator with 10 years of professional experience in entertainment technology and game design. In 2015 I made the transition to teaching in higher education. Currently I am an Assistant Professor of Practice and Assistant Department Chair in the School of Design and Creative Technologies at the University of Texas.

My background is primarily in game and VR development with a focus on novel technology. I hold a terminal Master's degree in Entertainment Technology from Carnegie Mellon University (2013) and a Bachelor of Art in Computer Science from the Ohio State University (2011). In 2016 I became an entrepreneur when I founded my independent game studio Astire Games.

Over the past 6 years I've been teaching courses in game design, creative coding, VR and UX design, first at the Art Institute of Austin (2015-2018) and then at the University of Texas (2018-present).

My research and creative pursuits have centered around games and experiences for positive impact including games for health, multiplayer mobile games, and immersive VR experiences for training and education. My current research interest is in Human-Computer Interaction, specifically how we can tailor games and educational technology to better support users and create more meaningful experiences through gamification and user-centered design.

Personal Story

Games were a big part of my life growing up - I was homeschooled, and we spent a lot of time with educational games like Oregon Trail, Adi's Math, and ClueFinders. Games also helped my brother and me overcome our differences, and helped me stay connected with my mom when I was far away during her cancer treatment.

A few years ago I was fortunate to have my story told (and animated) beautifully by Extra Credits in their series Because Games Matter:

The impact games had on my life led me on my path to become a game developer.

What I Do

Now I teach game design and development at the University of Texas. My job relies on technology, not just because I teach in a technical field but also because I use technology for communication with my students and for content management of my course materials.

Since moving classes online during the pandemic, I’ve discovered more ways than ever to utilize my tech skills to automate various aspects of my job. I pre-record lectures and set them to automatically release on our LMS at specific times, students collaborate on virtual discussion boards that are linked to grades, and readings, assignments, and quizzes are all hosted on the cloud without a single piece of printed paper.

Could a computer do this job?

As a game developer, I am intimately familiar with the power and impact of interacting purely with a digital experience. Things that are slow for me like grading and organizing content could feasibly be a breeze for a computer if given the right constraints.

Would I still have a purpose if a computer did everything I currently do? I have followed the evolution of Ed Tech for quite some time, and like many industries on the brink of automation one of the biggest arguments made against it is the number of jobs that could be lost if and when we let the robots take over.

There are aspects of teaching that require a human component for sure - a student and teacher form a connection that makes the student feel safe and cared about, and as of yet computers do not have the capability to care about, or even acknowledge, our feelings.

At the same time, technology has so much to offer to make everything about teaching easier, more effective, and more enjoyable for everyone involved. The Learning Management System is an excellent example - nearly all colleges and universities, and many middle and high schools, utilize these systems for scheduling and organizing content and distributing information and grades in a secure format.

Though I undoubtedly used LMSs as a student without really thinking about it, my first proper introduction to understanding an LMS came during my first job when I worked as a multimedia developer at a company that designed corporate training. We used various LMSs while partnering with other companies, for distributing content and tracking progress.

My computer science degree gave me the technical skills to develop for these tools, but at that time I was still in the dark for how to design a good experience. I returned to school to complete a master’s degree in Entertainment Technology where I learned about designing software and games with the user in mind. While in that program, my skills evolved to include world building, experience design, rapid prototyping, and user testing.

When I began teaching I used LMSs for my classes, and I felt like I had an unfair advantage over my colleagues. Because I could code, I could modify and adapt the LMS to better suit my subjects and my students. But much of what I was doing should have been baked into the system, so that all teachers could benefit from the functionality.

Ed Tech - what is holding us back? Netflix knows everything about our viewing habits, Spotify can suggest songs you’ve never heard but are sure to love - why can’t our educational software predict and adapt to give us a better learning experience and a better teaching experience?

To be fair, there has been a great deal of progress in ed tech especially in adaptive learning technologies. Unfortunately it has been mostly used for testing. The GRE for example changes the difficulty of future sections based on how well you do in the early sections.

This certainly offers a big advantage - by progressively modifying the difficulty of the test, the results become far more accurate to reflect what the test taker is really capable of.

In the case of the LMS, I think there are two major hurdles. One is the teacher-side user experience. If it is too complicated or not flexible enough, it is easy for the teacher to fall back on old ways - just print out the test or manually enter grades. The second is student-side user experience - it needs to be designed to be intuitive for the student, they shouldn’t spend more time learning the tool than they spend learning the subject matter.

With my backgrounds in programming, game design, user experience, and education, I hope to find ways I can contribute to the development of better, more intuitive, and more effective learning technologies to create a positive future for teachers and students.


Transcripts available upon request

Master of Entertainment Technology

Carnegie Mellon University, Dec 2013

Coursework: Game Design, Virtual Worlds, Visual Storytelling, Imrpvisational Acting, three (3) Semester-Long Client Projects

Bachelor of Art – Computer Information Science

The Ohio State University, March 2011

Major: Computer Information Science     Minor: Mathematics     Emphasis: Computer Graphics and Visualization

Certificates and Supplemental Education

Certificate of Management & Leadership: Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at the University of Texas, May 2015

e-Learning Certificate Sequence: University of Illinois – Coursera MOOCs, SU 2020, including coursework in eLearning, Multimodal Literacy, Ubiquitous Learning, and Instructional Design and Technology

Dynamics of Diversity Certificate: University of Texas, In-Progress (expected Dec 2020), including coursework in Race & Racism, LGBTQIA 101, Interrupting Implicit Bias, Access & Inclusion, Mental Health in the Workplace, Interrupting Sexism in Classrooms

Effective Online Teaching Practices Certificate: Association of College and University Educators, In-Progress (expected May 2021)

Career Timeline (Interactive)

Earliest Teaching and Leadership (2006-2010)

Camp Counselor Ohio Forestry Camp, Ohio 4-H Camp
Math Tutor Ohio State University 2008-2011, Algebra, Calculus, Differential Equations, Business Math, Remedial Math
Education Asst Ohio State Fair intern for Ohio Farm Bureau SU 2006 & SU 2007
Counselor Young Women's Summer Institute for middle school girls in STEM
Mentor Online math program for HS students
Resident Advisor Honors dorm floor monitor and event coordinator
Teaching Asst Tae Kwon Do 2004-2006, Math Bridge Program at Ohio State SU 2010

Early Career (2011 - 2014)

Multimedia Dev Five Star Development 2011, created interactive instructional apps
3D Art Intern The Alice Project at Carnegie Mellon, SU 2012
Spec Ops Intern Special Operations Intern, Schell Games, FA 2012
Teaching Asst 3D Modeling and Animation, Carnegie Mellon, SP 2013
Design Intern Etcetera Edutainment SU 2013, created health and training apps
Technical Designer Virtuix 2014, built demos and experiments for the Virtuix Omni

Mid Career (2015 - 2019)

Tech Designer Part Time Evil 2014-2015;
Planet3 STEM games 2015
Game Scripter Certain Affinity, 2015-2016, worked on AAA games (COD: MWR & Mafia III)
Adj Lecturer Art Institute 2015-2018;
University of Texas SP 2018
Course Author Pluralsight 2016-present, creating online courses for game and VR design
Summer Instructor RTF Game Design Camps, University of Texas 2016-2017
Director Studio Founder and Creative Director, Astire Games, 2016-present

Current Positions

Asst Prof of Practice University of Texas 2018-present, teaching UIUX, prototyping, creative coding, VR/AR
Asst Dept Chair University of Texas 2020-present, coordinating curriculum development and certificates
Honors Advisor University of Texas 2019-present, advising Honors Theses and teaching Research Methods
Summer Instructor SDCTx Design Institute, University of Texas, 2019-present

Technical Skills

Programming and Scripting Languages

Object-Oriented, Data-Oriented, and Component-Based Programming in various languages:
C#, Java, JavaScript, C/C++, XML, JSON, ActionScript, HTML, CSS

Software / Tools

Unity, Maya, Adobe Creative Suite, Microsoft Office, Google Drive, Processing, AxureRP, Trello, Jira, Slack, Discord, TestFlight, Perforce, SVN, Flash, Camtasia, Figma, Canvas, Visual Studio

Development Platforms

Android/iOS (tablet and phone), HTC Vive, AR Core, Google Daydream, Google Cardboard, Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift (DK1, DK2), Gear VR, Leap Motion, Kinect, Wii Fit Balance Board, Virtuix Omni, Tobii Eye Tracker, PC, Mac, Web


Rapid Prototyping, Experience Design, Creative Direction, Design Documentation, Gameplay Scripting, AR/VR/XR, Mobile, Level Design, Game Systems Design, 2D/3D Animation, VFX, UI Design, Audio Integration, Build Deployment, Game Publishing, Video Editing, Interactive Multimedia Installations, Web Design, User-Centered Design, Playtesting, Instructional Design, Product & Project Management, Bug & Task Tracking, Event Coordination, Hardware Wrangling, Public Speaking, Conflict Resolution, Design Thinking

©2020 MJ Johns. All Rights Reserved.