UChicago scholar brings game design to the forefront of academic research

July 20, 2019

Gaming has a growing presence on the University of Chicago campus, largely due to Patrick Jagoda. An Associate Professor of English and Cinema and Media Studies, Jagoda incorporates various types of games into his research projects and with his work at the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry & Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health’s (Ci3) Game Changer Chicago Design Lab and Transmedia Story Lab, which he co-founded. Earlier this year, he became Director of the Weston Game Lab, which features classrooms, studio spaces, open work areas for collaborative design and development, and access to the John Crerar Library’s collection of historically significant video games and consoles. Along with the lab's Assistant Director, Ashlyn Sparrow, Jagoda is curating faculty and student game-based projects linked to a range of social, political, and cultural issues. He also helped launch a new undergraduate minor in Media Arts and Design in October 2018. 

“When people typically think about games, they imagine fun activities,” Jagoda said. “But when I hear the word game, I also think about learning a formal system and experimenting with dynamics among people who act and improvise during play. To play a game requires a different levels of engagement and participation than the ones we conventionally see in other art forms, and gameplay invites a unique encounter characterized by safe failure.”

In Ci3’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, games are developed with young people to address issues related to sexuality, health, social justice, and youth development. Recent projects include Bystander, a game-based sexual violence prevention program comprising a video game and a curriculum for high school students. The Transmedia Story Lab uses storytelling to elevate the voices of young people and their insights about the sexual and reproductive health and well-being of youth. Projects in this lab include Kissa Kahani, a two-year program that uses multimedia approaches, storytelling, and innovative research techniques to promote gender equity and family planning in the urban area of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India. Jagoda recently co-led a presentation with his collaborator, Vice Provost Melissa Gilliam, at the Hong Kong Jockey Club University of Chicago Academic Complex/the University of Chicago Francis and Rose Yuen Campus in Hong Kong, sharing information about the various labs with transnational partners.

Jagoda’s gaming projects extend beyond his work at Ci3. In 2017, he co-directed and co-designed an alternate reality game, the parasite, along with fellow UChicago faculty Kristen Schilt and Heidi Coleman, as well as numerous professional artists and students. The game was designed for the College’s first-year student orientation to help incoming students better acclimate to the University. Beginning with a clue placed in students’ official welcome letters in May 2017, the transmedia game continued through September 2017. Several hundred student participants discovered a secret society on campus and were challenged to locate 121 objects hidden around Chicago to unlock a room and uncover an entity known as “the parasite.”

Currently, Jagoda and a team of faculty, staff, and students are collaborating on a new project titled Terrarium that seeks to tackle climate change. Based in UChicago’s new Media Arts, Data, and Design (MADD) Center, the project revolves around members of the current University community making contact with people in the year 2049 and attempting to intervene in processes of climate change. This experience is currently unfolding across numerous online platforms including websites, Twitch, Vimeo , Discord, Slack, and other media.

“I’ve been attracted to game studies because the field provides myriad opportunities to run live game-based experiments while conducting research and writing about digital media and contemporary culture,” Jagoda explained. “It’s estimated that there are approximately 2.2 billion gamers in the world today, making this an ideal form for research about the present moment and the recent past. It’s crucial to understand what happens to people when they’re playing games: socially, culturally, and economically. These are important questions of our time.”

As Jagoda’s work has expanded, so have the number of students interested in pursuing game design from an academic perspective. Last autumn, the University launched a Media Arts and Design undergraduate minor offering courses in game design, augmented and virtual reality production, application design, and more. The program initially offered 11 courses, and quickly grew to 20 courses by Spring Quarter 2018 - 2019. One of Jagoda’s courses, Critical Videogame Studies, had 60 students enrolled last year, with many more students wait-listed.

“The enrollment in MAAD courses during the minor’s first year demonstrates the level of interest and hunger students have for understanding and creating digital media,” Jagoda said. “In many of our courses, we focus on design, including game design. For me, games are an ideal form of transdisciplinary research, making, and design. When you create a game, you need designers, programmers, musical composers, visual artists, storytellers, and more. To evaluate a game’s effectiveness, you need social scientists with qualitative and quantitative skills. Games touch nearly every discipline.”

Jagoda is currently finishing his next book, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2020. Titled Experimental Games, the book examines how economic methods from game theory to behavioral economics intersect with how we think about video games today and imagines ways that games can operate as a form of experimentation.

“Across my work, collaboration is crucial, “Jagoda said. “I enjoy game design so much in part because I have the opportunity to interact with talented colleagues, artists, and students from disciplines that are so different from my own, and to co-create experiences that are invariably stronger than the sum of the collaborative parts."