Syllabus: Documentary and Activist Games (CTIN-499)


Filmmaker John Grierson famously described documentary cinema as “the creative treatment of actuality.” Documentary films can illuminate unseen processes, broaden our awareness of the past and present, and challenge us to make a better future. How might games achieve similar ends? What can interactive media do in the realms of non-fiction, documentary, and activism that other kinds of media cannot? How can we use games and interaction design to not only document the Real, but also to intervene on it, and to shape the world to come?

This course explores the past, present, and future of documentary and activist interactive media and games. Students will approach the topic from a variety of perspectives, drawing on contemporary art practice, cultural studies, game studies, cinema studies, and more. Informed by these historical and theoretical contexts, students will workshop documentary and activist games of their own.

CTIN-499_ActivistGames_Spring2015_Syllabus_rev2 (.pdf)

Syllabus: Survey of Interactive Media (CTCS-505)

The tangled relationship between theory and practice presents us with something of a chicken-and-egg problem. On the one hand, we could say that all action emerges out of theory: we observe the world, generate various hypotheses about how things might work, then take action accordingly. But we could say with equal authority that it is action that comes first, for it is only through observing and interpreting the consequences of our actions – that is, through experimentation – that we ever really learn anything. Without action, there is no meaning, for there is nothing to make meaning with.

It is the position of this course that both these perspectives are true. Theory and practice are two sides of the same coin – or, perhaps more accurately, two steps in the same cycle. Enriching one enriches the other. Indeed, the one simply does not exist without the other. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our art and design practice always both informs and is informed by the contexts within which it occurs. The more we can be aware of where our work comes from, where it is heading, and what it does to the world it inhabits, the better designers and wiser artists we will be.

The primary focii of this course are the historical origins and theoretical contexts of interactive media and games. Our main objective is to deepen and broaden our awareness of the cultural, social, economic, and political implications and possibilities inherent to and latent in contemporary interactive media. Of particular interest are questions related to the functioning of narrative, the affordances of play and procedurality, and conceptions of space, time, and bodies. The first third of the course will entail the development of a common language for discussing these matters, using the concept of the situation, defined here as “an opportunity to act,” as a starting point for addressing interactive media from three perspectives: play, narrative, and space. The final two-thirds of the course will build on this foundation through an exploration via student-led discussions of a set of related themes.

CTCS-505-Rev1-2 (.pdf)
CTCS-505-Modules (.pdf)

Syllabus: Introduction to Interactive Entertainment (CTIN-190)

CTIN-190 Title Card
The rapid rise in the power and accessibility of digital technology has made possible myriad new forms of entertainment, artistic expression, and socio-political engagement. Among these new forms, videogames and other kinds of interactive entertainment offer artists and designers unprecedented opportunities to engage not just with audiences, but with players and participants. Drawing on voices from game studies, cultural studies, art history, social psychology, game design practice, and games journalism, this course will explore a range of critical frameworks for understanding and analyzing digital games and related forms of interactive entertainment. To facilitate this exploration, digital works and practices will be contextualized within the broader history of games, interaction design, and play – a history that predates electronic computation by thousands of years and includes diverse cultural practices such as performance art, ritual, and political activism.

CTIN-190-Rev4 (.pdf)

New cards from Reality 2012

The second season of Reality Ends Here launched last week. In addition to numerous new play mechanics and tweaks, we’ve also created dozens of new game cards for players to use to generate creative prompts. Here are a few of my favorites, front and back.

Follow the game as it unfolds on Twitter at @scareality. Also, check out our 2012 IndieCade Award nomination here.

Transforming Community Through Pervasive Play

Transforming Community Through Pervasive Play

Detailed presentation of Reality Ends Here, with remarks on the methodology underlying pervasive placemaking interventions of all kinds. Originally presented February 2, 2012 at the Berkeley Center for New Media.

Henry Jenkins interviews me about Reality Ends Here

Special thanks to Henry Jenkins for conducting a wide-ranging two-part interview with Simon Wiscombe, Tracy Fullerton, and me about my dissertation project, Reality Ends Here (A.K.A. SCA Reality, “The Game”, etc):

All of this cloak and dagger stuff was part of an innovative game — an Alternate Reality Game of sorts — which is being conducted amongst the entering Cinema School undergraduates this year. If my own experiences are any indication, the game is proving to be enormously successful at getting students involved, excited about entering the Cinema School, more aware of its resources, more connected to its faculty, more engaged with its research, more connected across different divisions. It is also getting them involved in collaborative and production like activities than most entering students who have had to wait for a bit before they would be allowed to take production classes. I’ve seen lots of discussion over the past few years about the potentials of using ARGS for pedagogical purposes. But, this is the first time I’ve seen such a large scale experiment in integrating ARG activities across an entire school to orient entering students to a program and to serve a range of instructional goals. The passion the game is motivating in USC students is palpable. And I can tell you that many of the faculty, who have gotten pulled into the game through one play mechanic or another, are feeling a real pride in their school for its willingness to embrace this kind of experimentation and innovation. (

Read the full interview.

More info on the game here.

Exam Area III: Interaction Design for Social Media and Pervasive Computing

This post is a part of a series covering my qualifying exam research areas. Scroll to the bottom of this post for links to each area, or click here for a general description of the process.


As devices and platforms multiply, so too does the amount of metadata produced by individuals in the course of daily life. This metadata, generated and collected via disparate sources such as social networking profiles, web usage analytics, and physical sensor systems embedded in mobile devices and the built environment, provides interaction designers with rich real-time information flows that model and visualize user behavior.

Understanding how to create responsive and context-aware interactivity based on these dynamic data flows is an imperative for designers working in the field of social media and pervasive computing interaction design. Equally important is an investigation of how participatory activities and games – from social games to ambient alternate reality games to locative artworks to collaborative production games and more – can leverage social media and pervasive computing to exist “inside the flow” of their users’ lives, rather than as cordoned-off activities that necessitate a pause or “stepping out” from behavioral norms in order to access. Key readings draw from game design, particularly discussions around so-called “casual” asynchronous play systems (Fullerton, Juul, Salen and Zimmerman); mobile and locative interaction design (Böhlen and Frei, Ermi, Montola, Schell, Vinge); information architecture, pervasive computing, and the internet of things (Benford, Berners-Lee, Bleecker, Kay, Krueger, Montola, Nieuwdorp, Shirky, Sterling); and human-computer interaction design (Csikszentmihalyi, Kuniavsky, Thackara, Ramsey, Simon).


Benford, Steve et al. “Bridging the physical and the digital in pervasive gaming,” Communications of the ACM, 48 (3), 54-57, 2005.

Berners-Lee, Tim. “Linked Data – Design Issues.”

Bleecker, Julian, and Nicolas Nova. “A synchronicity: Design Fictions for Asynchronous Urban Computing.” Situated Technologies.

Bogost, Ian. “Asynchronous Multiplay: Futures for Casual Multiplayer Experience.”

______. “Cow Clicker.”

Böhlen, Marc, and Hans Frei. “MicroPublicPlaces.” Situated Technologies.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 1st ed. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.

Dourish, Paul. “Embodied Interaction: Exploring the Foundations of a New Approach to HCI.” Xerox PARC, 1999.

______. Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. MIT Press, 2001.

Ermi, Laura and Mayra, Frans. “Player-Centered Game Design: Experiences in Using Scenario Study to Inform Mobile Game Design.” Game Design Research Symposium, IT-University, 2004.

Fullerton, Tracy. Game Design Workshop, Second Edition: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. 2nd ed. Morgan Kaufman, 2008.

IGDA Casual Games SIG. 2008-2009 Casual Games White Paper. International Game Developers Association, 2009.

Juul, Jesper. A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. The MIT Press, 2009.

Kay, Alan and Goldberg, Adele. “Personal Dynamic Media,” The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003.

Korhonen, Hannu, Hannamari Saarenpää, and Janne Paavilainen. “Pervasive Mobile Games — A New Mindset for Players and Developers.” In Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Fun and Games, 21-32. Eindhoven, The Netherlands: Springer-Verlag, 2008.

Krueger, Myron W. “Responsive Environments,” in Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Montfort, Nick (ed.) The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003.

Kuniavsky, Mike. Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research. 1st ed. Morgan Kaufmann, 2003.

Montola, Markus, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern. Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. Morgan Kaufmann, 2009.

Nieuwdorp, Eva. “The Pervasive Interface: Tracing the Magic Circle,” Proceedings of DiGRA Conference: Changing Views–Worlds in Play, 2005.

Ramsey, Jim. “Designing For Flow.” A List Apart, December 4, 2007.

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Illustrated edition. The MIT Press, 2003.

Schell, Jesse. DICE 2010: Design Outside the Box, 2010.

Shirky, Clay. Letter. “Situated Software,” March 30, 2004.

Simon, Nina. “Going Analog: Translating Virtual Learnings into Real Institutional Change.” In Archives & Museum Informatics: Museums and the Web 2009. Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, 2009.

Stein, Jennifer, Fisher, Scott, and Otto, Greg. “Connecting and Animating the Built Environment with the Internet of Things.” Internet of Things Workshop, 2010.

Sterling, Bruce. Shaping Things. The MIT Press, 2005.

Thackara, John, ed. Design After Modernism: Beyond the object. Gloucester: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

______. In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005.

Vinge, Vernor. Rainbows End. Tor Books, 2007.

Qualifying Exam Areas

I’ve also written a brief post on the ongoing role that this website is playing in my research:

Finally, you can download the latest version of my exam area descriptions and bibliographies in .pdf form here.

Exam Area II: History and Theories of Participatory Culture and Art Practice

This post is a part of a series covering my qualifying exam research areas. Scroll to the bottom of this post for links to each area, or click here for a general description of the process.


The increasingly “device agnostic” Web constitutes a vast and rapidly evolving multi-modal metaplatform for collaboration, performance, and community-building. The radical reconfiguration of spatial, institutional, and social boundaries that has accompanied and guided the emergence of network technology and social media has brought with it an irreversible decentralization of the production and dissemination of knowledge and culture (Benkler, Von Hippel). The effects of these shifts are only beginning to be felt, with policy makers, educators, cultural theorists, and corporations scrambling to adjust to/capitalize on a broad class of new participatory media practices. But while the breadth and scope of media participation have been vastly increased by the core affordances of new media objects and the dawning ubiquity of network technologies, the defining practices of participatory culture have been with us since long before the birth of YouTube and Web 2.0 (Jenkins). From the amateur operators of the early days of radio (Douglas), to the feminist “vidding” subcultures of the 1970s and 80s (Coppa), our engagement with media has always been just that: engagement, and not pure consumption. Until recently, personal and academic uses of popular culture artifacts — remixing, fan fiction, filesharing — have been largely invisible to the corporate apparatus underwriting their original production; but as amateur creators and remixers have flooded to the Web to share and discuss their works, hitherto “private” practices have become public, much to the chagrin of those with a vested interest in upholding the kinds of scarcity and centralized authority required for the maintenance of the status quo (Lessig).

The present moment is a crucial one in this regard. A failure by policy makers to imaginatively engage with the affordances of the Web could restrict or roll back the transformative potentials promised by the advocates of openness, transparency, and collective intelligence (Levy, O’Reilly). To steer clear of this kind of disaster, it falls to the makers of media — from on- and offline amateurs to corporate department heads — to identify the ways in which new arrangements of cultural authority and economic power, particularly in the realms of intellectual property and knowledge production, might emerge in the context of distributed and procedural authorship. Toward this end, it is essential to develop an understanding of the motivations, pleasures, requirements, effects, and potentials of participation across a variety of domains.

Three closely-related fields of study inform this understanding. Readings from Fan Studies provide insights into the role of participatory culture in the articulation of identity and resistance, with particular focus on the ways in which fans and producers negotiate, co-create, and contest meanings within the hybrid spaces of canon and taste (Coppa, Fiske, Jenkins). Seminal ethnographic and critical perspectives from cultural studies and social science (De Certeau, Foucault, Goffman) extend these insights beyond fandom and into broader conversations concerning performativity and the uncertain ontological status of the author/viewer divide. Within this context, investigations of the shifting logics of cultural production, circulation, and reputation help to establish frameworks for understanding how new technologies — from amateur printing presses to Web 2.0 — can disrupt existing legal and industrial structures as they give rise to new modes of engagement (Benkler, Berners-Lee, Bruns, Douglas, Green, McPherson, Lessig). Finally, a traversal of the history of avant-garde participatory art practice reveals a range of theories, aesthetic systems, and process-oriented artworks whose legacy constitutes a deep and wide working-through of the myriad theoretical and practical challenges facing contemporary media makers invested in notions of the participatory (Bishop, Boal, Bourriaud, Kaprow, Knabb, Kester, O’Donnell, Ranciere).


Anderson, Steve. “Aporias of the Digital Avant Garde,” Digital Humanities Quarterly, Summer, 2007.

Baym, Nancy K. and Burnett, Robert. “Amateur Experts: International Fan Labor in Swedish Independent Music,” International Journal of Cultural Studies, 12(5): 1-17.

Benkler, Yochai. The wealth of networks : how social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press, 2007.

Berners-Lee, Tim. “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality.” Scientific American. December, 2010.

Bishop, Claire. Participation. The MIT Press, 2006.

Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. Pluto Press, 2008.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Les Presse du Reel, 1998.

boyd, danah. “Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2006.

Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. Peter Lang Publishing, 2008.

Coppa, Francesca. “Women, ‘Star Trek’ and the Early Development of Fannish Vidding,” Transformative Works and Cultures 1, 2008.

Darnton, Robert. “Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensibility,” The Great Cat Massacre And Other Episodes in French Cultural History. Basic Books, 2009.

Dena, Christy. “Emerging Participatory Culture Practices: Player-Created Tiers in Alternate Reality Games,” Convergence, February 2008. 41-58.

Diamond, Sara. “Participation, Flow, and the Redistribution of Authorship: The Challenges of Collaborative Exchange and New Media Curatorial Practice,” Museums and the Web. Banff Institute, 2005.

Douglas, Susan J. “Popular Culture and Populist Technology: The Amateur Operators, 1906-1912,” Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Fiske, John. “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in Lewis, Lisa A. (ed.) The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. Routledge, 1992.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” in Lodge, D. (ed) Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Longman, 1988.

Galloway, Alexander and Thacker, Eugene. The Exploit. University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books, 1959.
Green, Joshua and Burgess, Jean. YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Polity, 2009.

Higgins, Dick. “Dick Higgins on Intermedia,” Something Else Newsletter #1. Something Else Press, 1965.

Jenkins, Henry, Puroshotma, Ravi, Clinton, Katherine, Weigel, Margaret & Robison, Alice J. (2005). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, available at Retrieved on 1/22/2009.

______. “Nine Propositions Towards a Theory of YouTube,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 2006.

______. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age. NYU Press, 2006.

Kaprow, Allan. “’Happenings’ in the New York Scene,” in Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Montfort, Nick (ed.) The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003.

Kester, Grant. Conversation Pieces. University of California Press, 2004.

Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Penguin Press HC, The, 2008.

McGonigal, Jane. “Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming,” Ecologies of Play. Ed. Katie Salen. MIT Press, 2008. 199-228.

McPherson, Tara, ed. Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected. MIT Press, 2007.

O’Donnell, Darren. Social Acupuncture. Coach House, 2006.

Ranciere, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Verso, 2009.

Qualifying Exam Areas

I’ve also written a brief post on the ongoing role that this website is playing in my research:

Finally, you can download the latest version of my exam area descriptions and bibliographies in .pdf form here.