5 Questions: Dr. Patrick Jagoda (UChicago), Donald D. Harrington Faculty Fellow in American Studies

Patrick Jagoda 2014

We’re extremely excited to share the news with you that Dr. Patrick Jagoda, from the University of Chicago, has been appointed as a Donald D. Harrington Faculty Fellow in American Studies. Dr. Jagoda will be joining our campus community for the 2014-2015 academic year. AMS :: ATX had a conversation with him over email about his research interests, interdisciplinarity, his scholarly path, and teaching. Enjoy!

What has been your favorite project to work on and why?

As far as opening interview questions go, that’s a difficult one. Since I’m a new media scholar, I’ll start off with something like a hypertext menu. Or perhaps a constellation of projects. I see my work as stretching across the humanities, arts, and even the sciences. My recent and current work falls into several different categories: a book project about what I call “network aesthetics,” co-editorial work on two special issues (one on “New Media and American Literature” for American Literature, the other on “Comics and Media” for Critical Inquiry), a series of essays about games and play, the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab that I co-founded with medical and health researcher Melissa Gilliam at the University of Chicago, and a number of practice-based game and interactive narrative projects.

My most consuming writing project in recent years has been my Network Aesthetics book. I hope to complete a full version of this manuscript during my time in Austin. My opening gambit with this project is that, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, a fascination with interconnectivity has become attached to the concept of the network. During this period, the network emerged as both a key architecture and metaphor of a globalizing world. The language of networks spread quickly across disciplines as a way of describing the Internet, the economy, terrorist organizations, and various ecological formations. More recently, really since the 1990s, the interdisciplinary field of network science has expanded to include a range of research on complexity, self-organization, and systemic resilience.

The language of networks is something we often encounter in fields such as biology, computer science, mathematics, and neuroscience. But they have also occupied a central place in the humanities. In my case, I’m offering a transmedia analysis of the relationship of networks to popular aesthetic forms that mediate our experience of these structures. My work examines narrative, visual, and procedural art forms that encourage a critical, even transformative engagement with the network as a dominant category of life. So I’m tracking networks through maximalist novels from the late 1990s such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld, network films such as Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, TV series such as David Simon’s The Wire, computer games such as Jason Rohrer’s Between, and the avant-garde new media form of alternate reality games such as Jane McGonigal’s Superstruct.

While Network Aesthetics has been my most consistently engaging project, one of my favorites has been an alternate reality game (or ARG) that that I directed in April 2013 in Chicago. This game was entitled The Project. It was made possible by a wonderful Mellon Fellowship in Arts Practice and Scholarship that was awarded by the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry. Let me attempt a summary. For starters, the experience was a collaboration with Sha Xin Wei, the Montreal-based Topological Media Lab, and students at the University of Chicago. I would describe The Project as an experimental and pervasive experience. It told a single transmedia story through social media, performative role-playing, responsive media environments, and a series of live games. Over the game’s three and a half weeks, numerous players explored and joined three conspiracy groups involved in a shared enterprise. They played together online and across the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.

For me, The Project was one of my first sustained opportunities to immerse myself in practice-based research. My team approached art, through this game, not simply as the production of an object or a performance but as a mode of inquiry. Like several other scholars in new media studies and the digital humanities, I’m interested in thinking about the act of making, especially in the form of collaborative creation, as a way of developing, testing, and transforming concepts. This particular game explored the possibilities and limits of play in an early twenty-first century media ecology — one that includes screen-based entertainments, social media networks, and a blurring of work and play. One reason that this project was among my favorites was that it enabled me to grapple with these issues in a more robust way than theory alone might have allowed. It also gave me the chance to assemble an exceptional transdisciplinary team of designers, writers, and thinkers.

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations within academia or within society as a whole?

That’s another capacious question. In academia, I see my primary work fitting in with the fields of American studies, new media theory, post-1945 literary criticism, critical theory, and game studies. More broadly, I’m committed to making sense of the humanities in a digital and transmedia moment. I’m invested in imagining transdisciplinary collaborations that enable researchers to tackle multi-scalar problems that exceed traditional field divisions.

Let me break that down a bit. My Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, in particular, focuses on a kind of applied humanities work that pushes against existing methods and canonical texts. I started this lab with a medical and health researcher, so it’s not even a pure humanities lab. But so much of our work begins with the humanities and the arts. We use digital storytelling, board and card games, computer games, and emerging new media forms to explore social and emotional health issues, social justice, and civic responsibility. The projects are not restricted to the academy though. We work with high school youth on the South Side of Chicago, which is an especially disadvantaged part of a city that remains spatially and racially segregated. Our collaborative projects incorporate local youth, but they also bring together university faculty and game designers hired to work in the Lab, as well as graduate and undergraduate students, visiting artists and designers, and community organizations. Scholars from the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and the arts join our design, development, play testing, dissemination, research studies, and evaluation work. So our team is really diverse. We’ve already created a number of projects. For instance, a pervasive game about economic disparities and inequitable access to medical services. And a web-based transmedia story about sexual violence. And an alternate reality games related to STEM and new media education. I see all of these projects belonging to the emerging discipline of the digital humanities and new media studies.

As I think about the question, I realize you asked about my work “fitting in” with academic and social processes. I keep fixating on your phrase: “fitting in.” I should note that I’m also drawn to moments when my work doesn’t seem to “fit.” For example, at the University of Chicago, I started a Mobile Experiments Group with one of our full-time Game Changer designers, James Taylor. Even as “experimental” has become a buzzword that carries the clichéd dimensions of a word such as “interdisciplinary,” for me it still describes a meaningful kind of practice and thought. Or perhaps an improvisational orientation toward knowledge. For me, the experimental stands in contrast to another clichéd category of the “innovative.” Philosopher Brian Massumi associates the experimental with a sense of uncertainty and the opening of thresholds of potential. In the sciences, experiments are sometimes designed to test fairly certain hypotheses or to add minor details to something we already know. But an experiment can also embrace forms of failure that teach us just as much, if not more. For that reason, our experimental games group encourages hypothesis testing, but also reflective uncertainty, generative failure, ephemeral thought, and improvisational processing. We begin with affective states or theoretical concepts (say, “jealousy” or “passing”) and use those as the basis for creating quick game prototypes that respond to or explore those concepts. We do our best to dwell in the ambivalences and messy contradictions of the concepts with which we’re grappling instead of trying to comprehend or pin them down. Games, here, are not finished products but a medium of thought that works through mechanics, processes, procedures, networked actions.

In any case, I see a tension in my work, hopefully a generative one. My ambition is to expand existing conversations, especially through forms of community and collaborative “fitting” that expand digitally-oriented research. But I also strive to find meaningful ways not to fit in. Given the assumptions and presuppositions that inhere in any discipline or institution, that second piece is the real challenge.

What is your background as a scholar and how does it inform and motivate your current teaching and research?

My scholarly interests began to take shape during my undergraduate years. During my time at Pomona College, I completed a double major in English and philosophy and spent considerable time in creative writing courses. After that, I did my PhD work in English, at Duke University, where I simultaneously earned a graduate certificate in Information Science and Information Studies. During those years, I specialized in twentieth and twenty-first century American literature and media, as well as critical theory. I continued to pursue creative work on the side and, gradually, noticed my initial interest in fiction transform into a related interest in game design and new media art. Then, just prior to my faculty appointment in the English department at the University of Chicago, I received a two-year Mellon postdoctoral teaching fellowship in new media (also at UChicago). During that time, I did additional research in television and game studies, while also laying the institutional groundwork for the game lab that Melissa Gilliam and I launched officially in early 2013. In those years, I began to collaborate closely with artists and designers, as well as researchers in medicine, health, and even economics.

So, as you can see, especially in recent years, I’ve made my way through numerous disciplines. But the study of American literature, culture, and media has always served as a through-line for all of my teaching and research. Since I’ve already said a fair bit about my research, I’ll add something about how this trajectory has shaped my teaching. I see my courses falling into three broad categories: 20th and 21st century American literature, media studies, and theory-by-design. Even as there is plenty of overlap, these groupings map onto my own overarching interests in English and American Studies, media studies and digital aesthetics, and creative writing and game design.

In the first category, American literature, I would put courses such “Terrorism in Fiction, Film, and Media” and “American Hauntings” that I taught at Duke University. I would also add recent University of Chicago courses such as “New and Emerging Genres” that focused exclusively on American literary and media productions from the last 25 years.

In the second category, media studies, I would include courses that I began teaching at the University of Chicago such as “Virtual Worlds,” “Critical Game Studies,” “New Media Theory,” and “American Television.” I would also include a PhD seminar that I co-taught with visiting professor Eivind Rossaak entitled “Network Aesthetics | Network Cultures.” This last course was especially exciting to me since it attracted graduate students from English, Cinema and Media Studies, Art History, and even the social sciences.

In the third category, theory by design, I would include courses that combine either literary texts or critical theory but culminate in substantial creative productions. For example, I taught a course on “Digital Storytelling” in which students studied the history of electronic literature, interactive fiction, and narrative-based games and, for their final project, produced collaborative digital stories of their own. Another experimental course that fell into this category was “Transmedia Games: Theory and Design.” I co-taught this course with visiting professor Sha Xin Wei. The group read critical theory throughout the quarter but, instead of requiring seminar papers, we asked our students (both advanced undergraduates and graduate students) to create modules of an alternate reality game for their final project. This course felt truly transdisciplinary. In fact, we cross-listed it in English, Creative Writing, Cinema and Media Studies, Theater and Performance Studies, and Visual Arts. We included students from all of these disciplines and several others.

What projects are you excited about working on in the future?

In a couple of my recently published essays, and pieces I’m working on at the moment, I’ve been starting to think through the concept of so-called gamification. Gamification is the use of game mechanics in traditionally non-game activities or processes. It continues to be a major design component of social media, marketing, job training, and motivational apps. Since we’re talking about the future here, I can use a fuzzy affective word (with a grateful nod to Sianne Ngai) and say that I’m interested in the implications of gamification for contemporary America. I think of it not merely as a design strategy but as a form that economic, social, and cultural life takes in the present. Games, both as metaphors and as forms, have become such a major part of everyday life and our cultural imagination. I find this development, by turns, to be both encouraging and insidious. Gamification is bound up, in different ways, with the contemporary state of behavior modification, disciplinarity, education, entrepreneurship, social disparities, and a leisure economy. In many ways, this paradigm marginalizes or even forecloses play (which could not be more different from leisure) in the present. As Ian Bogost insists, it is really necessary to make a sharp distinction between “gamification” and “games.” So the obsession with gamification makes me curious about games that challenge or exceed this way of doing business. Even more so, I’m drawn to forms of play that are still possible or emergent in the early twenty-first century. This includes avant-garde and DIY videogames, transmedia experiences, and even non-digital play activities. It involves spaces where play unfolds without the structure of a formalized game. Or atmospheres in which game rules and objectives are minimized or peripheral. Or situations in which game rules serve as creative constraints. In any case, given the interdisciplinary nature of the UT-Austin American Studies department, I’m really eager to think through some of these fledgling ideas when I arrive.

The other project I’m really excited about is a large-scale alternate reality game that I’m planning with Melissa Gilliam and our Game Changer Chicago Design Lab for July and August. Well… I think “excited” is the right word. But you know, that excitement is bundled up with various forms of apprehension, contemplation, flexible optimism, expectancy, intensity, stress, preoccupation, collaborative experimentation, over-planning, logistics, and various other components that are part of a long-term, collective thought. The basic idea is to follow up on a pervasive learning game called The Source that we ran last summer for 140 high school youth over 5 weeks. We’re planning to have even more players this year, to take greater risks with collective and emergent storytelling, and to embed more robust evaluation mechanisms into our research. But the game is essentially an interactive science fiction narrative that teams of youth will traverse while solving challenges, puzzles, and mini-games linked to science and technology themes. They will also be learning some new media skills. To explain it another way, this upcoming game will be a transmedia scavenger hunt with a robust narrative and concrete learning outcomes. Every aspect of the project is transdisciplinary and, by necessity, there are so many moving parts. Fortunately, we learned a fair bit about how to run this kind of game last summer. So, while remaining excited about the future, I hope to be mindful of our past experiences and incorporate them as much as possible into the current design process.

Okay, last one’s a bit of a curve ball, and is the hardest question we ask: if you had to describe American Studies in one sentence, what would you say?

Ha! And here you may regret that you employed a game metaphor (or a sports metaphor) with “curve ball.” Since I study games, I’m interested in both making sense of and playing with the rules of any game. For instance, the game we’ve been playing (you know, “5 Questions”) includes a few rules. The first one is that (in a shot reverse shot manner) you ask me a question and I offer an answer of adequate length. The other implicit rule is that there will be exactly 5 questions total.

But rules are meant to be tested and broken. So, if you’re willing, let’s try a slightly different game and see what happens. I’ll take a cue from one of my college mentors, David Foster Wallace, who would sometimes have interviewers answer their own questions as an opening to less predictable results. So: If you had to describe American Studies in one sentence, what would you say?

I think the best way to describe American Studies is metaphorically, because its interdisciplinary breadth resists simple definition and evocative imagery seems particularly suited for the task… so I would say that American Studies is an ivy plant: a breathing organism that reacts to its environment, at once clinging to and burrowing into ostensibly impenetrable walls to create, ultimately, a vast and complex network of life. I guess that means I’m using imagery that relates to your work, albeit unintentionally!

Your “network life” formulation brings to mind something that a couple of non-Americans (who nonetheless very much belong to this discussion) had to say about the study of America. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari call America a “special case.” Their account of America tends toward the romantic, drawing heavily on the sociopolitical potential of the 1960s and 1970s, while also reaching back to texts such as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. They do capture something of the crucial kinetic energy that’s implicit in your sentence. For them, America is so fascinating because it brings together the tree and the channel, the root and the rhizome (to continue with your floral imagery), as well as disciplinary and control societies. It becomes a generative figure for thinking both structural and historical paradox.

In any case, whatever American Studies was in an area studies configuration or an earlier interdisciplinary moment, I look forward to seeing how this constellation adapts to emerging concerns that include transnational theory, practice-based research, new media studies, and the digital humanities — just to name a few. At a personal level, I’m perpetually grateful to this field for sustaining my own promiscuous intellectual appetites and transdisciplinary curiosities. And I’m very much looking forward to engaging with the UT-Austin American Studies community during the coming academic year.

2 comments on “5 Questions: Dr. Patrick Jagoda (UChicago), Donald D. Harrington Faculty Fellow in American Studies

  1. […] We’re excited to announce the first in a series of four talks here in the Department of American Studies at UT Austin. Patrick Jagoda, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago, Co-editor of Critical Inquiry and Co-founder of Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, will be giving a talk called, “On Difficulty in Video Games: Mechanics, Interpretation, Affect” at 4:30pm on Monday, February 2, in Burdine 436A. Jagoda has been with us this year at UT as a Harrington Fellow, and we sat down with him a while back for an interview, which you can check out here. […]

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