I specialize in media theory, game studies and design, science studies, and twentieth and twenty-first century American literature and culture. Alongside this position, I am the co-founder of the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab and the Transmedia Story Lab. I also serve as Executive Editor of the interdisciplinary journal Critical Inquiry. I am faculty director of the Weston Game Lab and the Media Arts and Design major at the University of Chicago. I have helped develop game studies and game design at the University of Chicago, including as a co-founder of the Fourcast Lab collective that designs alternate reality games about topics such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with the English department, I am also a professor of Cinema & Media Studies and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Chicago, as well as an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.
I am the author of several books. My first book, Network Aesthetics (University of Chicago Press, 2016), contends that interconnectivity has attached itself to the concept of the network since the mid-twentieth century. The book examines American novels (Underworld), films (Syriana), television series (The Wire), video games (Journey), and transmedia narratives (alternate reality games) that encourage a critical and even transformative engagement with the network as a dominant category of life. With the rise of complexity science in the 1970s, the network became both the principal architecture and most multivalent metaphor of a globalizing world. The language of networks quickly spread across disciplines as a way of describing the Internet, the new global economy, terrorist organizations, and biological formations. Though the network seems more appropriate to fields such as computer science, mathematics, and neuroscience, I argue that it has also occupied a central place in the humanities.
I also work in the field of game studies. My book Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification (University of Chicago Press, 2020) argues that games, including video games, serve as a form for staging, encountering, and testing experience and reality. I analyze our contemporary moment in which the form of games has attained unprecedented visibility in U.S. culture. By current estimates, 2.8 billion people worldwide are playing digital games in 2021. Popular video games absorb vast quantities of human money, attention, and time. The book contends that video games do not merely represent or simulate reality, but also enable designers and players to experiment with it. Alongside the proliferation of popular video games, since the early twenty-first century, games have increasingly exceeded the realm of entertainment and started to influence essentially every aspect of everyday life. This phenomenon has come to be known widely as “gamification,” a term that describes the use of game mechanics in traditionally non-game activities. This buzzword emerged only in the twenty-first century but the idea of game-based experimentation and behavior modification already developed in earlier work across economic game theory, behavioral economics, psychology, military training, and design practices. This book introduces gamification as a condition of seepage through which game mechanics and activities influence work, leisure, thought, and social relations — the ways that a privileged population interfaces with reality. I also explore games that complicate gamification in a variety of ways. The book includes close analyses of a broad range of games, including Candy Crush, Stardew Valley, Starcraft, Undertale, dys4ia, and many others.
Additionally, I am co-author with Michael Maizels of The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer (MIT Press, 2016), which accompanied the first museum art exhibition dedicated to an individual game designer. I am also completing a collaborative multimedia book, Story Lab: Narrative Methods for a Transmedia Era (under contract with Stanford University Press) with Ireashia Bennett and Ashlyn Sparrow. This book explores how humanistic and artistic narrative techniques can be used in fields such as public health and medicine. This book draws on a decade of collaborative story work with Black and brown youth on the South Side of Chicago.
Along with these books, I have co-edited several books and special issues, including "Surplus Data: On the New Life of Quantity" (Critical Inquiry 2021 with Orit Halpern, Jeffrey Kirkwood, and Leif Weatherby), "American Game Studies" (American Literature 2022 with Jennifer Malkowski), The Palgrave Handbook of Literature and Science Since 1900 (2020 with the Triangle Collective), "Comics & Media" (Critical Inquiry 2014 with Hillary Chute), and "New Media and American Literature (American Literature 2013 with Wendy Chun and Tara McPherson)
I've also published over fifty essays and interviews in humanistic journals such as American Journal of Play, American Literary History, American Literature, boundary 2, Critical Inquiry, differences, Modern Philology, PMLA, and Social Text; multimedia journals such as Audiovisual Thinking, hyperrhiz, Kairos, and Thresholds; and scientific journals such as American Journal of Sexuality Education, Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, Journal of STEM Education, and Sex Education.
Select Recent Game Design Projects
- ECHO (transmedia game about COVID-19), 2020
- A Labyrinth (transmedia game in response to COVID-19), 2020
- Terrarium (transmedia game about climate change), 2018-2019
- the parasite (aka Gaming Orientation) (transmedia game about diversity, dissensus, and difference), 2016-2017
- Hexacago Health Academy (board and card games about public health co-created with Black and brown youth in Chicago), 2015-present
- Bystander (video game about sexual harassment and sexual violence), 2016-2018