Broadly speaking, I work in the fields of new media studies and twentieth and twenty-first century American literature and culture. Within these areas, my teaching and research focus on digital games, electronic literature, virtual worlds, television, cinema, the novel, and media theory.
My first book, Network Aesthetics (University of Chicago Press, 2016), examines American narrative, visual, and interactive artworks that encourage a critical and even transformative engagement with the network as a dominant category of life since the mid-twentieth century. With the rise of complexity science, which promoted the interdisciplinary study of complex systems in the 1970s, networks became both the principal architecture and metaphor of a globalizing world. The language of networks now describes the Internet, the global economy, the human brain, and terrorist organizations. Though networks seem more appropriate to fields such as computer science and mathematics, they have also occupied a central place in the humanities. My book undertakes a comparative media analysis of the way that popular cultural forms, including the novel, film, television serial, videogame, and transmedia narrative have kept pace with science and mediated our experience of networks. The first half, turns to linear narrative forms, including maximalist novels from the late 1990s such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld, multiprotagonist films such as Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, and complex serial television shows such as David Simon’s The Wire. Through experiments with network form, these works examine the American situation of domestic and transnational crisis. In the second half of the book, I turn from predominantly representational and narrative texts to digital media and videogames such as thatgamecompany's Journey that are interactive, nonlinear, and dependent on networked audiences. Network aesthetics, I argue, are not simply the qualities of a new genre that is available across contemporary fiction, film, and digital media. More substantively, the diverse cultural works that I study use aesthetic strategies to render, intensify, and influence the way we understand the network imaginary and our embeddedness within it.
My current book project, tentatively titled Experimental Games, explores the rise of “gamification” in American culture. Gamification, a term that derives from behavioral economics, is the use of game mechanics in traditionally nongame activities. This buzzword emerged only in the twenty-first century but the idea of game-based behavior modification already appears as early as the 1950s in writing on business, marketing, psychology, and warfare. This project explores games as a prominent metaphor and form that economic, social, and cultural life have taken in the U.S. from Cold War victory culture through our present digital moment. Though gamification is the starting point, the core of the project focuses on an aesthetic study of games that deviate from an instrumental and behaviorist approach, experimenting instead with more complex affects, experiences, and possibilities of play. These works estrange game form from the sense of “fun” to which it is commonly tethered, instead exploring experiences such as difficulty, reflection, contingency, boredom, and discomfort. The designers on whose work I focus take games seriously as a medium of thought, a technique of analysis, and a mode of experiment. Many of these creators are thinking through not only form but also political issues of gender, sexuality, class, and race.
Another one of my core research endeavors has been the co-founding and management of the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab. This lab uses digital storytelling, videogames, and emerging new media forms to explore social, emotional, and sexual health issues with marginalized and sexual minority youth on the South Side of Chicago. In 2012, I began this lab with Melissa Gilliam (Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Pediatrics). We have created or are in the process of creating a number of digital projects, including an interactive narrative about teen decision-making and sexual health (Cache), an alternate reality game about economic and health disparities in America (Stork), a transmedia story with mini-games about sexual assault (Lucidity), a card game about Sexually Transmitted Infections (inFection Four), a videogame about sexual harassment and sexual violence (Bystander), a board game suite about public health issues (Hexacago), and two citywide games about youth civic engagement and collaboration (The Source and S.E.E.D.). The Lab fosters research across the humanities, arts, and social sciences that includes work on digital media and learning, emerging cultural and narrative genres, and the social and emotional health of youth. These projects are supported by organizations that include the MacArthur Foundation, the Neubauer Family Collegium, the National Institutes of Health, the Hive Learning Network, and the Wohlford Foundation. We have published work from this project in varied journals targeted at researchers in the humanities, education, health, and new media art.
Finally, another part of my practice-based research focuses specifically on alternate reality games and forms of transmedia storytelling. Two of my large-scale collaborative projects in this area have crossed lines that typically separate theory and art practice. The first is Speculation (created with Katherine Hayles and Patrick LeMieux). This science fiction alternate reality game explores the logics of finance capital and Wall Street investment bank cultures within the context of the 2008 global economic collapse. The second is The Project (created with Sha Xin Wei and supported by a Mellon Fellowship in Arts Practice and Scholarship at the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry). This narrative-oriented alternate reality game unfolded in Hyde Park and included elements of invisible theater. Both Speculation and The Project were not limited to any single medium, hardware system, or interface. They incorporated textual narrative, video, audio, email, websites, social media, original software, and even live performance. The stories of both games were broken into discrete pieces that player groups had to actively rediscover, reconfigure, and influence through their actions. These projects have allowed me to explore issues pertaining to the nature of play in our postindustrial period, spatial and collective storytelling practices, digital archiving, and questions of the relationship between critical theory and new media design. I am currently working on my next alternate reality game (planned for 2017) in collaboration with Kristen Schilt (Sociology) and Heidi Coleman (Theater and Performance Studies).