Digital Arts and New Media: MFA: Collaboration, Innovation, Social Impact

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Experimental Play

Games and Playable Media

Over the last 40 years we have seen a blossoming of new models of play. From the rise of the New Games movement and the emergence of the role-playing game (in the 1970s) to the current moment’s rise of independent games, art games, documentary games, political games, and more — we are changing who plays, how we play, and what play can mean. 

This project group invites those who want to invent and explore new play spaces. It seeks participants who will take play-oriented approaches to storytelling, ideology, sociality, performance, and other rich areas of human life. The goal is to find those who have their own talents and approaches, but who also desire meaningful collaboration. Ideal candidates will have backgrounds that are already interdisciplinary, especially including two or more of: game design, documentary practice, creative writing, computer science, digital arts, other arts, and game studies. 

We propose that students in the project group will take three courses, one each with Swensen, Ruiz, and either Hunicke or Wardrip-Fruin . Each of these courses will involve the creation of a different game prototype, producing a wide range of vibrant ideas from the project group’s activity. We believe a likely model is that one of these projects will be brought to completion as (part of) each student’s thesis work, and that students will each choose as a primary advisor one of the faculty with whom they take a course (with the other faculty likely to play roles on student thesis committees). (Mateas and Wardrip-Fruin run the Expressive Intelligence Studio together, co-advising all students who participate.)

Swensen’s ​ ​Games and Personal Narrative course will explore how storytelling techniques can align with game mechanics to examine and provoke questions of identity and personal narrative. Drawing from games that express personal experience through autobiography, to games that question the relationship and separation between player and character, students will analyse and discuss a variety of interactive media pieces that intend to express lived experience or understanding of self. Students will then develop exploratory prototypes in digital and nondigital formats around potential mechanics of personal narrative. Through a series of individual and small group prompts and challenges, students will design, build, playtest, and critique each other's work. 

Ruiz’s ​Non-Fiction, Activism, and Games course will be a hybrid theory-practice course investigating the potentials and frictions that arise when combining activism, non-fiction storytelling, and gameful design. In the process, notions of what play is and can be, as well as who gets to make games and play them, will be foregrounded. Key theoretical and practical questions this course will pose include: How can we elevate and establish the genres of documentary games and activist games, and why should (or shouldn’t) we? Do these games require a re-evaluation or expansion of traditional design and development workflows? And what can we learn from, and contribute to, the documentary filmmaking and activist organizing communities? All students in the course will immerse themselves in subject matter research, create design and aesthetics guides, maintain reflexive play journals, ideate copiously, and develop board games or digital prototypes.  

Hunicke’s ​MDA of Experimental Gameplay course places the idea of experimental gameplay mechanics within the larger history of the games medium itself. Using the ​Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics framework as a baseline for critique, students will play and evaluate experimental games from the last 15 years of commercial and independent game development. In conjunction with this evaluation work, students will also design, build, test and critique their own experimental game prototypes. By constructing these digital or non-digital games, they will explore what it means to investigate new modes of play, expression, and interaction while taking seminal works into account. Through analysis and practice combined, the course will focus on how individual experiments have expanded the landscape of what we consider to be “game,” informing future experimental work and promoting the evolution of games as an expressive, experimental art form.  

Wardrip-Fruin’s ​Playable Media graduate course, cross-listed between DANM and the Computational Media department, will focus on the relationship between games, play, and fiction. This will span a breadth of work from a variety of communities, such as the burgeoning Twine community; digital, live-action, and tabletop role-playing game communities; electronic literature, interactive fiction, and digital art communities; interactive narrative technologies and artificial intelligence communities; and more. The course will bring DANM MFA students together with Engineering graduate students who are working on research projects to enable new genres of play — including playable systems of fiction and character. All students in the course will develop prototypes, critique each other’s work, and discuss a series of readings, games, and other playable experiences. (This will be at no cost to the DANM CLP, as Wardrip-Fruin will be offering CMPM 290J through CM, which is the course that will be cross-listed.) 

Students in the project group will also have opportunities to become involved in faculty-led projects, within the studios of the faculty offering courses. They will also become part of the larger community of UCSC’s Center for Games and Playable Media. In addition to standard DANM student support, this project group will have access to interdisciplinary funding sources which may provide support for students during their degree program and/or support for projects to continue development after student MFA work is complete. 

with Robin Hunicke, Michael Mateas, Susana Ruiz, Elizabeth Swensen, Noah Wardrip-Fruin

(Formerly "Playable Media")