Virtual Realities, Fictional Worlds and Games Focus Cluster

Information Science + Studies is joining Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, English, and Computer Science in a Fall 2021 Focus Cluster.


 Virtual reality, fictional worlds, and games are all over the so-called real world: from education, business, and popular entertainment to how we conduct politics, meet other people, and define ourselves and our communities. Although new technologies make videogames and extended reality prominent in the contemporary moment, fictional scenarios, virtual worlds and gamified systems have played important roles in culture and society for centuries. 

This cluster considers how the virtual, the fictitious, and the gamified shape the circulation of information and the making of meaning. It likewise looks at their antecedents and analogues in older immersive forms like role play, the print novel, film, and television. When we examine the continuities among the virtual, the fictional, and games, we find all sorts of contradictions underlying how they work in the real world. All have been deployed to serve the ends of the powerful and the oppressed; to train particular professions (from doctors to soldiers); and to reveal social inequities across race, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability. Believe it or not, reading novels was once described in the terms we now use for video game playing: the salvation of an industry, but addictive and the scourge of youth. From collaborative storytelling to war games, this cluster considers the range of social and antisocial uses of immersive worlds. Whether we read about, watch, or play the part of killers, achievers, party guests, explorers, or some other yet-to-be-determined role, we will discover how versions of ourselves come into being through versions of virtuality, fictionality, and gaming. 


Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 188FS/Information Science and Studies 188FS/Literature 188FS/Visual and Media Studies 188FS/International Comparative Studies 186FS/Political Science 186FS: Games and Culture (SS, CCI)

Leo Ching

Shai Ginsburg

Leo Ching, Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Shai Ginsburg, Chair of and Associate Professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

This class is different: It is about both playing hard and working hard; it is about questioning the opposition between playing and working. We inspire to work through play and play through work, and have fun doing both! We take games both as great fun and very seriously. True, we are about to play games—many games—and, hopefully, have fun doing so; but we will also consider the games we play (as well as other games) in a scholarly fashion, as important products of our culture, as something that can tell us about our society, politics, and ideology. We will thus look at tabletop games and videogames from divergent perspectives: historical, sociological, political, military, literary and more, paying particular attention to game design and the ways it shapes our experience not only of the game, but also of the world. Our driving contention is that the understanding of game design and gameplay can enhance our understanding of cultural and political dynamics.

Informational Sciences 187FS/Visual and Media Studies 187FS/CMAC 187FS/Literature 187FS: Digital Storytelling and Interactive Narrative (ALP, STS, W)

Victoria Szabo

Victoria Szabo, Research Professor Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, and Information Science + Studies Program 

Digital storytelling and interactive narrative take advantage of new technologies to tell stories that are multimodal, participatory, and open-ended. Those that take advantage of game engines also build upon imagined worlds that are designed with procedural elements in mind. In this course we will explore the distinct affordances of digital media for storytelling, considering both how they can realize possibilities latent and expressed in earlier forms of storytelling, and can offer up possibilities that are entirely new in programmed, interactive, and extended reality environments. For inspiration and context we will read/view/experience and critique examples of open-ended and interactive narrative forms going back to diverse oral traditions and exhibition practices, as well as to relevant novels, film, apps, and games. Our critical readings will draw from theories of play, game design, and virtuality and will include consideration of open world, non-linear, and location-based storytelling techniques. Throughout the course we will consider questions of authorship, agency, authority, and collaboration as well as how the user/player/interactor becomes an active participant and even a co-creator in the stories we tell. As we apply the lessons of these readings to historical and contemporary examples, we will consider what makes a digital story “good,” and how concepts derived from game studies apply to these interactive media forms more broadly, as well as what we can learn about creating better games from our research. We will also do hands-on exploration of the topic by using digital media authoring tools to share original and adapted digital stories of our own. 

English 190FS: Fictionality and Virtuality (ALP, CZ, CCI, W, STS)

Aarthi Vadde

Aarthi Vadde, Associate Professor of English 

This course uses literary works (novels) and popular culture (video games, TV shows, blogs, Twitter fiction, and crowdsourcing projects) to introduce two key concepts for literary and digital cultural study: fictionality and virtuality. The fictional and the virtual explain how stories immerse us in their worlds: why we can’t put a book down, binge watch our favorite shows, and game for hours. Whatever your pleasure (reading, watching, playing), your immersion in a familiar art form is usually preconditioned by the knowledge that it is not real even if it feels real. But what about when art forms are new? In the 18th century, novel readers did not yet know what they were reading. They thought novels were autobiographies and characters were real people. Today, when we go online and use social media, we encounter real people who behave like fictional characters, parody accounts, curated personas, avatars, deep fakes, and all sorts of other techniques for virtualizing the self. In thinking about the entwined history of fictionality and virtuality, we will gain perspective on a contemporary world in which readers and viewers, for better and worse, have become players and participants. 

Computer Science 94FS: Introduction to Programming via Animation and Virtual Worlds (QS)

Susan Rodger

Susan Rodger, Professor of the Practice or Robert Duvall, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science 

Games are an increasingly important medium in terms of international use, cultural impact, and profitability. Arguably, gaming has also driven many recent advances in computer hardware and are finally gaining acceptance within the academic community as an area worthy of study. And why not? Games contain all of the basic elements taught in computer science and commercial game engines are becoming increasingly complex software systems. The focus of this project is not to build commercial quality games, but you will experience the same basic concepts, trade-offs, and design ideas by building these games. 

Games are also a very interesting medium to explore new things but designing something that is fun as well as educational is a significant design challenge. This course will be a hands-on exploration of designing, implementing, and play testing games. Along the way you will learn about what makes a game good and practice working in teams to iteratively improve your work. 

This course aims to be an introduction to the basic concepts of computer programming by designing and implementing games. While the focus is on programming games, the concepts covered are widely applicable across programming languages and applications. These concepts include loops, selection, collections, organizing data, event-driven responses, and user interface design. As such, it provides an introduction to a skill that you can use to enhance any of your other interests as well as preparation to take CompSci 101 if you choose to continue on in Computer Science. 

Required Background: This course is intended for non-majors and has no prerequisites. If you have taken AP Computer Science, CompSci 101, or have equivalent experience, then this course will likely not be appropriate for you. 

For more information, see the Focus Website