Co-Creating Worlds: An Interview with Guggenheim Fellow Patrick Jagoda

Co-Creating Worlds: An Interview with Guggenheim Fellow Patrick Jagoda

The following excerpt was originally published in the In Practice: The UChicago Arts Blog on March 14.

By Ellen Wiese

The Guggenheim Fellowship is awarded to practitioners in a diverse range of fields—arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences—and recognizes those with significant prior accomplishment and exceptional potential. Through its gifts of time and money, the Guggenheim Foundation enables 175 awardees (winnowed from over 3,000 applicants) to further their scholastic and creative endeavors over the course of a year. This year, the University of Chicago has five recipients, tied with Stanford for the highest number from a single school. We reached out to Professor Patrick Jagoda, an awardee in the arts field, to hear more about his work and plans for the Fellowship.

You will be using the Guggenheim Fellowship to support Story Lab: Narrative Methods for a Transmedia Era, an experimental and collaborative humanities multimedia publication. What are the details of this project, and how will its development unfold? (And will this development be affected by the pandemic?)

In the year 2020, we find ourselves in a transmedia environment that has transformed storytelling. In addition to more established cultural forms such as the novel or film, narrative is now conveyed through formats such as webisodes, podcasts, video games, webcomics, multilinear interactive fictions, and much more. Even in 1974, Raymond Williams (the Birmingham School cultural critic) wrote that in the United States and Britain more narrative drama was being consumed in a week or even a weekend than might have been watched in a year or even a lifetime in earlier historical periods. Williams’s comment was largely spurred by television viewership in the 1970s. But that’s even more the case today with the possibility of Netflix binges, 100+ hour video games, or serial podcasts that we listen to during our daily commutes — or, as we’re having this interview, shelter-in-place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both my scholarly and artistic projects during the fellowship will confront this media context. On the scholarly side, Story Lab is a multimedia book that includes chapter, videos, audio files, curricula, images, and more. It’s a collaborative experiment in the public humanities that explores storytelling-based research. Beyond entertainment or art, several fields have approached storytelling as a kind of transdisciplinary method. So, I’m interested in how emergent forms in the arts and humanities — namely, digital storytelling, body mapping, speculative design, narrative videogames, and alternate reality games — can influence the social and medical sciences. This work is based on a decade of serious game design, summer workshops, and public health research that I’ve been conducting with medical doctor and Ci3 founder Melissa Gilliam. Melissa is a Vice Provost now, but years ago we also founded the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab (GCC) and the Transmedia Story Lab (TSL). For nearly a decade, we’ve been working on a series of game and narrative projects, along with a larger team of researchers and designers. In one way or another, each of these projects is concerned with social, emotional, economic, and health issues with young people of color on the South Side of Chicago, often with an emphasis on LGBTQ youth. To date, we’ve largely published in specialized public health contexts. This book is an attempt to make these projects and methods accessible to a broader audience, and to highlight the contributions of the young people who have participated in these programs. To do this, I’m also working with people who were key to the original projects, including Ireashia Bennett, Alida Bouris, and Liz Futrell who work at TSL and Ashlyn Sparrow who was at GCC for many years.

Give me a sense of your artistic trajectory to this point. How did you end up doing the work you’re doing? What are your artistic priorities?

Since about 2011, I’ve worked systematically on a series of artistic projects, especially designing and writing video games, board and card games, and electronic literature. More than any of these areas though, I’ve been fascinated by the art form of the alternate reality game or transmedia game that started in the 2000s. With different groups of collaborators, I’ve co-created narratives that stretch across multiple months and move across multiple media. Each of these games invites collectives of people to explore an alternate reality. Instead of the multimedia frame of a video game on a single screen, these experiences incorporate novelistic text, videos, audio files, phone calls from characters, extensive online scavenger hunts, code-breaking puzzles, live performances, and online experiments across platforms such as Twitch, Zoom, and Discord. These games are so fascinating to me because they provide compelling ways of exploring our post-truth media landscape and the ways that we live and socialize in networked environments. Usually, these “games” do not announce themselves as games, so they ask players to negotiate the very status of fiction and truth within a media environment. Grappling with and changing that environment continues to strike me as one of the greatest challenges of our time.

As to trajectory, I made my first alternate reality game with University of Chicago students in 2011 (Oscillation). In 2012, I worked with artist Patrick LeMieux and new media scholar Katherine Hayles on a game about finance cultures, the post-2008 economic crisis, and Occupy Wall Street (Speculation). Following that, I’ve worked on games about health disparities in the U.S. (Stork), conspiracy (The Project), academic conferences (Play as Inquiry), and STEM learning among underrepresented young people (The Source and SEED). Since 2017, I’ve been working with a core group of collaborators that includes Heidi Coleman (TAPS), Ashlyn Sparrow (Weston Game Lab), Marc Downie (Cinema and Media Studies), and Kristen Schilt (Sociology) on game design projects for social good and learning. We’ve made two games that have run during the University of Chicago orientation: one about diversity, inclusion, and dissensus (the parasite) and one about climate change (Terrarium). This spring, we came together quickly in April and May to create a game for the broader University of Chicago community that seeks to build community and encourage creativity during the COVID-19 pandemic (A Labyrinth). To my own surprise, this is the tenth such game that I’ve co-directed. Even so, this form has yet to get any less interesting or productively difficult to me over the years.

Your work utilizes multimedia and experimental elements. Why does unconventional/emerging art appeal to you? What do experimental/emerging forms have to tell us?

“Experiment” and “experimental” are tricky terms for me. The world is filled with experimental thinking and material experiments, but they take so many different forms. Randomized Controlled Trials in closed scientific laboratories offer one model. Neoliberal economic experiments practiced by the International Monetary Fund or corporate product optimization offer very different kinds of experiments. Aesthetic modulations of affect that unfold within distributed digital media environments like social media networks or video game open worlds represent yet another kind of experiment.

In another sense, experiments can be both dangerous and insightful, depending on how they are designed and executed. Plenty of scientific experiments instrumentalize human lives. The obvious examples, which are in different ways extreme and exemplary, would be something like Josef Mengele’s horrific experiments on disabled people and pregnant women at Auschwitz, or the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment that withheld penicillin from African American men in rural Alabama. I think we could also add Harry Harlow’s primate experiments that probed the psychology of attachment and various other experiments on nonhuman creatures. At the same time, there are also countless generative and ethical experiments, created by artists or scientists, which creatively construct a world, trying out myriad possibilities en route to provisional knowledge and working theories.

I realize that this may seem like a weird context for me to jump to when you asked a question about experimental art and emerging forms! But for me, art has never been so different or certainly not completely distinct from science in terms of its capacity for experimenting with the world and generating knowledge about it. Experimental art forms have taught me so much about human behavior, habits, creativity, modes of play, ways of organizing the world, patterns of inequality, and much more. The alternate reality games I was just talking about can be called “games” or “an art form” but they are also alternative experimental tools and techniques. I have a book coming out this fall, Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification (University of Chicago Press, 2020), which explores these ideas in much greater detail in the realm of video games.

To read the full interview visit:

May 28, 2020