Arts, Humanities and Sciences Interconnected

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“Games influence how we understand to be alive, how we think about our relationships with other people and how those things will have an impact everywhere else,” said Noah Wardrip-Fruin, associate professor of computational media at UC Santa Cruz. Computational media links individuals who are knowledgeable about the arts, humanities and sciences to seek questions that can only emerge and be answered in an interdisciplinary field.

The new department of computational media in the Baskin School of Engineering aims to fuse research approaches of arts and humanities with those of computer science, creating an interdisciplinary field that evaluates, explores and enables the computer as a medium for innovation.

“It’s a pretty unusual thing to have happen on any campus, to fund a new department,” Wardrip-Fruin said. “It means the university is making an open-ended commitment to a new intellectual area.”

In 2012, UCSC hosted Media Systems, a workshop on computational media that brought together members from “media-focused computer science, digital art and digital humanities located in and across universities.” The workshop led to a report, published this year and co-written by Mateas and Wardrip-Fruin entitled “Envisioning the Future of Computational Media.”

The department of computational media took over the Bachelor of Science in computer game design, which once belonged to the computer science department. Soon, a Master of Science in Games and Playable Media will be administered by the department, Wardrip-Fruin said. Faculty is also working toward proposing a Ph.D. and a Masters of Fine Arts.

For students, there is little change happening to the pre-existing game design major, said assistant professor of computational media Arnav Jhala. However, there is some change happening to the faculty of the computer science department.

Michael Mateas, who helped launch the computer game design degree — the first of its kind in the UC system — is the chair of the new department of computational media and director of the Center for Games and Playable Media, which was established in 2010. The computational media faculty includes Wardrip-Fruin, Jhala and Sri Kurniawan as well as computer science professors Jim Whitehead and Marilyn Walker.

According to the report, computational media transformed how we develop and convey our ideas, knowledge and values. Computational media defines much of the experience and creation of new kinds of interactive media.

“Games are, as a medium, really maturing. People are engaging a lot of different themes in games more so now than they used to,” said Whitehead, who is also chair of the computer science department. “People are pushing the boundaries of how you do storytelling in games and how you engage different kinds of societal issues in games.”

The focus of computational media is not in the business use of the computer or the scientific computing aspect of it, Whitehead said.

“Computer science [alone] doesn’t know how to evaluate and guide the work. It can’t tell if you’re succeeding, for example. Success is creating a more compelling experience for an audience,” Wardrip-Fruin said. “To identify the right kind of questions to work on, you need to draw from the disciplines that care deeply about media, and of course, among those are art disciplines focused on creating media and humanities that are focused on interpreting media.”

Computational media involves four different types of work — technical, creative, interpretative and collaborative, according to “Envisioning the Future of Computational Media.” These types of work inspire the development of different knowledge and skills while combining these categories.

“It is research that is smack in the middle in the sense that it’s the one person doing research in both areas and not necessarily just a collaboration,” Jhala said.

The Center for Games and Playable Media is responsible for some of the largest technical game research groups in the world. Now with the addition of computational media toward game research, UCSC establishes itself as one of the very small number of places in the country where those interested could join a group of people who are excited about similar ideas, Whitehead said.

“It will help us recruit great faculty members because people who do interdisciplinary work will know there’s a home here that understands the kind of work they do,” Wardrip-Fruin said.

To create an impacting experience with computer games, game designers need to work with artists who create the visual elements of the game, Whitehead said.

Creating a game often includes elements of theater, such as lighting and costume design. It is then a game designer’s duty to pull material from different places and various viewpoints to create an appropriate context for the game. For example, if a game designer is trying to understand how his or her audience is interacting with a particular game or piece of media, the game designer would need to understand it from a psychological standpoint as well.

“We’re bringing an arts sensibility and a strong computational focus together,” Whitehead said. “Games themselves are one of the most interdisciplinary things that we make in our society because it borrows from so many different sources.”