5 Questions with Judith Pintar

5 Questions with Judith Pintar on Playful Design and Digital Humanities

Judith Pintar is a teaching associate professor at the School of Information Sciences who describes herself as “living in the sweet spot of the digital humanities.” Currently the Acting Director of the Bachelor of Science in Information Sciences Program, her PhD is in sociology, and she teaches the design and programming of interactive narratives and narrative AI (chatbots). “I approach information science as a humanities-inflected sociologist of science and technology,” she said. She is an Illinois Distinguished Teacher Scholar for a project called Gameful Pedagogy: Instructional Design for Student Well-Being. The project looks at the “rights” of game players as they are considered in the design of games, as an approach to looking at course and syllabus design to ensure inclusion, success, and well-being.

In addition to co-directing an HRI (then Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities or IPRH) research cluster, Pintar served as director of the Training in Digital Methods for Humanists (TDMH) project in its final pilot year with HRI.

What are your current research interests?

Photo of Judith Pintar

I have a general interest in gameful pedagogy, which is not the same thing as gamification. Gamification is when game elements are inserted into a course. Gameful pedagogy is the awareness that all courses are games already, and can be understood, critiqued, and improved within the frame of game design.

I also have an ongoing interest in digital programming literacies, which I am exploring through the teaching of programming through narrative logic rather than through algebra, as it is typically done. Beyond my pedagogical research, I am also interested in the social psychology of persuasion, propaganda, and misinformation, and in narrative AI (chatbots), in both historical and social context.

Tell us about your involvement with the Humanities Research Institute (HRI), specifically your Research Cluster “Playful by Design.”

The Playful by Design: Gaming Pedagogies, Digital Literacies and the Public Humanities Research Cluster was funded during academic years 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 by IRPH/now HRI.

The research cluster worked to facilitate the growth and strategic development of an interdisciplinary community of practice that was interested in games in its broadest definition, including video games, interactive literatures, new media, art forms, platforms, websites, exhibits, virtual worlds and digital learning environments. As a result of IPRH/HRI support, Playful by Design evolved into a network of faculty, staff, students and CU community members.

In the first year we held a series of participatory workshops and events in which we shared our research, teaching, experiences and skills. These monthly gatherings lead to our first Playful by Design Spring symposium in April 2018. During our second year, the Playful by Design research cluster began encouraging the creation of game studies and design courses across the campus, while investigating he possible development of game studies degree programs.

The Playful by Design community began academic year 2019-2020 with the news that we had been awarded an Investment for Growth grant from the Provost's office, for a project entitled "Games @ Illinois: Playful Design for Transformative Education." In fall 2021, the Faculty Senate approved our Game Studies & Design undergraduate minor program. We hope soon that the Graduate Game Studies minor will soon be heading to Education Policy Organization & Leadership Senate Committee.

Tell us more about the undergraduate game studies minor. How does the creation of this course of study impact our campus community?

The undergraduate minor in Game Studies & Design is a new Informatics Program. Informatics, which is hosted by the iSchool is an independent, interdisciplinary program governed by affiliated faculty who serve on the curriculum committee.

The minor requires 18 credits, nine of which are in core courses, and the other nine from a long list of elective courses in multiple advising pathways: Dance & Performance, Game Design, Video Game Programming, Education & Research, Film & Media, Music & Sound, Narrative Design, Games & Society, Visual Arts, and we hope soon, also Play and Health.

After completing requirements for the degree, students should be able to:

  • think critically about the history, cultural meaning, social impact, ethical issues surrounding, and increasingly significant role of games, gaming, and interactive media in a diverse society;
  • understand the basic principles of game design as distinct from other design traditions;
  • apply the logical thinking skills (computational, algorithmic, or narrative-based) sufficient to create a design document and to prototype a game, or game-like app or simulation.

Students will be prepared to do graduate work in game design if they wish, or to do further academic work in game studies.

How has your experience with HRI shaped your current work, research, and projects?

Had I not applied for the Playful by Design research cluster, I don’t know that [the creation of the Game Studies & Design undergraduate minor] would have happened. It would have taken much longer for game studies community to have come together. Partly on the strength of (then) IPRH’s endorsement, we managed to get a paragraph into the campus Strategic Plan for the Arts, aspiring to a campus-wide interdisciplinary program related to game studies.

I feel quite grateful for the blessing that IPRH/HRI gave us to go forth, see what the interest was and make something that lasts. Besides the future graduate minor in Game Studies, we hope to create an innovate approach to master’s level training in Game Design, for students who want to enter the entertainment game industry.

What are some of your other current projects in digital humanities?

I’m working on a project related to the human desire for immortality and the data undead—the way that companies are using social media data to create chatbots of people who are biologically deceased, to keep them alive virtually. Coupled with new deep-fake technologies, it is likely that we will all have to have statements in our wills dictating what we want done with our data after our decease, to stop our descendants from bringing us back!

By Bridget Sullivan