University of Chicago undergraduate students will soon have a new opportunity to delve into the wondrous world of video games, guided by a game designer who consulted on one of the biggest films of the past year.
This spring, postdoctoral researcher Katherine Buse will help bring a creative blend of science and technology to the College curriculum. An expert on digital media, science fiction and environmental humanities, Buse’s scholarship draws from a range of theory and practice—including her recent work on “Dune,” the Oscar-nominated adaptation of the acclaimed novel.
Entitled “Gaming History,” the new course will explore how video games reflect, theorize and alter our understanding of the past. For example, how have popular titles, such as “Call of Duty,” functioned in the pedagogy of public history? Working with co-instructor Bradley Bolman—a historian of science and postdoctoral researcher at UChicago—Buse has designed the course to include visits from a few guest speakers. The two have also reserved one day per week for live play, during which students can try out various games, taking into account how they represent the structure of time, causality and choice.
Students will engage in original archival, ethnographic and media archeological research to critically analyze media objects, as well as designing some of their own. The unique seminar draws on both practice-based research and traditional humanistic research, reflecting UChicago’s commitment to understanding topics through an interdisciplinary approach.
“Projects that ask me to apply my humanistic knowledge–from game design to consulting on science fiction–always help me see my studies in a new light and clarify what is most important to me as a scholar. Ideally I can help students make better choices as creators, workers and citizens,” Buse said. “UChicago has some amazing new programs that take its interdisciplinarity to a new level by blending research and practice in this way. The Media Arts and Design (MAAD) and Inquiry and Research in the Humanities (IRHUM) programs are two of the most exciting, and I am delighted that this course is cross-listed in both.”
An intellectual journey
As a young girl reading science fiction novels, Buse’s interest in climate science skyrocketed as real-world current events began paralleling the stories she enjoyed.
Her intellectual journey took off in her time as an undergraduate student at Duke University. After reading seminal texts like Octavia Butler’s “Dawn” and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Science in the Capital” trilogy, she continued to connect the dots between the foreboding books she consumed and the reality of climate change.
“I eventually realized that climate scientists were already using and referring to science fiction in these interesting ways,” said Buse, a postdoc at UChicago’s Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. “You would think that climate scientists wouldn't talk about science fiction, because they would be afraid of seeming like they're not doing real work. And so, I thought, ‘This is kind of paradoxical to me, I want to understand more.’”
After college, she went on to earn master’s degrees at the University of Liverpool and the University of Cambridge, and her P.h.D at the University of California, Davis. She still collaborates with the UC Davis ModLab as a game and graphics designer.
Throughout her academic career, Buse has noticed the immense pressure placed on climate scientists in conversations about climate change. That disproportionate burden, she said, stems from how policymakers often treat science as sets of recommendations, predictions and plans.
In her opinion, studying science and culture together—instead of in isolation—can yield better habits of thinking and encourage experts in other fields to work in partnership with scientists.
Since 2017, for example, Buse has worked on a game called “Foldit,” originally created nearly a decade earlier by University of Washington researchers. The game immerses players in puzzles to decipher three-dimensional structures of proteins. Buse and her ModLab team utilized comic-like graphics to create a science fiction narrative featuring characters of diverse backgrounds to represent how knowledge is collectively produced. The beta version of their narrative, “Foldit: First Contact,” is set to be released later this year.
Their goal was to make science and culture relatable and accessible, and to reinforce how arts and science are necessary to solve big problems—a key learning objective for all students in Buse’s course this spring.
“Video games meet climate change: Dr. Buse’s research not only brings together the far reaches of human experience, but it also recognizes that new fields may emerge out of what have not yet been thought of as fields,” said Shadi Bartsch Zimmer, director at the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge.