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A New Department Marks the Rise of a Discipline: ‘Computational Media’

Pixar movies, interactive video games, smartphone applications—all are forms of computational media, the marriage of computer science to the arts and humanities. Signaling a deeper investment in that fast-growing if slippery field, the University of California at Santa Cruz announced the creation on Monday of what it called the first computational-media department ever.

“There’s always been, in the heart of computing, a concern with human communication and media,” said Noah Wardrip-Fruin, an associate professor of computer science at Santa Cruz. Mr. Wardrip-Fruin and Michael Mateas, a professor who will become chair of the new department, argued this year in a university report that computational media is an interdisciplinary field, not one that simply applies computer science to arts and humanities projects.

The report was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which also expressed their interest in interdisciplinary computer-based research.

That’s an important message, according to Ian Bogost, an interactive-computing and media-studies professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Researchers in the STEM fields and policy makers sometimes view artistry and ethics as afterthoughts, he said.

“We’ll kind of sneak that in or spread it like a glaze on top,” he said, describing what he perceives to be a common attitude. “There is sometimes a sense that we’ve decoupled computing from its cultural and artistic and humanistic context, and some of the trouble we might point to in the world we are living in—run by Wall Street and Silicon Valley—is perhaps a result of thinking of everything as just an engineering problem.”

Georgia Tech already offers a bachelor’s degree in computational media, which is run jointly run by its Schools of Interactive Computing and of Literature, Media, and Communication. And other universities are exploring the intersection of computing and the liberal arts. The University of Calgary, in Canada, has a graduate program in computational-media design that’s administered by the departments of computer science, environmental design, and creative and performing arts. New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts has a Game Center dedicated, according to its website, “to the exploration of games as a cultural form and game design as creative practice.”

While the products of computational media may often be entertaining, the field is not all fun and games. The kinds of deeply interactive stories found in video games can have more utilitarian applications, too, Mr. Wardrip-Fruin said, such as “embedding people in a rich, fictional social situation instead of reading a training manual.”

And according to Mr. Bogost, the field encourages students to question the potential purposes and uses of technology.

“It’s not just What can we make? and Can we do it fast and cheap? but Should we?,” Mr. Bogost said. “It’s about reconnecting computation to culture and creativity in a way that makes us ask the questions we don’t ask about the role of computers in our lives.” An autonomous department of computational media, Mr. Bogost said, may be better-positioned to foster those conversations.

Santa Cruz’s new department will administer the university’s extant degrees in computer-game design and in games and playable media. The university will also create new degree programs, as yet unannounced, and hire an unspecified number of new professors.

“At some universities, it’s hard to do this interdisciplinary research, since people reviewing your work don’t understand one of the major elements you’re bringing together,” Mr. Wardrip-Fruin said. “We’ll be able to bring in a junior faculty member with confidence their interdisciplinary research is valuable.”

Correction (10/13/2014, 5:32 p.m.): This post originally misidentified the position held by Ian Bogost at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is an interactive-computing and media-studies professor at the university, not director of the graduate program in digital media. The post has been updated to reflect this correction.

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