Questions for the English professor, digital media theorist, and game designer.
What surprising job have you had in the past?
In high school I worked as a knife salesman. Around the same time, even though I’ve never played a round of golf in my life, I also worked as a caddy for a summer. The work was terrible and involved waking up at 4am. The tips were a major draw though.
What would you want to be doing if not teaching?
I’d probably want to design and write for games full time with my favorite collaborators. But alongside teaching, I already get to create games, write books, run arts labs, and travel all around the world. I find the range of this work extremely fulfilling.
What do you hate that everyone else loves?
The frustrating answer is soup. I know I’m on the wrong side of this one, but I struggle to overcome my aversion. My cranky answer might be award ceremonies, but I think those have fallen off the cultural precipice since their height in the 1990s, so I don’t actually think everyone loves them anymore.
What do you love that everyone else hates?
Moral panics. You know, like the fear of violent video games or the idea that Dungeons and Dragons promoted an interest in sorcery in the 1980s (one might argue the latter was true, though in a good way). Of all the forms of mass fear, moral panics are really the most fun one.
What was the last book you finished?
One of the last books I read for fun was When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut. It’s a stunning work of fiction about modern science and mathematics that includes figures like Heisenberg and Schrödinger.
What was the last book you recommended to a friend?
I recommended Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem trilogy to both a friend and a student in the last month. All three of the books are special but the second one, The Dark Forest, might be my favorite. I also regularly recommend science fiction books to folks by Octavia Butler, N. K. Jemisin, and China Miéville.
What was the last book you put down before you finished it?
I put down Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which is a nearly 350,000-word novel. In my defense, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom came out and that open world has been occupying much of my free time since. My thinking is that the Cervantes novel has been around for over 400 years, so what is a couple more weeks?
What book—or other work or idea—do you relish teaching?
I work in game studies, so I often teach video games. I love teaching games like Return of the Obra Dinn, Hair Nah, or Undertale because of how much they open up for students. I also love teaching students about the concepts of “affect” and “game feel.”
What book changed your life?
This is an unanswerable question for me. Books saved my life in so many ways. It would feel like a betrayal to choose just one. I’d be more willing to answer that for video games.
What video game changed your life?
This is an unanswerable question for me … kidding. I retain a special place in my heart for the 1994 roleplaying game Earthbound (Mother 2 in Japan). It is a playful and comedic exploration of Americana from a Japanese perspective, which was one of the first RPGs I played that was based in a contemporary setting, instead of the distant past or a fantasy landscape.
What person, alive or dead, would you want to write your life story?
I’m not a fan of biography as a form. If I wanted my life story to be mostly fiction though, which might be preferable, I would go with circa 2023 ChatGPT.
What’s your least useful talent?
Answering interview questions, succinctly.
Who was your best teacher, and why?
I had many extraordinary teachers, including Toni Clark, David Foster Wallace, Priscilla Wald, Fred Moten, Lauren Berlant, and others. One of the best was Daniel Birkholz, a medievalist at Pomona College, who got me fired up about everything from Beowulf to Norse sagas. Given that I work on contemporary media and video games now, it tells you something about his talent as a teacher that I came very close to becoming a medievalist. I steal his teaching tricks to this day.
What advice would you give to a brand-new Maroon?
Try to fail while you can. I don’t want bad failure or precarity for anyone. But college, in particular, is a time when you can learn by taking risks and failing, at least in some areas. I always encourage my students to fail in the most interesting and wildest ways possible. Invent new ways to fail that no one has known before.