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The Digital Development Lab: A Developer's Diary

The Digital Development Lab: A Developer's Diary

This semester I've been given the opportunity to collaborate with my university's Information Technology Services folks along with my own adviser in the English department, Dr Chris Hanson, on a project meant to give students and faculty alike a common space for the development and study of video games. This space, the Digital Development Lab (DDL) was born of a growing need to offer a central, configurable classroom in which both humanities scholars and game developers can meet, exchange ideas, and give the video game form the academic attention it increasingly demands. Our hope is that the DDL could be a flexible space in which both game development and game studies could occur in equal measure and from a variety of pedagogical angles.

Though Syracuse University houses many wonderful computer labs on campus where creative digital work takes place, these are often siloed within a single department or college, thus reducing access and foreclosing professional cross-pollination. Our goal is to establish a lab that exists in the wonderful liminal space between departments, to be as capacious as possible in imagining what the emerging fields of game development (especially independent game development) and game studies might need from a university. We want to take cues from the many game labs that already exist across the country, while looking also to museum collections and libraries that have worked hard to envision a way for video games to be preserved and played across a variety of public contexts.

There are, as you might imagine, a number of fascinating challenges that come with designing a space like the DDL. When you make capaciousness a goal for any pedagogical space it becomes difficult to tack down any one specific decision. Should the floor plan be entirely open or cubicled somehow? How many screens do we need? What would a group play session look like with 25 students and only 4 Xboxes? Should we prioritize access to software or should we always strive to get the vintage hardware we want? What kinds of furniture provide for collaborative work and open play in equal measure? These questions foreground the sort of materially vested pedagogical problems that can often be ignored in our classroom status quo. This semester I hope to work through a lot of these challenges with my colleagues here at the university, as well as here on my blog at HASTAC.

We want the DDL to be a visible, vibrant place on campus where the members of our university have direct access to a variety of video game platforms.  We want the DDL to function as a resource for researchers writing about video games in the humanities and social scinces. We want faculty to think of the DDL as a place where they can pull up a video game in the same way they might put a poem up on the screen. We want DDL to be a place where students can encounter new platforms of development like Twine, Unity, and Marmalade, unleashing a torrent of creative energy in a collaborative space where underrepresented identities, subversive ideologies, and experimental design can rise to the surface.

We've got a lot of hope for our little lab, and we'll be working very quickly to get this space up and running, prototyping as we go. Much like the game design process itself, we'll be iterating quickly, working on the fly, trying to squash the bugs along the way. I'll be keeping everyone posted on our progress here, and would welcome any and all questions, comments, and advice. This week we're just working on getting the bare minimum technical requirements up and running: hooking the PS4 up to the network, tracking down vintage controllers for our Retron 5, setting up priorities for our first test "screening", etc. Hopefully within a few weeks I'll be reporting back on how the presence of a live classroom has begun to shape our vision for the DDL.

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