New Faculty Spotlight: Professor Katie Salen Tekinbaş Explores the Potential of Play

November 15, 2017

Katie Salen Tekinbaş, Professor of Informatics, joined the ICS faculty in September 2017.

Q: Can you tell us about your background?
I was trained in graphic design but quickly started working with interactivity after teaching web development and interface design. I fell into games when I started bringing nondigital games into my interactive design classrooms to teach students how to design a really engaging system. Games are incredibly beautiful self-descriptive systems; they have to be engaging because a player can just walk away at any point. I actually became a practicing game designer for a while, working with Gamelab and Microsoft Research in the Xbox division, but I always kept one foot in academia.

Then, about 10 years ago, I started exploring the relationship between games and learning and launched Institute of Play, a nonprofit design studio focused on pioneering new models of learning and engagement. This became my lab, where I collaborated with others to develop and implement a research-based approach to infusing learning with principles of game design and play. Quest to Learn, a New York City public school organized around these ideas, was developed through the institute, and we created a rich array of youth and educator-facing programs, tools and resources.

I most recently taught at DePaul University, where I helped start a new School of Design and I taught courses in game design and development. I left DePaul to launch a games and assessment lab in California and to startConnected Camps with UCI Informatics Professor Mimi Ito and Tara Tiger Brown.

Q: Is that what brought you to UCI?
After years of work on Quest to Learn and Institute of Play, I was ready to find a way to amplify the work, and UCI felt like the perfect setting. I had been collaborating for a long time with Mimi and with UCI’s Dean of Education, Richard Arum, as a member of the Connected Learning Research Network, and I was interested in being part of the Connected Learning Lab, led by Mimi. I’ve been part of the work around connected learning for more than a decade, so I was interested in using the lab to continue the work I began at Institute of Play, doing transformative design-based work with young people and educators.

Q: Can you talk more about some of the projects you’ve been involved with and your approach to learning?
I’m interested in the aesthetics of interactive systems and the transformative potential of play. I’m trying to figure out how you develop really engaging experiences for young people that are centered around their interests. We can learn a lot from what games do; how they organize experiences for players; and how they deal with feedback, challenges and problem solving. For example, Quest to Learn is a school designed to support students and teachers in developing fluency in design thinking, problem solving, and systems thinking through an approach centered on creating challenging and engaging game-like learning experiences.

With Connected Camps, the nonprofit I run with Mimi, my focus has been on understanding the design dimensions of the products we offer — from how programs are structured to the culture we are cultivating online with youth, to structures facilitating informal mentoring between our college counselors and the kids we serve. We run a blog called Connected Parenting that explores ways of making games and the internet a force for good in the lives of kids, and we are working really hard to understand, from a business perspective, how to scale the platform in ways that makes it accessible to all youth. We are working at the intersection of industry, philanthropy and academia to find solutions. Industry drives the technology development and outreach, philanthropists and nonprofits focus on the social impact, and the academics are the ones who provide the theoretical foundation.

Q: Speaking of academia, what courses will you be teaching this year?
This winter, for the Master of Human-Computer Interaction & Design program, I’ll be teaching Advanced Prototyping and Design. I’ll also be teaching a freshman-level GE course, Game Systems and Design, which is part of the Computer Game Science program.

Q: What do you like best so far about UCI?
The peer environment has been fantastic. My colleagues are super collegial and open to sharing, creating a really supportive environment.

Q: What do you do in your spare time?
I have 2-year-old twins, so they take up most of my spare time, but I love reading and playing video games.

Q: Is there a book you wish everyone would read?
One I always suggest is Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire, which has influenced my approach to teaching and inspires me daily. And the newest book I really love is Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil. It’s a very timely book about the ways in which algorithms are increasingly structuring inequality.