Plans for an Interactive Documentary Production Class

This fall I have the amazing good fortune to teach a class in documentary. This one is titled Interactive Documentary Production, a class that I had developed and proposed almost two years ago. Due to budget and enrollment issues, the class was canceled last fall. But this fall it will be running, with 10 students enrolled so far.

The wrinkle? The course will be taught online. This is my choice. When offered the opportunity, I took it thinking it might help with enrollment and it would offer some certainty in terms of preparation.

Fortunately, organizations like the University Film and Video Association, as well as various listservs, have had ongoing discussions about teaching production online. Most discuss traditional production, but those discussions are still helpful for thinking about interactive production.

Several teaching philosophies inform this course.

First, play is central. Fundamental to video game theories, play is a concept that can apply to any kind of creating — music, writing, science, design, and much more. Broadly, it means immersing oneself into a safe environment and testing the boundaries. Some compare play to the flow state advocated by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi.

Second, use the tools available, including gear and software. The only gear requirement for the class is a smart phone that can record audio and sound, that can store the files created, and that can allow retrieval of the files from the device. Every program or app used in the course is free as well. One required one is Twine, for example.

Third, start where you are. This idea remains particularly important in the current uncertainties created by the pandemic. With remote delivery, students might be anywhere. Fortunately, documentary stories are everywhere. People just have to learn to look around.

Three sections make up this course: short video projects, serious game design, and interactive documentary projects. While the first section focuses more in traditional production approaches, the latter two make a shift to sitting metaphorically with the audience in creating the interactive qualities of the media. In other words, what will the audience do to engage your stories?

The short video projects section will introduce the basics of documentary filmmaking through a smartphone. This section is necessary because the course has no prerequisites and assumes that students have no formal experience creating video. Assignments here include a long take, two object studies, and four interviews.

The second part of the course will focus on serious game design. “Serious game design” is a broad term that covers all kinds of labels such as knowledge games, docugames, newsgames, and more. (It seems like every author has a different name for them.) The fundamental connection among all the types is their focus on reality and communicating something about that reality through a gameplay experience. While labeled as fiction, Depression Quest casts the player as someone struggling with depression and facing decisions on how to handle it.

Two assignments make up this section. The first is a board game that will explore a social issue of some kind. (Check out the history of Monopoly, first known as The Landlord’s Game.). The second is a conversation simulator that explores the possibilities of a difficult conversation from three perspectives. Nicky Case’s Coming Out Simulator offers an example.

The third part of the course delves into interaction and video. While I considered a larger class project, I opted for a series of shorter ones that allow them to explore possibilities more. Projects here include an interactive video, timeline, a map, and an augmented reality project. All of these projects involve free third-party apps.

Future iterations of this class might include a web series, 360-degree video and virtual reality, and a class-level interactive documentary with Korsakow or Klynt.

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