Creating a World of MAGIC

[The Rochester Institute of Technology has taken Maker Spaces to a new dimension. They’ve looked at how MAGIC -Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity – can solve institutional problems. In my work as an educational technology broker I’ve seen some great projects, but this Campus Technology interview really demonstrates how far you can take a brilliant idea.]

By Mary Grush, 11/29/16

What happens when you mix a high-end technology sandbox loaded with ample, cutting-edge digital media tools and production facilities with some of the world’s brightest students and most innovative faculty? Andrew Phelps, founder and director of the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC) and MAGIC Spell Studios talks with CT about MAGIC at RIT.

Mary Grush: Why did you start MAGIC Spell Studios at RIT, and what does it do?

Andy Phelps: In my prior academic days, I was the founder and director of RIT’s games school, the School of Interactive Games and Media. We were doing a lot of things in games, and in what we termed ‘new media’ — which is sort of the fusion of design thinking with technology.

One intriguing thing about that work was that increasingly, none of the faculty were necessarily in the right homes. We had a games program that grew in a college of computing; we had a new media program that was trying hard to straddle a college of computing and a college of imaging arts and sciences (which is our art school); we had folks running over to the college of business to try to take entrepreneurship and digital marketing courses; and we had a ‘digital humanities’ effort coming out of liberal arts.

RIT had what amounted to a kind of hodgepodge across campus in trying to make all this work. So, if you take for example something like games — which was my area — and looked at what you would need to facilitate that kind of work, you’d see that it spreads broadly across a campus in ways that the traditional academic management model isn’t necessarily set up to address. And everybody says ‘multidisciplinary’, but very few actually do ‘multidisciplinary’ very well.

I had a number of talks with the president, with the provost, and with others on campus, and we came to this idea of trying to move the research and development function a little bit away from being placed simply at the department level. Instead, we were going to create a center that cut sideways through all of the things that were happening at the university. Then, we would seed it with resources so that people had some incentive to play. It’s not an uncommon model — it’s been done in different places — but we looked at it and said: “We’re creating the center, providing the space, and we’re using some campus resources to get people engaged and crossing multidisciplinary lines.”

Hopefully, we thought, people were going to be able to make things — but the question became: What happens to what they make? And that’s where MAGIC Spell Studios was really conceived. If we are serious about facilitating faculty and student work in digital media, a big part of the digital media ecosystem is actually publishing it — getting it out there; putting it in front of the public; and having the public react to it (seeing what that looks like, understanding it, and incorporating what you learn into the next thing that you do).

We looked at our university, and found that it was really not set up to do all that. We had students publishing things into the app stores and then walking away from them. We had multiple groups of people trying to figure out how they were going to do dissemination as defined in their research — but that usually meant writing and publishing a paper or a book about the work, usually without ever publishing the thing itself that they had created, at least not broadly.

We decided we want to get our work ‘out there’. In order to do that, we needed a publishing studio. Usually people will just casually say, maybe over lunch, “We’ll publish it this week.” But really, publishing and and supporting a digital media work is a very involved thing, including dealing with the finances, branding, marketing, and first- and third-party relations… All of this really means you need a place, a center that’s committed to publishing and helping others publish their work, servicing the work once it’s out there, and helping people understand its impact.

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