Zachary Horton: Changing the game

Written by Pamela Smith
Photos by John Blair
April 16, 2023

Islands to explore, a volcano with a “crazy miner,” resources to protect — all of these are part of an adventure that players write themselves.

But the islands are not the main adventure — it’s making the game. It’s “Archipelago,” a miniature 3D-printed tabletop game that Zachary Horton and his students have been designing and testing together since 2018.

Horton, an associate professor in the English department, founded and directs the Vibrant Media Lab in the Cathedral of Learning and helped make the Digital Narrative and Interactive Design major. He owns Mercury Works, a 3D-printed camera company, and Pandora Games, a boutique game design company. He also created and teaches several courses on game and media, such as “Tabletop Gaming,” “Virtual Reality” and “Game, Story, Play. “

Horton’s interests include photography, film, ecology, games, media and philosophy — just to name a few. Horton wants to help students “critically contextualize” these interests, particularly game studies.

“I love working in topics that students are deeply enmeshed in, but don’t necessarily have a critical vocabulary for or deep understanding of the genealogy or history of those things,” Horton said. “It’s very exciting to me to take that enthusiasm and help students direct that into a deeper understanding of the cultural dynamics.”

Horton said although he studies games, it’s “not all about video games.” He’s also interested in tabletop, analog and hybrid games, their cultural contexts and how they tell stories.

“[I’m] very interested in the difference between tabletop gaming and analog gaming, which is highly social, and video gaming, which is often not very social, but very narrative driven,” Horton said.

Amy Qi, a senior psychology and anthropology major and student in Horton’s Virtual Reality course, said she enjoyed the variety of content the course covers.

“Something that I found very interesting about this course is how Dr. Horton includes all kinds of formats and materials ranging from philosophy readings to vintage video games, to let us engage with virtual reality, the development process of virtual reality,” Qi said. “It has been very fun and also very educational.”

Qi enjoys how Horton makes resources such as cameras and vintage games in the VML available to students.

“For me, I’m not a filmmaking or media studies major. This was something I would never experience if I’m not taking this course,” Qi said. “So I really appreciate that.”

John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer

Jagr Krtanjek, a senior computer science and digital narrative and interactive design double major, works directly with Horton with his camera line, as well as on the release of a new game, calling it “a lot of fun.”

Krtanjek also said Horton goes “above and beyond” in preparing students for careers in the game industry by exposing them to professionals with firsthand experience.

“He gets these designers and artists and people to call into the class so students can ask questions. Recently we played a game in class called Fort. Fort has beautiful artwork,” Krtanjek said. “Zach actually got a hold of the artist and we got to have an open conversation … just talking with the artist about how he does his art for games, how the art kind of informs game design, how mechanics are in the industry.”

He’s also in Horton’s Tabletop Gaming course this semester, where students work on Archipelago. Archipelago’s main narrative is about characters trying to restore an island exploited for its resources. All of the islands, including miniature people, animals and boats, are hand-painted by students after 3-D printing. After analyzing and playing the game, students will give suggestions on how to improve it, as well as design their own narrative scenarios within the game. 

“It’s just a massive student project basically, that I’m really proud of,” Horton said. “Probably [about 100] people have worked on this game system at some point. The first time it’s being played is this semester.”

Krtanjek describes Archipelago as a useful framework for learning.

“The typical gaming class is twofold — an examination of board games both historically and modern, but also game design analysis specifically and game design practice, of how to design these types of things using a framework like Archipelago, so it’s not like we’re starting from scratch,” Krtanjek said.

Horton, along with associate professor and director of the composition program Annette Vee, helped create the Digital Narrative and Interactive Design major, a joint major between the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Computing and Information. The major has three tracks — critical making, game design and online media. Horton said it was “exciting” to design a creative, interdisciplinary major for students, one that can provide job opportunities that connect “deeply” with students’ passions.

John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer

“Let’s say you're a coder, but you don't want to just, you know, code mind-numbing things for a big corporation,” Horton said. ”How would you engage a greater understanding of narrative and social dynamics and history, all the things humanities are good at in your work, and find an outlet for that? Well, this major allows people to do that. And that's exciting.”

Like Archipelago, the DNID major lets students create their own interdisciplinary path. For Horton, helping students through their adventures is the best thing about teaching.

“What things could be, but aren’t yet — it’s that temporal balancing that is so exciting to me about teaching,” Horton said.