Faculty Profile Series: Justin Bortnick

justin bortnick headshot

This interview is part of our New Faculty Profile Series, which highlights faculty who have joined the Literature Program in recent years.

Dr. Justin Bortnick (he/him) studies and writes on games, game design, narrative, propaganda, and conspiracy theories. He also creates games, such as Frog Fractions 2 and Dared My Best Friend, and he hosts the Red Pages Podcast. Recent talks include "Dangerous Games: ARGs, Social Media Platforms and Participatory Propaganda" at the Electronic Literature Organization conference 2021 and "Alternate Reality Games and Participatory Propaganda" at the Hand Eye Society's Super FESTival 2022.

The following interview was conducted as a series of written responses to questions. Answers have been edited for clarity.

When did you begin teaching in Pitt's literature program? Which are the courses you typically teach?

I began teaching in 2022 so I don't have "typical" courses yet.


What are your primary fields of research and teaching?

Games/Game Design/Narrative, propaganda and conspiracy theory

Would you describe your journey toward these topics?

It was accidental! The story is very circuitous though.

Which questions motivate your teaching and writing?

How can art, design and narrative address large social questions of today in a way that goes beyond commentary into actual tangible impact?

Would you speak about your approach to teaching, maybe by sharing a bit about a recent course--its texts, concerns, assignments, projects, etc.?

The students need to be able to use what we do in the classroom outside of the classroom, to see why it's relevant to their lives beyond getting a good grade this semester. If the students can't connect the texts to their own experiences, they go in one eye and out the other. My curricular strategy is often to take works which may for an undergraduate seem daunting at first - whether it's dense criticism or films packed with references and allusions they do not recognize - and work with them to contextualize these works within a familiar framework. Last night I read through a stack of writing students had done for my Digital Humanity class, which is a technology-centered course. Students had written about subjects as varied as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, Konstantin Stanislavski, the Nintendo Wii, Minotaure magazine, Nokia cell phones, mass surveillance by big tech companies, and Jerzy Grotowski. Every subject connects in a web to every other subject, and with the right guidance students have the ability to not only see these connections but draw even further connections of their own initiative. None of this is novel as an approach or methodology, but the feedback I get from students has repeatedly affirmed that it works.

Are there organizations or groups of which you are a member or that you lead that you would like people to know about?

I work regularly with the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation, and have twice chaired their annual NarraScope conference.

What are you reading right now?

Journey to the West. I just read Pachinko also, which was great.

Is there a book you’d like more people to read?

Oona Hathaway’s and Scott Shapiro’s The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World