Growing Games: Alenda Chang '94 on Computer Game Environments
Interview by Xinyi Zhou '10
Alenda Chang '94 (blog) (twitter) is currently an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, with a focus on environmental studies and digital humanities. She earned her PhD from the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley, her MA in English Language and Literature at the University of Maryland, College Park, and her BA as a College Scholar in Biology, English and Film at Cornell University. Before going into academia, she worked in recruiting and human resources at software startups in Silicon Valley. We talk to Dr. Chang about her unconventional career path and her current work studying environment and ecology in game environments.
Tell us about your Magnet experience. What clubs and electives did you take? What teachers were memorable?
Wow, I think there's a committee planning my 20th reunion right now so it's a little scary. Let's see, I graduated in 1994. That was when the Magnet was still in the old Blair, before it even moved to Four Corners. And it was an excellent, wonderful experience and a wonderful education and I felt very lucky to be able to go. But I also came to it from several wonderful programs before that, such as the Humanities and Communication program at Eastern Middle School. Most of my friends went to the Communication Arts Program (CAP) program when I went to the Magnet instead. One of your questions asked how I merged science and humanities, and some of it actually came from that.
I was lucky to have both teachers inside and outside the Magnet that I appreciated. In the Magnet, I really remember Mr. Donaldson, Bob Donaldson, because I had him for Geometry and he would let you creatively decorate your homework. I remember turning in math assignments that I had colored and drawn all over and he would give you additional credit for the artistic flair that you had. I also took Optics with him and I still remember making a shoebox camera. So he had us create an actual functioning camera out of really simple materials and take photographs with it.
Your current work on the ecology and environment of virtual worlds (growinggames.net) seems to be in keeping with a very long-standing interest in an intersection between science and humanities, given that your B.A. at Cornell was in Biology, English and Film. Can you tell us about where this interest came from and how it has evolved into your current work?
I've always gone back and forth, and been very frustrated by disciplinary boundaries. In college, I had to read that famous Cambridge lecture called The Two Cultures by C.P. Snow. That captured my frustration with scientists and humanists not talking to each other. And my parents both immigrated to the US to do graduate work in the sciences; I'm sure they would have preferred in some way that my brother and I both became scientists or something along those lines. [laughs] For a while I was studying biology, neurology, and I've always enjoyed studying animals. My senior research project (SRP) was studying komodo dragons at the National Zoo, and also at the University of Maryland and Cornell I worked in a couple of different labs in animal research. I still love that and love studying animals, experiencing nature. I was also fortunate to have the influence of my older brother who was very much into writing and reading and also went on to get a PhD in the humanities. So in a way it enabled me to do the same. I had a very traditional Asian upbringing; I remember my dad saying I couldn't participate in after school activities like musicals, so I gravitated towards activities I couldn't do. But I found a way to preserve my love for the sciences and my love for literature.
You seem to have taken a roundabout route back to academia, spending nearly half a decade in various administrative capacities with internet start-ups. How did you decide to work in industry after your B.A., and then to head back to academia?
I guess I was lucky because while I was at Cornell -- well first of all I lived in a house or an apartment with four other people, including two engineers and one of them happened to be one of the founding members at a startup, a Cornell engineering startup. As a senior I was working for that company as their office manager and was hired after graduation to handle writing, corporate relations, recruiting, benefits, sort of everything but the actual coding. So I sort of fell into tech, and being someone who grew up avidly into computers and games, it was very natural for me to hang out with tech people. That company ended up hitting it off as a startup that went to California in Mountain View. It sounds very dated now, but in the late 90s it was marketed as an online personal digital information system, to help you manage your life using a calendar and related app. The company was very small, probably less than 12 people. We grew slightly larger after moving to California but then the company got bought by Microsoft. I don't even know if it's still around but the software that we worked on ended up being MSN Calendar and I had the option to move to Redmond, Washington to become a Microsoft employee, so that's one of the paths not traveled. I decided to stay in Silicon Valley and basically found work at another startup founded by Stanford students, Homestead.com, part of the 90s turf war over website building. Eventually it got bought as well by Intuit. Well before that happened I left to go back to graduate school, mostly because I wasn't feeling intellectually challenged even though I still had a job at the end of the 90s when the tech bubble burst. And I'd probably be making much more money now if I stayed but I'm much more satisfied intellectually.
You very recently became an Assistant Professor at UConn just last year -- congratulations! What's the process of becoming a faculty member like now?
I think there are so many articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education about how terrible the job market is. I've been very lucky and I was fortunate enough to have a graduate degree from UC Berkeley, which does mean a lot. It's a very difficult job finding an academic tenure track position, especially in the humanities and in general there's an unfortunate trend towards part-time and adjunct labor in academia. But I would like to say because I clung to my weird interdisciplinary interest, I found a job because my project and my interests are something that departments need now. An English department isn't just about Shakespeare and Faulkner and Milton anymore; it's also about how the digital has changed things and also about how we cope in an era of global climate change. And these are issues that my work lets me address.
I always advise my students to stick to their interests and not choose their majors and projects based on pandering to what seems currently trendy. Because these were all things that were not on the radar back when I started studying them and they ended up being very interesting to people now. There's really no way to predict that. Plus, when you have a passion for a subject, or subjects, it really shows through instead of being something formulaic.
I basically got my dream job. I felt like it was a job that was written for me, in an English department but with specialties in two different areas, one being digital humanities and the other being environmental studies. So I'm sure that doesn't happen for everyone but I feel lucky.
What projects are you working on right now?
Not as much as I'd like because I have a 10 month old. [laughs] I think my major project is getting my first book published and that is basically a book that tries to outline an ecological approach to studying and playing video games. So it merges environmental science and philosophy and ethics relating to the environment with this new area of game studies within media studies.
What classes do you teach?
I teach two classes a semester and I just started teaching at UConn. I taught a lot during my graduate days too, though my degree was in Rhetoric, so it's a little different from English. The two classes that I'm teaching now are, one is called Literature Before and After the Digital, so it looks at how digital technologies and environments have shaped or changed the nature of storytelling. We look at the transition from oral to manuscripts, from manuscripts to print, from print to the digital. The other class is a required class for English majors called Introduction to Literary Studies, basically literary theory. But in the past I've taught in about four different departments so I have taught in media studies, film studies and rhetoric, as well as women and gender studies.
Tell us a bit about your non-academic life. What games do you play for fun?
With a 10 month old I haven't been playing a lot but both my husband and I are gamers and we probably spend way too much time in massively multiplayer online (MMOs) games. And also my brother plays. So we played a lot of Everquest when it first came out, followed by World of Warcraft and all of its expansions. I tend towards PC computer games as well as role playing games, not so much shooting games because I get dizzy -- I was recently playing Bioshock Infinite and it just made me nauseous.
For my research I look into games that have interesting worlds or environments or uses of nature, broadly speaking. I've been playing a game called Banished recently, which is supposed to be a sustainable town-building game and another game called From Dust. I think it's on Playstation as well as others. I also write about a lot of games on Playstation Network, like Flower. I've interviewed a couple of different game designers; I've talked to Will Wright who is famous for Sims and the designer that made Flower and Journey, Jenova Chen. I think a lot of people don't even realize there are games like that out there where you don't have to shoot things. Chen's games are amazing because he's an interaction designer and he has sort of been trained to provide all the different levels of feedback when you play.
It's really nice -- I think games are still in their artistic infancies. I'm just really excited to see what happens in the next couple decades because I think they're just starting to explore the possibilities of the medium.