UCSB media and film professor Alenda Y. Chang won the Harold J. Plous Award, the university announced in a Tuesday news release.
Dr. Chang, who is in her fourth year at UCSB, admitted she was a “little surprised” when she was chosen for the award.
“I’m a little surprised. There’s so many talented professors at Santa Barbara and the award covers both the sciences and the humanities,” Dr. Chang told the News-Press. “I’m very honored and pleasantly surprised and it shows recognition from my peers in all directions.”
She added that it was a recognition of her research.
The Harold J. Plous Award is one of the most prestigious awards given by the university and is annually awarded to “an assistant professor from the humanities, social sciences or natural sciences who has demonstrated exceptional achievement in research, teaching and service,” according to the news release. It is presented by the College of Letters and Sciences.
Dr. Chang received the award for her scholarly work and will be highlighting her research at the Plous Lecture in spring 2020, according to the news release. Her research is the main subject in her upcoming book Playing Nature: Ecology in Video Games, which is out on December 31, 2019 and is published by the University of Minnesota Press.
“It’s a recognition of my scholarly career. It’s only available to assistant professors, pre-tenure, and it is really recognizing emerging scholarship,” she said. “I’m very thankful and honored. I’m very thankful to my department and to my colleagues for nominating me.”
She also expanded on the research in her book, which is on how video games tackle issues of the environment.
“Video games, or computer games, impact our understanding of environmental issues and how humans interact with humans,” Dr. Chang said. She added that in her book she expands on how “video games are good at dramatizing scale and how they also capture non-human perspectives, such as animals,” Dr. Chang said.
They were also well at depicting dystopian “things like system collapse or failure” and it is a “good way to think in a way that has fewer direction consequences,” according to Dr. Chang.
Dr. Chang’s research grew out of her graduate student work at UC Berkeley and her first publications on the topics of environmental and video games came around 2011, meaning she has been working on this subject for nearly a decade. She says she’s the first academic to write about the environment and computer games and how they intertwine together. She pointed out that the environment in other media, such as literature and landscape painting, have been extensively studied, but her work in studying video games and the environment is one of the first forays into a relatively new media forum.
“There is the argument that we need to learn how to think about them together, as we are around technology more than natural environments,” she said.
Dr. Chang’s research and work has been praised by her fellow professors, both in the Film and Media Studies Department and other academic disciplines.
Her work has “surpassed every aspect” of UCSB’s “expectations,” Bhaskar Sarkar, an associate professor and the chair of the Film and Media Studies Department, said in the news release. Dr. Sarkar praised Dr. Chang’s expertise in environmental media studies but also for her research in video games and her “ability to design games.” He said that she was “transforming our sense of the discipline of film and media studies.”
Chang also studies digital media technologies and forms, as well as “processes of mediation in light of new materialist philosophies,” according to Dr. Sarkar.
“Quite simply,” Dr. Sarkar said in the news release, “Chang is transforming our sense of the discipline of film and media studies — including its epistemological foundations, its methodological orientations, its pedagogic missions, and its pursuits of social justice and the public good — while materializing a paradigm for the humanities-in-action through her scholarship, creative work, teaching and advocacy.”
Kathy Foltz, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and chair of the 2019-20 Plous Selection Committee, praised Dr. Chang’s work, saying in the press release,”[Dr. Chang] is recognized as a leading scholar in a discipline she is helping to define, as an outstanding teacher, and as an innovative and generous colleague enhancing our campus community. Her innovative, cross-disciplinary research is defining a new discipline and bringing together colleagues and students from across campus. Professor Chang embodies the spirit of the Plous Award in transformative scholarly research, innovative teaching and a commitment to service for the entire campus.”
Dr. Chang’s work is not just centered around research and writing. The professor also runs Growing Games and co-founded Wireframe Media Studios with fellow UCSB professor Laila Sarkar in 2015.
Wireframe Media Studios is new in their approach to digital media and other forms of media, according to Dr. Chang. It has experimental classes and what Dr. Chang described as “playful programming.” Wireframe also held a conference last year, called FutureTripping and they invited people from different perspectives, such as artists, activists, and people from the community.
“We do fun things here. I’ve taught classes on streaming, Laila has taught classes on glitch art and 3D modeling,” Dr. Chang said to the News-Press. “It’s new and exciting for our department is outside traditional film production.”
As for her favorite video games, she pointed to the Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) game World of Warcraft.
“They’re fun because they’re so immersive and social,” she said, adding that she doesn’t have time for MMOs anymore due to having to maintaining a work-life balance. She also pointed to games such as Journey and Flower, which were made by the Santa Monica based video game company, Thatgamecompany, as some of her favorite video games as well.