Shira Chess, an assistant professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, helps students learn professional and creative skills that prepare them for careers in broadcast media and game design.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned my Ph.D. in communication and rhetoric from Rensselaer Polytechnic Insatitute, my master’s degree in media arts from Emerson College in Boston and my bachelor’s degree in English from the University of South Florida.
I am currently an assistant professor of entertainment and media studies in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. I primarily teach students in the entertainment and media studies major. My research is on video games and digital culture. I previously wrote a book on the Slender Man phenomenon and have just completed a book on women and video games.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA in 2013, excited to teach and research in my department. I immediately loved Athens and the Grady College. When I was offered the job it was never a question for me as to whether I would come, just how quickly I could get here!
My first introduction to Georgia was getting to go on the New Faculty Tour. While it was an intense week of travel, I learned so much about the industries and people of this state. Over four years later I have never looked back, and am so grateful to be here.
What are your favorite courses and why?
I love to teach courses that mix theory and practice, particularly when those practices are creative. For example, one of my favorite classes is “The Elements of Narrative,” where students learn narrative theory, but then get to play by constructing what I like to think of as storytelling experiments during class.
I have collaborated with Turner Entertainment Networks to create an annual class where students get to pitch projects and concepts to the TV network based on emerging innovations. Essentially, we are given a challenge every fall, and then it is up to the class to impress TEN! It is so satisfying seeing students work on a single project over the course of the semester, and then get to show it off to TV executives.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
For three years I have led the Turner Entertainment Networks class for our major, helping students learn both professional and creative skills while pitching ideas to TEN executives.
In research, I just published my second book, “Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity” (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). It was a labor of love, and I’m very proud of it. My first book, “Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slender Man: The Development of an Internet Mythology,” was published in 2014.
Another highlight involves transforming one of my classes into an Alternate Reality Game. In a wild experiment, I spent a semester getting my New Media Institute special topics class to collaboratively create an ARG on campus. We created a fictional haunting (a ghost named Dottie) and tried to find a way to gamify connecting students on campus. While the ARG had both successes and failures, it stands in my mind as a great success for getting students to experiment with innovative storytelling techniques.
How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?
I research the video game industry and how that industry is increasingly trying to appeal itself to audiences that typically don’t identify themselves as “gamers.” Much of this research, currently, is specifically about the construction of a feminized game player via what are often referred to as “casual” games.
My research is not about big budget console games, but about smaller games that you play on phones or computers. I’m interested in how games like “Candy Crush Saga” or “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” are designed and marketed with specific audiences in mind. I do this research by studying game texts, marketing, and interviewing game designers.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
It’s all about play. My research has taught me the value of play, and why leisure is so important in our lives. To that end, I try to construct my classrooms in playful ways: We do storytelling experiments and we make weird things. In some classes, I bring in PlayDoh for brainstorm activities. By shifting modalities and thinking more playfully, we learn better and think differently.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
The majority of my students are in the entertainment and media studies major. My goal for them is that they will learn to brainstorm and prototype ideas rapidly, and push the edges of their own creative abilities. I want them to go out into the world with the ability to tell amazing stories in complicated ways.
Describe your ideal student.
My ideal student isn’t too concerned about grades or perfection and just wants to get a bit messy and learn. Sometimes getting messy means trying something hard (or ridiculous) in the name of creative experimentation. Sometimes this results in “failure.” I fully support students “failing” at creative projects so that they can reflect on their work and learn from their mistakes. Some of the best projects I’ve ever received were technically failures, but accompanied by beautiful and thoughtful post mortems that explored why the project didn’t work.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
My writing and teaching is fueled by caffeine and I spend a lot of time (and money!) at the Jittery Joe’s in the Miller Learning Center.
I also love the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries. If you have never been there, you should visit.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
I spend a lot of time writing off campus at Walker’s Café in downtown Athens. I love writing there so much that I gave them an acknowledgement in my most recent book. I love Athens, and I spend weekends with my family doing all of the cool and weird things this town has to offer.
Community/civic involvement includes….
I have done work with at-risk teens, helping them think differently about game design as a possible career choice. I am particularly interested, going forward, with working with middle- and high school-aged girls on game design projects to help build their confidence and interest in an industry that is often difficult to penetrate.
Favorite book/movie (and why)
I have favorite movies and books, for sure. But I am a video game researcher, so I will tell you about my favorite game.
My favorite game is the mobile game “Monument Valley” (and its equally good sequel). “Monument Valley” is sublime in its beauty. The graphics are breathtaking, despite their size on small screens. In the first game, the player controls a small avatar named Ida, who is traversing her way through Escher-esque puzzles where landscapes and buildings change, depending on the position of your device and the use of various game mechanics.
“Monument Valley” is a game. But it is also a poem. Dialogue in the game happens in snips and flashes, and is arcane and often uninterpretable. While each puzzle only has a single solution (and therefore, there is only one correct path forward) there is a meditative element that neatly combines puzzle and narrative. When I play games in the “MV” series, I find that I approach my life better; if I just look at things a little differently, I might see a new solution. Both games in the series are emotionally charged, despite the sparing use of cut scenes and dialogue.
The “MV” series tells us what video games can be if we disentangle ourselves from the cultural expectations of gamer culture.
The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…
In May of 2016, I was fortunate enough to attend the 75th annual Peabody Awards Ceremony in New York City. I teach a summer online class about the Peabody Awards and have served as a judge in past years. Getting to actually see the ceremony was awe-inspiring. It didn’t hurt that the award ceremony occurred on my birthday last year.
The Peabody Awards are something so uniquely UGA (and Grady College). Students should learn more about the awards and the different kinds of opportunities (such as the student honor board) available. I love getting to teach the Peabody class every summer, and it was thrilling to be part of something that simultaneously felt global and local.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
My forthcoming book, “Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity” is available at https://www.amazon.com/Ready-Player-Two-Designed-Identity/dp/1517900697.
Originally published Sept. 27, 2017.