What Can Humanists Learn from Gamers?

In the computer gaming community, “modding” refers to modifying hardware or software for a purpose never intended by the original developer. The result can be a new tool, a small artistic or functional enhancement, new content, or an entirely new version of a game. Some of the most inventive “mods” even outshine original products.

Participants at the recent workshop “Tweak! Modding Disciplines through Inventive Tools” were challenged to consider the promises and possibilities of applying the concept of “modding” to academic disciplines.

Organized by the UC Davis Humanities Institute’s Humanities Innovation Lab and cosponsored by the Center for Science and Innovation Studies, the workshop highlighted collaborative projects that expand the ways tools—whether hardware, software, or wetware (the processes of the human mind)—can foster cross-disciplinary collaboration.

“Tweak! turned out to be a fantastic event,” said Davis professor Colin Milburn (English, Science and Technology Studies). “By working together to build new techniques, vocabularies, instruments, and so forth, colleagues from vastly different disciplinary traditions can help each other solve common problems, while also invigorating their own particular disciplinary questions, interests, and methods. I think many of us were really energized by seeing this kind of thing in action at the Tweak! workshop.”

The workshop attracted UC Davis graduate students and faculty from disciplines as diverse as geology, cultural studies, computer science, English, performance studies, physics, and biophotonics, as well as international scholars, artists, and industry researchers from companies such as Intel and Microsoft.

“Tweak! gave me a lot to think with,” said Dawn Nafus of Intel corporation. “It’s exciting to see how collaboration might work at intersections of design, biology and technology.”

Workshop presentations centered on three collaborative projects with respondents from different Science and Technology Studies perspectives. Erica Savig of LabStudio, a hybrid research and design unit based at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed the studio’s work in designing new research tools at the intersection of science and architectures. David Benque, artist, designer, and consultant to Microsoft Research Labs discussed interfaces between design and biology. Adrian Mackenzie of Lancaster University (UK) gave the workshop’s keynote address, titled “The Vitality of Methods: the Case of R.”

UC Davis’s own Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences (KeckCAVES) took center stage in the afternoon, as Davis faculty Louise Kellogg (Geology), Oliver Kreylos (Computer Science), and Dawn Sumner (Geology) gave an overview of the last seven years of collaboration and creative research supported by the center. The KeckCAVES is a unique visualization collaboration that develops software to interact with three-dimensional data. A centerpiece of the KeckCAVES is an immersive virtual reality system. Initiated as a collaboration among earth scientists and computer scientists, the KeckCAVES has expanded to provide an environment for interactive visualization methods in many areas of inquiry. Kellogg, Kreylos, and Sumner highlighted the intensive collaborations that continue to modify KeckCAVES tools as well as the diverse uses to which scholars have put the center’s technology, from enhancing remote interpretation of data from the devastating Haitian earthquake to supporting an award-winning interactive dance performance.

Further collaborations between the KeckCAVES team and the Humanities Innovation Lab will be fostered by a nearly $1 million National Science Foundation grant under the auspices of the CI-TEAM (Cyberinfrastructure–Training, Education, Advancement, and Mentoring) program. The proposal was developed by Davis faculty in Geology, Physics, Computer Science, Science and Technology Studies, and English. The grant will support cyberinfrastructure development and interdisciplinary training through “3D scholarship” at UC Davis, connecting with the Humanities Innovation Lab’s ongoing work using 3D virtual environments. Faculty from the Humanities Innovation Lab will play key roles in the project: Joseph Dumit (Anthropology, STS) will serve as one of the principal investigators, and Colin Milburn (English, STS) will be one of the project’s researchers.

“This should really help our Digital Humanities Initiative to develop the technologies we need for new digital humanities models, such as 3D scholarship,” said Milburn. “It will help us to train humanities PhD students to collaborate with colleagues in the sciences – one major goal is to provide training for some of our humanities and social science students to learn to program as part of their cross-disciplinary training, and also to work in interdisciplinary teams geared toward specific projects. The project speaks to the truly interdisciplinary nature of the research we have going on here at UC Davis.”