Evidence of Analytical and Integrative Thinking

My interest in games and learning led me to explore online communities in which game players are becoming game designers. Specifically, web communities arranged around modifying the game Civilization and creating role-playing games with RPGmaker. At the end of this research, I found myself  less interested in games and play and drawn to the depth and character of the work people, and in many cases young people, are engaging in these kinds of online communities. Furthermore, after reflecting on my earlier work in the history of technology and taking on my new position working on digital preservation at the Library of Congress, I can also say that I am less specifically interested in the learning that occurs in these communities and more interested in the knowledge, creative productions and other content that is created through these communities.

This interest has intersected with and emerged from my professional experience. In my four years of leading outreach for Zotero, a very successful open source software project, I saw hundreds, if not thousands of people commit themselves to helping to improve and help to design the software. In many cases individuals came to the software development community with limited technical skills and an abundance of interest. Through guidance of individuals in the projects forums many of these individuals developed very valuable technical proficiencies with things like JavaScript, and metadata standards. Beyond their personal development, the work they conducted on behalf of the project was invaluable to it’s success.

In these two very different kinds of environments, one set of web communities where young people chat about making video games, and one where mostly graduate students and researchers work to improve a software project, I see a few important commonalities. In both places, individuals are committing to challenging projects that require significant time commitments, and which require themselves to develop new technical competencies. In this respect, the communities of game makers are much more akin to the open source software communities than it is to any idea of game play as media consumption. People’s commitment and involvement in both kinds of communities is not simply about fun, although participating and working toward goals is rewarding, participants seem to be much more driven by a desire to contribute to projects that they find to be meaningful. Through the following list of projects and publications I chart the development of this perspective and interest through reflection on the analytical and synthetic work involved in each project.

Creative Production Around the Civilization Videogame

Owens, T. J. (2010). Modding the history of science: Values and habits of mind in modder discussions of Sid Meier’s Civilization. Simulation & Gaming.  doi:10.1177/1046878110366277

This paper grew out of my own interests in this specific game and community. At this point, I was primarily interested in how the game had prompted the kind of thinking evident in this online community. With that said, it was my first step away from a focus on games toward a focus on online communities. This paper is a an intellectual extension of work and conversations I had with Kurt Squire while I was at the University of Wisconsin mixed with the work I had been engaged in during my MA in Digital History.

Creating Role Playing Games in the RPG Maker Web Community

Trevor Owens, (2011) “Social videogame creation: lessons from RPG Maker”, On the Horizon, Vol. 19 Iss: 1, pp.52 – 61 DOI: 10.1108/10748121111107708

Following on my work on gamers who modify games I became interested in further exploring discussions in communities of game makers. I began the project with a  review of literature for 810. It was  in working on this review that I first began expanding my ideas to think more broadly about online communities and creative production. Much of this paper is influenced by work on new literacies. Further, through this work I became aware of ethnographer Mimi Ito’s work describing genres of creative production in online communities. Over the course of my research her distinctions between online spaces where young people “hang out” (ie Facebook) and spaces where they “mess around” and “geek out” (places like the RPGmaker sites) has proved invaluable at focusing my interests on productive online communities. I am not particularly interested in places where people are communicating or socializing online. I am instead in places where individuals are engaging in the production of content in a particular domain. For example, cataloging knowledge in Wikipedia, providing analysis of food and restaurants on Yelp, learning to create various crafts and market them on Etsy, working to create subtitles for foreign films on dub sites, etc.

Distributed Intelligence and Cognition

I have been interested in ideas about distributed cognition and intelligence for quite some time. Only in  my work for EDEP 653 was I able to refine these thoughts in the context of more traditional ideas about intelligence. The synthesis of critical perspectives on IQ as intelligence which I wrote for this class played an important role in grounding my ideas more deeply in contemporary scholarship. In particular, Sternberg’s recent ideas about conceptualizing intelligence as developing from novice, to journeyman, to expert in a series of domains dovetailed quite well with Jim Gee’s discussions about basic skills emerging from participation in disciplines. This perspective served as a valuable  framework for interpreting the results of my RPGmaker research, as evidenced in my On the Horizon article.

Professional Practice: Organizing and Building an Open Source Community

In the four years I worked on Zotero at the Center for History and New Media, I was constantly devising, implementing and evaluating our approach to building a community of users, developers, evangelists, and technical writers. Over the course of that process, I watched people come and go from the web forums. Over time, as the project continued to attract more users, I saw it also grow to incorporate more and more people who were committing to the project by writing code, moderating the web forums, writing up technical documentation. Developing a hands -on understanding of the dynamics of this community was instrumental in turning my attention from simply being focused on video game communities to a broader interest in how web communities begin to produce things.

Book Communities Encyclopedia Entry

Owens, T. (in press). Book communities. In G. Barnett (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Socncial Networking. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications:

I was asked to write this encyclopedia article about a year ago. I accepted, in part because I knew a lot about book communities through my work on Zotero and a considerable amount about web communities through my interest in game communities. Devising a synthetic piece, at the level of synthesis required for an encyclopedia article, ended up being a very valuable experience. First, it was valuable at the level of requiring me to make my ideas clear on the kind of big picture level required for a encyclopedia article. Further, this represented my first attempt to bring together my experience in the history of technology with my practical experience on Zotero. In this sense it has served as a bridge between my professional experience and my academic interests.

Historical Perspectives on Technology, Ideology, and Affordances

Comprehensive Exam Paper on History of Technology in America, 2008

In hindsight, this paper proved to be critical in connecting some broad ideas about the history of technologies into their effects in social contexts. Through a series of examples in the history of technology I document the way the affordances of different technologies served the interests of those in power or were otherwise subverted to serve the interests of the disenfranchised. As evidence of my success with this content I pasted my comprehensive exam with distinction. Reflecting on the paper I can say that my interest and focus on the way technologies and systems afford different kinds of social interactions and help or hinder the development of knowledge and creative production is grounded in this particular historical tradition and approach.

Coordinating and Distributing a National Digital Infrastructure

I was hired to my new position at the Library of Congress, in part, because of my success at building and coordinating a community of users, designers, writers, and evangelists around an open source software project. In my new role, I find a need to further understand and explore the nature and processes through which groups of people are creating knowledge and creative products online.


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