The Banterbury Tales: An ethnographic approach to studying video game play

This post is about my own research and how it relates to the issues being raised and explored by the Gaming Horizons project. As such, it reflects my personal perspective and recent thinking, rather than that of the project as a whole. Nevertheless, I hope that by sharing this overview I can make my own small contribution to the ongoing dialogue that this project aims to open up between a diverse range of stakeholders. Here, I consider in particular how a researcher’s choice of methodology directly influences what we ‘find out’ and ultimately shapes how we see and understand gameplay.

My doctoral thesis explores the ‘lived experience’ of a group of ten and eleven year old children playing in and around the popular multiplayer, world-building video game Minecraft, during a year-long after-school club in the UK. In this work I focus on the nature of the children’s play, which spanned the club’s multiple on and off screen spaces. Participants were tasked with creating a ‘virtual community’, interpreting this prompt in a range of different (often unpredictable) ways. To explore the players’ lived experience of the club I used participatory and visual methods to generate data to help illuminate the socio-cultural experience of this group. I developed an approach that I called ‘rhizomic ethnography’, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) ‘image of thought’ as a way of taking account of the multiple factors that make up something as complex as ‘lived experience’. In this way, I was able to make connections between diverse aspects and dimensions of the club, in order to acknowledge and make present the club’s multiple ideas, objects, actions, interactions, people and places in my analysis of data.

The Gaming Horizon project’s ‘State of the Art’ literature review emphasises the predominance of quantitative and experimental methodologies in the work around video game play. Clearly, such methods can help to develop our understanding of particular aspects of video game play. However, I suggest that the privileging of quantitative methods also potentially results in the underrepresentation of other important aspects of player experience. This could mean that we end up looking at the practice of video game play in a way that potentially misunderstands or misrepresents aspects of the games’ potential, or their appeal. This helps to explain why I chose ethnography as a research approach, and why I was interested in looking at ‘lived experience’ in my study rather than, more explicitly, ‘learning’. Ethnography is concerned with investigation the lives of a group of people, describing what participants do and the meanings they ascribe to their actions (Wolcott, 2008), whilst locating a site within the wider social, cultural and historical contexts (Flewitt, 2011). It assumes that the researcher can gain some insight of the lives of participants by spending time observing and discussing their actions.

Qualitative Studies of Video Game Play

There have, of course, been a number of studies that take an ethnographic approach to video game play, although these have tended to focus on adult play rather than that of young people. Notable example include  Dibbel’s (1999) book ‘My Tiny Life’, an ethnographic account of the social life of the online, text-based virtual world LambdaMOO. Nardi’s (2010) anthropological account of World of Warcraft also examines group experience, with a focus on different groups that form within the game. Boellstorff (2008) ethnographic work in Second Life shows how virtual worlds can change players’ ideas about identity and society. Pearce’s (2011) ethnography of a ‘community of play’ examines the ‘social emergence’ (p.42) in massive multiplayer online worlds (MMOW). Apperley (2009) explores the experience of gamers in an internet cafe whilst Walkerdine’s (2007) study of videogame play in afterschool clubs takes a gendered perspective to examine the impact of videogames on players.

There is also some qualitative research which is influenced by work on ‘new literacy studies’ (Street, 1993), exploring the socio-cultural impact of video gameplay, often with children. These studies frequently use the term ‘virtual world’ to describe the game being played, and therefore end up evading literature searches that are looking explicitly for ‘video games’. Examples here include Marsh (2011), who identifies the potential for further exploration into how virtual worlds ‘shape the literacy practices in which the children engage’ (p.114). Beavis et al. (2009) suggest that ‘computer games are texts in the broadest sense… cultural objects which both reflect and produce the meanings and ideologies of the settings in which they are produced and received’ (p.169). Merchant (2009) explores children’s interactions in a virtual world video game called Barnsborough whilst Maine (2017) examines children’s interactions around the mobile puzzle game Monument Valley

Back to Minecraft Club

So, what did this project’s rhizomic, ethnographic methodology reveal about the club and the children’s play? Well, during the club I observed how the children engaged in lively and imaginative play, communicating whilst using laptop computers to play Minecraft. They often sang, danced, did impressions, told jokes, laughed and acted out roles – both in and out of the game. They frequently described their behaviour during the club as ‘banter’, a word which also partially formed the name they chose to give their virtual world: ‘Banterbury’. Play was messy, inconsistent, exuberant, problematic and, sometimes, mundane. My research focussed on a number of ‘episodes’ or events that unfolded during the club, exemplifying what I called ‘the emergent dimension of play’. For instance, the children built a virtual library  populated with their own (often transgressive) texts, which they composed collaboratively and often acted out in the physical space. They spontaneously sang a song about freeing a virtual sheep, based on an on-screen gameplay event and an adaptation of the charity song ‘Feed the World’. The play in and around Minecraft was so lively and visual, on and off screen, that I developed a similarly playful way of representing these experiences, using comic strips to represent these ‘episodes’ from the club, as in the following example where they performed a funeral for a virtual horse…

Of course, not all gameplay is like this; Minecraft Club was one particular manifestation, involving one particular group of children, using one particular game. However, I suggest that studies that take this kind of qualitative, ethnographic approach to gameplay are valuable as they demonstrate some of the ways in which video game play can be engaging, enjoyable, complicated, problematic and even social. A focus on specific game mechanics, how games can stimulate particular types of brain activity or lead to a defined learning outcome can, of course, lead to important innovations in how we use, think about and develop video games. However, it is also important to remember that methodologies shape outcomes, and the way in which we examine the world dictates what we see. I suggest, therefore, that qualitative, ethnographic work plays an important role in emphasising the valuable place that video games have, as socio-cultural experiences, in the lives of players.

References

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Are games more like artichokes or like cherries?

One of the first outputs of Gaming Horizons is a literature review on games and gamification. As reviews go, this one is a bit unconventional, in that it draws both on academic sources and on gaming community contributions gleaned from authoritative developer expertise. Given the broad scope of the project, we were not surprised to find that a very large body of games-related knowledge has been produced by researchers studying the educational, psychological and ethical dimension of games (the three disciplinary lenses we adopted). We are talking about over 10,000 journal papers listed on two databases alone!

Luckily, this hoard included a number of literature reviews and meta-analysis, which provided us with a comprehensive picture of the state of the art.  This allowed us to concentrate on a reasonably selective sample of representative papers for analysis.

The report we produced (Gaming Horizons D2.1) is pretty large, so I won’t even attempt to summarize it here. If you want to get an idea, take a look at the executive summary and then check the table of contents for themes of interest.

However, there are a few thoughts I’d like to share at this point.

Firstly, terminology about gaming and gamification is still far from being consolidated and agreed upon in research circles. Different and sometimes contradictory definitions can be found for gamification, game mechanics, serious games – even for games themselves! Take a look at appendix 7.1 and you’ll see what I mean. This, of course, did make life rather difficult while analysing the papers, but what’s worse, it hinders communication among researchers.

Secondly, it’s interesting to see what topics and issues attract researchers’ attention. The ones that emerged most prominently in the review were the relationship between games and the psychological development of individuals, including the influence of violent games on aggressive behaviour; the relationship between immersion, motivation and engagement, and the potential of games for learning; the risk of addiction, on one side, and positive impacts on health, on the other; and the way different games lend themselves to learning different disciplines and skills. Finally, a less thoroughly explored area, yet one extremely important for a project investigating the potential of gaming for societal change – is the intertwining of game research and development with ethical issues and values concerning identity (gender, race, inclusion of individuals with special needs, etc.).

Individual studies and significant research results abound, yet it appears that research in this area is still not mature enough to yield conclusive answers to some of the questions addressed, such as “do games have a potential for learning?” or even to some of the more specific ones, such as “does playing violent games increase aggressive behaviour?”. As a matter of fact, it appears that the landscape of gaming and gamification is so broad and dynamic that such questions will probably never be answered by any single research study, simply because they are ill-defined.

So, you might ask, what does this all have to do with the cherries and artichokes mentioned in the title? Well, before I explain the metaphor, let me first say that I love both cherries and artichokes.  Actually, cherries are what gets me through the gastronomical crisis that besets me when the artichoke season finishes.

But let’s start with games as cherries. First, the fruit:

  • cherries are soft, sweet, and juicy;
  • once you start eating them, it can be very hard to stop;
  • they contain vitamins, but they’re not nutritious enough to be a meal in themselves;
  • they have a hard kernel that shouldn’t be swallowed, and certainly not chomped on – that could be hard on the teeth;
  • the kernel that remains can originate a whole new tree;
  • eating cherries in good company is even more pleasant than eating them alone, but you have to be ready to share;
  • too many cherries can, alas, have undesirable effects!

Games can be seen in a similar way:

  • they can be appealing, , challenging, and even moving;
  • games are often engaging – the more you play, the more you want to carry on;
  • they can nurture positive values, behaviours and skills but more is generally needed – especially in education, where teacher support and guidance is crucial;
  • There’s often something ‘hard’ inside that you’d best look out for, like, say, in-game purchases or less-than-ethical content;
  • however, what remains of a game after you have played it is often enough to make you feel like playing another game;
  • playing with friends is often more enjoyable than playing alone, as long as you’re prepared to share the fun;
  • If you overdo it, game play can have some nasty side effects, such as addiction.

Now let’s move on to (not onto!) artichokes:

  • to the uninitiated they can seem like a pretty tough and threatening proposition, with all those aggressive-looking spikes and thorns. But when the layers are peeled back, they usually win you over with their unique savoury flavour;
  • there are many different varieties of artichoke but fresh, locally-grown ones can be the very best of all, and certainly the most nutritious;
  • you can eat them raw or cook them in a variety of ways. However, fresh top-quality artichokes are best eaten raw, simply dressed with a little olive oil and salt;
  • finally, despite my passion for them, I have to admit that I’ve had some really bad ones in my time – practically inedible – so I understand why some people who’ve not managed to try a decent one would turn up their noses.

Similarly:

  • some people, especially adults and educators, are not particularly attracted to games, they are very cautious and hesitate before they make up their mind to use them, fearing that their mechanics and engaging dynamics can distract them from their priorities or even harm their students;
  • there is a whole wide range of video games, all quite different from one another and with special qualities that meet the preferences of different gamers. When it comes to ‘nutritional value’, however, some see game making (home-grown gaming, if you like) as the richest avenue of all;
  • you can play in myriad ways – indoors or out, at home, out and about, in cyberspace, by yourself, together with friends, online with anyone at all. What counts most, in the end, is the quality of the game play itself, not how it’s ‘served up’;
  • finally, while it is true that games are, in general, entertaining, there are some boring ones, and some people do not engage with games just because they never tried a good one.

In conclusion, the literature review of gaming and gamification carried out at the outset of Gaming Horizons has revealed the different veins of research in this area: the psychological dimension, mostly concerned with the effects of games on the development, psychological and physical health of the individuals; the educational dimension, focusing on the potential for learning and how this can best be put to use, and the ethical dimension, concerned with social equity and ethical game development. All of these themes can be seen and are approached by researchers under one of the two lights: games like cherries or games like artichokes. In both cases, there are benefits and downsides of games and the former often outweigh the latter, while the latter can be contained, especially thanks to the awareness that research can promote. And it is precisely for this reason that our literature review devotes special attention to the concrete recommendations that can be distilled from the large body of knowledge available. In its subsequent activities, Gaming Horizons will strive to build on these recommendations in a participatory effort involving and addressing different project stakeholder groups.

Studying the value of games at GDC 2017

Over the next year, the Gaming Horizons project will be releasing the results of new research into the value of video games, and a big step forwards was taken at GDC 2017.

Academia and games have a rough relationship. At GDC 2017, Thomas Buijtenweg and I conducted interviews with a variety of figures from across a spectrum of the games industry to find out how developers feel about topics that commonly occupy researchers looking at video games.

Ten developers kindly spared their time to be involved in the interviews, ranging from indies to AAA, and from industry veterans to people with under a year of hands-on development time. In the half-hour conversations, each developer shared some of their personal experiences and the ethos that drives them to create games in the ways that they do.

 

What drives a creator?

The Gaming Horizons project has a broad remit, but one of the goals is to understand the interests that build games developer’s relationship between their work and society. Do developers think games have an impact on players? Do developers design with these kinds of impacts in mind? To what extent to developers think about audience reception when they release a game, and how much does this affect the way that they shape the experience?

A final, and crucially important question for the researchers, was also asked:

Has your professional working career been influenced by (academic or non-academic) research?

“No.”

No, games developers do not interact with academic theories. This was the resounding agreement between nearly all of the developers. Only those developers with past or present links to academia said there had been academic research that helped them develop as a creator.

It was expected that this would be the result (both Thomas and myself have experience with games development), but many of our purely-academic colleagues will be surprised to hear the certainty of the response from professionals.

Why don’t games developers commonly work with academics or read the results of studies? There will be many answers to this, and we will be sharing more of the results over the course of the year, but for many it stems from two directions: accessibility and relevance.

Research doesn’t end up in front of games developers

Many universities are judged based on the publication history of their researchers, fitting into systems such as the UK’s ‘REF’ (Research Excellence Framework). These systems evaluate a piece of academic output and score them based on several criteria, such as number of times it has been cited by other academics in their work. In this kind of system, an open information sharing website such as Gamasutra will not commonly score highly, but in our research Gamasutra was one of the few sources of research information cited by more than one person. Unfortunately, because it scores low in academic status, researchers are discouraged from sharing their work there and instead focus their efforts on academic peer-reviewed journals. These journals typically score highly, but games developers don’t buy them.

Some developers may have heard of the Bartle Test, or know about the MDA model. Others might know about The Big Five and its applications to understanding player choice… But how many can remember reading these, or took further time to read more, or even apply them in their work? Our sample of interviewees was small, but we suspect that we would have found similarly small results from a larger study.

Research isn’t seen as relevant to developers

Among academics this will be a controversial statement, but the view of games developers (both those we interviewed and from informal and off-the-record conversations) was that the quality and relevance of academic research to everyday games development was very low.

The market driven nature of most games development (with the possible exception of auteur indies) is that at some point a game or interactive experience needs to be released. All activities along the way are either beneficial for that process (by making development faster, higher quality, or more efficient) or are a distraction (slowing development in one way or another).

Do in-depth studies of player violence (or the lack thereof) help developers of entertainment-focused games create better experiences? Or do the studies into the educational benefits of playing games help developers work more effectively? ‘No,’ was the answer from the interviewees.

These are among the most popular topics for academic studies, but they rarely contain insights that will assist the average games development company in maintaining profitability in a huge and highly competitive industry.

The future: taking the results to research funders…

The Gaming Horizons project is funded by the Horizon 2020 EU program and brings together researchers from the UK, Italy, and ourselves from the Netherlands. The EU is funding the research to critique its own research grants systems, to make sure that it matches the needs of the industry.

The outcomes of the research will help shape future EU funding calls, to make them more relevant to the needs of the video game industry. The research interviews from GDC 2017 will be part of the larger Gaming Horizons study that places entertainment-focused games into the wider social context that the EU already supports with research funding, and that it wishes to grow.

The results will also be here, for you.

We will create short videos to make sure you get to see the best bits of the interviews, so that you can see some of the ways that entertainment is being framed by researchers, hopefully in a way that is both accessible and relevant.

We want the games industry to succeed for players, for the developers, and for the researchers that study it. If research is going to support the industry more in the future than it does now, this year’s work will be a part of laying the foundation for that.

Keep checking on here for more updates about the Gaming Horizons project, where we will share the short videos from the interviews and articles about our work. Thanks for reading!

About the author: Mata Haggis is the Professor of Creative and Entertainment Games at NHTV University in the Netherlands, and the game & narrative designer on Fragments of Him, which released last year on Steam and Xbox One, and will be coming to PlayStation 4 this year.

Alongside his professorship, he is the owner of Copper Stone Sea where he provides consultancy and training in narrative design and game design for development teams.

NHTV University’s game development course ‘IGAD’ is highly rated and taught entirely in English. If you are looking for an intense and practical Bachelor- or Master-level study then take a look: https://www.nhtv.nl/ENG/bachelors/creative-media-and-game-technologies/startpage.html

The Gaming Horizons research project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program. You can read more about it here, where will be regularly updating with new articles throughout 2017: https://www.gaminghorizons.eu/

A research project to explore and expand the role of gaming in society

Who really understands video games?

Is it the overworked video game developers in the mainstream industry toiling over very specific sub-components of large AAA projects (so-called because they have expensive high standards of ‘Art Audio and Animation’), which involve hundreds of individuals and several interlocking systems and mechanics?

Is it the committees of marketing executives and production managers of those AAA projects, who are responsible for budgets often in excess of $60mil and, understandably, worry about profitability, monetisation and player retention?  

Is the bright ‘reserve army‘ of young aspiring developers who spend their waking hours, in some cases even dropping out of school, modifying (‘modding’) games to add new visuals or play activities? Or the ones learning to make their own games in an effort to work at their dream AAA studio?

Or is it the idealistic independent game developer, effectively portrayed in the documentary ‘Indie Game: The Movie‘? Someone fiercely committed to her, his, or their creative vision and integrity, pursuing ideals of authorship, originality, and art?

Is it the ‘gamification’ advocates who, a few years ago, told the world that ‘there is something about games deeply tied to motivation‘, and then tried to turn this and other ‘ground-breaking’ insights into practical advice for business and education, somewhat underestimating the costs and the ingenuity required to make good games, regardless of their purpose?

Is it the critics and commentators, writing and talking about games in growing numbers, concerned with cultural validation and critical analysis, some of them trying to ‘elevate games writing to something more erudite and worthy’, and others building on the tradition of progressive, liberal arts academia?

Is it the ‘gamers’ – an amorphous social category comprising several identities and values that could, figuratively and perhaps even literally, be mapped on a very broad and not necessarily coherent landscape? This landscape would include, in no particular order, subjectivity-defining things such as gender, consumerism, emotional investment in technological artefacts, and embraced or resisted notions of distinctiveness (being a ‘nerd’ or a ‘geek’).

Is it the researchers and scholars trying to figure out the ‘effects’ of games on behaviour, educational performance and cognition, publishing their studies in peer-reviewed journals and fuelling debates which, for the most part, won’t go beyond the confines of academia, but when they do get picked up by mainstream media, often getting trivialised in the process, inevitably lead to periodic ‘scares’?  

In fact, each of the above provides an important perspective from which we can begin to make sense of this hypermodern expressive medium. The Gaming Horizons project was borne out of a simple, if ambitious, idea: to open up the dialogue between those voices and perspectives, mapping out the rather confused epistemic landscape of contemporary gaming: the different things people know and prioritise, the implicit and explicit understandings and viewpoints, the discourses currently unfolding.

We have our own loose interpretation of gaming, not a particularly innovative one and by no means a fully-fledged definition – mainly a synthesis of existing themes and features. Our intention is to use this as a platform to engage with a range of experts and informants:

Gaming , as a broad phenomenon, recalls an assemblage of technical features, people, professional practices, consumption and culture – some of these aspects are deeply characteristic, such as the technologies and design conventions that have become associated with games: computation, consoles and gaming rigs, controllers, screens (including VR which, for now at least, is largely an evolution of screen technology), graphical fidelity and so on. In addition to these ‘constants’ there are a vast collection of features which, depending on how they are organised together and realised through design and artistic prowess, provide originality and, sometimes, commercial success. These aspects are much harder to categorise but they may include things such as: highly distinctive mechanics (e.g. combat, exploration, progression, competitive or cooperative social interactions), an authorial focus, an interest in representation and responsible characterisation, or a quest for cultural and educational relevance.

Our ultimate objective is to unpack, challenge and ‘expand’ this interpretation considerably, to try and inform how gaming is framed as a topic of economic, social, cultural, or educational interest.

The project is coordinated by the University of Leeds, with partners from Italy (ITD /CNR) and the Netherlands (NHTV Breda). We are supported by the European Commission through Horizon 2020: a progressive funding programme that aims to ignite ‘socially responsible’ research and innovation by establishing a productive dialogue between science and technology on one side, and the social sciences and the humanities on the other.

During the course of the project (which will last approximately a year) we will examine the contradictions and tensions that surround gaming, but also the growing interest in cultural relevance, social inclusion, and the rise of experimental design approaches at the fringes of mainstream video-game development – approaches that straddle traditional boundaries between entertainment, the arts and the humanities. The methodology will involve data collection activities and consultations with experts, developers, educators, and gamers. Ultimately, we aim to identify future directions at the intersection of ethics, social research, and both the digital entertainment and ‘serious’ games industries, potentially revealing the entertainment games address many themes of social consequence in ways that are more engaging than their deliberately educational and serious siblings.