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

This post was originally written for the Gaming Horizon’s project blog. Gaming Horizons is the Horizon 2020 funded EU research project that I am currently working on at the University of Leeds. More information on the project can be found here.

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

Apperley, T. (2009). Gaming rhythms: Play and counterplay from the situated to the global (Vol. 6). Lulu.

Bailey, C. (2016). Free the Sheep: Improvised song and performance in and around a minecraft community. Literacy, 50(2), 62-71.

Beavis, C., Apperley, T., Bradford, C., O’Mara, J. and Walsh, C. (2009). Literacy in the Digital Age: Learning from Computer Games. English in Education, 43 (2), 162-175.

Boellstorff, T. (2008). Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores The Virtually Human. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Dibbell, J. (1999). My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. London: Fourth Estate.

Flewitt, R. (2011). Bringing Ethnography to a Multimodal Investigation of Early Literacy in a Digital Age. Qualitative Research, 11 (3), 293-310.

Marsh, J. (2011). Young Children’s Literacy Practices in A Virtual World: Establishing an Online Interaction Order. Reading Research Quarterly, 46 (2), 101-118.

Merchant, G. (2009). Literacy in Virtual Worlds. Journal of Research in Reading, 32 (1), 38-56.

Nardi, B. (2010). My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. USA: University of Michigan Press.

Street, B. V. (1993). Cross-Cultural Approaches to Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walkerdine, V. (2007). Children, Gender, Video Games: Towards A Relational Approach to Multimedia. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wolcott, H. F. (2008). Ethnography: A Way of Seeing. Plymouth: Altamira Press.

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