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.

Visual Transcription: Workshop Reflections

It was a pleasure to be invited to talk at Bath Uni last week, where the focus of the event was multimodality and digital data. I talked about the children’s multimodal meaning making during Minecraft Club, also exemplifying my own multimodal meaning making by sharing visual and aural examples from my thesis. After the presentation (‘Comic Explorations’) I led a workshop on responding to video data; this blog post constitutes my reflections on this process. Trying to create a short, manageable workshop that reflected an aspect of my work whilst also being of potential use to other participants was potentially tricky, given the specific ways I have used images in relation to my project. After mulling over some alternatives I settled on an approach to video transcription, utilising some video data from the club. I have led workshops before that involve using Comic Life to generate content but in this case I was eager to try out a method that used pen and paper.

I began by showing a short extract of video from the club that I have transcribed elsewhere as ‘Dad Dancing’. Here, members of the club are seen giving their impressions of how their parents dance in social situations, as a kind of performed social commentary. I chose this data as it is rich in respect of the children’s visual and embodied meaning making: the use of movement, gaze and gesture, as well as their interactions with the camera.

An extract from my original ‘dad dancing’ transcript.

I asked participants to use drawing and abstract mark making as a way of transcribing visual aspects of the video, not to create an accurate depiction of the events portrayed, but as a means of noticing, exploring and responding to the video. I hoped that depicting the movement on the page, during repeated viewing on the screen, would encourage participants to consider the video in different ways, as a means of exploring how movement and physical performance manifested as part of the children’s social experience. I gave participants a blank six-box comic grid to use.  I also emphasised that no drawing proficiency was required; the resulting visual notes constituted a process rather than an end product. My own participation in workshops involving drawing (and my own lack of skill when drawing at speed or under pressure) means that I am aware of how vulnerable being asked to draw in public can be!

My own alternative response to the video.

 With this in mind, I was really excited to see how those present engaged with the task. There’s something quite artificial about responding to someone else’s data, using an unfamiliar approach in a workshop setting. Whether participants will decide to use this approach for themselves in the future isn’t necessarily the point. The overall message of the day was that there is no definitive way in which to engage with and analyse multimodal data, with the workshops therefore focussed on possibilities rather than definite solutions. Below are some of the examples created by participants on the day (mostly photographed by organiser Alison Douthwaite, who was more on the ball with the camera than I was…)

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Aside from the visual outcomes, once transcripts were completed I was mainly interested in the extent to which participants felt that this process had generated new understandings or interpretations of the data. Their answers suggested that it had certainly helped. Comments were made about how the movement seemed to link the individuals as a group, as certain moves were passed between participants. We discussed how the children’s movement drew on a number of cultural reference points, mimicking particular dances or types of visual practice (slow motion, for example). We talked about how the children (particularly two boys) seemed to use the camera as a focus for their performances and how they drew on shared social experience… These responses were particularly insightful, given that the workshop participants had no prior relationship with the video data or the club it was drawn from.

fullsizerender-25I had intended to repeat the activity with another video whilst taking away the six box structure, in order to compare the approaches when scaffolding / constraint removed. In the event time was short so we focussed on the first activity. Regardless, the participant’s responses (drawn and spoken) were extremely encouraging, both in their enthusiasm for the task and in terms of the insights that this approach seemed to generate.

Banterbury Library Transcripts

The following transcripts have not made it into the final version of my thesis about the lived experience of a Minecraft Club. However, I have referred to these particular comics, assembled from data around the children’s creation of what they called Banterbury Library, in a number of recent presentations. Therefore these two episodes are presented here without commentary as examples of children’s play in the club, and also as exemplars of a particular type of transcription.

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Incidentally, data around the children’s creation of the library and use of texts in Minecraft is discussed in more detail in a forthcoming collaborative chapter:  Bailey, C., Burnett, C. and Merchant, G. (forthcoming) Assembling Literacies in Virtual Play In: Eds. K. Mills, K., Stornaiuolu, A.,  Smith, A. & Pandya, J. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Digital Writing and Literacies in Education. Routledge

Multimodal Methodologies Abstract Bath 2016

Excited to have been invited to present and run a workshop at the Multimodal Methodololgies even in Bath in November. It’s open to doctoral students at GW4 universities (Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter) but I thought I would share the abstract here too…

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SiOE Doctoral Conference 2016 Comic Abstract

Very much looking forward to presenting at Sheffield Institute of Education’s Second Doctoral Conference on 5th November. As well as the text only version of the abstract I also put together the following comic strip version, which seemed appropriate given the focus of the talk.

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The conference website is here: http://iguest2.wixsite.com/sioedocconf2016

Expanding the Limits of Participatory Analysis: Forthcoming Workshop

Expanding the Limits of Participatory Analysis: New Ways of Seeing and Knowing.

I will be be discussing comics as a participatory methodology as part of a workshop at the Royal Geographical Societies International conference on 31st August – more details below:

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On Wednesday 31st August, at the 2016 Royal Geographies Society Annual International Conference, I will be jointly conducting a Participatory Geographies Research Group (PyGyRg) sponsored workshop on the use of visual, participatory methods at the conference with colleagues Larissa Povey (2) and Kiri Langmead (3). Details below:

Abstract: Discussing their use of participatory visual methods, Guillemin and Drew (2010, p.184) suggest that ‘participants, as producers of the image are the most […] appropriate persons to give meaning to the image.’  While aligning with the reflexive epistemologies of participatory methods, how to engage participants in analysis and how to balance this engagement with researchers’ own analytical endeavours demands further investigation.

Understanding analysis to be woven through the whole research process, the session will discuss and critique three approaches to participatory analysis: (1) the use of comic strips in the analysis of children’s engagement in collaborative video game play; (2) the use of photo-elicitation in analysing women’s experiences of conditionality and punishment; and (3) the use of narrative and ‘resonance response’ in the analysis of cooperative members understandings of work and economy.

In the spirit of PyGyRg, and recognising the need for critique and debate, the session will be structured to ‘promote openness and fluidity and not to ‘police the boundaries’ (Wynne-Jones, 2015) around what is and what is not participatory analysis.  To this end, the session will follow the format of the third approach, enabling attendees to reflect on past and lived experiences of participatory analysis through direct engagement.

Session outline: In the first 30 minutes of the session, the three researchers will present their experiences of participatory analysis as outlined in the abstract.  Attendees will be asked to listen and note down on post-it notes: any points that resonate with, challenge or contradict their own experiences; points they find interesting or problematic; and any questions.  Attendees will then be asked (as a whole group or in smaller groups of 10, depending on attendance) to share and group their notes into themes.  These themes will form a framework of a 30-40 minute discussion, exploring the challenges and potential of participatory analysis.