Establishing Territory and Embodying Play (Minecraft Club #10 20.01.14)

Establishing Territory 

Before play began this week, some children were eager to discuss the events of last week with the group. Already, in the way the children had seated themselves, I could see allegiances being cemented. The larger group, previously made up of girls and boys, were split on to two separate tables – boys on one, girls on the other. The other group of boys were seated on a third table.

Week 10 screenshot (5)

The girls spoke first:

Freya: ’They kept invading our house They kept stealing the bed

Tom : ’The house is yours if we get to keep the bed!

The boys kept speaking over the girls, even though I asked them not to. Here, I had to revert to teacher mode and insist, firmly, that the boys gave the girls a chance to talk.

Freya: ’What annoyed me was that Thomas [said he] owned the house…. Because he put blocks there he said that he owned the house.

Me: [to Freya] ‘What made it your house?

Molly: [answering for Freya?] ’We built it! We put the stuff there.

Me: ‘So what would you like to change from last week?

Freya: ‘They don’t come in the house and steal our stuff and that they don’t break things

The boys responded:

Ben: ’I have three things – it’s called ‘banter’; the second one, the bed is coming back; number three, Thomas did kind of make the house….

Thomas: ’You can have your house on one condition that I’m allowed to come in, because we let you in our house’.

This wrestling with who was allowed to go where, and who owned what, has been a noticeable theme over the last few weeks. The word ‘banter – as an explanation for an event that has annoyed someone – is one that re-occurs too. Ben accused the girls of being ‘divas’ – they responded by laughing.

At some point during this week’s club the ‘House of Coolness – Girl’s Only sign was replaced with a sign reading, ‘Hi, some people can enter, only if you ask us and we say yes’. Two of the girls joined together in singing the chorus of ‘Our House’ by Madness – yet another example of in game associations sparking off songs.

Week 10 screenshot (9)

Signs also appeared outside rooms, indicating ownership:

Week 10 screenshot (15)

The first group of boys further established their shared in-game identity; Ben announced that they were wearing diamond helmets to identify that they were from ‘the same tribe’. (Not for the first time I am reminded of ‘Lord of the Flies’). Later, Thomas declared that he was building a fort ‘…just for me and my buddies: only people with diamond helmets’.

Embodying Play

This week, I was again struck by how much time some of the children spent away from their computers. One boy in particular seemed to be spending more time away from his computer than he spent using it. Interestingly, he was also the player who seemed to be the most visibly and verbally excited about events in the game; somehow, though, his excitement manifested itself in less time at the keyboard rather than more. His gameplay seemed to extend beyond a direct connection with the game through the computer, also encompassing his conversations with others and movement around the room – all of which seemed to relate to his participation in the game.

During this session, I noticed how he often seemed to be picking up and carrying objects around the room, particularly chairs and stools, seemingly without a reason that requires the relocation of a seat – thus prompting my (inevitable?) reaction: ‘PUT THAT DOWN!’ Looking back on this video I wonder now if this could be him acting out events from the game in the classroom – using stools and chairs in the place of blocks. Later he could certainly be seen miming the process of using a diamond pickaxe, holding the imaginary tool above his head before bringing it down on the equally imaginary blocks below.

Chairs as blocks?

Chairs as blocks?

Later when I asked him, again, why he away from his computer (a genuine question – not actually a thinly veiled instruction to sit down) he replied that he was waiting for his ‘iron to cook in the game – the waiting in the game seemingly being mirrored by an impatient wandering to fill time in the embodied space. I pointed out that he could still be doing something within the game while he waited and, returning to his keyboard, he agreed in a way that suggested that he genuinely hadn’t thought of this.

The Zombie Spawner

The Zombie Spawner

Later, when Rob discovered a ‘random zombie spawner’ all of the boys rushed over and gathered excitedly around his screen, seemingly in celebration. The girls, meanwhile, remained seated throughout.

Researcher Intentions

At the outset of each session I generally arrive with some idea of where I might try to focus my attention. Invariably, this ends up changing as I am led by events unfolding during the club. Nevertheless, I persist with this approach at the outset, in the belief that I will at least be starting the session taking a certain perspective. This week I had decided to focus on the play of the girl’s group. I had also decided to stay offline, in order to see what being absent from the game felt like. I managed to maintain the former approach to some extent, although I found the need to split my field notes into two columns – one column relating to the girls game play and a second relating to anything else that I noticed going on around them – often interactions and interruptions by the boys. In terms of staying out of the game, I was less successful, lasting about ten minutes before logging on, finding that I was missing the opportunity to be able to witness events that I was hearing being discussed. There was some discussion, for instance, of someone typing a message with the word ‘game spelt wrongly, much to the amusement of some – I was frustrated not being able to see what this referred to for myself.  Watching on the screens of others players didn’t give me the control or perspective I have been used to, reminding me of the rationale behind my early decision to make this a participatory ethnography.

Gifting blocks

Gifting blocks

There later came a point where I purposefully and directly influenced gameplay. I overheard a number of conversations where the children were unable to find iron – this seemed to be the most sought after block in the game, enabling them to craft tools and other items. In a moment of virtual generosity, therefore, I used my admin powers to secretly gift each child ten iron blocks. This prompted celebratory, grateful dancing from a number of boys. In addition I explained to them that they could have any other block if they could agree on a single choice, as a group. They decided on diamond, so I gave each player five diamond blocks to use; cue further celebration.

GoPro Perspectives and AFK Performances – (Minecraft Club #9 13.01.15)

As mentioned last week, I have been using a GoPro Hero camera to record events during the club. For the first half of this week’s club the camera remained undisturbed, as usual, on a desk where had I positioned it to film a small group of players. However, approximately half an hour into the session, the camera itself became the focus of the activity for a group of children as they took charge of the filming process.

Away from Keyboard (AFK)

Away from Keyboard (AFK)

The focus on the camera began as one boy, turning away from his computer, waved and stared into the lens. He called across to another boy, who immediately left his seat and picked up the camera. At this point I made a conscious decision to allow them to continue – my alternative response would have been to insist that they put the camera back where I had placed it. However, my early conceptualisation of Minecraft Club as being driven by the children – defined by ongoing unfolding events rather than being purely the product of my design – has encouraged me to take a back seat more often and let things happen.

During the early stages of this project, I occasionally found myself slightly stressed and uptight when technical problems arose or things didn’t go quite ‘to plan’, worrying that these detours were keeping me from ‘researching’ the club. However, my realisation that these were as much a part of the lived experience of the club as the gameplay itself encouraged me to take the view that the club is whatever happens during the weekly allotted 75 minutes. Often this involves children seated in front of their computers playing Minecraft but, just as importantly, sometimes it does not.

Once in the hands of the children (or, more specifically, a small group of boys) the camera is used in a number of ways:

  • They filmed their screens during play, positioning the camera next to their laptop keyboard, at times also providing audio commentary.

Screenshot 2015-01-15 15.33.53

  • One child used the camera’s headstrap to enable him to wear the camera and to film his gameplay and discussions with others from his perspective.

edited screen

  • They introduced other members of the class, carrying the camera around the room.
  • They pulled silly faces into the lens.
  • They conduct conversations with the camera:

Sam: (pointing the camera at Ben) ‘Is your name Ben?’

Ben: (to camera) ‘Yes it is, GoPro!… What’s your name, GoPro?’

  • They held it at arms length and sing and dance to the camera:

Thomas: (singing) ‘I’m on a GoPro / I’m on a GoPro’.

Ben and Thomas: (singing and dancing) ‘We’re on a GoPro / We’re on a GoPro’

They are then joined by three other boys, who form a procession, dancing and singing the same song.

Eventually, as I had forgotten to fully charge the battery, the camera turned itself off, much to the children’s disappointment. But in this relatively short space of time, they had managed to film the club from multiple perspectives.

Although I had already toyed with the idea of giving the children some control of the camera in future weeks, I had not intended that this would happen in such an unplanned and unpolished way. Nevertheless, watching the footage back was both entertaining and enlightening, providing an interesting example of how the process of research can unexpectedly become enmeshed with the clubs events. It also serves to illustrate how Minecraft club is not always just about playing Minecraft but is also driven by the events that occur aside from the gameplay when children are away from their keyboard (AFK), framing their gameplay in a specific context.

The presence of the camera clearly prompted much of the performance element, explained in part by the excitement of having access to relatively novel piece of equipment in the classroom, particularly given the GoPro’s reputation of being an camera used to film adventurous pursuits rather than classroom practice. It is now for me to decide which, if any, of these child-led filming methods I choose to employ in future weeks. Perhaps this is what I meant when I stated my intention to take into account Law’s (2004) call for ‘a broader or more generous sense of method’ at the outset of my research.

Reference:

LAW, John (2004). After method: Mess in social science research. London, Routledge.

Exploring Virtual Feelings (Minecraft Club #8 06.01.15)

I have been using a GoPro Hero action camera to film during the club. This week I placed the camera in a static location in order to capture a wider view of events than that provided by video at different resolutions.

gopro example

So far I am happy with the footage gained in this way, especially given that the audio is clear and the wide-screen image allows me to focus in on multiple areas of the classroom, in a way that would not be possible using conventional video. The camera also has the benefit of being virtually indestructible, allowing it to continue filming when someone knocked it from the chair I had balanced it on.

Picture1

In the words of one child who watched the fall: ‘GoPro be hard as heck: it’s basically a brick’. Given this, there’s also potential for giving the camera to the children to film from their perspectives, which I intend to do in future weeks.

After the club I returned a small section of the footage to re-examine a conversation that I noted in my field notes in more detail.

During the session, Ben (as <CBtekkersOP>) left the group in the game and to go ‘exploring’. He crafted a boat, with guidance from another member of the group and set out, apparently, in search of the sea. He later revealed that his intention was actually to find the members of the other part of the group – three boys who were building in a separate ‘secret’ location from the rest. However, he became frustrated when he found himself stranded on an island, isolated from the rest of his group’s avatars. He requested that I use the teleporting function to return him to his friends, even though he had requested at the beginning of the session that I should not to this for anyone as it often seemed to cause the game to crash!

boat

The following conversation was transcribed from an unplanned discussion, mainly with Ben, towards the end of the session, relating to his feelings about his current game state:

Ben: It’s just sad, though.

Me: Do you feel sad cos you’re not near everyone?

Ben: Yeah.

Me: But you’re in the room with everyone…. You’re actually right near everyone.

Ben: Am I?

Me: No, I mean, in the room. You’re sat next to people. How does it feel… how does it feel not being with everyone in the game?

Ben: Sad.

Mia: That’s what I felt like!

Ben: Because you feel lonely, because, like, there’s no-one else…

Mia: Stranded on an island, waiting for rescue.

Me: (laughs) But you’re in the room with them.

Ben: yeah, but they’re real life people… this is a game…

Me: But.. So… Yeah, but you’re a real life person.

Ben: In the game, I feel sad.

Me: You feel sad in the game?

Ben: Yes.

Me: H.. But… do you feel… How do you feel in the game?

Ben: Sad!

Me: (stuttering) But what is it about you that’s feeling in the game? As in… you said ‘as a real life person’ these people are here.. but how do you feel… how do you feel the game feeling?

Ben: Well, I’m used to being with everyone, you know like I have jobs and stuff and then suddenly I’m on an island by myself and I can’t get home.

Me: But are YOU on an island by yourself or is your avatar?

Ben: No, my avatar is on an island but my feelings are in the game!

Me: You’re feelings are in the game?

Ben: Yes!

Joseph: That’s a bit sad!

Ben: I know that is very sad!

Me: Your feelings are in the game is a very interesting thing to say.

Ben: and very sad… at the same time…

Thomas: (rapping) He’s sadder than sad, he’s badder than bad.

At the time I found this conversation fascinating – I think my intention was to try to help unravel the extent of Ben’s identification with his own avatar, but I found myself getting stuck on the questions to ask to take the conversation further. Nevertheless, I love Ben’s responses, particularly:

 In the game, I feel sad.

 No, my avatar is on an island but my feelings are in the game!

What the video allows me to revisit – and what I didn’t notice at the time – is the movement that accompanies Ben’s verbal responses. These two statments in particular are accompanied by dramatic hand gestures, as if to emphasise the significance of his words. During the first reply, Ben removes his right hand from the computer and makes one, forceful chopping motion from the side of his head towards the computer. By the second response, Ben has turned away from the computer to make eye contact with me directly. However, on the words ‘avatar’ and ‘feelings’ he turns again towards his laptop and makes forceful pointing gestures in the direction of the computer’s keyboard, making contact three times with the plastic, perhaps in an attempt to convey the strength of his feeling in relation to the virtual world somehow within the machine.

point

Ben’s notion of feelings being somehow being contained within the computer yet also felt by him is a theme I intend to explore further, and provides a good example of what I continually find so interesting about exploring this group’s interactions in and around the game.

Finding Friends and Influencing People (Minecraft Club #7 10.12.14)

This week’s session was the first for two weeks, the last before Christmas and also the last of this term. For the second week running, the children played in survival mode.

This entry elaborates on two short sections from my extensive (and messy) fieldnotes made during the session. Reflecting on my approach during previous sessions I found that I was becoming fairly reliant on video data. Therefore, in an attempt to break away from the limited frame imposed by screen based data I made more of an effort to take fieldnotes based on my observations. As a result, I was much less present in the game than in recent weeks.

live with you

Alongside these notes, video data was also collected in the form of screencasts and in class video, which I will use at a later time to add data from different perspectives. As for why I chose this extract, I think I’m framing it as a telling case to ‘make previously obscure theoretical relationships suddenly apparent” (Mitchell, 1984, p. 239).

  1. Finding Friends

On entering the game this week, many children found that they had spawned in dispersed locations, away from other members of the group. Getting back together became the motivation for  most of these children’s play. I observed the different methods they used to locate themselves in the game, navigating the landscape to find their friend’s avatars, and will attempt to detail these below. This process of finding their friends in the game occupied some players for almost the whole session. Whilst some children relied on just one of the methods below, most seem to employ a combination of these at different times.

IMG_20141209_160557Getting up high – Some children navigated their way up to the top of the highest point in the landscape in order to get a top-down view of the game, in the hope of seeing movement below. This reflected the method they often used for orientation in creative mode, where the avatars would levitate above the ground in order to get a view of events below.

Maps – Some children who were aware of the Map feature of Minecraft requested that I gave them access to a map that would have otherwise been available in creative mode. Impressed by the thought behind this request I provided each player with a map, which gave them an overview of the land they currently inhabited. Frustration came when they realised that there was no way of telling exactly which avatar was which, as all were marked with the same white icon. They were also unclear about their own locations on the map, meaning that it provided little help. (This recalls Alison Gazzard’s (2013) work on mapping mazes, where she reflects on the difficulty of pin pointing her location on the map whilst negotiating a maze (p. 72)

map screenshot

Landmarks – Children discussed their location in the game in relation to landmarks in the landscape. They told each other, for example, ‘I’m near the cave’ or ‘Go towards the big hill’. Again, there was frustration as some children found it difficult to find these landmarks in the first place, either because they had not seen them on their own screens or had visited them but forgotten the direction in which they had travelled.

Swapping laptops – Some children surrendered their laptops to another player, allowing them to control their avatar in the belief that they would be able to call upon their superior knowledge of the landscape in order to reunite their avatars in the same location. Sometimes this involved physically swapping laptops, at other times the children swapped seats.

Shared use of screens – Some children moved their hands from their own keyboards to point at their friends’ screens, in order to direct them through the landscape towards their own locations. They would then use their own screen to confirm the nature of their own location, in an attempt to help the other player.

shared use screenshot

Appropriating laptops – One child left early and another player seized the opportunity to use their computer to play the game, continuing the game as the avatar of the absent player in preference to playing as their own avatar away from the group.

Teleporting – Similar to the request for a map, some children asked me to use my teacher admin ‘powers’ to teleport them to the location of their friends. This initially seemed like the easy option, and on a couple of occasions I granted this request but stopped when I found that teleporting seemed to cause server overload, resulting in everyone being booted out of the game and needing to log back in.

IMG_20141209_160932

So, here I’m interested in the multitude of ways that the children tried to solve the same problem. Being together (Burnett and Bailey, 2014) seemed more important than working alone in the game, and this was mirrored by the way that the children arranged themselves in the classroom and the way they interacted with each other and their equipment.

  1. An Emerging Economy

The pattern of play this week (nine children, with two absent) seemed to fall into three distinct groups, reflected physically by their chosen seating patterns – a group of three boys, a group of four girls and a pair of boys. Towards the end of the session, the two boys moved across the room and relocated themselves with the girls, as a result of one of the boy’s laptops running out of charge, meaning he had to use a plug socket located near to the girls’ table. At some point during this relocation, the players’ in game activity also converged as they inhabited the same virtual location. At the centre of this location was a building built by the two boys. The girls, pleased to have located other players, asked to enter the boys house. They agreed, but on condition that the girl worked for them in the game. I was surprised by how quickly they seemed to agree to this request – seemingly willing to comply with the boy’s suggestion without question. Tasks were assigned to the girls – two were tasked with collecting wood, receiving a wage in the form of coal – one piece per 32 blocks of wood collected.

Tree collector

Another girl collected pumpkins, and it was reasoned that their relative scarcity would mean that she would be paid by the half hour for her efforts, again in coal. Food was briefly considered in place of coal as a means of payment, but this was discarded by the girls as they reasoned that food was of little value in the current context of the game.

Food's useless

For me, this event raises a number of questions. I’m particularly interested here in how these hierarchical roles formed so effortlessly, seemingly without question. What enabled the two boys to position themselves as leaders over the girl’s play? Is gender important here? Is it a case of capitalising on their in-game expertise and the resulting gaming capital? (Consalvo, 2007) Does the experience of being together in game offer compensation for their players suspension of thei avatars’ autonomy? In what ways do the player’s relationship with their own avatar – their avatar identity – mediate the decisions that the players are making? Is virtual identity important here – and would a model of identity that examines the personal, social, relational and material aspects (Nagy and Koles, 2014) be helpful in unpicking this? Does the nature of the game context lead to a submission to rules in a way that would not occur so readily in the physical space? And what does the imposition of the emerging, seemingly power-based economic system tell us about the children’s meaning making around the idea of a virtual community?

tool extract

I intend to focus on the issues around this example over the next few weeks, before the club begins again in the new year.

References

Burnett, C. & Bailey, C. (2014). Conceptualising collaboration in hybrid sites: Playing minecraft together and apart in a primary classroom. In: Burnett, C., Davies, J., Merchant, G. & J. Rowsell (ed.). New literacies around the globe: Policy and pedagogy. . Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge.

Nagy, P and Koles, B (2014) The digital transormation of human identity: Towards a conceptual model of virtual identity in virtual worlds in Convergence, 20:276

GAZZARD, Alison (2013). Mazes in videogames: Meaning, metaphor and design. McFarland.

Consalvo, Mia (2007) Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Video Games. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press.

Mitchell, J. C. (1984). Case studies. In R. F. Ellen, Ethnographic research: A guide to general conduct. (pp. 237-241). Orlando, FL: Academic Press, Inc.

Avatars, Griefing and Screencasting (Minecraft Club #5 18.11.14)

Three observations from this week’s club:

1. Avatar names / More singing / Transcribing

I asked a number of children to talk about the user names that they have assigned to their avatars. Many of them used the same avatar name each week, others change the name regularly – even during the course of a session. For instance, <TimJim> was a new name this week, apparently reflecting a discussion around a song of the same name that some of the children had invented during a sleepover. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the song received a number of airings during the club:

‘Tim… / Jim… / I’m all… / alone… / Tim Jim / Tim Jim / Tim Jim / etc’. 

Screenshot 2014-11-18 16.18.46

<CBTekkersOP> was a name I had noticed every week. The player behind the avatar explained that the name reflects three things about him:

1. CB means centre back, the position he plays in football.

2. Tekkers means skills – which he has chosen ironically as – in his own words – he doesn’t have any skills. (Talk then turned to the origin of the work ‘tekkers’, which apparently comes from ‘Bob the Builder’ which – you guessed it – let to more singing: ‘Bob the Builder /  He has tekkers…’ etc)

3. O.P. was short for overpowered.

Foshee and Nelson (2014) suggest that avatar personalisation can create a connection between a player and a virtual environment by increasing the personal relevance and appeal, whilst also contributing to their sense of relatedness (p. 12). This may be worth considering in light of the children’s different appropriations of usernames for different purposes and from different origins.

Transcribing this name in particular led to me to tweet:

This transcription process is challenging for a couple of main reasons – firstly, due to the sometimes impenetrable nature of the discussion in terms of the content – without insider knowledge the sentence above is akin to an unknown language. Even where the word itself is clear, there is also a danger in misrepresentation if assuming the intent behind it (eg. the above example of ‘tekkers’ being chosen to indicate a modest lack, rather than a confident presence, of skills)

Secondly, the number of voices present in the classroom at the same time and the ever changing network of discussions means it’s difficult to work out who is speaking to who, and frequently the other participant’s voice – often over the other side of the room – can be lost in the general noise.

2. Griefing / Changing the game mode

Screenshot 2014-11-18 16.32.36

A group of three boys seemed intent on causing mischief in the game, in spite of the reiterated objective to create a community space. (See also Burnett and Bailey, 2014, p. 56). This took the form of a bottomless pit – named ‘ the eternal hole’ – dug beneath the spawn point, hidden inside what otherwise appeared to be a normal house. Griefing extended to the embodied space too – when children left their desks there were attempts by others to sneak up to their unguarded laptops and direct their avatars in to this hole. There were also some familiar types of large scale, potentially anti-social, in-game behaviours, where individuals dominated parts of the game space through the mass spawning of animals. There is a perception that this then led to glitches in the game, where the world slows down for all players. This is worth considering in relation to Barltle’s (2003) four types of player, where ‘Controllers’ seek to establish control over others. Additionally, there may be similarities to the player types or ‘orientations’ seen in Jackson, Gauntlett and Steemer’s (2009).

Screenshot 2014-11-18 16.34.59

Some victims of this griefing found the behaviour funny. Others appeared to be less amused by these actions. When, towards the end of the game, it was discovered that someone had destroyed part of the water slides created during the previous week, the reactions of some children were akin to those that may have come about if their physical property had been damaged. One child suggested that ‘community service’ might be a suitable punishment, where the perpetrator is ordered to create things for the good of the community. There was speculation that this griefing happened because of the game being played in creative mode – the unlimited resources meaning that none were valued. Again, there were calls to change the club to survival mode, starting with a new map. I think this is actually worth pursuing.

3. Screencasting / Playthrough 

The use of screencasting software is popular with the children as a research method – the children requested to have their screens recorded and were disappointed that I had not set this up on all of the laptops. However, different children interacted and acknowledged the presence of this tool in different ways. I recorded the play of three children this week – for fifteen minutes each – and have transcribed two of the videos in full. One player makes constant reference to the video being recording, suggesting that he will take the imagined audience on a tour, using an ‘announcer’ voice to introduce himself, partly using it as a means of producing his own ‘playthrough’ video (Menotti, 2012, p. 81). The second player, however, makes no reference to the software at all. So, while this is a useful tool for charting children’s actions during the game, therefore, the different adaptations of the tool made by the players themselves should not be written out of the final account.

Screenshot 2014-11-18 15.17.26

References

Bartle, Richard, 2003, Designing Virtual Worlds, New Riders, Indianapolis.

Burnett, C. & Bailey, C. (2014). Conceptualising collaboration in hybrid sites: Playing minecraft together and apart in a primary classroom. In: Burnett, C., Davies, J., Merchant, G. & J. Rowsell (ed.). New literacies around the globe: Policy and pedagogy. Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge

Foshee and Nelson (2014), ‘Avatar Personalisation: Towards the Enhancement of Competence Beliefs’, International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, (6)2 p. 1-12

JACKSON, Lizzie, GAUNTLETT, David and STEEMERS, Jeanette (2009). Children in virtual worlds: Adventure rock users and producers study.

MENOTTI, GABRIEL (2012). Videorec as gameplay. Video game subcultures, , 81.

‘Unlocking Literacy through Virtual Worlds’ Presentation

Here are the slides from presentation from last week for the students’ Digital Literacies conference at Sheffield Hallam University. Myself and Guy Merchant presented for half an hour each – Guy talked about his work around Barnsborough.