Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Online Games and Virtual Worlds


Methodology: Multi-Sited Cyberethnography



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Methodology: Multi-Sited Cyberethnography



What research strategy could possibly collect information on unpredictable outcomes? Social anthropology has one trick up its sleeve: the deliberate attempt to generate more data than the investigator is aware of at the time of collection. Anthropologists deploy open-ended, non-linear methods of data collection which they call ethnography; I refer particularly to the nature of ethnography entailed in anthropology's version of fieldwork (Arizpe 1996: 91). Rather than devising research protocols that will purify the data in advance of analysis, the anthropologist embarks on a participatory exercise which yields materials for which analytical protocols are often devised after the fact. In the field the ethnographer may work by indirection, creating tangents from which the principal subject can be observed (through 'the wider social context'). But what is tangential at one stage may become central at the next.

(Strathern 2004)


Marilyn Strathern’s description of the anthropological method, quoted by anthropologist Tom Boellstorff in the inaugural issue of Games & Culture (Boellstorff 2006), resonates on a variety of levels with the larger project of the study of game cultures. In particular, her description suggests that ethnography itself is an emergent process, and thus is uniquely suited for studying “cultures of emergence” in online games and virtual worlds, and potentially elsewhere. The ludic environments of online games are characteristically open-ended, non-linear and participatory, unpredictable and labile, and thus require an agile and responsive approach to research. They are also characterized by lived experience, which is one of the central concerns of ethnography. Contemporary, post-colonial, post-structuralist cultural anthropology avoids arriving at cultural contexts with “hypotheses” or preconceived scenarios about what might occur and what it might mean. This is a particularly useful approach in the social studies of games because of their inherent unpredictability and emergent qualities.
Ethnography has been widely adopted among researchers from computer-mediated communication, computer supported collaborative work, game studies, and a range of other disciplines related to networked communication. Variants of this method have been used to study various aspects of network culture, including the World Wide Web, irc/chat, MUDs and MOOs, and blogs (Kendall 2002; Markham 2003; Miller and Slater 2000; Mnookin 1996; Nocera 2002; Paccagnella 1997; Reed 2005; Turkle 1995) as well as networked work environments (REFS: Dourish, Nardi, and??)
The term “virtual ethnography” is sometimes used to describe these uses of participant observation to study networked cultures in situ. Originally introduced by Bruce Lionel Mason, a folklorist, in 1996, (Mason 1996) it was later adopted and popularized by Christine Hine (Hine 1998; Hine 2000). Although I concur with the basic tenets that both Mason and Hine present as a framework for this style of research, I prefer the terms “cybersociology” and “cyberethnography” rather than “virtual ethnography.” The latter, as discussed earlier, carries with it the baggae of the term “virtual,” which implies a lack of authenticity or veracity.
Hines describes “virtual ethnography” as being:

particularly provocative in exploring the ways in which the designers of technologies understand their users and the ways in which users creatively appropriate and interpret the technologies which are made available to them. Among the questions preoccupying workers in this field has been the extent to which values, assumptions and even technological characteristics built into the technologies by designers have influence on the users of technologies. A view of technology emerges which sees it as embedded within the social relations which make it meaningful.



(Hine 1998)
Unfortunately, many sociologists of technology are not as conscientious about considering the design of the software they are describing, let alone the values underlying these. Many of the articles featured in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, for instance, have little reference to the software or interfaces within which social the interaction being described takes place. Social network analysis, similarly, often lacks the sense of context that is vital to understanding games from a cultural perspective. Scholars of human interface design, in particular those who study network collaborative workspace, devote far greater attention to software design. REFS (Bardram and Czerwinski 2005; Dourish 2001; Nardi and Kaptelinin 2006 in press). (Also add something about Nardi’s WoW research.) There is also a significant body of writing about the underlying values of software, (REF: Nissenbaum and others) as well as the cultures of the environments in which software is produced, (REF: Georgina Born, etc.) some of which pertains to games (Liz Losh, Flanagan and Nissenbaum, etc.) There is a great deal of room for further exploration of the game design process both in term of methods used and the socio-economic and cultural contexts in which game design takes place.
Borrowing from Marcus’ concept of “multi-sited ethnography,” which addresses the problem of anthropology in a global system, the method used here blends techniques from anthropology, sociology and “virtual” ethnography” in which can be characterized as “multi-sited cyberethnography.” Although not in its original conception developed as a method for studying networked cultures, Marcus anticipated its applicability to media studies, which he describes as “among a number of interdisciplinary (in fact, ideologically antidisciplinary) arenas” that might find utility in such a concept.
Because of the nature of this study, concerning the migration of game communities between virtual worlds, Marcus’ multi-sited ethnography provides a means to, in his words, “examine the circulation of cultural meanings, objects and identities in diffuse space-time” and “…investigates and ethnographically constructs the lifeworlds of various situated subjects…” as well as “aspects of the system itself through the associations and connections it suggests among sites.” (Marcus 1995)
This last point is key because Marcus sees multi-sited ethnography as a means of understanding a “world system,” or in this case a “virtual world system,” encompassing the totality of networked games and virtual worlds on the Internet—what I am calling “the ludisphere.” I am also looking at a more microscopic level at the social system within the particular group I am studying, and the ways in which large group behavior begins to take on emergent properties of self-organization. Marcus’ framework of the complexity of anthropology within the world system, and especially the transmigration of peoples, cultures and artifacts across borders, is highly applicable to the project at-hand in which players are migrating across borders of “magic circles” in virtual worlds. It also allows for the multi-scaled approach of looking at both the individual players and the system as a whole, our repeating theme of looking at the “forest and the trees concurrently.”
Thus, in a multi-sited ethnography, comparison emerges from putting questions to an emergent object of study whose contours, sites, and relationships are not known beforehand, but are themselves a contribution of making an account that has different, complexly connected, real-world sites of investigation.

(Marcus 1995)

In describing this method, Marcus outlines a number of approaches each of which entails “following” some aspect of culture across borders. The two being applied here are “follow the IP,” or intellectual property, in this case the Uru game and its emergent fan cultures, and “follow the people,” specifically, the migrations of players between different game worlds after the closure of the original Uru game. I would also add to this the methods of “following up” and “following leads,” which often entail taking on the very tangents to which Strathern alludes above, and are particularly relevant in a play space where much of the activity is unstructured and unscheduled. Not only do “cultures […] not stand still for their portraits,” they constantly change their orientation to their portraitists. (REF)


This is particularly true in ethnographies of play, where this strategy of “following” requires a highly improvisational approach, and one which I would characterize as opportunistic: being in the right place at the right time and “going with the flow” of whatever is happening in the moment. Play is by nature spontaneous and unpredictable, requiring what Janesick describes as a choreographic approach (Janesick 2000) that is flexible, responsive, and playful.
Playing and Performing Ethnography
All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.
—Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959
Live in your world. Play in ours.
—Sony Computer Entertainment, Marketing Campaign Slogan, 2003

Although sociologist Erving Goffman’s “dramaturgical” approach to sociology (Goffman, 1959) predates the preponderance of electronic media, it also prefigures also the current state of affairs in which the relationship between performer and audience is increasingly blurred to create a milieu of concurrent and dialogic co-performance. As such, in research circles, Goffman is experiencing a bit of a renaissance: in a culture where audience and performer increasingly conflate, his notions of everyday life as a performance takes on new significance I the age of MySpace, YouTube and online games and virtual worlds.


Sociologist Norman Denzin invokes Goffman in his manifesto of “performance ethnography” when he points out that: “We inhabit a performance-based, dramaturgical culture. The dividing line between performer and audience blurs, and culture itself becomes a dramatic performance.” To illustrate, Denzin draws our attention to the “nearly invisible boundaries that separate everyday theatrical performances from formal theatre, dance, music, MTV, video and film.” (Denzin 2003)
Denzin’s analysis of the performative turn in culture is apt and highly contemporary, if not prescient. Yet in enumerating the media that blur the boundaries of performance, he somehow neglects to include the medium that perhaps most epitomizes the world-as-stage philosophy: the Internet. With proliferation of personal web sites, blogs, photosites and forums, as well as online games and virtual worlds, the Internet is perhaps the largest stage in human history. Brenda Laurel was the first of a number of digital media authors to draw a correlation between computers and theater (Laurel 1991); however, the advent of networks has transformed them into a much more complex discursive performative space where every participant is both performer and audience. Online games and virtual worlds, with their fantasy narratives and role-playing structures, are arguably the most dramatic instantiation of the network stage. While all the real world may not be a stage, it can be argued that all virtual worlds most definitely are.
Performance ethnography has been defined in two ways. The first, characterized by the work of Turner and Schechner, entails the study and analysis of the role of performance and ritual in cultures. (REFS) This form of anthropology has typically embraced play and games as a subset of ritual and performance, although generally not as its focal point. Turner and Schechner also collaborated to pioneer the second type of performance ethnography, that which Denzin explores, specifically, the theatrical performance of ethnographic texts and narratives, often with audience participation (Manning 1988). Yet Denzin’s assertion that “performance approaches to knowing insist on immediacy and involvement” (Denzin 2003) suggests a third type of performance ethnography, that in which the ethnographic method of participant observation is itself framed as a performance. The study of game culture demands such an approach because its object, play, can only be adequately understood through immediate and direct engagement.
Virtual worlds provide a unique context for ethnographic research because they are, by definition, performative spaces. Unlike traditional ethnography, one cannot enter into an online game or virtual world without joining in the performance. There is no defined distinction between performer and audience; they are one in the same. Goffman’s concept of the performance of everyday life (Goffman 1959), especially in the context of public space (Goffman 1963), provides us with a starting point for understanding network game space as a kind of “everyday” co-performance. Thus when we talk about the phenomenon of “seeing and being seen,” we are also implicating the importance of both having and being an audience: the performance is only meaningful if there is someone there to see it. In more recent research, looking at real-life costume play, I’ve observed this phenomenon in the physical context of a fan convention. Each costumed participant took the role of both performer and audience, constantly shifting roles, and sometimes inhabiting both at once. (REF: Dragon*Con research) This co-performative framework can be seen in myriad contemporary ritual practices, from the fan conventions to Renaissance Faires to the annual Burning Man festival, all of which blur the boundaries between Turner’s liminal and liminoid spaces. (REFS)
Play contexts where behavior that might not be sanctioned is not only allowed but lauded recall Goffman’s concept of “occasioned” behavior. (REF: Goffman 1963) Here, and in his essay on frame theory, Goffman points out that our roles are constantly shifting depending on the context. (REF) In fact, he famously pointed out that the inability to recognize socially appropriate behavior is a hallmark of mental illness. In game space, however, within the magic circle of the play context, certain often subversive behaviors become sanctioned which would, in other contexts, be considered socially unacceptable. Goffman’s conception of the dynamics of how people perform in these occasioned spaces was perhaps a bit too rational and premeditated. His descriptions of such everyday performances suggest that people are highly self-conscious about their public behavior; he may thus have underestimated the extent to which such behavior is improvised, reflexive, and emergent. However, his overarching concept provides a framework for better understanding the liberties that can be taken within a game space, and the co-performative quality of the experience.
The entrée into this co-performative space is the creation the avatar, a pseudo-fictional character, an alter ego. The first gesture of a player entering a virtual world is to invent a character name; this becomes the signifier of her situated identity going forward: the marker of reputation, the vehicle of her agency, and the representation of her cumulative actions. This character and even its appearance may change and be transformed over time, but the name remains the same. The player also crafts her initial visual representation in the world, given a kit of parts provided by the designers. This creative act, much like choosing a costume for a masquerade ball, the renaissance faire or Mardi Gras festival, is the first performative gesture in the gaming experience, and the scaffolding on which her future identity will be built. From this point forward, players both play and play with their emergent identities through an intersubjective process. Far from being singly a creation of the individual, the avatar is a mechanism for social agency; and the player’s identity-creation will emerge in a particular social context through a set of interactions with a particular group of people. Avatars do not exist in isolation, and through this intersubjective co-performative framework players may discover sides of themselves that may not have other avenues of expression in the other aspects of their lives, even sides of themselves of which they may not previously have been aware. At times, these forms of expression can be subversive, in both negative and positive ways. Part of what this study reveals is the relationship between the emergence of individual and group identity through the performance and practice of play.
For in practicing the ethnography of play, we are playing ourselves. The ethnography is a mystery to be unraveled, and the identity we form in this context is at once a scientific discipline and an art practice. Science fiction author William Gibson characterized his vision of cyberspace (a term he coined) as a consensual hallucination. When we enter an online game or virtual world, we enter a space of the imagination, and we take on the task of studying a consensual hallucination populated by real people, all of whom share in this performance. The ethnographer is no exception, and very quickly will find that she is drawn into the play space. Yet, she also stands outside the magic circle to some extent. As an observer, she must play the game, but at the same time, she plays a meta-game, the game of ethnography itself. And like her subjects, she never knows where this identity will take her. In spite of her objective stance, she is not immune to the very emergent processes she seeks to understand.



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