Saturday, September 27, 2014

Methods between text and player

I promised I would write something about method, and since I won't be able to write an academic article on it for quite a while, I'll just put some of the more immediate points about how I study games in here.

I predominantly work with reader-response theory, which is a theory concerning how the text and the reader interact. I started using this actively back in 1994, for the work on my first academic report on a game. This was a game designed by the Norwegian department of health, to teach young men about safe and consensual sex. It was never published, partly due to the very long and halting production process. For my first game analysis, I used reader response theory because it was one of the few literary theories that actually talked about interaction between the text and the user, as well as one of the few theories that put the user (reader, audience, player) in an active role of co-creator rather than just consumer. I found both of these to be relevant and important in order to understand what a game is and how they invite play. For this report I played the game myself, studied the textual structure, looking for nodes and kernels referencing Chatman, I interviewed the project manager in the Health-department, and I had several players test the game and then discuss it with me. My initial question had been whether this would be an efficient way to teach values, and my conclusion was that no, complex role-playing games are not particularly good teaching tools. This mainly because they are too unpredictable, and they invite transgressive or counter-productive play.

This way of researching a text is related to cultural studies, and it was a result of a drive towards more tolerance of and curiosity towards popular media. The main argument was that just because something was popular didn't mean it had to be bad, which is pretty much the opposite of the argument of the theorists Adorno and Horkheimer. This is also why I wanted to study games at a time when nobody really took games seriously - and if they did it was to discuss how they could be stopped, controlled and censored - because I believed that a medium that attracts so many wo are that enthusiastic about them can not be all bad. There has to be something attractive, stimulating and fascinating about them.

For the next major work I did on games, I used the same structure, but this time heavier on the player side of the research. I played two MUDs - this was back in the text-based multi-user games - and interviewed the players. This became my modus operandi for most digital media research: use the medium, analyse the text, collect user data. This was what later became my Ph D dissertation Pleasures of the Player; Flow and Control in Online Games. I played for months, late nights and early mornings. I'd stay at work, because playing from a modem would have ruined me, and so often stayed in the office until well past midnight in order to understand the flow and the process of play. At the same time I was reading up on ethnography. I had been leaning on ethnography for my master's thesis on a totally different topic, and so it was easy to get back in there to try and understand what I was trying to produce. I feel that I can claim that I at certain points in my analysis of the gaming practice achieved a thick description. I then went to visit and interview face to face the players I had been playing with the most. For the field studies I leaned heavily on the ethnography classic by Hammersley and Atkinson, and for the interviews I had a lot of use of Learning from strangers.

I spent almost five years on my dissertation, three of which were full time. For the interviews I travelled from Norway to the US, and was on my way for three months, interviewing players both on the east and the west coast, in order to understand the process, the flow of role-playing online. I later went back to the US, to New York, and did some additional interviews while I was a visiting scholar at New York University. The research was funded by the Norwegian Research Council and Volda College, where I worked.

What I learned from this process was that my first instincts for game scholarship; to use a mix of methods and also of analytical paradigms, were pretty good. Games are objects constantly in a process of being created - even single-user games become different depending on who plays them. This means that in order to understand a game you have to play games for yourself - no, you don't need to love them, but you need to be sufficiently curious that you want to spend a lot of time understanding how they are put together and how they work - but you also need to learn about the gaming experience of others. Other scholars will disagree - disagreement is what makes academia go around, after all. There are game-scholars who only look at structures, and game-scholars who are actually more gamer-scholars, as they mainly study the gamers as they play. I find that both these positions leaves something to be desired, you can't understand what gamers react, dislike or like, without knowing the game, while only looking at the structure leads to a too narrow point of view that limits the understanding of how a structure leads to a practice.

Once I was done with my doctorate and had a chance to look outside of my own work, I watched  a whole field of cyber ethnography come into its own. T. L. Taylor, Celia Pearce, Bonnie Nardi and Tom Boellstorff have collected some of the experiences on game ethnography in their book, while Annette Markhams book from 1998 was one of the ones I had already been using, a very important work at a time where we were mainly making methods up as we explored, building on the experiences of other scholars in other arenas, looking for a way to address the new problems of researching online environments.

But I still feel there is something more that needs to be explored. While online ethnography has acknowledged that the mediacity of the environment in which the research is done changes the research situation, it still doesn't take the step all the way towards the sensitivity to interpretation that the more textual analysis and cultural criticism offers. I don't have the language to express this just yet, it is all waiting to take shape. Which is of course why this is a blogpost, and not an article on it's way to a peer-reviewed journal near you.

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