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Oct 29, 2003



You make an interesting point about bias. If our research happens to relate to a game(s) we love and play often, I bet there will be some sort of bias present. But one primary thing that is always harped on in academia: All research is flawed! It just depends on how flawed. Personally, I've been a UO player off and on for years now, occasionally dabbling in other VWs when time permits. When I do get into more research, I'm probably going to avoid UO for the most part, just because I'm too entrenced in that particular world.

On to the play affecting work...play does a lot of things to improve learning. First and foremost, it makes things fun, which you are more likely to remember. It also breaks down barriers and gets you more involved. Lastly, it often times will increase you're emotional state, which creates a longer-lasting impact or imprint of an event in your brain. Working in elearning, I'm always seeking out ways to incorporate games and other forms of play into the learning event.

Great idea about meeting in EQ by the way. If only I played that game ;) Maybe posting a log of the chat would be possible? (minus the drunk dwarf racing?)


I recently made contact with Ted about my interest in studying the making of online games and he invited me to take part in the discussions here; this topic seems like a nice place to start. As an anthropologist whose previous research was on games and gambling in a city in Greece, I guess I have a lot of experience researching games from a qualitative, often participatory perspective.

Of course, playing the games in this research is a crucial part of studying them if one is at all interested in using participant observation as a method. The limitations are familiar, and anthropology certainly explored them to great lengths in the past (as T.L. notes). The advantages rest upon the assumption that there is something about first-person experience that makes the perspective gained unique. When we keep in mind the emergent quality of social experience, then this kind of perspective seems to me to be all the more essential.

The question that T.L. raises about whether there is a special quality of the experience of playing games specifically that needs to be taken account of in our efforts to study them is useful. But this strikes me as a question that can easily get hung up on what I consider to be a very problematic distinction, that between play and other kinds of experience. If we instead consider what is distinctive about the various kinds of experience that create this feeling of "unguardedness" we may be on a more useful track.

I think that Diane Ackerman is onto something in her discussion of "deep play" (this can be usefully compared to Sherry Ortner's notion of "serious games" in her work on mountaineering and Everest). And this special quality to experience is something that anthropologists have somewhat peripherally tried to capture in examining things like ritual (such as Victor Turner's communitas). The phenomenologists (Husserl, Merleau-Ponty) perhaps got furthest in this area in general. My own view is that what makes this quality of experience distinctive is the focused experience of unpredictability, that strange combination of anticipation and heightened, un-self-conscious awareness. This is something that of course is fundamental (though not unique) to games, but until very recently games were so recognizably bounded (in space and time) and their sources of unpredictability so explicit and contrived, that it was easy to treat them as qualitatively different arenas for experience.

Whatever it is that creates this "frisson" (as a colleague and I have come to call it), I don't think we should shy away from attempting to make sense of the first-person perspective here (the irony of using that phrase in this context is not lost on me). While it is notoriously difficult to research, describe, and analyze these kinds of first-person experiences as they relate to social processes from an academic standpoint, it can be done. The work of medical anthropologists on experiences of the body and suffering strike me as a useful guide in this respect.

From a practical standpoint, then, someone doing participant observation research in this area would be well served to pay attention to the distinctive aspects of this personal first-person experience of the game as something that points in a potentially useful research direction. Following up by paying attention to possible appearances of something like it in the discourse and practice of other participants, or as revealed in other observable patterns, could be the avenue to significant contributions to our understanding of what makes the experience of these environments both compelling and real.


I agree with Tom's comments whole-heartedly. I get the feeling that one of the main sources of insight for me has been my self-awareness of my own motivation for playing these virtual world games. So many "Why am I doing this?" moments. I think it helps me to perceive the impact of this experience in a way that others, for example my audiences, don't. I've run across many people who say "Well, I went to one of those games once and tried it for awhile, but I didn't get what all the fuss is about. It was boring." But I happen to really love the games, and I think, as a result, I have a better understanding of why other people like them, why still others don't, and why the industry evolves as it does.


How nice to pop in this morning and see some fascinating thoughts on this topic. Bart, I'm completely with you on how the 'bias' angle is really not all that productive (I tried to signal this in my post but might not have done a good enough job). I'm particularly grateful to Thomas (could it be the same Thomas I know from Social Studies years ago??) for bringing phenomenology into this, something that'd been pushing around in my thoughts as well lately. I don't know the work by Ortner but will have to check that out. Btw, Thomas, I think it was mentioned elsewhere you do work on gambling (which makes me think you are indeed the Thomas from Cambridge) - do you happen to know of any work on professional gamblers? I've recently started research on pro computer gamers and am looking for any related/tangential stuff.


Oh, one more thing, heh Bart, no experience neccessary! It's more an easy place to all meet. I think it could be quite fun for us to actually try this out in various spaces, some of which we are bound to be newbies in. For those who don't want to make a big EQ committment you can always buy a pre-paid subscription card or something. Anyway, do think about coming :)


Oh yeah, regarding EQ/Bristlebane: I'll be there! Sat Nov. 22 3pm EST - where else but the Great Library in Plane of Knowledge?


What a nice surprise. Yes, Taylor (is it TL now?) it is the same Thomas from Social Studies. A small world indeed, but perhaps it was inevitable for my interest in games and yours in online embodiment to bring us back into contact.

As for work on professional gambling, mine is, but not I imagine in the way you're thinking. That is, many of the gamblers I worked with made their living off of gambling, but it was not casino gambling. While I did study state-sponsored gambling, I was mostly concerned with illegal, local forms. Still, I think it would be relevant for you; a link to the publishers listing is on my webpage.

I do not know of an ethnography of professional (casino) gamblers. Ellen Oxfeld wrote about expatriate Chinese entrepreneurs and their extensive gambling in her book: Blood, Sweat, and Mahjong. She was particularly interested in their activities as revelatory of a contradiction of capitalism, parsimony vs. risk-taking. There are a number of anthropological articles about casino gambling on Indian reservations, but again this work would not look at the point of view of the players. By the way, I do recommend "The Gambler," the short story by Dostoevsky (a few of my contacts refused to talk to me about gambling until after I had read it!), as a vivid depiction of one historically-specific gambler's point of view.

In a manner similar to computer games research, gambling research tends to be overrun by ideologically driven analyses that treat it as a social ill tout court. But if I can think of any other relevant works for your project, I'll let you know directly.


Doubt this will get read, but I thought of this while reading some of the more current entries, thought I'd post here.

One thing to consider is that researchers are affecting the virtual worlds they investigate, especially if you consider on a macro scale. The worlds you choose to investigate certainly affect other researchers; Nick Yee's research on EQ probably lead a lot of other researches (especially grad students) to do research on EQ as well. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle where EQ becomes know as "the place to do research".

As someone who runs a smaller game that often gets overlooked in many ways, this is a bit troublesome. I remember reading some months ago about an undergraduate psychology class (sorry, link not handy, so details are pulled from my faulty memory) doing research on online worlds; one of the requirements was to buy EverQuest to play. Would that teacher have ever considered a game like M59 or ATITD? Are these games and their communities less worthy of study than EQ?

We've seen this before with Julian Dibbell's landmark work on LambdaMOO. How many people thought all text MUDs were just like LambdaMOO after reading excerpts from "My Tiny Life"? How many people *still* think that way? More than we'd probably like.

Just a point I thought of. This isn't to downplay any of the interesting research that has been done or will be done in this field. It also isn't a cry for "plz research my gaem!!1!" Just a contribution to the topic, a bit delayed. ;)

My thoughts,


Brian, your comments will get read. That's the beauty of the "recent comments" box.

But substantively, I have to agree with you. Here at TerraNova we're trying to be ecumenical, but certain obvious preferences always emerge. My posting on social histories was, in some ways, about this exact point: how do we get accounts of all of these worlds, and where do we find them? I haven't gamed in M59 though I've read the all the stuff that references it. But from the usual sources you'd think that M59 died some time in the late Paleolithic Era.

I guess my question in response would be what you could do to encourage accounts of life in your world? I know that you don't have the resources of SOE, but the sort of thing that The Alphaville Herald is doing strikes me as eminently possible. I'd certainly pay good money to read a full account of what was happening in the Game That Just Would Not Die.


I think one reason EQ gets so much attention is, as you mention, that it gets so much attention.

On the other hand, it's a very mature environment. There's a very large sample of test subjects on at any given time.

I think if you want to be researched - note, this is not necessarily the same as getting coverage - I would suggest talking to that particular psych prof you mention and explaining how your particular environment engenders certain behavior. Suggest they do a comparative study between you and EQ.
And here's the biggie - offer to open up. Data, mechanics, access to the game (for free), etc. Being the small fish, you have to make yourself attractive, you have to sell your world.

Dollars to doughnuts says that prof didn't just randomly pick EQ - someone sold them on the idea, probably a grad student.

Anyway, I suggest actively opening your game up to researchers and academics if you want to get researched and covered academically, the same way you would send a game mag a freebie copy of your game in return for a review, you'll have to overcome EQ's dominance actively, not merely on the merit of your game.

To end on an agreement, I would like to see more research on a broader field also, but I understand the concentration on EQ.


Yeah, just recently noticed the "recent comments" section on the front page. Mr. Oblivious I can be....

Dan, your entry on social histories is exactly what caused me to consider this issue. I thought it was more appropriate to talk about it here, though. Glad you caught it and it was interesting for you.

So, how do you find out about indie games? If I knew the answer to that, you would know about Meridian 59. Beyond research, it's hard to draw new playes. Advertising is the hardest part about being an indie, I think. Even "free" sources of advertising like word of mouth are harder to manage with a smaller game. Our few thousand players are not going to generate as much word of mouth as the hundreds of thousands of EQ players will, no matter what we do, even though I suspect that per-player we generate more word of mouth due to player loyalty and fanaticism. Even something like a newspaper like Alphaville is hard to do with a small game. TSO has 50-100x the candidate pool in which to find someone motivated, capable, and with enough free time to underatake a project like that. You can find a good number of unfinished, uninformative, or abandoned pages about M59 with a quick Google search. (Unfortunately, I think that sometimes reinforces the perception that the game is dead.)

M59's saving grace is that it does have a past. So, when mentioning it to people it does trigger some memories of, "Oh, yeah, that game from way back when!" But, it's hard to overcome that perception of being "too old" when it comes to drawing completely new players.

As for researching M59, I'm not sure I can (or even want to) sell it as that interesting of a research topic. As I said, my comment was a "research M59 plz" post, it was just a comment about how research affects the worlds from a point of view I'm quite familiar with. :) Not to say that I wouldn't be happy to cooperate with a researcher that's interested in my game, however.

My thoughts,


This is an important issue, and as several of the comments note, we don't have very much control over where research happens. But this leads me to think that one of the ways to encourage broader attention is to begin to identify the broad (and loose) categories that these games might fall into. I'm not here thinking so much of genre-like categories (that is, categories for the players), but categories that are founded on research issues and interests. That is, if we can make meaningful distinctions between different sorts of these games, then it will be harder for any given research project to "stand for" all virtual world life. Instead, researchers would be more aware of the need to "fill in the gaps in the scholarly record", if you will (sorry, anthropologist-speak).

There is of course a danger in these categories, because no doubt eventually they will come to be more a hindrance than a help, but at least heuristically they could be valuable for the promotion of an ecumenical scholarly approach. (Also, I should say that since I'm relatively new to studying games online, these different categories may already be emerging.) Perhaps we need a thread where we can sort out these issues ("Doing Research in Games" seems a pretty good title for one already).

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