Ethnography and Gaming: A Short Primer

In this post, I am going to introduce the methodology of ethnography to this blog, and discuss some of the ways that ethnography can be a useful tool for understanding players of games and their motivations. Jared touched on ethnography in his post about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” construct, showing how the ethnographic method of interviewing helped gain an understanding of happiness. Ethnography is a vast and complex topic, and to start, I will help unravel some of its methodological components and introduce some of my favorite digital game ethnographies.


What is ethnography?

How most people usually think of ethnography. (Francis Desmore and Blackfoot Leader Mountain Chief. Photo from Getty Images.)

Ethnography is, basically, a deep dive into culture — an ethnographer immerses herself in an environment and then writes about the experience to allow readers to follow her into the field and see through her eyes the people she has been studying. Ethnographers are observers, interviewers, pattern-finders, and writers. Traditionally, ethnography has been associated with going into “the field”, a term for a society that the ethnographer is not a native of (think Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa). More recently, ethnographers have “come home”, doing thorough ethnographies of local and familiar cultures (Gerry Philipsen’s ethnography of male culture in a Chicago suburb stands out to me in this particular category). And even more recently, ethnographers have been taking their skills into virtual worlds to observe digital cultures -- including digital game communities.

The most popular method, and one that is particularly useful for game studies, is participant-observation. In participant-observation ethnography, the ethnographer takes a dual-role of both participant in the culture and observer of the culture. Practically, this creates an interesting dual-experience for the researcher; Frank Schaap called this the “forked eye” in his study of the MUD Cybersphere, in which he describes a “divided self” between the person participating in the game and the anthropologist studying the culture. In my experience studying World of Warcraft, the divided self metaphor is an apt one — when I play, I am the player who is interacting with the people around me, and the one getting all excited when I achieve something. At the same time, I am filing away these experiences to draw on for my analysis later. Not only do I have automatic logging saving all of my text chats and screenshots, but I am also making a mental inventory of my experiences to put into writing later. I collect texts, forum posts, audio recordings, images, and videos to supplement my journey through the world and to assist me in painting a picture of the culture as I experienced it. All of this leads to the final goal of writing to answer the questions: how? why?


Finding Answers

The crux of ethnography is the written text, full of what Geertz calls “thick description” which is intended to bring the reader into the situation and the culture. Even familiar places like the corner bar, or the Night Elf starting zone in World of Warcraft, can be thickly described to pull the reader in. One of the key components of answering the questions of how? and why? is connecting the description of experience and observation to theory. Tom Boellstorff uses the following example (from page 89 of his book Coming of Age in Second Life) to illustrate the foundational role of placemaking in virtual worlds and the ways that this conflict exemplifies basic cultural assumptions about the virtual world of Second Life:

One evening in Second Life I received an instant message from an acquaintance, Samuel: “would you like to teleport real quick to see how blight is driving people crazy? There’s another big sign demo out here in Greenacre.” I accepted Samuel’s teleport offer and after several moments of blackness was alongside him and five other people, floating in the air near two structures in the eastern part of the Greenacre sim. Below us was “Zazzy’s,” a black building with brightly colored windows, their neon reds, blues, yellows, and greens in a constantly changing pattern. Through the windows one could see a range of items for sale. “I’m sick about this,” Samuel said. “This glowing monstrosity was just built on this land.”

Looking past the new store with its neon windows I saw a second building, a streamlined metal-and-wood structure with modern furniture and a large deck facing the Second Life ocean. This was Joanie’s, a popular dance club. Zazzy’s new store was adjacent to Joanie’s, and on her side of the border a series of signs had been put up to block Zazzy’s store from view. Authored by a group calling itself “Polite Neighbors,” the signs read:

"If you support Joanie’s, do not buy from this store!!! Stores of this nature belong in commercial areas. For someone to take the atmosphere of one of the most Romantic Venues in all of Second Life and trash it with flashing Nightclub lights is rude and uncalled for…"

As we surveyed the scene we suddenly noticed Zazzy floating near his store, complaining about the protest signs: “if they think that by being mean they will get me to go they are wrong.” (Boellstorff 2008:89-90)


A woman in Second Life. Photo credit: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images.

Second Life inhabitants become attached to their favorite places and react strongly when these places are threatened, and Boellstorff uses this observation to illustrate that virtual worlds are not “just” an image or an arrangement of pixels on a screen. This same insight can be extended to observations about attachments to things like loot in MMORPGs, or even to avatars themselves in games where players can customize and put time and work into building their avatar’s persona. Celia Pearce shows ways that this attachment to place can lead to a virtual diaspora in her study of players of Uru: Ages Beyond Mist and their gaming activities after the closure of their home game.

In order to make this connection between experience and theory, ethnographers inhabit two minds simultaneously: they live the experiences and can speak authoritatively as a player, but also can "pull back" out of their lived experiences and situate those experiences in terms of broader theories and cultural patterns. From my ethnographic work I can (and will, in a future post) tell you about the “Mailbox Dancer”* phenomenon in World of Warcraft and its relationship to the price of highly desirable goods in the game and the productivity of resource farming. Bonnie Nardi has published a book on what design aspects of World of Warcraft motivate its players, and how she experienced these features during her time as a player by feeling moments of pleasure interspersed throughout various game activities.


Questions for Games

Ethnographic insight in game environments can range from the very broad (e.g. Boellstorff’s overarching point about expressions of humanity using technology) to the very minute (e.g. Lynn Cherny’s dissection of conversational turns as methods for “taking the floor” in LamdbaMOO). What digital game ethnography is best at is seeing the effects of game design on players — or answering the question “why do players do what they do?” Some other prominent themes in ethnography are: How do players take the tools of a game and create a culture out of them? How does their physical identity affect how they play? Or, on the flip side, how does the game impact their lives and their identities? There are many types of questions that ethnographers can pursue, but as a general principle, the focus is on the people who play the game.

In the future, I will share with readers interesting ethnographies of games, and provide an ethnographic perspective on gaming-related phenomena, especially as it relates to motivation. Stay tuned -- but until then, here’s a list of some of my favorite ethnographies, including those I’ve referenced in this post.


Virtual world ethnographies:

Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton University Press, 2008.

Cherny, Lynn. Conversation and community: Chat in a virtual world. CSLI publications, 1999.

Nardi, Bonnie. My life as a night elf priest: An anthropological account of World of Warcraft. University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Pearce, Celia. Communities of play: Emergent cultures in multiplayer games and virtual worlds. MIT Press, 2009.

Schaap, Frank. The words that took us there: Ethnography in a virtual reality. Het Spinhuis, 2002.

Taylor, T. L. Play between worlds: Exploring online game culture. MIT Press, 2006.


And a few of more “traditional” ethnographies that I mentioned above:

Geertz, Clifford. "Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture." Culture: critical concepts in sociology 1 (1973): 173-196.

Mead, Margaret, and Franz Boas. Coming of age in Samoa. Vol. 4. New York: William Morrow, 1928.

Philipsen, Gerry. "Speaking “like a man” in Teamsterville: Culture patterns of role enactment in an urban neighborhood." Quarterly Journal of Speech 61.1 (1975): 13-22.



 * As one of my participants described it: “a form of prostitution, in which a person playing a female character engages in dancing and sexy behavior for other players for the purpose of earning in-game money”.

Ethnography and Gaming: A Short Primer by Lauren Collister, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

10 Responses to “Ethnography and Gaming: A Short Primer”

  1. Rory says:

    This is a very fascinating topic. Do you know if any studies have been done on ethnography in Facebook or social games? I worked on several Facebook games and occasionally we brought in players for user testing. A few of these testers were very active users and seemed to follow a set of community-defined rules with their favorite games. For example, when sending out friend requests to random players in a game's Facebook feed, the players would often list their credentials. "I play this game and ___ game and I will send out free gifts to my game friends every day."

    • Thank you Rory! I have heard talk of a number of ongoing studies on this topic, but few with publications. Most of these appear at conferences and I am having a hard time tracking down any papers or proceedings which deal with social games. But yes, I definitely know that people are doing it, and it is a rich area for exploration.

      A friend directed me to this reference for a talk that she saw at a conference which sounded similar to what you mention. The author uses mixed methods to figure out how people get others to participate in their social games.
      Wohn, D. (2011). Reciprocity in social network games and generation of social capital. In Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication online.

      Also, I just found this paper, which is an application of ethnographic insight into social game design. It was a really interesting read, for me. The author uses an ethnographic exploration of cycling culture and traffic observations combined with hybrid reality games to suggest a possible social game that could raise awareness about the interaction of cyclists and motorists.
      Chan, K. (2011, September). Visual Ethnography in Game Design: A case study of user-centric concept for a mobile social traffic game. In Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments (pp. 75-82)

      • Rory says:

        Thanks, Lauren! I will definitely have to check out those papers. I agree that social games are definitely a rich area for exploration. There are so many different types of games in this space that appeal to a wide range of gaming habits. New stuff pops up all the time, like the recent craze of "kompu gacha" card RPGs (Driland, Rage of Bahamut, Blood Brothers, etc.)

  2. Amy says:

    You did a very nice job describing how ethnographic approaches can be used to understand gaming culture and online communities without getting too academic or jargon-y about it. The article is interesting to me as an anthropologist who knows next to nothing about gaming, but can be equally as intriguing to those who are gamers or game designers. Will be bookmarking your blog for future reading.

  3. Hurrah! After all I got a web site from where I be capable of genuinely take useful facts regarding my study and

  4. Hairstyles says:

    Thanks for your handy post. Through the years, I have come to be able to understand that the actual symptoms of mesothelioma cancer are caused by this build up of fluid involving the lining of your lung and the torso cavity. The infection may start from the chest place and propagate to other areas of the body. Other symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include weight reduction, severe inhaling trouble, temperature, difficulty taking in food, and puffiness of the face and neck areas. It really should be noted that some people with the disease do not experience almost any serious signs and symptoms at all.

  5. Hairstyles says:

    Howdy! Do you know if they make any plugins to protect against hackers? I'm kinda paranoid about losing everything I've worked hard on. Any recommendations?

  6. Good Morning everybody ! can anyone advise where I can buy Bacon Flavor Dog Oil CBD Pet Products 250mg By Core CBD?

  7. Hello everyone , can anyone advise where I can buy Creating Better Days CBD Edible Sour Bears Gummies 20pc 15mg?


  1. News: I’m a contributor to Motivate. Play.! « Tales of an eLinguist - [...] and check out the blog, and if you’re interested in my contributions so far, you can read my short …
  2. ‘The Field’- boundaries and dynamism. | Kulture Kidz - […] and share experiences of interest or practice. Examples or this type of field may include an online gaming community (for …
  3. Costumbres y tradiciones: el estudio – comunicar - […] fuente […]

Leave a Reply to Lauren Collister Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>