Thursday 30 June 2016

In the Virtual 'Field': Laying the Groundwork

For any long-term research project like a dissertation, it can be difficult to know precisely when the fieldwork starts. Because even when you’ve planned a discrete period of time for gathering data, there are important steps you need to take beforehand that allow you to make the most of your time in the field. This can include background reading on the topic and methods, getting equipment, finding secondary sources to put your research in context, contacting people, and more.
For me, the last two in this list were crucial.
The work began straight after a couple of big coursework deadlines around March/April. As part of the London Games Festival in April, there were two big events that caught my eye. One was a talk at the BFI in London on The Art of Video Games by the two creative heads of The Chinese Room, an indie games company renowned for developing walking simulator games. The other was the Eurogamer Expo (EGX) Rezzed event, also in London, where there were multiple talks by relevant designers of this genre of games, as well as the opportunity to network with more people in the industry and find up-and-coming games suited to my research.

Tobacco Dock, the stage for EGX Rezzed 2016

Playing games for GamesAid at EGX

I can’t emphasise highly enough how much it helps to make these connections early. Making contact with as many relevant people as you can, and getting as much background information as possible, is a great way to avoid wasting time during your planned fieldwork dates. To be honest, adding more workload to my schedule was the last thing I wanted to do in April, with two big coursework deadlines looming at the beginning of May. But by taking initiative and putting in that extra work, I’ve been reaping the rewards by being able to jump quickly into the fieldwork proper from late May onwards.
After my coursework deadlines in May, I got straight on with contacting game developers for interviews, many off the back of the prior contact I’d made. So far, I’ve had a response rate of roughly 50%, which is much higher than you’ll hear quoted as the expected rate in any text on soliciting interviewees (~10%). This is how.
I’m fortunate that my undergraduate dissertation gave me some fantastic experience in this regard, for which I did 31 interviews. All of these required prior contact. So over time, I’ve developed a successful technique for emailing potential interviewees and getting them to respond.
Firstly, creating a good interview briefing sheet is a must. This sheet must give a neat, clear summary of what your research is about, why you are contacting the person, and what they can expect from the interview process. The next stage is adding the logo of the university/institution you are representing, alongside contact information, which gives you a sense of credibility and trustworthiness. The last parts are mainly stylistic. I like to add a photo of myself – the same as that which is on most of my internet accounts – so that they know everything’s legit. You also tailor the text to the particular audience. In this case I’ve been contacting video game developers, who are typically fun-loving, easy-going, informal, and not necessarily knowledgeable about academia. Therefore, the tone I’ve adopted gives the impression that I’m mainly just a nice guy who wants to have a fun, interesting chat about video games.

Secondly, you need to write good personalised emails to send along with the briefing sheets, which are a bit like what a cover letter is to a CV. This is where you address the particular person you are contacting, asking if they would be willing to be interviewed. The most essential thing here is research and background information, so that you can appeal to that person’s unique character, interests and knowledge. Google searches and following people on social media are great, and for me it was also important to demonstrate my knowledge of their games/other work too. This is also the right time to mention any personal connections or recommendations – for example, if you’ve spoken to the person before (as I had with some developers at games events), or if other people had recommended speaking to them. All in all, this should give the person the impression that you know your stuff, are enthusiastic about the subject and are committed to your research, which all increase the likelihood of replies.
You may be wondering how I managed to get the contact information for the interviewees in the first place. Fortunately, because game developers are artists making a product for public sale, they nearly always have websites with email addresses that are publicly available for people to contact. Occasionally the email addresses are for the whole development team, which can be annoying if you’re looking to contact a specific person. In this case, I found their email addresses elsewhere on the internet, including at the end of public talks that could be watched online. Also, if you know the format of the company’s email addresses, you can make an educated guess. Typically it’s [first name]@[company name].com.
Overall, the lesson here is that putting more effort at the stages before fieldwork will be beneficial in the long run. Taking the time to do your homework and think carefully about how you approach people is always better than a scattergun approach, where you simply spam every relevant person you can find with a generic email, because the latter gives the impression that you don’t care as much. People actually really enjoy talking about themselves and topics that they find interesting – all you have to do is cultivate that interest and enthusiasm by showing your own.

Wednesday 29 June 2016

In the Virtual 'Field': Researching Video Games

The opening scene of Dear Esther, perhaps the 'original' walking simulator game

Now that all the coursework for my Masters is finished, I’ve been engrossed in independent research for my dissertation, which is due at the end of August.
My research is about video games.
Video games are increasingly popular and influential cultural products. The video game industry is now worth $99.6 billion globally – which is more than books, music and cinema respectively – and is growing at 8.5% each year. The diversity and innovation that this industry is now producing has rightfully bolstered the status of games as ‘art’. More than ever, they are deserving of in-depth research. But compared to other cultural products, research is significantly lacking.
My dissertation is looking at the environments of video games. In particular, I’m focusing on a type called ‘walking simulator’ or ‘exploration’ games. What sets these titles apart is how players interact with the game, where many traditional game mechanics are avoided (e.g. shooting/fighting, counting scores, winning/losing, player death, character customisation). Instead, these games engage players and tell stories mainly by providing a rich environment for the player to explore.
Like in real places, these virtual environments have a rich sense of place because they are the setting for a body of information and meanings – sights, sounds, memories, emotions, histories, symbols, and so on – that are unique to that site. Unlike in many traditional games, in which their setting is simply a backdrop for the actions the game wants you to perform, walking simulators are based on the idea that the stories and emotional power present in well-designed, immersive game environments alone can give the player a (potentially more) engaging experience.
What fascinates me is the way that virtual environments can enable such deeply affecting experiences, given that they are literally made up of computer code, manipulated through the minds and actions of their designers and players.
To understand how this happens, my research has three main questions at its core:

- What spatial techniques do designers use to construct a sense of place in video games?
- What agency do players have in the designed game world? What is the power relationship between designers and players in experiences of the game world?
- How is the player’s own identity brought into the world of the video game?

Like all geographers undertaking primary research, I’m doing fieldwork to find the answer to these questions. Though, as you might imagine with a topic like video games, my ‘field’ isn’t the traditional grassy wetland on a rainy day. It is more of a virtual one.
In three posts over the next three days, I’ll be talking about the methods I’ve used to gather data in this unconventional ‘field’. These include laying the groundwork for my research by attending game events, listening to talks by game designers, and making contact with people in the industry; interviewing award-winning, internationally-recognised game developers; and, perhaps most excitingly, a novel technique of playing video games and recording my experiences.
I’m ultimately hoping that my research can break new ground in the knowledge and study of video games, and give rise to some new threads of thinking within geography and other humanities/social sciences.
Over the next three days I’ll explain how.


You can read the research proposal I wrote for my dissertation here.