Friday 1 July 2016

In the Virtual 'Field': Playing Video Games for Research

To understand how the environments of video games work, you need immerse yourself and play in them – that is their purpose. However, you might be wondering how something seemingly so indulgent as playing a video game could ever be considered ‘research’.
Yet immersing oneself in a different culture to learn about how it works habitually, at the level of practice and individual action, has been a valid research technique for a long time. It’s called ethnography, and is perhaps most famous for being used by social scientists of the past, who spent years living amongst tribal communities in the Global South. The principle is the same – you need to be immersed, and to some extent participating, in a culture and its practices to effectively understand them.
In this case, though, rather than observing other people/cultures, I’m observing myself – my actions, what I observe, hear, feel and think – as I play video games that I own. This is called autoethnography.
Ultimately, this method had to produce data that I can analyse and use to form an understanding and argument about how video game environments create a sense of place. I needed ways of capturing my actions, observations, thoughts and feelings accurately and in a usable format.
There were three main techniques I used to do this.
Firstly, there’s my research diary. After a gaming session, I take time to reflect upon my experiences and gather my thoughts. Then, usually later in the day, I write down detailed notes in my research diary based on my collected thoughts. As this is a reflective process, I can take time to consider both the game as a whole, as well as individual moments within it, in relation to the questions guiding my research.

Pages from my research diary

However, only writing about my experiences after playing the game might not capture the more instantaneous feelings I have during play, which are important for understanding how the game environments are affecting me. These experiences are often difficult to convey through writing, because when you write your brain is heavily processing and manipulating the bodily information it receives. Although you can certainly argue that it is impossible to ever comprehend basic feelings without manipulating them in some way, I’ve attempted to get closer to the ‘raw’ experience by using voice recording.
Using the arrangement pictured below, I set up a condenser microphone and voice recording software to record myself as I play the games. The advantage of this approach is that I capture my immediate reactions to all the small, incidental events within the game that might be forgotten later on when I write the research diary. This often includes sudden, pre-cognitive responses to the environment, such as wonder, fear and surprise, which are potentially as important to the experience as my longer-term impressions of the game.

My voice recording setup when playing games for research

The last main technique I use to record experiences is taking screenshots while playing the game. Visual evidence is excellent to have, not only as reminder to myself of the things I have witnessed, but for the dissertation itself, so I can point towards concrete examples of different design techniques and things I’ve encountered in the game environments. Images are also potentially better at capturing things like ambience, mood and symbolism than I could express in writing or through voice recording. I can then consider these factors in the analysis, alongside the diary and recording data.

Symbolism from the cave in Dear Esther

Visual evidence from The Stanley Parable

A cache box in Firewatch

Hand-written postcard in Gone Home

These methods aren’t flawless, and this is something I’ll be talking about in my dissertation.
Screenshots can’t be categorised and analysed as easily as text, because you can’t just do a key word search to find evidence related to a specific theme.
Constantly speaking and taking screenshots while playing can be a distraction from what is actually happening in the game, therefore altering the experience you have of the environment.
The voice recordings are lengthy, so will take a long time to analyse.
And all of these different data – especially gameplay recordings and screenshots – require large amounts of storage space on a PC, and therefore also take longer to back up to the cloud or an external storage device.
Nonetheless, I’ve been gathering a comprehensive and mixed set of data that will be valuable and interesting to analyse. They also complement each other very well for my research aims, as I’ll be able to compare and contrast what I observe in the screenshots/diary/recordings with the data from the interviews/talks with game developers.
I therefore hope that this original combination of research methods can potentially advance the field to improve future research in cultural geography, and on the subject of video games in particular.
The research I’ve done so far has been incredibly insightful, and although the analysis and eventual write-up is going to be hard work, I’m looking forward to seeing what can be learnt from this very unique body of work.
I’ll write again about the analysis stage in a month’s time.

In the Virtual 'Field': Interviewing

My decision to do interviews – alongside playing video games themselves – was a very specific one. Through these methods, I’m aiming to get insight both into how the game environments are conceived and designed (through talking to their designers), but also how they are experienced when played (through playing them myself), and how the two inter-relate.
As such, my research isn’t as solely focused on the interviews as my undergraduate dissertation, when I did 31. This time I’m only doing around 10. But they still need to be rigorous, to get the most useful information as concisely as possible. The interviews are also my main way of communicating with people in the games industry, so I want to try and build good relationships with the developers to raise the status of my research. If done right, research can be as influential for industry as industry is for research.
Thanks to my extensive experience in conducting interviews, I’ve developed an effective process for preparing and carrying out interviews. I’ll talk through some elements of this now.

Preparation and interview schedules
Preparation is crucial, because to get valuable responses you need to ask good questions, and also create a strong rapport with the interviewee. The key element is the interview schedule, a document which sets out a plan for how the interview will be structured.
This isn’t meant to be rulebook, though. I’m doing semi-structured interviews, which means that although I’m guiding the conversation, I’m leaving plenty of room for the interviewee to talk about what matters to them. After all, because I’m not a game designer myself and do not know all the ins and outs of making a game environment, I’d probably miss out on a great deal of important information by simply going through a set list of questions directed by me, with little room for elaboration.
Instead, my interview schedules are thematic. I don’t want the interview to be a completely unstructured conversation, otherwise there’s a greater risk that I won’t get any answers to my research questions. So instead I write down some themes that I want to cover, with ideas of questions I could ask based on my research questions and prior knowledge of the topic. Then, as the conversation flows, I can choose appropriate moments to respond and dig deeper into what the interviewee is saying specifically, or ask a question from a relevant theme in my schedule to guide the conversation a little more towards my research purposes.
It’s a bit of give and take – a conversation with a purpose. 
Like the emails I initially send to contacts, the schedule themes/questions are tailored to the individual interviewee, based on prior knowledge about their specific game(s), any previous talks/articles/interviews they’ve done on the topic, and anything we’ve talked about before the interview in person or via email. Sometimes I might want to dig deeper into something they’ve mentioned before; other times I might identify something relevant that they haven’t talked about. Some of the questions I’ve asked to other interviewees are repeated, if they’re appropriate, and worked well before. Overall, as you learn more with each interview, and encounter different people, the interview schedule is also adapted.

Skype interviews
Let’s talk about the interviews themselves. As all of my interviewees live far away from Kent, and are all busy with upcoming projects, every interview has so far been on Skype. Skype interviews actually have a lot of advantages over face-to-face interviews. They’re easy to record at high quality, using free call recording software from the internet (check out Amolto Call Recorder), which removes a lot of the worries of hurriedly noting down everything. The recordings also tend to be clearer because they usually take place in quiet surroundings with both speakers close to the microphone, unlike face-to-face interviews which often take place in more public spaces, with background noise and awkward seating arrangements.
You can also choose whether to use video or not. Video allows you to see and interpret the body language of the interviewee, and communicate more directly. Audio-only, however, means that you can concentrate more on what the interviewee is saying, less conscious of your own body language and surroundings.

The day of the interview
On the day of the interview, a sensible routine is good practice. If it’s early, I make sure I set plenty of alarms and give myself comfortably enough time to get ready in the morning. I have a sort of mental checklist of things I do – make sure the interview schedule is printed off and laid out in front of me; make sure I have paper and a pen ready; make sure I’m online on Skype at least 5 minutes before the start time, with the call recording software running; make sure I have a drink nearby and have eaten; put up post-it notes of anything specific that I want to remember; and ensure that my laptop is in a good position for the webcam and microphone.

My standard Skype interview setup

It can sometimes be a bit nerve-wracking before interviews, particularly when you are talking to people with any kind of status. My first interview for this project was with one of my absolute heroes of game design who knows a lot about the topic, and having also not interviewed for quite a long time, I was somewhat nervous. Once you get into a rhythm, though, it’s fine. It’s all about easing yourself and the interviewee into the conversation.
The interviews themselves have gone really well so far. I can already sense how much my interview technique has improved since my undergraduate research.
I’m better at picking up on details of what the interviewee is saying, and then using them in subsequent questions to dig deeper and find out more about what they’re thinking.
I’m generally better at framing my questions in a way that gets the interviewee to talk at length about what they feel is relevant – using question structures such as ‘Tell me about…’, ‘What do you think about..’, etc.
I’ve also improved how I manage the flow of the conversations, starting with simple and broader questions, and then following the different trains of thought to reach the important, useful details.
And lastly, I have a much better sense of when the interview should stop. In the past, I’ve asked more questions than I needed to, simply because I assumed I would get more relevant information. But longer interviews take more time to transcribe, and answers aren’t always as informative when you and the interviewee lose momentum.

Transcription is the final step before analysis. This is the often painstaking process of typing up each interview word for word, so that what was said can be analysed easier. It can be very lengthy, depending on the speed you type, the quality of the recording, and how fast the interviewee speaks. 1 hour of recording will typically take 5 - 7 hours to transcribe. 
However, you also don't always need to copy every single word that is said. For example, the initial greetings and small talk you make with the interviewee, or if the interviewee decides to go off on a tangent that is definitely not relevant to what you're talking about. It can happen.
For this project, I’ve learnt from past mistakes and made sure to transcribe my interviews as soon as possible after doing them. Doing this means that what was said is still fresh in your mind, and ultimately allows you to analyse the interview sooner.
There are other benefits to thorough transcription, though. As well as giving you greater familiarity with your data, which helps with analysis, it can also help you improve your interview technique. Every now and then I’ll listen to something I’ve said during an interview and cringe, realising how I could have phrased it much better, or notice a detail that I should have asked more about. I can then learn from these errors in the next interview.

All in all, I’ve immensely enjoyed the interviews so far. I’ve always loved this part of researching, because it is such a pleasure and a privilege to meet new and interesting people, and learn from their unique viewpoints on topics that I also find interesting. I’m very grateful to all the game developers I’ve spoken to so far, and thank them for their time.