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.

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