Exam question 3

3) Design a study that examines the ways in which communication and collaboration take place during MMORPG gaming. Start by describing the research topic and then briefly considering the trade-offs between pursuing this research topic experimentally versus ethnographically. After doing so, frame the research question(s) associated with an ethnographic approach. Finally, develop a design for an ethnographic study of this topic. Be sure to address how and why you will select specific sites of study (e.g. the game, specific raid groups, guilds, etc.), what conceptual themes organize and bound the work, how you will gain entry / establish rapport with participants, what criteria would you use to recruit participants, what primary data you would anticipate wanting to collect using specific methodologies, how will you know when you can end your fieldwork successfully, and how might you intend to analyze these data to answer your research question(s). (In designing the study, please consider the option of collecting data from within the game experience as well as what occurs in the physical contexts of the participants.)

Research Topic

My research serves two major functions: 1) to study how certain gamers learn to cooperate with each other in shared activities and 2) to ask how gamers can be empowered and mobilized in both on and off-screen life by gaining an understanding of their relationships to a broader social context. Related agendas include making cross-setting comparisons with regards to teamwork and the design and implementation of tools or processes to enable more effective group work. Many businesses and community organizations depend on teams of people to work on joint projects. Understanding how certain teams learn to work together in games could be a powerful way of understanding how teams could be structured and managed in non-game settings. Furthermore, I believe many social problems in general exist because not enough people are carefully reflecting on their actions and consequences. Looking at specific groups of gamers and their socio-political contexts can help us understand how they learn teamwork and how they understand their positions within the gaming sub-culture.

I say “certain gamers,” “certain teams,” and “specific groups” because I believe the management and structural work for any team should be done through an “organic” (Gramsci, 1971) understanding of the group. The process of implementing new ways of working should emerge from the group itself. Gaining a deep understanding of how this “authentic” work is done has to be done through ethnographic means (Freire, 1970/2000, esp. chapter 3, and Porter, 2001, for a great justification of ethnography). While survey research allows broad generalizations to be made about whole populations, survey conclusions only help researchers superficially understand player and group behavior. The results paint a hypothetical portrait of an unrealized entity and do not speak to what researchers would see in specific contexts. Likewise, findings from experimental research with the intent to find generalizations would be too limiting because these findings would not be authentically situated for other groups of players. It may be true that certain conditions as demonstrated by experimental research are more likely to encourage cooperative behavior in most groups, but implementing changes based on site-specific research can have larger benefits to the specific sites under study. Furthermore, enacting broad changes across whole populations based on survey or experimental research may perpetuate and exacerbate existing marginalization for some groups of people. In some cases, in fact, the simple act of normalizing demographics does certain groups of people a disservice because a snapshot of a population cannot help us understand the history and position of specific groups. Findings from broad research (c.f., Yee, ongoing) are not specific to my experiences. I’m always left saying, “that’s interesting, but it’s not what I see.” To effectively enact social change requires deeper pockets of understanding because each social group must be affected in an organic, authentic fashion that respects the group’s lived experience (c.f., hooks, 1994, and Ransby, 2002). The task for me then is not to find generalizable, top-level policies or guidelines for how to structure a group nor to paint a general portrait of what gamers are like, but rather to find generalizable processes for discovering the guidelines to use in micro settings and speak about specific gamers within my personal social circle (c.f., Vargas, 2006, on how he wrote about the people and events around him).

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Mark’s PhD exams, question 3