Written by Merethe Riggelsen Gjørding, Mace Ojala, and Rachel Douglas-Jones
Over the Spring of 2021, members of the ETHOS Lab joined together online to participate in the three-part event series Playing with Method: Game Design as Ethnographic Method The events, organized as a set of evening talks, were hosted by our “cousin-lab” the Stadtlabor for Multimodal Anthropology at the Institute of European Ethnology, Humboldt University. We attended together remotely by setting up a chat backchannel on our own institution’s platform-of-choice, and shared observations, notes as well as photos and commentary on our dinners, while following the evening streams.
Sitting with some of the thoughts among ourselves in the aftermath, we have written up our reflections both on the event and on what it means to participate as a group during a time of dispersed, distributed, but connected collective enquiry. What follows is both a response to and an appreciation of the seminar series, weaving together commentaries on the content, presentations, and our own notes. We thank the organizers for creating the online space (that also gave us online space) for collective reflections on games and methodology.
As the name Playing as Method: Game Design as Ethnographic Method indicates, the focus was not on research of games, but games as research, and particularly what insights could be drawn from experiences of game design into ethnographic, anthropological research. The three events were designed as a series, imagined as a ‘collective conversation’, and each consisted of two presentations on the themes of urban, organizational and educational matters. The stated ambition of the series was to put game development in conversation with socio-cultural research: could this mode of working provoke a shift “from describing to intervening, from representing to performing (and breaching) reality, thus experimenting with what politics and critique might mean whenever we prototype and play?”. Besides the usual questions and answers with the presenting researchers, the organisers offered participants an opportunity to meet with other participants in Zoom breakout rooms. After-event “lounging” took place on Wonder.me, another meeting platform profiting from the Corona virus, known for how it allows online delegates to slip into and out of conversations, moving their avatar around a digital space. Both socializing opportunities were a welcome interruption into the usual sense of alienation from peers, seen only in small Zoom boxes or as a list of names at virtual events. Our colleagues at Humboldt succeeded in drawing in a crowd, with a nicely diverse attendance exceeding three hundred people at each.
Games as Research?
The ambition of the events was to be practical – offering examples (card, board, performance, video-game) – and an opportunity to think through “theoretical repertoires, and speculative visions or propositional arguments” (Stadtlabor, 2021). The six invited speakers reported from their different anthropological research projects, showing how aspects of game design had been applied as a means to generate knowledge from and intervene in their various fields. For instance, Claudia Hummel talked about a re-enactment research project which had temporarily brought an anti-capitalist neighbourhood Realitätsvermittlung “playground” from early 1970s East Germany (GDR) back to life with children, while Judith Igelsböck and Friedrich Kirschner established a participatory performance at Ars Electronica 2020. Joe Dumit talked about his praxis of design and teaching of a game about fracking, the peculiar industry dedicated to exploding the planet in a desperate and grotesque attempt to squeeze gas out of rock. This was a workshop we knew well and it was great fun to spot some familiar sites and faces in the slides, as his talk drew on the activities during his 2016 workshop in ETHOS Lab.
Games and Norms
Game design are fun, because they help systematize, formalize, explain (in logical sense). And of course because it’s legit to do wild shit ~ Mace Ojala
As the presenters established, an interesting property of game design as a research method is that it establishes a temporary, bounded, and safe system of social roles, concepts, and materials in systematic, artificial, and explicit relations with one another. This system can then be performed, tested, and experienced first-hand from within by literally playing with it. Many, if not all, of the presentations drew on the possibilities of these suggestive systematizations and from interacting with them, often with university students.
The issues of normativity of such constructed, performed game-systems were raised via a question from the audience not long into the seminar. Two researchers had presented their game titled House of Gossip; a critical play (Flanagan 2009) twist on the classical boardgame Monopoly, situated in a gentrified area of Berlin. In the game, players assumed the roles of either a renter or a property owner. The audience question was about how the researchers had dealt with the inevitable normativity of designing the winning condition of the game? The question argued that when you design the rules of the game you assign distinct values to various outcomes; which moves are bad (when do you need to skip a round; when do you lose points), which ones are good (when are you awarded; when can you win).
The presenting researchers answered that by creating and making available various player-roles you also make their life–worlds and norm systems available; and thus offer a plurality of norms and truths instead of just one.
What however caught our attention was the implicit assumption of the question; that we as researchers would not always-already be navigating normativity, and being mindful and reflective of how to deal with the life–worlds and normativity of the research participants as well as our own in production of knowledge; our own life–worlds, political commitments, pleasures, priorities, and values.
Game design as an ethnographic method might make it visible that we are using and pushing forward certain life–worlds or positions, but you will not find a research article which isn’t also doing that. One of the strength of games might be the explicitness of their rules and structure, reflecting various the conditions and life-positions.
In a game the players are invited to restrict themselves to the similar obstacles and choices as the character they are playing – an invitation they might play along, or transgress (Ryding, 2021). Thinking about John Rawls’ veil of ignorance (1971), games on gentrification might be a very fitting method to make visible that there are different possibilities and “moves” assigned to different subjecthoods.
What we perceived as hesitance to assert the situatedness, positioning and commitments of their research (game) design from the get-go, before prompted by the audience question, stuck with us – we ourselves find that taking subjective, non-neutral stances in research does not risk validity or dubiety or even fraudulence, but instead enables accountability.
Work and Play
Game design requires that you think about your research as processes ~ Anne-Sofie Lautrup Sørensen
As science and technology studies (STS) scholars, as methods lab, and many of us actively doing ethnographic work, we were collectively predisposed to pay more attention to the methods and presentations of the research of our peers, than to the content of their work. Games in research can initiate conversations and reflections on choices behind which positions and people we give voice and words to and the reasons why. Perhaps it can force us to be more transparent about our own process and use of empirical material in creating specific arguments and structures. Perhaps it is useful in the process towards accountable knowledge. And perhaps it can be a hoot.
While using game design can be useful for ethnographic research, questions can be raised about what might be lost when games are harnessed to functional research goals, backgrounding or erasing the wonderful “just because” motivation of the game as a cultural form. So-called “gamification”, embellishing interactions such as work or consumption with points, badges and trinkets into shallow “games” has been critiqued in the field of games studies on the basis of trading away some fun-damentally human characteristic of gaming and playing for the (arguably) shallower, extractive intentions of management, governance and commercialization.
I find the process kind of mindblowing – a kind of meta that isn’t aware that it’s meta? So, realising that theatre people use similar methods to critical innovation scholars, and then proceeding to “play with” this overlap while attempting to use the meta game (because innovation is already a game with its own developed language) to explore how the game (not meta) is put to work? ~ Rachel Douglas-Jones
If only we got a point for each layer of meta we constructed in the game called anthropological research… 🏆
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Attending Together but Separately
Definitely recorded pre-Covid-times. My automatic reaction was “Ew, 2 meters distance, people!” ~ Kitt Plinia Bjerregaard Nielsen
Online conferencing lends itself well to convening together in smaller “nodes”. In May 2020 we participated in Distribute 2020 the second virtual event for the Society for Cultural Anthropology in the USA. Writing up our participation in that event we asked: “what is an online node of an online conference?” As we continue to explore what attending to virtual events together means for us individually and for our lab, the Games as Method series provided a newly temporally distributed, newly social model for learning and conversing. The series, at a very simple level, allowed us to prioritize sharing time and experiences with close colleagues even in the presence of less familiar contacts.
Given our prior experiences with games as part of research, it also allowed us to continue existing threads of conversation, as we responded to the projects we listened to and saw through the series. Furthermore, attending events together enacts the lab and brings it about. Both of these have special value under the prolonged COVID-19 caused regime of limited conference attendance and dominance of agenda-based meetings, and it is crucial when consistently trying to collectivize knowledge build-up.
- Flanagan, M. (2009). Critical play: Radical game design. MIT press.
- Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Ryding (2021). Affective Critical Play: Radical Design of Hybrid Museum Experiences, PhD dissertation, IT University of Copenhagen.
/ 🦶note: The presentations were recorded and are available on the Stadtlabor for multimodal anthropology’s website together with the abstracts.