fieldnotes Synthetic Worlds

Fieldnotes (example)

This is neither a particularly good nor especially enlightening entry from an old field notebook (from work in World of Warcraft, probably 5 years ago or so). In that way, it is fairly typical. These notes really pay off in the aggregate.

method Synthetic Worlds

Doing virtual ethnography

If you’ve ventured into your virtual world and found yourself bored by the tedium and appalled by the low-brow silliness of your surroundings, you may find yourself asking: Why am I doing this?

Soooo close. But a little more work is required.

That’s good! You really should understand why you’re doing something before you do it. It makes for the most meaningful learning, but it also makes for better worlds: If human beings had done this from the start, we might have skipped over millennia of brutality and stupidity.

But since you asked, here are two reasons why this matters.

Innovation Ain’t Easy

That’s why a lot of folk admire the work that the ethnographic method encourages: It is very open-ended, very outcome-agnostic. It leaves open the possibility (no matter how small) that during your fieldwork in Fiji, or in the Maldives, or in Athens, or even in Warcraft’s Azeroth, you are witness to something no one has seen before. It doesn’t insist on that, but it does allow for that remote possibility.

That’s why virtual ethnography works so well, I think: It allows for novelty in our research, but also for predictable outcomes. In any event, it is hard, it is work, because the ethnographic tools we bring with us try to stay out of our way: There is scant room for theories or conceptual frameworks. There is just you, your notebook, and a lot of strangers.


Digital research of any sort is a challenge because it involves computers, software, and long, frustrating periods of troubleshooting and repair.

It has always been this way, and it will continue to be this way for the foreseeable future. That is the nature of consumer-grade computation. If you are interested in digital environments, digital toolsets, or both, then you must accept that frustrating software and unpredictable hardware are part of your future.

method Synthetic Worlds

The science of ethnography

You don’t have to read these two chapters, but (1) they are concise and well-written, and (2) they go a long way to justifying some of the digital research methodology we’re adopting this semester. If science (or the human sciences) are an important part of your worldview, I think you’d find the short articles especially interesting: Boellstorff (who used to be the President of the American Anthropological Association) and his colleagues have a lot of well-reasoned arguments to make about the scientific nature of ethnographic research.

CH2 & CH3 from Boellstorff et alia, Handbook of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds Research. Not for distribution.

admin Synthetic Worlds

Enter World

In some alternate universe version of Miami University, in some eerily similar version of Oxford Ohio, today is the start of spring break. And it is here, too. Kinda.

If you want or need to take some or all of this week in order to regain your balance, I encourage you to do that: The months ahead are going to be difficult. A little time for personal rejuvenation and reflection can be good. We’ll do everything we can to make that work for you, both now and at the semester’s end.

Of course, if you want to return to coursework in earnest, I can get behind that, too. Happily, if complex video games are your thing, then this week offers a fairly pleasant distraction as we get back into schoolwork — by immersing yourself in fantastic worlds that demand your (almost) undivided attention.

The video included in this post offers a quick overview of MMORPGs [Massively-Multiplayer Role-Playing Games] by way of one of the most venerable offerings in that genre, World of Warcraft. The video itself isn’t really a must watch (I’m trying to get the technological kinks ironed out of this new system: There are a lot of plosives in audio track, for example). But whether you are playing Warcraft this semester or are engaged in a different MMORPG altogether, it is worth knowing a bit about that game.

this week’s goals

Near the end of the video, I talk about what I hope you’ll be able to accomplish this week. The goal is for you to achieve some kind of mastery of the game: Its rules, its systems, its avatar-control. Ask yourself, for example: Can you easily take a screen shot? Can you chat when someone prompts you? When another player asks you to trade, can you indulge her? If someone is harrassing you, can you put them on mute? Can you report them? When it is time to level-up your character, do you have a sense of the choices you are asked to make?

None of which is to say that this information will do much for you on its own. But ready-access to that knowledge is a pre-requisite to diving more deeply into these games and the human communities that they foster.

So again, for this week: Play the game. That may not seem like much, but it is really asking a lot: Look for opportunities to engage with others, chat with them, learn from them. Just about anything you do in the field will pay off next week, when we start our fieldwork in earnest.

Look for another post in a day or so.