Gaming, playing, and methodology

whatsOne of my biggest pet peeves in reading gaming studies is when studies seem to patronise gamers, which can happen in various ways such as the researcher not even playing the games (or mentioning that they have ANY experience with games) or not allowing the player to speak for themselves.

Just for some context: my main area of study is around immersion and identification. I should also mention I use qualitative methods, not quantitative, so if you are a researcher reading this, going ‘WTF she on about?’ feel free to leave a comment about how it works in your discipline. Always happy to learn!


It is, admittedly, complicated with games, being that it would be time-consuming (and insane) to play a game every possible way it can be played, and also that the skill level of the researcher can make progression difficult  (I’m terrible at FPS and physics games). For large studies, it would be impossible to access and fully play every game mentioned in passing, but at the very least even the mere interest or gaming as a hobby would better equip people in being able to more thoroughly consider the nature and role of games, and game genres.

In a discussion on a methodological divide in gaming studies between social science and humanities approaches, Williams concludes that playing a game is a necessary step in the research design. In particular, Williams uses the example of a study (from 2000) on video game violence that used Wolfenstein (’92) and Myst (’95) as a comparable violent/non-violent game pairing. Anyone who has played them would reject that they are comparable, and Williams also states that their results have been contested because of this poor choice of games.


There are opposing viewpoints on whether researchers of games should play games at all. Espen Aarseth argues that informed game scholarship must involve play. Jan Simons relates playing games as being similar to narratologists writing novels or art historians making paintings or designing buildings. Furthermore, this is justified by Simons that those who are fully engaged in the story are not usually the best to critique it. But, just as much as too little distance could be problematic (and less so if you engage in fan studies theory, and are reflexive about it), too much distance is also extremely problematic. Being a fan of something is a lived experience, and by no means an uncommon one. Some fans have particularly complicated relationships with their objects of fannishness, and have no issue critiquing what they love – as below.

Another issue that comes to mind when reading studies is the problem of the tests itself. Taking place in a lab would surely affect response by extricating the gamer from their place of gaming? Also the timing of the study – some studies attempt to find something from a gamer’s engagement with a game after 10 or 15 minutes. This is problematic on so many levels, especially when talking about identification. You can’t switch on any old game, sit down someone who might have never played it before, let them play for such a short time, and then expect them to feel the same way about it that they would for a game they regularly play at home. The games I feel strongest about, I’ve spend hundreds of hours in. Put me down in front of an FPS I’ve never played for 15 minutes (which as above, I’m not great at nor interested in) could yield drastically different results.


Of course there are good studies out there that respect the player. Some of my particular favourites are Woodford, Waern, and Waggoner. These three are not autoethnographical studies, but reflect on their own gaming practices to complement or construct a narrative around their main study of other players’ experiences.

Woodford and Waern take the approach of examining the meta-game – communications outside of the gaming environment, such as forums, websites and blogs. These were to get impressions of certain aspects of gameplay from players themselves using their own words and context.The justification is that these are games people played and felt so strongly about, that they publicly posted their opinions on these sites.

Waggoner’s main study involved participant observation (recording their gameplay and transcribing their actions) and one on one interviews, first interviews before gaming to establish the participant’s background and experience with games, and post-gaming to ask the participant about how and why they took the particular actions in the game they did. While the participants hadn’t played the games before, I’ll give Waggoner points for extensively considering the player’s history and discussing their personal tastes and skills when it comes to game genres.


All this ranting is leading somewhere! It’s the basis for how and why of my triangulation (using multiple methodologies). Sure, no method is perfect, but the important things for me are: actually having played games before – any game!; not restricting the voice of the player; and not denying the influence of space and sociality.

As a reward for going through all this, you can watch my first attempt at recording gameplay where I was trying to track the paths hearses took in Cities: Skylines to understand why I had dead bodies piling up despite crematoriums being EVERYWHERE. Turns out, watching traffic is pretty mesmerising!

Recommended Reading

  • Aarseth, Espen. “Playing Research: Methodological Approaches to Game Analysis.” Digital Arts Culture (2004): 1–7.
  • Simons, Jan. “Narrative , Games , and Theory.” The International Journal of Computer Game Research 7.1 (2007): 1–16. Print.
  • Williams, D. “Bridging the Methodological Divide in Game Research.” Simulation & Gaming 36.4 (2005): 447–463.
  • Woodford, Darryl. “Hanging out Is Hard to Do : Methodology in Non-Avatar Environments.” Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 4.3 (2012): 275–288.
  • Waern, Annika. “‘ I’m in Love with Someone That Doesn’t Exist !’ Bleed in the Context of a Computer Game.” Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds 3.3 (2011): 239–257.
  • Waggoner, Z. My Avatar, My Self: Identity in Video Role-Playing Games. Jefferson, McFarland, 2009. Book.

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