MMO Ethnography: The Customs and Cultures of Online Gamers
By Richard Wirth
Ethnography is the field that turned my interest towards games in academia. As a lifelong veteran of MMORPGs, the concept of being a participant-researcher in this space was something I could really appreciate. One of the tenets of ethnography, as stated by Paul Dourish in Ways of Knowing in HCI, is that “ethnography directs our attention towards the importance of participation not just as a natural and unavoidable consequence of going somewhere, but as the fundamental point.”
Pictured above is one example of how online communities and cultures create their own rituals and mythoi. "RNGesus", a portmanteau of the Christian Jesus and the acronym for "random number generator", has become a deity for many players of ArcheAge, who erect shrines to him in their homes in the hopes that it will bring them luck.Ethnographers subscribe to the belief that participating in an event reveals much more observable and notable events than pure, divorced observation can; this is a fact of which I am personally convinced, especially regarding online interactive environments. As in the image above, there are some unique and outlandish aspects of online culture that one would not understand without taking part in it themselves. In the case of ArcheAge's "RNGesus", a seemingly parodic interpretation of Jesus Christ, players actively conduct rituals in his name. In my initial weeks of studying the game for my master's thesis, I laughed off elements of culture such as this, assuming it was purely in jest. However, it wasn't long before I was joining in the ritual activity, whether that entailed throwing captured fish back into the oceans to garner his favor, or sacrificing members of the enemy faction at the foot of his effigy. A number of prolific scholars in this field have noted their experiences in online communities in a similar fashion. Bonnie Nardi's anthropological work in World of Warcraft came to be titled "My Life as a Night Elf Priest", and T.L. Taylor's seminal work "Play Between Worlds" contained numerous stories of her personal experiences in both virtual space and real life conventions. I have repeatedly heard ethnography defined as a field of scientific cultural storytelling, and I think that branding is right on the money, as it were. Remaining distanced and purely observational in the study of online culture and game spaces fails to take advantage of the interactive element that is inherent in the medium. Ethnographers interact within a space, prompting events and observable situations through their actions, just as a player operates within the function of a game system. At the heart of ethnography is a desire to understand what its like to inhabit a space or culture, and video games allow one to do so with relative ease. I consider ethnography to be a qualitative methodology that serves to aid in interpreting the knowledge acquired through quantitative means, especially with regard to the understanding of player behavior and motivation in these spaces. One could argue that every player is a potential ethnographer, or at least a participant-observer. This sense of understanding and experiential learning is why I aim to incorporate ethnographic studies into the majority of my work. While quantitative measures are certainly critical in identifying and applying the psychology of the players, there is a narrative element to this data that can be most successfully expressed through ethnographic study.