Ethnography and Virtual Worlds

A Handbook of Method

Elise Vist is a third-year PhD student interested in autobiographical games as well as fan studies. In particular, she focuses on the negotiations of power between creators and their audiences. She is also a co-founder of the GI Janes, a group devoted to encouraging women in Kitchener/Waterloo to make, play, and talk about games.


“We conduct research not just to mine data from informants, but to learn about their theoretical and pragmatic insights. […And] the goal of ethnographic research [is] an understanding of the cultural contexts in which human action takes place.” – Ethnography and Virtual Worlds 16.

What are your overall thoughts?*

It’s been over a year since I first picked up this book, so I can say without any hesitation that has been one of the more important books I’ve read during my PhD. I come back to this text and the notes I took from it again and again, and it’s a constant presence on my bibliographies. Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce and T. L. Taylor have written this handbook for people who study virtual worlds (the general term they use to group the variety of game-worlds that people inhabit, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft), but it’s a great text for anyone interested in incorporating ethnography into their digital scholarship, whether or not their research is strictly game studies or something that’s more-or-less related. In my case, even though the communities I study take place on Tumblr instead of in a MMORPG, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds continues to provide me with the language and the tools necessary to articulate my research, particularly in an environment that privileges quantitative analysis. Although my experience of game studies and digital humanities has been rooted within English departments, I do still see a history of quantitative methodologies in those fields. Things like text analysis software, for example, allows researchers to collect large amounts of data very quickly. As a tool within a larger toolkit, text analysis can be valuable, but on its own it misses the larger context of the material, a problem that Boellstorff et al. set out to correct.

It’s tempting to rely on statistical and quantitative methodologies for the study of gaming communities, because the communities exist online, often in archived/archivable forums. You can, surprisingly easily, get detailed information about what devices people use, how long they play, who they play with, how many times they failed to beat the boss, and who they complained to about what. However, Boellstorff et al. warn against relying entirely on this methodology of statistical, aggregated, number-based data that purports to present an ‘average’ picture of the ‘overall’ community. There’s more to a group of people than data can tell us, especially if we want to learn about “their theoretical and pragmatic insights” (16). Aggregated data is often stripped of its human context, so those insights can get lost amidst “objective” information about who the average gamer is. Boellstorff et al. make it clear that the collection of that kind of data is not a useless practice — the statistical information that such collections provide allow us to understand the general community more clearly — but researchers who immerse themselves in the field “can provide both data and core framings for those data, keeping in check assumptions and biases of the researchers themselves” in a way that data that is objectively culled from online interactions cannot (20).

Anyone who’s familiar with ethnography likely won’t find new claims about ethnography in general, since the book’s arguments and methodology line up with contemporary digital ethnography. Ethnography is essentially oppositional to classical anthropology (you can find more information about the history of Ethnography in Chapter 2): anthropologists had traditionally visited other cultures and observed them from a distance. An anthropologist was, apparently, objective and removed from the people he or she was studying. Ethnographers, on the other hand, seek to immerse themselves in a community, to learn from, not just about, that community. Digital ethnography follows that same method: to study an online community, an ethnographer becomes a part of that community, though digital ethnography has had to change some aspects of the traditional method to account for the changes that come from having a virtual fieldsite. Boellstorff et al.’s application of the methodology to game worlds — and therefore game studies — is particularly significant, though, since most of the ethnographers I’ve encountered have studied Social Networking Sites (SNS) or forums. Although it’s a few years old, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds is especially relevant today, considering the current discussions surrounding subjectivity and objectivity in game studies and game culture (see, for example, Vossen and Cross).

Which Chapter did you enjoy reading the most?

It’s for that reason that Chapter 3, “Ten Myths About Ethnography,” is one of the most valuable chapters of this book. I’ve relied on the information in this chapter when discussing my own methodology with other scholars, especially those who have internalized the myths that the authors dismantle. I’m not sure that the chapter on its own would sway anyone who was already biased against ethnography as a method, but it’s a great resource for people who want to prepare for the questions that quantitative scientists (and ethics administrators who’ve never had to approve an ethnographic report before) will ask them. However, those who have already determined that qualitative studies are irrelevant are unlikely to be convinced by the responses. The authors assume that a reader of their book is interested in using ethnographic methods, so they don’t spend much time defending the philosophy. Boellstorff et al. stand firm on the point of view that personal insight, intuition, and subjectivity are valuable tools for the study of human communities, and anyone who doesn’t agree is likely not reading a book about ethnography. Their time is, therefore, better spent dispelling the knee-jerk responses that scholars might have to ethnography, such as:

  • Ethnography is unscientific and (therefore) less valid than quantitative science;
  • Ethnographers contaminate their fieldsite by making their presence known;
  • Ethnography is subjective/personal/anecdotal (and therefore not valid).

The authors argue against these myths while making the larger argument for subjectivity as an ethical, meaningful mode of research. By immersing herself in the field, the researcher is aware of the context that might be stripped from the data otherwise. By making her presence known (in the field and in her research), she signals the ways in which she has affected the data, and the lengthy field time ensures that participants can learn to trust the researcher, lessening the impact of her presence on the data. To limit the whole of ethnography to “the anecdote” is to misrepresent the critical rigour that is involved with the collection, analysis, and presentation of the multitudes of data that a researcher brings together over the (often) years she spends in the field, in analysis, and in writing. Although ethnography may seem, from the surface, to be a collection of anecdotes, it’s important to note that ethnographers don’t uncritically present those anecdotes. Each story or event that is catalogued by the ethnographer is considered in the context of other — sometimes contradictory — points of view, and the ethnographer understands that even if something isn’t objectively true, it’s still important to recognize that someone in that community believes it. For example, an ethnography of people who participated in #gamergate would have to recognize that — however illogical their motives may seem to an outside observer — the people who perpetuated harassment believed there was a clear logic to their actions. What I found most valuable in this chapter was the reminder that there is no such thing as a purely objective study. All studies of human culture are affected by the biases of scholars; the advantage of ethnography is that the subjectivity of the researcher, of the participants, of the readers, is centered, rather than swept aside or hidden.

What chapter would you use when teaching?

Although Chapter 3 is the easiest to digest (the FAQ-style text is fun and engaging), and provides the most compelling arguments for ethnography, if I were teaching a class about game studies, I would turn first to Chapters 5 and 6, “Participant Observation and Virtual World Research” and “Interviews and Virtual World Research.” These chapters share anecdotes from the authors’ own experiences of studying online worlds and showcases the particular challenges of conducting research in game worlds (such as lag, the difficulty of communicating over instant messaging, the high level of skill needed to participate, etc.). These chapters would benefit a teacher looking to discuss game worlds with a class of undergraduates, or even graduate students new to the field, since not all students are familiar with the ins and outs of raiding communities or guilds. These two chapters provide a useful introduction to both what people do in a variety of virtual worlds (information learned from participant observation) and what they say about what they do (information learned from interviews). These two chapters, primarily a how-to for new scholars on conducting themselves during two of the phases of ethnographic research, also serve as a broad overview of a variety of online worlds, from the raid-heavy World of Warcraft to the communal practices in Second Life.

As a newbie ethnographer, I took notes on the more concrete pieces of advice, so these chapters would also be valuable in a research methods class, or a class that asks students to read and/or evaluate research on virtual worlds. Ethnography is, primarily, a handbook, so it takes care to advise its readers on what to do in a variety of situations, such as when you (inevitably) make a breach of etiquette during participant observation (79), and how to prepare for the higher-than-normal skill- and time-investment that is required to do participant observation in online game worlds (74). I appreciated the authors’ reminder that it’s impossible (and unethical) to figure out who people “really” are offline (100), as well as the fact that there are significant complications to interviewing people over text-based media, such as a lack of facial expressions and that people often engage in multiple simultaneous conversations (102).

If you only had time to read one chapter, which one would you read?

The trickiest part of doing online ethnography is that there isn’t the same history of official ethics institutions that physical-world ethnographers have. University ethics boards are catching up and other institutions have started to formalize these ethics, but it’s still a new field, and many ethnographers are coming up with these guidelines as they work. If you are a scholar who is interested in using ethnographic methodology, I would turn to Chapter 8, “Ethics,” instead. It’s a very clear overview of the kinds of bureaucratic hoops that an ethnographer will have to jump through, with a brief list of the various ethics boards and some resources for more information about how best to obtain ethics approval. However, the authors argue that there is more to ethnographic ethics than what is determined by ethics review boards (since many ethics boards haven’t caught up to the various fieldsites, data-collecting technologies, modes of interviewing, and so on), so this chapter also provides new ethnographers with the basics of online ethnography “common sense” ethics.

The authors remind readers that it is not enough to “do no harm,” but that we must take good care of our participants — and ourselves (129), an argument echoed by contemporary ethnographers (Hine; boyd; Markham et al.). Alongside more traditional requirements of ethnography (such as getting informed consent and providing anonymity to the participants), the authors explore how the specific fieldsite of online worlds complicates the issue: it is often difficult to convey complicated information (such as consent forms) over email (133), and it is even more difficult to actually provide anonymity to your participants when word-for-word transcripts of your conversations are often available for readers of your research to find online (such as on a forum or in a guild’s chatlogs) and allow them to decode the pseudonyms of your participants (138). If you only had time to read one chapter from this book, and you were considering doing ethnographic research yourself, I would recommend this one — others may be more useful for the day-to-day of conducting this research, but Chapter 8 forces the reader to confront the various ways in which they can harm (or be harmed by) their participants.

How is this text relevant to FPS readers?

If you’re doing research on the communities that form around games, even if you’re not producing ethnography, and (perhaps especially) if your focus is on objective rather than subjective studies, this is a fantastic text to add to your library. It’s too easy for games scholars to get caught up in the mechanics, procedures, graphics, and the object of the game, and I think that Ethnography serves as a great reminder that games are interesting to us because people play them. I can see this text being useful not only for scholars who are interested in learning more about ethnography, but also for people who want new language and tools to evaluate others’ (or their own) research. Knowing about methods like participant observation, or about common ethical concerns can help a reader determine the accuracy, fairness and ethics of the paper she’s reading. The language of ethnographic scholarship helps us find new ways to question and respond to scholarship. Knowing more about how good ethnographic research is conducted has helped me fairly critique studies that take a participants’ description of their own actions at face value, or research that unfairly focuses on the researcher’s own interpretation of the goals and desired outcomes of their research subjects. Anyone looking to ethnography specifically, or virtual worlds and the people who inhabit them generally in their research should have this book in their back pockets — especially since the editors point out that they tried very hard to make the book as small as possible so that it could, conceivably, literally fit in someone’s back pocket.

What should I read next?

This is the only book on videogame ethnography that I am aware of, but most of what you’ll read about online/digital ethnography will be relevant to scholars looking to study people who play games, since many of those communities exist — at least partially — online. Annette N. Markham and Nancy K. Baym published Internet Inquiry in 2009, which collects questions, answers, and reflections on online ethnography from respective and innovative digital ethnographers, such as danah boyd, Christine Hine, and Lori Kendall. I have found boyd, who studies social networks, an indispensable resource for thinking about ethical ethnography. boyd, as one of the first ethnographers to delve into social networking sites, had to figure out how to apply the ethical regulations and practices of ethnography in the physical world to digital spaces, so much of her scholarship also includes thoughts on her methodology.  Hine, on the other hand, focuses much more concretely on method, and has published books and journal articles about qualitative methodologies in digital research.

Of course, you should also check out the editors’ research. Tom Boellstorff writes about Second Life, Celia Pearce’s research focuses on “communities of play”, Bonnie Nardi studies in and about World of Warcraft and T.L. Taylor is best known for her studies of e-sports culture.

*New Book Review Format

I’ve proposed this new format to First Person Scholar, so I’ve been asked to write a little bit about how it works and why I’ve formatted it this way. I appreciate the in-depth discussion and analysis that FPS’s book reviews present, but found myself wanting to write from a more personal point of view. To that end, I came up with a few questions that allowed me to maintain (hopefully!) the in-depth overview of a book that makes FPS’s reviews so valuable, while acknowledging the subjective nature of book reviews and the multiple uses a book can be put to. A book that’s great for using in a classroom may not be valuable to a scholar who’s got dozens of game studies books under their belt. Similarly, a book might have a great 101-style chapter (useful for frazzled last-minute writers as well as people looking for a refresher) alongside more complex, detailed chapters full of theoretical insights (what a veteran games scholar might want to read instead of the same 101 text they’ve read in every other book about the topic). Both are valuable, worthwhile kinds of information, but not necessarily at the same time. All books will be valuable in varied and diverse ways, and I think these questions will help reviewers keep that in mind!


  1. If I could step in for a moment as book review editor, I’d like to say how happy I am with the format for reviews Elise has pioneered here. Between this and the old format (“old” sounds unnecessarily stodgy; Book Review Classic and New Review?), I’m glad to be able to offer more options to our reviewers and readers. So if there’s a game-related book review you’d like to see up at FPS, let us know–and if you’d like to be the one to work with us and write it, so much the better!

  2. Love it!

    But also, though this may be the only book about the methods of doing ethnography for games, there’s tons of game ethnographies. In addition to the authors’ books (Coming of Age in Second Life, Play Between Worlds, My Life as a Night-Elf Priest, Communities of Play), there’s also old-school MUD books, there’s Dibbell’s my tiny life and Play Money, O’Donnell’s new book Developer’s Dilemma, Malaby’s Making Virtual Worlds, and my Leet Noobs. Lots of others, too!

    • Oh, absolutely. There’s some wonderful ethnographic game studies. In addition to those you mention (and for the record, Leet Noobs is currently on my shelf eight inches to my right as I type this), I’m a big fan of Helen Thornham’s Ethnographies of the Videogame, and Jenny Sunden and Malin Sveningsson’s Gender and sexuality in Online Game Cultures.

  3. Thank you so much for this wonderful review! We are all thankful and thrilled that you found our book useful! We had a great time writing it.

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