Sonja Sapach is a PhD Candidate in Sociology and Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta.
What is the most effective way to formally incorporate my game play experiences into my highly personalized research plan? How can I study not only the games that I am playing, but my own reactions to those games? How can I do justice to my genuine experiences and reactions without having to break my immersion during gameplay to take field notes? How can I convince my interdisciplinary (and strictly disciplinary) peers and supervisors that my game play experiences, and game play related memories, can be studied following a formal research methodology? These are the questions that I found myself asking while designing my dissertation.
As a response to the questions asked above, I argue that the research methodology that I am utilizing for my dissertation research – the Let’s Play – answers a call made by Frans Mäyrä in the preface of the book Game Research Methods: An Overview: “…game scholars need to be active in evaluating, adapting, and re-designing research methodologies so that the unique characteristics of games and play inform and shape the form research takes in this field.” (xii)
In order to effectively adapt and re-design a research method, a well researched and utilized methodological foundation is required. What better place to start than with Consolvo & Dutton’s (2006) qualitative methodological toolkit, which guides researchers through the study of gameplay, in-game objects, game interfaces, and in-game interaction mapping, all while encouraging the use of a detailed gameplay log? I believe that while explicit game studies methodologies, like Consolvo & Dutton’s toolkit, are well entrenched in our field, we need to remain receptive and inquisitive about methodologies that not only advance our understanding of games and their players, but also expand recognition of games as valuable tools, and objects of study, across other disciplines. What follows then, is my ‘re-design’ of the toolkit (primarily the gameplay log), described through the lens of my own dissertation research experiences.
My dissertation research involves conducting an autoethnographic study that seeks to explore how video games and gaming culture work to resolve alienation at both an individual and a social level. For example, as a bullied and extremely introverted child, I was able to create social connections and build confidence through the discussion of NES games like Super Mario Bros. 3. It was through the shared knowledge and experiences of the games that I was able to overcome my fear, hopelessness, and isolation, allowing me to develop friendships as well as a sense of self.
In order to accomplish my research goals, I have been utilizing the Let’s Play format of recording myself playing various video games from my childhood in order to trigger memories that will better allow me to understand the profound impact that gaming culture had on the resolution of my own alienation. Basically, I choose games that I have a close personal connection with and allow myself to verbalize memories (both positive and negative) while recording my facial reactions, tone of voice, key game events, and any other relevant data. I have completed the transcription of 25 hours of video which includes not only my words, but also my reactions such as pauses, expressions of emotion, stutters, and sudden changes in tone. I am currently in the data analysis phase (a detailed description of which will be outlined in future work). Thus far, the analysis of my videos and transcriptions has allowed me to piece together key moments in my ‘gaming life’, allowing me to reconstruct and accurately describe my memories in order to answer my research questions.
I am by no means the first researcher to show an interest in the Let’s Play. Radde-Antweiler and Zeiler (2015) for example, outline a matrix for the content analysis of Let’s Plays that involves analyzing the game itself, the Let’s Play as an object, the Let’s Player as a personality, as well as the comments and commenters on the video. The matrix is a very useful tool for analyzing the Let’s Plays of others. This is where my argument diverges from the work already being done on the Let’s Play – I am arguing in favour of the researcher utilizing the Let’s Play method themselves, the benefits of which I outline below. Instead of studying how other people perform the Let’s Play, or how the Let’s Play communities (such as those on YouTube and Twitch) develop and function, I am interested in using the Let’s Play as a personal gameplay log and autoethnographic research tool.
Why am I calling this method a “Let’s Play” when I am not only playing alone, but also limiting who will watch the videos? In my particular case, the sensitive nature of my data requires me to keep the recordings to myself. My understanding of the term “Let’s Play” aligns with that of Radde-Antweiler, Waltemathe, & Zeiler who define Let’s Plays as “…increasingly and widely popular self-recorded gaming videos in which the respective gamers, the ‘Let’s Players’, comment on their journey through the game as well as on various aspects of it” (2014, 17). The key point here is that the ‘let’s’ in Let’s Play does not necessitate an external audience. The researcher/player can play for and with themselves, if that is what their research requires.
We can think about telepresence here, basically the feeling or impression of being physically present within a game world. When I conduct Let’s Play research, I am a researcher, playing a game openly and subjectively, while giving myself objective access to the footage and my reactions following the playthrough. There is me as the player (present within the game), me as the performer talking to the camera, me as the game scholar who inserts any expertise I have into both the creation and analysis of the video, and me as the researcher who is fully aware that she will be watching the video for the purposes of analysis. The Let’s Play methodology therefore allows for a unique combination of subjective and objective game and player analysis.
Limitations (from my experiences)
- SETUP: The setup can be expensive and complicated. I have been working on the ‘ideal’ setup for my recordings, which occur in my regular work space, for over a year, and I still have work to do. My current setup involves the use of two computers – a relatively fast desktop for recording and processing the videos, and a ‘gaming’ laptop where some of the actual gameplay occurs. As I also record playthroughs of retro games using the original consoles, I require special hookups in order to record the gameplay clearly. I use the Elgato Game Capture HD to capture my gameplay and the embedded video and voiceovers. I use the Blue Snowball microphone for voice capture as I found that neither the microphone included with my webcam nor the one attached to my headset was clear enough for accurate recording. For my facecam I use the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920 for improved clarity and the ability to place it where I want, based on which angle I want to use. Lighting has been and remains an issue for me.
- FACECAM: Besides forcing me to look in the mirror before I begin recording (in order to convince myself that I am presentable), the facecam recording covers a part of the gameplay screen, which means potentially missing out on part of the game interface or details depending on the screen setup. As you can see in the image below, my facecam box obscures a part of the game.
Fortunately, this is a relatively easy fix as the Elgato software allows for the recording of two separate files – gameplay capture and facecam capture, which can be viewed separately and edited together if desired. I personally choose to record it all as one file, being careful to place the facecam box in the least intrusive area of the game screen.
- AUDIO: There are a few challenges here. One issue involves the fact that the voiceover somewhat interferes with the sounds from the game. Fortunately, the Elgato software allows you to adjust the degree to which the game volume is reduced when you speak. This leads to another issue: mastering the audio mixer. Audio has been the most time consuming challenge for me personally, primarily due to the use of two computers, or a computer and a console. It is difficult to provide specific details here without attempting to write a troubleshooting manual. All I can say is that there is an interesting balancing act between the game audio, the microphone, the headset (required if you want to hear the game without creating a feedback loop), and the recording software.
- TIME: The recording during the initial playthrough may take many hours, and for every hour you record, you must spend at least the same amount of time watching the final product during transcription/analysis. As I transcribe my Let’s Plays, I find that I frequently need to pause the recording to catch up to myself – I tend to speak rather quickly, and often mumble when I am experiencing distress from my memories. On average, it is taking me approximately 2 hours to transcribe a 45-minute video, as I am also making note of facial expressions and key in-game moments.
- FAILED RECORDINGS: Diligence and pre-recording tests are key here. I have yet to experience a wasted recording session, but I know that it can happen.
Before moving on to the benefits, I also need to note that as with any research methodology, there are a wide range of possible limitations depending on how you are utilizing the method. For example, since I am using the Let’s Play for autoethnographic purposes, I needed to submit an ethics application as I am using myself as a human research subject. As with any research method, a detailed plan should be put into place to deal with ethics, data management (storage, organization, and security of the videos), analysis strategies, etc.
- GAMEPLAY LOG: The Let’s Play satisfies Consalvo and Dutton’s traditional requirement for a gameplay log allowing me to play the game, completely immersed, without having to pause to take notes. I have found that this is very useful for maintaining the genuine gameplay experience, allowing me to react to and describe memories as they come.
- RESEARCHER AS PLAYER: The Let’s Play allows me to watch myself as a player. As part of Game Studies involves understanding players, this method provides a unique perspective from which to understand myself (the researcher) as a player. I have noticed certain behaviours during certain games that I was unaware of, for example tapping my fingers nervously on the desk while I think through a puzzle.
- SUBJECTIVITY: The freedom to just talk, and expose personal subjectivity, allows me to interpret ruptures, mistakes, breaks, lapses, and erratic trains of thought that may lead to unexpected interpretations. The Let’s Play allows me to see my own facial reactions, note key moments of silence, and document my decision making as I play through the game. It allows me to find what I cannot or do not explicitly look for.
- OBJECTIVITY: An analytical review of my own Let’s Play video allows me to objectively examine the game itself (following a traditional methodological analysis). Following Consalvo and Dutton, I am able to use the video to conduct a detailed Object Inventory, Interface Study, and Interaction Map analysis. I am also able to study myself as a player from an objective point of view. As I work through my own transcriptions, I am observing things about myself that I might not otherwise acknowledge subjectively. For example, I am able to document instances where I am obviously experiencing dissociation based on my voice, expressions, and the use of certain words. Prior to this research, I was unable to objectively observe and document my own dissociation, due to its very nature.
- IMMERSION: As I mentioned previously, instead of waiting until the end of a play session to write out a gameplay log, or having to pause the game to take important notes, I am able to remain immersed in the game while having the freedom to verbally note things as I play. Re-watching the video provides me with the opportunity to document the ideas I had during play, while also taking more official notes based on what I see in the video.
- PERFORMATIVE and PERSONALIZED: As this method is highly personal and requires a certain level of performance, it is adaptable to a wide range of research questions and styles. For me, the method improves my ability to perform my autoethnography in a genuine way. Researchers interested in memory work, artistic expression, and social gaming (where, for example, two or more researchers participate together) stand to benefit from this methodological approach.
As a game studies scholar, I find it extremely valuable to be able to gain both objective and subjective insight into my own gameplay. The Let’s Play methodology, while still a work-in-progress, has proven to be very useful for gathering data for my current research. My goal here has been to introduce the method with the hope of writing a more detailed analysis and description once my dissertation is complete and I have a deeper understanding of the benefits and limitations of the method.
Consalvo, Mia and Nathan Dutton. “Game Analysis: Developing a Methodological Toolkit for the Qualitative Study of Games.” Game Studies 6.1 (2006): 1-17.
Lankowski, Patri and Staffan Björk eds. Game Research Methods: An Overview. Pittsburgh: ETC Press, 2015.
Radde-Antweiler, Kerstin, Michael Waltemathe and Xenia Zeiler. “Video Gaming, Let’s Plays, and Religion: The Relevance of Researching gamevironments.” Gamevironments 1 (2014): 1-36.
Radde-Antweiler, Kerstin and Xenia Zeiler. “Methods for Analyzing Let’s Plays: Context Analysis for Gaming Videos on YouTube.” Gamevironments 2 (2015): 100 – 139.
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