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Maria Bäcke’s live blogposts

Maria Bäcke, PhD candidate in Digital Games at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden, was live blogging during the talks at the PhD seminar this week. She has agreed to let us re-publish her blogposts on the talks of Thomas Kohler, Greg Wadley, TL Taylor, Ursula Plesner, CarrieLynn Reinhard, Sisse Siggaard Jensen and Louise Phillips. (Note that the posts have not been edited afterwards.)

Thanks to Maria for documenting all of this and thanks to all staff and students for a great seminar!

Powerpoint presentations: Kohler, Plesner, Wadley, Phillips (and more soon)

Monday, September 28, 2009
Roskilde day I – Analytical Strategies and Methodologies for the Study of Virtual Worlds
I’m live blogging from Roskilde, Denmark. From Roskilde University. Right now Sisse Siggaard Jensen is welcoming us all and presenting the today’s speakers, Thomas Kohler from Innsbruck University and Greg Wadley from the University of Melbourne. Siggard Jensen gives us plenty of information about the very old city of Roskilde and the work of their group at the university, before asking us to introduce ourselves.

Thomas Kohler begins his talk entitled “Qualitative Research in Second Life.” Research context: Integrate customers in the development and creation of new products and services. How to use Second Life to achieve this? Avatar-Based Innovation. This process begins with need identification and idea generation, moves on to concept and design and finally to the test and launch phase. The challenge: participation, to get people to participate. What creates a compelling co-creation experience which encourages participation in virtual worlds? The answer is, according to Kohler, the mix between virtual worlds and open innovation. Research design: Virtual focus groups, expert interviews and participant interviews and observation. Content, process, users. The virtual focus groups and the participant interviews and observation were carried out inside Second Life. Create immersive environments (it has to feel “real,” interaction is important, media richness, using for instance voice, as well). Build in playfulness. Focus on the social nature.

The “Out of Avatar Experience: Collaboration around Objects in Second Life,” presented by Greg Wadley, focuses on online worlds as a tool for 3D knowledge. Motivation: how do you facilitate remote repair, training, surgery… communication about position and movement in 3D. Body language and linguistic language helps, but how do you deal with it when for instance body language isn’t available. Prior work: reference in virtual environments is problematic. View, gestures… What is an avatar looking at? How to deal with the fact that there is only a rudimentary body language? How well does Second Life support the aim to facilitate problems such as remote repair? Second Life’s detachable camera is “in-camera” (in private) whereas the avatar is public, the one that other people think you’re looking out from. Wadley describes a study he and Nic Ducheneaut did at PARC of users collaboratively building a house and focuses on the methodological issues while setting it up. The experiment follows two or three group members with different levels of building expertize in their attempts to coordinate the build, noticing their different camera positions (behind their avatar or completely detached from it). The group members are supposed to collaborate, but when this, on one occasion, leads to the group members diving the work up among them, they decide to create a new type of task. A helper now sees how their build is supposed to look, but he or she can’t move anything, whereas the “worker” has the editing possibilities. They now have to communicate, thus providing the researchers with material.

After a short break Greg Wadley initiates a heated discussion around words like “virtual” and “world.” We discuss concepts like embodiment, avatar, sense of place, (co-)presence, reality, subjectivity, but the discussion doesn’t really lead anywhere and we agree to disagree. Wadley then moves on to discuss the difference between text and voice. How much info does it transmit about users? Is it easy or difficult to set up? How good/bad is fidelity? Possibility to eavesdrop? Does it support asynchronicity? Is it possible to store and search messages? Does it support group coordination? Does it work better if the users know each other (the shyness factor)? Does it allow for parallel conversation threads?

What might influence the choice of voice or text? Language proficiency, role-play, social distance, trust, context and purpose, RL multi-tasking, emotional factors, some expressons only work in text or, conversely, in voice, intention, raiding, disability, self-disclosure.

Roskilde day II – T.L. Taylor
T.L. Taylor’s talk “Bricolage, play and the games researcher” is the first one today. What are our objects of study? Is it “just the game” or does it include websites, third party additions, forums etc? Taylor indeed thinks so and found that her object of study was larger than she had imagined. Multi-faceted ethnography: Follow the people, the thing, the metaphor, the plot/story/allegory, the life/biography, or the conflict. She describes her method as an interrelated assemblage, with Deleuzian connotations. Games and their play are constituted by the interrelations between many components, for instance “boundary objects.” Taylor moves on to the concept of embodiment and she highlights the body as an important site of information — even crucial for an ethnographer and she links it to accountability and credibility. Bodies are the site of skill (or unskill). They are our interface and shape how we are perceived. How to choose an avatar? When does an avatar feel right? As ethnographers these issues take on new meanings.

Another important issue is the game environment. Taylor points out that the data you get differs considerably between one server and another in World of Warcraft (RP, EU etc), and draws parallels to the very differing environments in Second Life as well. Taylor shows a snippet of dialogue which illustrates the intertwined relationships between the players, their alts, different accounts and multiple computers running simultaneously. She describes the games as very complex socio-technical objects and draws parallels to her work on raids in the World of Warcraft. She shows a snippet of a movie of a guild killing a dragon and draws our attention to the emotional tension and happiness when the guild succeeds in their achievement.

Another thing she wants to draw our attention to is the user-interface modifications that are available that can change the user-interface completely, often allowing for surveillance from the raid commanders. It alters the experience of the game, and it becomes a part of the stratification and the building of hierarchy in a group or community. As researchers we become a part of these systems. The mod even becomes a social actor by providing information and giving orders to those who have downloaded it. Quotes: Michel Callon: “Indeed engineers transform themselves into sociologists, moralists or political scientists at precisely those moments when they are most caught up in technical questions” T.L. Taylor: “There is no “fly on the wall” position.” There is no outside as an ethnographer.

Roskilde day II – Ursula Plesner
“Actor Network Theory: An inroad to the study of ‘the virtual building’” is the title of Ursula Plesner’s talk. She discusses the implications of ANT as a method for doing research in online worlds. Levels from the core to the outer limit: Action/interaction – A particular site or social sphere – the virtual/immaterial – the real/material. How do we hold on to the insight that there is a constant give and take between all these levels? Analyze relations between different components such as architectural training, techical infomration, designer, navigation tools, avatar, hardware, aesthetics, perceived users, building etc.

Three principles of the sociology of associations:
1. A sociology sceptical of ‘the social’ – There is no society, no social dynamics, no social spheres, only associations made up by concrete, specific ties that can result in “stories”
2. An empiricist orientation – refusal of abstract theory and the imposition of categories and explanation on the empirical material. Not impose order but follow the actors.
3. A symmetrical approach – Impartiality between actors: no à priori privileging of either humans or non-humans. We ought to weave together the two resources, context and content, into an integrated whole. (Latour)

Methodological implications:
1. Slowciology – carefully following and documenting a group and its progress, its making and/or unmaking. The social appears again, but as a result of our research, we are not taking it for granted or jumping to conclusion.
2. Lack of generalizability – We learn from the accumulation of exemplars, the rich descriptions. The value of the study comes from its truthfulness, not from its generalizability.
3. Mobile ethnography – the principle of “following the actors”. From multi-sited to mobile, looking at connections rather than locations and boundaries

ANT can be seen as a means to brainstorm and highlight the changes, processes and links between various actors or elements and how they transform the larger network. What actors influence other actors and in what way? Do they stabilize or destabilize them?

Roskilde day III – CarrieLynn D. Reinhard
“Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology: Applications to Interviews and Experiments.” CarrieLynn Reinhard use SMM in media reception studies. Consider where methods can be in empirical work (both qualitative and quantitative):

• data collecting famework methods
• data collection methods
• data analysis methods

The “gaps” (questions/confusions, muddles/riddles, angst) are essential in sense-making studies. Building bridges over gaps are that which resolves or answers questions, so that whatever it is makes sense. SMM interviews study human activity by being situated and contextual, by empowering the subjective experience, by understanding the struggle between agency and structure, by being triangulating, circling, redundant, repetitive, digging. Fundamental SMM mandates to interviews:

• minimal researcher intrusion, especially with nouns
• empowering informant to speak their “real” by allowing time/space and their own words and recognizing their ability to self-theorize and be different across time/space
• seeking to build trust in repertoire through empowering informants, redundancy of question-askings

Interviews can be designed to look at one sense-making/unmaking moment or to look at a series of seemingly related or unrelated moments. Reinhard shows a list of sense-making questions, such as: What happened? What stood in the way? What were you trying to deal with? Questions like these are intended to tap situations, gaps, bridges, or outcomes sought and/or obtained. The intention might also be to dig deeper into gaps and struggles, dig deeper into what led to an evaluation or to dig deeper into how things help. Triangulation in two levels to anchor the questions and get more insight into the experiences an informant might have had.

Entry point: Can be at any of the 4 parts of the sense-making/unmaking moment, full level 1 triangulation needed to complete the surround of the moment. Critical entry: Identified ahead of time as trigger to elicit the informant’s recollection of an entry point, which must be phrased so as not to impose interviewer’s nouns on informants. Reinhard then discusses different types of interviews: In a micro-moment time-line interview people are asked to recall all the (linear) steps that occured during an event/time. A “life-line” interview, on the other hand, asks the informant to recall all the time/space events that could fit the critical entry’s criteria in a chronological order. A “micro-element” interview focuses on a specific, single event triangulated by level 1 and 2 questions. A “structured focus group interview” allows one person at a time to answer the questions, while the rest write down their reactions in a “self-journal.” These self-journals can then be shared and lead to another round of discussion.

SMM is a methodology. Interviews and experiments are both methods. Experiment does not necessarily mean only data collection through surveys, observation, physiological measures etc — interviews can also be used to gather data.

Pros: Large data corpus; collection of subjective and objective data simultaneously; using SMM allowed for comparing time/space events as well as probing in-depth into informants’ experiences – both during and after sessions. Cons: Large data corpus: audio, video, text; carryover effect, problem from experimental perspective opportunity from interpretative perspective; artificiality of experiences to everyday media experiences, but from SMM perspective still unique sense-making/unmaking moments to be analyzed.

Roskilde day III – Sisse Siggaard Jensen
Sisse Siggard Jensen’s talk is entitled “Researching Virtual Worlds: analytical strategies and methodologies” and describes a small part of her research in Second Life. The dissertation she is writing at the moment is tentatively called “Making Sense of Virtual Worlds.” Her five analytical foci (the word is appropriate since she is mainly doing video-analysis) are:

The actors’ decision to move in and settle in a virtual world and with that the choice of world(s). What is it, the movements we make, that makes the actors of this study choose a virtual world like Second Life or EverQuest? What creates the conditions for being in the virtual world, and what makes the actors remain in the world, or stop?

The actors’ decision to move in and settle in a virtual world and with that the choice of worlds What is it that makes the actors of this study choose a virtual world such as Second Life or EverQuest? What creates the conditions for being in such a world?

The different ways of being together and interacting with other avatars and actors of the world(s). How do the actors of this study communicate in various practices and with the use of their avatars as mediators in battle, business and competition as well as in grouping, guilds and networking? What leads them to act and communicate the way they have chosen? How do they do it? How come that they continue or quit?

Perceiving the self in the light of the chosen avatar(s) and the ways of being in the world. How do the actors of this study describe the way their chosen avatars present themselves in-world? How do they view and understand the figure they have created and the interrelations of self and avatar?

The movements back and forth between the actors’ in-world wirtual lives and the lives they live in the outside world. How do the actors move and navigate between their inworld life and the outside world? What is it that makes the actors continue or want to stop?

She describes her methods in the following way: Pre-understandings, inference and abuductive reasoning is in the background. The theories she uses are actor-network theories, sense-making methodologies, (cyber-ssemiotics), new media theory. (Trajectories of human and non-human actants, chains of connections, transformations, movements, intermediaries, mediators, assemblages, gapinesses, and bridgings, situation movement states, remediatio, immediacy and hypermediacy.) She argues that empirical data are produced rather than collected. Moreover, she sees the two modes “online and off-line” as an integrated part of the case studies. Literature studies, for instance of EverQuest and MMORPGs websites and webcommunities, are also a part of her information gathering, as well as video interviews, case studies, and participant observation.

Observing. Her observations fall into four periods of time. They form a curve of increasing and decreasing involvement.
• Period I: Remediation. Introductory observation to get an overview.
• Period II: Getting involved and settled. Participation, construction and cases selected.
• Period III: Belonging. Participation and observation at certain places and with time.
• Period IV: International. A phase-out aimed to identify possible new cases from the international scene.

She describes how settling in the world (buy land, build a house etc) makes a huge difference from only being the more passive by-stander. Her subsequent collaborative projects taught her more about the interface, about how to organize events and navigate the different ways of creating content for the environment. Belonging has to do with her possibility to follow how things unfolded, to see a process. Her fourth phase marks a more international involvement and an expert view and knowledge of the platform.
Roskilde day III – Video Workshop
Sisse Siggaard Jensen describes her way of conducting video-filmed interviews, and describes the variables when conducting in-situ “videoviews.” She prefers to do these in a setting that is the common one for the the interviewee(s) even though the situation of course is influenced by her being there with her camera.

Prior to recordings (Step 1):
• Analytical design
• Relevance, selection and impact. It is really relevant (in this particular research context) to do a video interview?
• Simple and recurring video recordings

Oligopticon — seeing very much of very little (ex: a computer screen – a small window into a large amount of information)
Panopticon — Michel Foucault’s idea of the prison surveillance. A large view.

Recording in situ (Step 2):
• Overview and analytical levels
• Situated interpretation and a dual focus (on both the actors and the camera)
• A virtual expedition

Processing the recordings (Step 3)
Analytical forms: Transcripts and Themes. Unstructured with timecodes or structured with annotation-types and annotations.

Siggard Jensen then introduces the video analysing tool, Advene, and describes how she works with it.
• Get an overview of the material
• Sorting and typologies (based on the five foci)
• Characterizing and mapping (write keywords, show aspect that she wants to highlight)
• Deconstructing and visual description

She describes how she works very systematically with the video interviews, then leaves them and allows for time to think things through and let her intuition work. When she begins to write, she tries to paint a rich empirical picture where the theoretical implications are implied (but not spelled out). This happens later.

Roskilde day IV – Louise Phillips
“How to analyse knowledge production processes in collaborative research on virtual worlds: an interdisciplinary approach combining dialogic communication theory, STS and action research” Louise Phillips have noticed that research projects usually involves working together to produce knowledge. Louise Phillips argues that what often is called informants or respondents are indeed co-researchers. Knowledge is co-produced. Phillips’s empirical focus: how knowledge is co-produced.

Two themes
1) How to reflect on and analyse relations between you as a researcher and the other research actors/participants/informants/respondents using multiperspectival framework
2) How to analyse the negotiation of knowledge forms, (expert) identities and power relations among social actors in empirical field under study

Case-study on collaborative research on virtual worlds
• What happens when university researchers invite other actors to join a collaborative research process as co-producers of knowledge?
• How is knowledge created through the negotiation of knowledge forms in social interaction among the different participating actors in collaborative research?
• A practical orientation: How can that knowledge be used in both research and design?

Material: participant observation and sound capture (from a series of workshops in this case)

Multiperspectival analytical framework: combining three perspectives on the tension in dialogue-based research communication practices, not to produced a more objective form of knowledge but to capture the complexity of what we’re analysing.

Science Studies
Insight into tensions in shift to form of scietific governance based on rhetoric of dialogue and citizen engagement. Top-down and down-up.

Action Research
Insights into how research ideals in collaborative social scientific and humanities-based research are difficult to live up to in practice. (Difficult to live up to these ideals while at the same time making supervisors, respondents, or other interested partners happy.)

Dialogic communication theory
• Concept of dialogue as a quality of communication that entails remaining in the tension between maintaining one’s own position whilst being open to the position of the other (Pearce and Pearce, Bakhtin)

• Tension between creating a space for a plurality of voices and orchestrating the process, such that some kind of coherent structuring of voices is produced – “a chorus rather than a cacophony” (Pearce and Pearce 2001:115)

• Point that dialogic moments can occur in non-dialogic talk (Black 2008).

Specific questions
• What voices are articulated? Particular forms of knowledge and when and how are they articulated and heard? (Not “How can we create a ‘power free dialogue’?” – Habermas, instead “How do the inevitable power structures play out, change and evolve?” – Foucault)

• To what extent, when and how does the interaction among collaborating actors open up for voices that construct plural forms of knowledge? (centrifugal tendency)

• To what extent, when and how does the interaction circumscribe the opening up for different voices and construct a singular project “we” and singular forms of knowledge? (centripetal tendency)

Louise Phillips’s aim is not to work towards resolving these tensions and power relations, but to open up for reflexive deliberation among the collaborating research actors.

Maria Bäckes blog can be found at

Posted in Blog, Teaching, Workshops and Seminars.

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  1. Maria says

    A big thank you to Dixi, Sisse and the rest of the staff at Roskilde University for an amazing week with so many interesting presentations and discussions. It has been great meeting you as well as my fellow PhD students and I’m looking forward to seeing you again in digital form but perhaps also in person. Take care!

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