Seminar Talk 2013-02-27

Ethnography in Computer Games and Virtual Worlds


Tom Boellstorff and Bonnie Nardi
Anthropology and Informatics,
Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds, UC Irvine

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In this talk, we reflect on our experiences as two of the four coauthors of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Princeton University Press, 2012). We will discuss the genesis of the handbook and the collaborative methods we used to produce the book. We will then review some key claims of the handbook itself. These include the theoretical and epistemological frameworks of ethnography in its construction of the subject/researcher relationship, and the utility of such frameworks to studying not only virtual worlds, but online cultures in general. We will also discuss common myths about ethnography, exploring their roots and counterarguments. Myths include the misperceptions that ethnography is not scientific, that it is less valid than quantitative methods, that it is “merely anecdotal,” and that its methods are outmoded and obsolete. Finally, we will address some of the practical discussions of the handbook, including research design, the role of participant observation and interviews, ethical questions, and issues around generalization.

Tom Boellstorff is Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine; from 2007–2012 he was Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association. He is the author of many articles and the books The Gay Archipelago (Princeton University Press, 2005); A Coincidence of Desires (Duke University Press, 2007); and Coming of Age in Second Life (Princeton University Press, 2008). He is also the coauthor of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: a Handbook of Method (Princeton University Press, 2012). With Bill Maurer, he is Series Editor for the Princeton Studies in Culture and Technology (Princeton University Press).

Bonnie Nardi is a faculty member in the Department of Informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences. She is is interested in social theory, social life on the internet, and human computer interaction. Her current work includes studies of video gaming, occupational identity, and post-growth strategies for the design of information systems. She is the author of My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft (Michigan University Press 2010) and co-author of  Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: a Handbook of Method (Princeton University Press, 2012). She recently co-edited Materiality and Organizing:  Social Interaction in a Technological World (Oxford University Press, 2012).