Returning to “the field”: Reflections on single-player video games as anthropological field sites

How to Get the Best Ending in Detroit: Become Human | USgamer

One of the biggest ongoing debates within anthropology is what “the field” is: where it’s located, what constitutes as a field site, how anthropologists enter/exit the field. These questions are something we, as anthropologists, are constantly reflecting on at different points in our research and are questions which have been integral to my PhD research.

Traditionally “the field” has been thought of as something “out there”, usually happening in another country. Often, people imagine the anthropologist boarding a plane (or boat, or train, or some other kind of vehicle) and setting off for 12-15 months to a place far away from home to conduct ethnographic research with participants. They hang out a lot (often referred to within the discipline as “deep hanging out”), ask loads of questions to everyone they meet, observe and participate with things happening in the field, and explore their home away from home. However, ideas about field sites have begun to shift thanks to the growing research in “anthropology at home” and digital anthropology, both of which offer interesting ways of doing ethnographic research which do not require going “out there” but instead offer ways to do research “here”.

As a PhD student who works with video games, I have been incredibly lucky in many ways given the impact that covid-19 has had on anthropologists carrying out fieldwork. I did not have to board a plane to leave the country and so did not find myself stuck when the borders were closed. I did not have to redesign my methods to incorporate online research or participant observation as my fieldwork had always been designed around digital methods. All I had to do was turn on my computer or my Playstation 4 and I was “there” (1). Yet even this seemingly simple act of turning on raises questions about the field, especially when the primary game I’m looking at contains no one else.

Like many students, I first encountered the possibility of doing research with video games as an undergraduate through Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (2008) and was immediately enamored with the idea of doing ethnographic research with/on/through video games. However, the game I wanted to research was not an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) like Boellstorff’s Second Life or Bonnie Nardi’s research on World of Warcraft (2010). As pioneering anthropological research on video games, both of these works drew significant skepticism at the time because they deviated from traditional fieldwork and fieldsites. Yet, as both Boellstorff and Nardi demonstrate, these virtual field sites are not so far from non-virtual ones. Through their avatars anthropologists have a ‘physical’ presence in the field which allows them to move throughout the (virtual) field and interact with other players. They hang out with other players, ask them questions, observe and participate in a range of activities in the field, and explore their environment (sometimes with others, other times alone). The game that my research focuses on, Detroit: Become Human (2018), arguably has only one of these. There are no other humans to interact with and I am not “me” within the game, I am one of three main characters the game focuses on.

Such research raises so many questions – is this ethnographic fieldwork? Is this even anthropology?

Through my research I hope to argue that it is both of these things, though I anticipate that are lots of people who will disagree with me.

Whilst I can’t answer any of these questions within the space of one blog post, I had been thinking a lot about this since replaying Detroit: Become Human for the first time since restarting my fieldwork. Though I have been conducting a few interviews with research participants, attending online conventions, and engaging with other players through social media, playing D:BH made me feel for the first time in my research like I was “in the field”.

Although it probably would have been easier to get the bus to the paint shop, where I needed to pick up some new paint for Carl, the day was nice enough that I thought I would walk there and wander through the park on the way. The sun shone through the leaves on the trees and was calm, despite being right next to the main road. At this time of day the park was mostly occupied by androids caring for children or taking their elderly patients for a walk and gardeners filling the air with the thrumming of their leaf blowers. Leaving the park, I waited to cross the road over to the shopping square. The invisible barriers preventing me from crossing the road caused me to take a few moments while I waited. As I listened to the sound of the passing electric buses, cars and trucks, and felt their vibrations as they drove past, I caught the sound of chanting but couldn’t see where it was coming from. As I lingered briefly by a pretzel stand trying to work out which direction the sound was coming from, the human behind the stand growled at me telling me to move it “plastic fuck”. Not wanting to get into an altercation I decided to explore the square instead of heading straight to the paint shop. On the other side of the square, the huge Cyberlife store stood and it was there that I spotted a group of human protesters. I didn’t have to get any closer to figure out what was going on. From here I could hear the sound of their anger floating through the air, lead by a man shouting through a megaphone, chanting about androids stealing their jobs and the unemployment rate for humans. Around me, the other humans went about their business – sitting on benches, listening to a busker, ordering food – whilst the androids continued to work, seemingly oblivious to what was going on. I paused, looking up into the sky for a moment, trying to take everything in. Above me, a massive billboard loomed above the square – “Cyberlife: Gets Yours Today”.

3 New Shorts Set the Stage for Detroit: Become Human – PlayStation.Blog

This excerpt from my fieldnotes reminded me in many ways of the fieldnotes I took when I conducted research at Crufts in 2007 and the Black Cultural Archives in 2019. As someone who identifies as autistic, I find it very difficult (sometimes impossible) to approach people during fieldwork to strike up conversation or ask questions. Instead, I rely heavily on observation – What sounds can I hear? What do my surroundings look like? What are the people around me doing? What kind of mundane things are happening? Is there anything interesting that I can pick out? Are there any materials I can take with me to look at in more depth later on like pamphlets or advertisements? I then follow up on these written observations with pre-arranged interviews with research participants either in or out of the same location.

Of course, there are many differences. I am not physically present in Detroit in 2038, I am not an android, I cannot smell or touch anything (2), I can pause the game to take notes (something I definitely wish I could do during other kinds of fieldwork), I am limited in where I can go by the parameters of the game, and I cannot approach anyone to have unscripted dialogue with them. However, given my limitations within fieldwork, there were many interesting parallels with the data that I am able to collect in field sites with people and within D:BH. I believe that these parallels are something worth exploring in greater depth, having been mostly disregarded by the discipline given the absence of human interaction within these games (3).

Being a disabled anthropologist already fundamentally changes my experience and understanding of the field, and I see my research within single-player video games as a further extension of this. As I go forward with fieldwork and my research, I will be continuing to explore and think through single-player video games as ethnographic field sites. I’m excited to see what other discoveries lie in wait in the future.

Footnotes

  1. This is not to say that my research has not been affected by covid-19. In fact, I made the decision to halt my fieldwork for a substantial period of time due to the impact the pandemic had on both myself and my research participants as well as the ethical implications raised by doing research at a time of global crisis. This is something which I have previously written about in an earlier blog post and which is being developed into a journal article for publication.
  2. Whilst I cannot physically interact with the environment, the Playstation 4 does allow for many interesting haptic moments while playing the game. In the excerpt I mention the rumble of the vehicles as they drive past – these rumbles were felt through the controller. Later on when the android I am currently playing, Markus, is invited to paint something by his owner, Carl, the game invites me to stroke the touch pad on the controller as a way to simulate the moving of a paintbrush. Previously I have used Laura U. Marks’ work on haptic visuality as a way of understanding the embodied, tactile and multisensory aspects of video games (2000), something which I will be continuing to look at in further detail.
  3. Early in my research, I also argued that whilst there is an absence of other people within single-player video games, players are often responding to NPC’s (non playable characters) as though they are other people. At the time I did not know that there was a term for this – parasocial relationships – which I am very grateful to my colleague Gabriel Elvery for making me aware of through their work on parasocial relationships in video games. This is something which I will be continuing to explore throughout my research.

Bibliography

Boellstorff, T. (2007) Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Oxford: Princeton University Press

Detroit: Become Human (2018) Quantic Dream

Elvery, Gabriel. Digital Fantastic. Available at: <https://digital-fantastic.com/&gt;

Marks, L. (2000) The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Duke University Press

Nardi, B. (2010) My Life as a Night Elf Priest. An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. Michigan: University of Michigan.

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