Distraction Free Reading

On the Ethnographic Butterfly Effect

More than three months ago I wanted to write about the ethnographic butterfly effect and a key informant’s book. But there were strange things happening around games and social media at the time coupled with tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri. So I wrote about those things. It is more than three months later and there are still strange things happening in social media around games and everything in Ferguson, Missouri (and other parts of the United States) is somehow impossibly more sad.

So I’m going to write about the ethnographic butterfly effect and a key informant’s book on the game Jagged Alliance 2.

I met Darius while I was working on my dissertation. He had come to Albany, from Boston, to speak at the local International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA) meeting. At the time Darius was a game developer, doing lots of early work that would now fall under the name “Analytics” or “Big Data” in games, but those names hadn’t really come along yet. Interestingly, Darius gave himself a title at the time: “Professional Networker.” Darius was really a collector of people in the game industry. He wasn’t a networker, so much as someone looking to talk to as many interesting people working in games to better understand the industry he worked within.

We’ve managed to chat numerous occasions over the years, at the yearly pilgrimage to San Francisco for the Game Developer’s Conference, events like GDX (“Game Developer Exchange”) hosted at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and over email, Twitter and whatever medium suited the moments in between.

Over time, what struck me was that Darius not only appreciated the kinds of things that game scholars and strange social scientists like me straddling the worlds between Science and Technology Studies, Anthropology and Game Studies appreciated, but that he was reading and speaking back. Darius read my dissertation and even assigned an open-access essay that I published to students in a college course he taught. Darius dove into reading Bruno Latour, Ian Bogost and others who I’d never imagined an informant diving into. I’m not saying in any way that I (or others) caused Darius to pursue new avenues. That’s too simplistic. But I think the various encounters Darius has experienced has shifted his thinking about games.

In his recent examination of Jagged Alliance 2, which elegantly and clearly opens up the black-box of game development through his reading of Jagged Alliance 2. Part of me wishes that he had taken a more analytically inclined angle, and part of me relishes in his unabashed empirical zeal in exploiting his own networks to unpack the system that was a game that he cared deeply for. But that would be a different book and a different author. As such, I read it as an important moment for the crossing of industry and academic streams. I suspect he cares even more now than he ever did, having opened up the black-box of a game and found it filled with people, stories and culture.

Perhaps it is that reason that it strikes me as odd that he sets his analysis as oppositional, in the opening lines of the text, to the more hermeneutic analysis of Brendan Keogh’s analysis of the game Spec Ops: The Line. When I started my dissertation, I probably would have done the same. But looking at it now, I think they are cut from the same cloth. The difference is that one frolics in the networks of people, political-economy and social networks. The other in the images, interactions and networks of textuality within a game. Each attempts to make sense of a tangle of systems.

At the same time, his book on Jagged Alliance 2 and the entire series of Boss Fight Books was enabled by the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter (Disclosure: I “kicked” this project.) which has had significant impacts on the funding of independent videogames. The very opportunity for Darius’ reflexive turn has been part of massive political-economic shifts throughout the videogame industry. Waves and storm systems start in strange ways.

As an Anthropologist or simplistically as an ethnographer, I (and mayhap the royal “we”) set out into field-sites. We already know that this is a complex relationship that we establish between ourselves and our informants. And to say that the ways in which informants talk back or appropriate ethnographic work is “new” is clearly nothing new. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of emphasizing the reflexive moment in ethnographic work. I look at an informant’s work and see his hand, mine and others pushing towards new modes of knowledge production. I am not the butterfly, but nor is Darius, Ian or Latour. It is an emergent system and I am simply excited to see it at work. Yet, it is consequential when someone shows up saying, “This (and you) matters, and I’d like to invest the next [six][twelve][twenty-four][…] months attempting to better understand.”

I think about some of the responses to Gabriella Coleman’s recent work on Anonymous and can’t help but identify with some of the critiques leveled at her book and anthropology/ethnography more generally. I imagine some of those same critiques might be leveled at my work. Even Ian Condry in his work on anime producers notes a certain predilection for “gratefulness” and “loyalty” as markers of ethnographic work in realms marked by tightly controlled access. I cannot help but ask, isn’t a loyal, or sincere reading worth continued access to these sites? Most of us would love to see continued ethnographic inquiry. If we were to level all our critical barrels at once, clearly that access would disappear. There are future moments for future critiques. Sometimes the time for “grateful” analysis opens up future avenues for more provocative inquiries.

Maybe I’m just making excuses for making some critiques and not others.

An epilogue: Darius is now a self titled, “Internet Artist,” who makes interesting things. Darius is in my new book, Developer’s Dilemma. He is in my undergraduate classes as well (I show this video). Of all his projects, I think “Last Words” was the first thing he made that made me cry. He’s probably become more known for his talk (and essay) entitled, “Fuck Videogames.” His techno-creativity now focuses on critiquing systems with systems. Butterfly… Hurricane. Hurricane… Butterfly.

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