Editor’s Note: This is a co-authored piece written by Spencer Ruelos and Amanda Cullen, both PhD students in the Informatics department at UC Irvine.
Most work at the intersection of games and anthropology is centered around how ethnographic methods can be applied to video games, especially those based in virtual worlds. Boellstorff’s (2006) essay in the inaugural issue of Games and Culture was central in articulating the possibilities of ethnographic fieldwork in game studies research. While game studies continues to draw on anthropological traditions of ethnography, this seems to be where the conversation between the two disciplines ends. Many of us who work in both game studies and anthropology find ourselves lacking a sense of academic belonging in either field; this post is, in part, an attempt to build deeper connections between these two disciplines.
Spencer: An Anthropological Imagination in/around Games
I began studying video games relatively early in my academic career. In 2012, as an undergrad in anthropology and multicultural queer studies, I undertook an ethnographic research project on online queer gamer community-building. As a queer gamer myself, I was particularly interested in how games, digital culture, and identity were central to how these gamers sought authenticity, connection, and belonging. From that early point, I was committed to thinking critically and anthropologically about the relationships between video games and the players who play them.
Beyond ethnography and participant observation, game studies has the potential to deeply engage with multiple epistemological and methodological perspectives that develop out of the tradition of anthropology. Another way to think about this is how an anthropological imagination in/around games might inform game studies research. I discuss two possibilities for an anthropological imagination here: cultural relativism and reflexivity.
In many ways, dominant sociocultural discourses continue to demonize video games as a medium; they are even sometimes blamed for acts of mass violence like school shootings (e.g., Trump’s recent views on video games). Paradoxically, games are also seen in the public’s eye as trivial, unreal, and childish play things with no real social implications. In many ways, these discussions of video games sound strikingly familiar to Western ethnocentric moral imperatives about the cultural practices of non-Western locales. As our history of anthropology courses remind us, Franz Boas most famously promoted the concept of cultural relativism to combat ethnocentricism. Anthropologists are well trained in understanding cultural practices from the perspectives of those within a culture without being too quick to impose values and judgments. Game studies itself might find it useful to adopt the language and theoretical perspective of relativism—perhaps a form of “subcultural relativism”—to combat these negative discourses and moral panics around games. This might indeed help scholars better understand and position the social, political, and potentially transformative possibilities of play for the people who game in their own terms.
Another insight that game studies can adopt from anthropology is thinking more critically about positionality and reflexivity in the work we do. Anthropologists us their bodies as the instruments through which they conduct research and understand the world, and they have developed the skills to critically reflect and write about how their own bodies, desires, and subjectivities influence their work. In contrast, game studies scholars often fall for what Haraway (1988) calls the “god trick,” that objective and disembodied attempt at theorizing some absolute truth. I’m very curious to see what game studies scholarship might look like if we more centrally situated ourselves in our analyses. For example, games criticism rarely acknowledges the positionality of the critic, and rarely does research discuss how games make the researcher personally feel and why they are so invested in games. I’m curious how our own politics as scholars influence how we play, critique, create, evaluate, encounter, understand, theorize, and write about games, game communities, and game culture. A stronger commitment to reflexivity by games scholars would not only promote critical, ethical practices to research, but also might help bring a theoretical and methodological sense of embodiment to the very embodied practice of gaming.
Allow me to illustrate these claims with an example. In 2014, I gave a talk at TEDxHumboldtBay about what it meant for me growing up as a gamer and gay boy in a conservative little town in Northern California. For me, I always sought a community that valued both my queerness and geekiness, and it wasn’t until my college years that I found that in a queer gamer forum. That online community became one of my earliest field sites for studying games. In that talk, I recount the insights from one my participants and friends, Skye:
Neither being gay nor gamer is fully accepted by society, and so there’s always some degree of masking required in what we do. Combining the two and creating a community around it creates a place where both masks can be taken off and left at the door, and it becomes very, very comfortable. For me, being a “gaymer” isn’t just a label, it isn’t even part of my identity, but it’s become something representing where I belong. This in a sense is home!
My and Skye’s understandings of what it means to be a “gaymer” collide and speak to the epistemological and methodological possibilities of a game studies that embraces relativism and reflexivity. For Skye, society does not make space for him as both a gamer and a gay man; being a part of this online queer gamer community is where he finds a sense of belonging, authenticity, and home. This is a powerful counter-narrative to the discourses I describe above about video games. My own history as a queer gamer animates my own politics for studying queer gamers and viewing games as important sites for queer worldmaking. Even this brief example illustrates the powerful potential to understanding both community-building practices of players in their own terms and how researchers’ own positionalities influences and animate their approaches games and game communities.
Amanda: Anthropology Should Engage with Game Studies
I am an Assistant Professor of Archaeology in World of Warcraft (WoW) and a PhD student in Informatics specializing in game studies, but I struggled with articulating what game studies has to offer anthropology. I was reluctant to speak on behalf of either discipline when at times it feels as if I truly belong to neither. But for several years now I have been aware of a dearth of engagement with video games on the part of anthropology. I use my perspective, betwixt and between anthropology and game studies, to send out a call to more anthropologists to take up video games and game culture as legitimate objects, fields, and communities for research.
I grew up on a farm in rural Florida that did not receive dial-up internet until I was in high school, and it was not until I went to college that I finally had access to games like WoW. The internet introduced me to the world of online gaming, a world that became as real to me as anything else in my life. By the time I was preparing to write my masters thesis in cultural anthropology I had read My Life as a Night Elf Priest and Coming of Age in Second Life. I dreamed of conducting research similar to theirs in WoW, but I was concerned that such an endeavor from a grad student would not be taken seriously within anthropology. It was not until I started my PhD and was introduced to game studies that I realized the study of games is both serious and necessary and that anthropology lags behind other academic disciplines in this project.
Game studies as a discipline refers to the scholarly treatment of video games that began in the late 1990s/early 2000s. In the first journal of computer game research, Espen Aarseth mused that it would be easy for other disciplines to colonize game studies due to its newness and its position as a “pseudo-field.” Now, it is not unusual for anthropologists such as Spencer and I to move into game studies and become insider/outsiders in that space, but we are still relatively few in number. While other disciplines in game studies debate the implications of platforms, media effects, political economy, and business in relation to games, it can be difficult to discern anthropology’s contributions to game studies (Trammell and Sinnreich 2014).
I urge anthropologists to go beyond participant observation conducted in MMOs like those that marked anthropology’s initial forays into game studies. There are gamespaces, communities, and games beyond MMOs that have yet to be explored by anthropology. Luckily this is already changing, as students of anthropology begin to publish on topics like the process of game design (Romine 2016) and the well-being of players (Smarr-Foster 2017).
Video games offer a unique way to play with the everyday experiences and values of people that bears continued and increased exploration from anthropologists. I am sure many anthropologists play video games, have seen them played in the field, or can see how they might relate to their research; we should not exclude these games or the experiences connected to them as just games or just play. Games and play are capable of raising interesting social, political, and ethical questions, as game studies has shown, on topics such as racism, authoritarianism, and the agency of non-human entities. Anthropologists are addressing these issues in other contexts, so why not examine them in games? Archaeologists have already begun to demonstrate how video games are cultural artifacts that can be engaged with using archaeological theory and method (Reinhard 2016, Dennis 2016). But video games are not only technological artifacts, they are cultural systems that are capable of creating new norms of behavior or influencing what we see in mainstream culture. (Just think of the coverage on the game Fortnite alone.) As Soraya Murray (2017) has argued, video games, as expressions and reflections of culture, warrant research that attends to the cultural politics of video games, and yet games and its cultures continue to lie outside the realm of inquiry for many disciplines, including anthropology.
In my experience, the answer to why more disciplines (like anthropology) do not study video games is because games are seen as trivial, innocuous, or unreal. Let me assure you that video games are none of those things and admonish that anthropologists, of any discipline, should know better than to ignore objects, spaces, and cultures which encompass millions of people worldwide. Video games are not trivial; they feature in important debates concerning free speech and violence. Video games are not innocuous: they are capable of generating strong emotion and shaping behavior. Video games are real: they have their own cultures that anthropologists can visit. And I do mean visit. Consider video games as field sites, as real as any other, because they are treated as real in practice by the people who live in those spaces everyday.
Boellstorff (2006) concluded his contribution to the first issue of Games and Culture by stating that “the information age has, under our noses, become the gaming age” (33). Considering the growth of the industry, increases in the gaming population, mobile gaming, and the explosion of livestreaming and esports in the 12 years since then, it is safe to say that Boellstorff was not exaggerating. There are many places where the conversation between game studies and anthropology could be further developed and strengthened. Boellstorff also referred to gaming as the new “master metaphor” for human social relations in this new age, but games have moved beyond a merely metaphorical role to existence as powerful instruments and networks of social control (Trammell and Sinnreich 2014).
Our goal has been to indicate some places where bridges might be built between the two disciplines and to help establish spaces where other scholars interested in anthropology and games might find community and belonging. This is not possible until anthropologists and game scholars take one another more seriously as academic playmates. Both fields would be strengthened: anthropology through a greater attendance to play and games in all aspects of our lives; game studies through critical understandings of reflexivity and the body of the researcher in game spaces.
Come play with us!
Aarseth, Espen. 2001. “Computer Game Studies, Year One.” Game Studies 1(1).
Boellstorff, Tom. 2006. “A Ludicrous Discipline? Ethnography and Game Studies.” Games and Culture 1(1):27-35.
Dennis, L. Meghan. 2016. “Archaeogaming, Ethics, and Participatory Standards.” SAA Archaeological Record 16(5): 29–33.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599.
Murray, Soraya. 2017. On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space. New York, NY: I.B. Tauris.
Reinhard, A. 2016. “Toward Archaeological Tools and Methods for Excavating Virtual Spaces.” SAA Archaeological Record 16 (5):19–22.
Romine, Morgan. 2016. “Fractured Imaginaries: An Ethnography of Game Design.” PhD Dissertation, University of California, Irvine.
Smarr-Foster, Cheryl. 2017. “A Cross-Generational Study of Video Gaming.” Master’s thesis, Colorado State University.
About the Authors
Spencer Ruelos is a PhD student in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Working at the intersections of queer theory, STS, digital anthropology, and game studies, Spencer’s research explores how queer gamers employ worldmaking practices in order to create a more inclusive gaming culture. Currently his work examines the relationship between social space, affect, and identity in shaping the gaming experiences and community-building practices of marginalized players.
Amanda Cullen is a PhD student in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Her research occurs at the intersection between game studies and fan studies, examining the experiences of marginalized players and their relationships to video game cultures. Currently her research focuses on the efforts of women to live and work as professional players in both livestreaming and esports.
Great piece — thanks so much!
Pretty cool. Also check out Thomas Malaby’s work on anthropology, games, and play.
Hi! I’m an undergrad student of social anthropology in Brazil and am currently starting my research for my final project (to finish my undergrad studied) on xenophobia ingame. Amanda’s work is of huge interest to me, is there any way I could have access to your references and current research? I’d love to talk!
Thanks so much!
Hey Sergio! I think you’ll probably have the most luck emailing her at the address listed here: