Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
Public Displays of Play: Studying Online
Games in Physical Settingsâˆ—
Department of Communication, North Carolina State University, 2200 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, NC, 27695
York University, 4700 Keele St., Toronto, ON M3J 1P3, Canada
Suzanne de Castell
Dean of the Faculty of Education, Ontario Institute of Technology
Clinical psychology masters program, York University, 4700 Keele St., Toronto, ON M3J 1P3, Canada
As research on virtual worlds gains increasing attention in educational, commercial, and military
domains, a consideration of how player populations are â€˜reassembledâ€™ through social scientific data is
a timely matter for communication scholars. This paper describes a large-scale study of virtual worlds
in which participants were recruited at public gaming events, as opposed to through online means,
and explores the dynamic relationships between players and contexts of play that this approach
makes visible. Challenging conventional approaches to quantitatively driven virtual worlds research,
which categorizes players based on their involvement in an online game at a particular point in time,
this account demonstrates how playersâ€™ networked gaming activities are contingent on who they are
playing with, where, and when.
Key words: Computer games, Qualitative, Multi-user Virtual Environments, Quantitative, Online
This paper reports on a mixed-methods study carried out across 20 public gameplay sites, including
large- and small-scale local area network (LAN) parties, fan culture conventions, Internet cafes, and Â´
pub-based gaming nights. The purpose of this fieldwork was to document and compare the gamesrelated and games-based forms of communicative activity, particularly with regards to play in Massively
Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs), that different public venues make possible. This work merges
qualitative research methods (participant observation and interviews) with quantitative data collection
and analysis (via a survey administered to each participant), enabling a mixed-methods, multisite
exploration of game-based computer-mediated communication in public settings. The sites at which
we met participants to observe and discuss their play involved multiple and different configurations of
âˆ—Accepted by previous editor Maria Bakardjieva
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association 763
social, technological, material, and economic resources â€“ in other words, different virtual and material
â€˜â€˜assemblagesâ€™â€™ (Taylor, 2009) for public play. Participants included classmates playing at an Internet
cafe after school before heading home for the evening; hobbyists brought together for a day of card, Â´
computer and tabletop gaming at fan culture events; â€˜â€˜clanmatesâ€™â€™ commuting for hours, and sleeping
in tents and cars, to spend time with one another at massive, multiday LAN events; and GLBTQ gaming
enthusiasts congregating for gaming gatherings at a neighborhood pub.
We situate this project alongside other current accounts of both public gaming and MMOG play,
and we detail an approach that merges qualitative methods for studying players in public sites with a
concern for generating quantitative accounts and analyses of MMOG-based interactions. The central
question guiding this investigation is as follows: what happens to our understandings of the forms
of sociality supported by networked digital games when the research sites are not individual online
gaming environments, but rather the physical settings in which many players gather, publically, to
play? We suggest that this marks a departure, both methodologically and ontologically, from the ways
quantitative studies of MMOGs have conventionally been carried out, insofar as our research contexts
allowed us to observe playersâ€™ interactions, both computer-mediated and face-to-face, through direct
observation instead of through survey self-report and/or in-game actions. We then briefly describe each
of the public gaming contexts we visited, pointing to the ways in which the specific conditions of each
structured different possibilities for sociality, communication, play, and fieldwork. After this sketch of
the different public gaming sites involved, we present a quantitative snapshot of the population of each;
then, drawing on stories from our qualitative fieldwork, we highlight ways this stable and somewhat
predictable demographic picture of a gaming population was shaped and produced through shifting
fieldwork situations. Building from recent studies that have applied science and technology studies
(STS) notions of â€˜â€˜assemblagesâ€™â€™ (Taylor, 2009), â€˜â€˜cybernetic circuitsâ€™â€™ (Giddings, 2007), and â€˜â€˜actor
networksâ€™â€™ (Taylor, 2011) to accounts of digital gaming, we discuss the challenges our approach offers
to current quantitatively driven understandings of the role and significance of MMOGs in the lives of
The analysis we undertake here pays critical attention to the ways in which both â€˜participantsâ€™ and
â€˜research sitesâ€™ are defined and delineated in research on networked digital gaming. In beginning from
an account of the material conditions of play in public sites, and a consideration of what kinds of
communicative activity (both in terms of play and fieldwork) these conditions enable, the aim is to
provide an alternative grounds to the study of MMOG play that resists the easy (but limiting) dichotomy
between online and offline practices and settings.
This work builds on two areas of scholarship on digital gaming: quantitative studies of MMOGs, and
qualitative studies of how play is performed in public sites.
Studies of Online Gaming
A growing body of research uses the tools and techniques of â€˜big dataâ€™ to examine gaming communities
formed within specific MMOGs. In-game data on avatar behavior, gathered through automated scripts,
via online avatar databases (c.f. the World of Warcraft Armory), or obtained directly from the gameâ€™s
publishers, is typically combined with self-reported survey data in order to characterize â€˜life onlineâ€™ in
these virtual spaces, and to generate claims about the apparent motivations, dispositions, and offline
characteristics of players. The breadth and scope of these studies is impressive: Yee et al (2011), for
example, draw from online surveys and corresponding World of Warcraft (WoW) armory data from
over 1,000 players, while Harrison and Roberts (2011) draw from WoW armory data on close to 15,000
764 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association
avatars. Williams et al (2011) make use of 7,000 online surveys, with access to over 30,000 player
logs, in their study of Everquest II, which also uses server-side data made available by Sony Online
Entertainment, the gameâ€™s publisher.
By design, these quantitative, game-based studies on MMOGs leave largely untouched questions of
whether and how the physical contexts of online play affect playersâ€™ computer-mediated interactions.
Differentiated levels of access (whether to machines, game software, extended periods of leisure time),
prior experiences with a particular game or genre, and the specificities of playersâ€™ material conditions are
either disregarded, or are treated as murky terrains that can be partially illuminated through inferences
drawn from in-game behavior (see, for example, Mahmassani et al, 2010). Rather than view this as a
limitation, these studies claim that virtual environments are sufficiently analogous to â€˜real lifeâ€™ settings
to warrant comparison and inference from virtual contexts to physical ones, but with the added benefit
that games can enable far more comprehensive and unobtrusive means of gathering data on playersâ€™
â€˜â€˜naturalâ€™â€™ behaviors than is possible (or ethical) in offline contexts (see, for example, Yee et al, 2011,
p. 2).1 Leaving aside ethical considerations regarding the use of automated techniques to gather data on
MMOG players without their explicit consent (Chee, Taylor and de Castell, 2012), this work is based
on the (arguably under examined) premise that networked play can be studied and understood without
recourse to the offline contexts and conditions of its production.
Studies of Public Play
With regards to the study of digital play in public sites, scholars have examined Internet cafes, â€˜â€˜PC Â´
Bangs,â€™â€™ competitive tournaments, or LAN events, both small- and large-scale, exploring the sociality
(Jansz and Martens, 2005; Swalwell, 2006) and aesthetics of public LANs (Simon, 2007), the ways
young people fit public play into their everyday lives (Chee, 2006), the role of tournaments in the
growth and development of e-sports (Taylor, 2011; Taylor, 2012), and the cultural positioning of public
gaming as an increasingly mainstream practice (Taylor and Witkowski, 2010). Through observations
and interviews with players, spectators and organizers/workers, these studies document participantsâ€™
behaviors, practices and orientations with regards to games and public gameplay.
In addition to documenting how play is performed in different public sites, a number of studies
look at how the materiality of public gaming sites affects the play practices of attendees. Though not
writing specifically on gaming, Nina Wakefordâ€™s (1999) ethnographic work on the â€˜â€˜gendered landscapes
of computingâ€™â€™ in a London-based net cafe explored the ways the physical contexts of computing in Â´
public spaces â€“ including the layout and configuration of machines, the semiotics of decor, and rules Â´
and protocols for behavior â€“ shape the kinds of communicative action made (im)possible in these
sites. Wakefordâ€™s particular focus on the gendered dynamics of Internet cafes has been taken up by Â´
Jo Bryce and Jason Rutter (2005), and Holin Lin (2008) in their analyses of how gender is enacted
and performed in public gaming sites. Bart Simon (2007) focuses more closely on the materiality of
machines at LAN parties, calling attention to the practice of â€˜case moddingâ€™ as an example of embodied
sociotechnical practice that undermines attempts to understand gameplay purely as a matter of what
happens on screen. In a similar vein, TL Taylor and Emma Witkowski (2010) emphasize the multiple,
heterogeneous practices undertaken by attendees at Dreamhack, the worldâ€™s largest LAN party held
annually in Sweden; they remark that at an event ostensibly devoted to gaming, much more than
gaming happens, both online and off. In what follows, we build from and extend these insights into the
connections between networked online play and the physical contexts in which it unfolds. As we will
demonstrate through an account of the spatial and temporal arrangement of different public gaming
events and of our research activities at each, the ways players perform and describe their involvement in
networked digital play â€“ and even whether they consider themselves â€˜MMOG playersâ€™ – varies according
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association 765
to particular and contingent conditions: what they are playing, with whom, and where, and crucially,
who is asking the questions about their involvement, and how.
Reassembling the LAN
The work we report on here is the first large-scale study of online gamers in which they were sought
out in public settings. As a theoretical orientation to this study, we draw from the work of qualitative
games researchers employing actor-network theory (ANT), primarily as articulated by Bruno Latour
(2005). Whether applied to studies of MMOG play (Taylor, 2009), single-player gaming (Giddings,
2007) or competitive first-person shooter tournaments (Taylor, 2011), actor-network approaches to
digital gaming interpret play as the production of coconstitutive relationships between human and
nonhuman actors, including the gameâ€™s hardwired rules, the arrangement of online and offline play
contexts, legal structures regulating play, hardware inputs and platforms, graphical user interfaces,
and so on. This perspective works against a tendency in MMOG studies, as outlined above, to view
gaming environments as â€˜naturalâ€™ settings in which to observe player interactions â€“ a perspective that
largely ignores the tremendous role played by these material and technological systems in not simply
mediating, but structuring playersâ€™ communicative actions.
While actor-network theory provides a broad theoretical perspective for this work, sociocultural
activity theory offers a productive means of schematizing the methodological differences between this
study and other large-scale studies of MMOGs. Developed by Engestrom (1990) and adapted to the Â¨
study digitally-mediated practices by Nardi (1995), activity theory views sociotechnical practice as the
product of intentional, goal-directed activity carried out through interconnected sets of mediators,
including technologies and their specific affordances and constraints; organizational, institutional,
and technical rules, protocols, and policies; other individuals engaged in the same pursuit; and
members of the broader community or organization. Adapted from Engestromâ€™s schema showing the Â¨
interrelationship of elements in a given â€˜â€˜activity systemâ€™â€™ (1990), Figures 1 and 2 depict the differences
Figure 1 The activity structure of MMOG research at public gaming sites
766 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association
Figure 2 The activity structure of MMOG research in online contexts
in MMOG research carried out through our study of play in public settings and the majority of
quantitative MMOG studies to date that are based on (and in) particular games. As we will demonstrate,
the key difference between these two approaches, as depicted in these diagrams, concerns the â€˜â€˜division
of laborâ€™â€™ in each. Interacting with players face-to-face and in some cases, multiple times enabled us
to get a sense of how participants moved from game to game over the course of multiple site visits, a
single weekend, or even a single observation, revealing the limitations in organizing and making claims
about participants wholly based on their involvement â€˜withinâ€™ a particular online game.
To carry out this fieldwork, we visited over 20 public sites: Internet cafes, LAN (local area network) Â´
parties, and other public gaming events in, Toronto, Vancouver, and England between Summer 2010
and April 2012. We observed playersâ€™ activities in multiple games and solicited, from 25 of these
participants, an online â€˜â€˜travelogueâ€™â€™, a visual journal of their everyday play in the MMOG of their
choice (Taylor, Jenson and McArthur, 2012). We administered a survey to participants at each event
(378 in total), that we asked them to complete on-site so we could be on hand to answer any questions.
We also interviewed 14 players face-to-face about their gameplay preferences, play practices at home,
over-arching MMOG career, and their reasons for attending the public site where we met them. Where
possible, we visited sites multiple times to see who returned over the course of days and weeks. This
represents what we believe is a first in studies of either online gaming or offline, public contexts of play:
a comparison of players and player populations that, because of its documentation of different kinds
of gameplay settings globally, is both more latitudinal and, by virtue of our multiple visits to multiple
contexts over time, more longitudinal than most accounts of online play/ers.2
While an exhaustive account of the â€˜lan-scapesâ€™ of these events is beyond the scope of this paper, we
want to briefly characterize each of these events in order to give an impression of what kinds of play,
socialization, and research were possible across each. In keeping with an activity theory framework,
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association 767
we pay particular attention to the temporal and spatial arrangements of these events in order to draw
attention to how these shaped our fieldwork.
Insomnia LAN Festivals
Between August 2010 and April 2012, we attended four large-scale LAN events, held in England (two in
Newbury and two in Telford) and run by the organization Multiplay as part of their â€˜â€˜Insomniaâ€™â€™ series
of gaming festivals. The Insomnia series (or i-Series) of LAN parties take place three times annually: in
late April/early May, mid-August, and mid-November. Of the four events we attended (i40 and i41 in
Newbury, in August and November 2010, respectively; i43 and i44 in Telford, in August and November
2011, respectively), the least-attended event (i41) attracted approximately 1000 attendees, while i43
attracted over 2500. Events were held at a horseracing facility in Newbury and then relocated to a
convention center in Telford. Each event, regardless of location and number of attendees, involved a
mix of activities besides day-to-day (and night-to-night) play in the â€˜BYOCâ€™ (Bring your own computer)
area: tournaments for popular e-sports games (Counterstrike, Team Fortress 2, Starcraft, and League of
Legends primarily); a small area for table-top gaming; a Pub Trivia Night; and exhibitor booths. These
events offered outdoor campgrounds for attendees to spend the night, large event floors to set up their
computers in long rows of tables, and competitive gaming tournaments.
Fieldwork at Insomnia LANS involved navigating the erratic and overlapping tournament schedules,
and the even more erratic schedules of players as they moved from one activity to the next, taking
breaks for meals, sleep, drinking, or just hanging out. Alcohol, and the relatively lax rules around public
alcohol consumption in England (compared to Canada), also played a role in this fieldwork; being able
to have a beer with participants as they did the survey, chatted with us, and showed us their MMOG
play was often key in establishing a â€˜fluidâ€™ and easy rapport with them. By the third and fourth events
we attended, we were recognized by many participants who directed their friends, clanmates or peers
our way to participate in the study.
Canadian LAN events
We attended two LAN events in Canada: one in Vancouver (LANcouver, July 2011) and one in
Toronto (ZeroPing, July 2010). These events were much smaller in scale than the Insomnia events
in England (the LANcouver event had 250 attendees, the ZeroPing event closer to 70), but similarly
featured attendees playing on their own machines in a large event space, organized along long tables.
Additionally, the LANcouver event featured console-based fighting game tournaments and an area for
tabletop gamers. These differed from the England-based events in terms of the scale, location, and rules
governing attendee behavior. At the Insomnia event, for instance, alcohol consumption was allowed, if
not encouraged; the Toronto and Vancouver events had a no-alcohol policy. Furthermore, because the
Insomnia events drew large numbers of players from all over the UK and Europe, the large majority
attendees â€“ including the researchers â€“ had no home to return to in the evenings (or early mornings),
meaning that attendees stayed at the event for much long periods of time. In contrast, because the
Canadian events were much smaller in scope and primarily attended by participants from the host city,
there was a notable drop in attendance during the mid to late evenings, and the window for conducting
recruitment and fieldwork was comparatively smaller.
2010 Toronto FanExpo and 2012 Vancouver FanExpo
In August 2010, we attended the Toronto FanExpo, a 3-day fan culture event, where we recruited
participants by circulating on foot through the crowd and chatting up attendees participating in tabletop
768 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association
gaming. Opportunities for fieldwork were limited, given we did not have dedicated space on the event
floor (as we had at LAN parties). There was also a lack of emphasis on digital gaming compared to
other events. In April 2012 at the FanExpo held in Vancouver, we arranged an exhibitor booth where
we set up a station of laptops for attendees to take part in the study. For both events, the majority of
the large convention floor was devoted to promotional booths for comic, manga, and graphic novel
creators; video game manufacturers; and sci-fi, fantasy and horror television productions. Each site also
had space for tabletop and card gaming.
Internet cafÂ´es in Toronto and Vancouver
Over the period of 4 months, between July and October 2010, we visited over 20 Internet cafes in both Â´
Toronto and Vancouver, coming at multiple times during different days of the week and times of day,
but were only able to recruit participants from eight of these sites. Even when we got the approval
to conduct research from cafe managers, recruitment proved difficult and time-consuming; with few Â´
exceptions, most attendees who visit Internet cafes to play games do so in a way that makes efficient Â´
use of constrained and often brief periods in their days (coming home from school, on their way to
or from work). What made recruitment even more challenging was the typical physical orientation of
PC stations: Often separated by partitions, they screened attendeesâ€™ activities from one anotherâ€™s view.
This meant researchers had to approach potential participants from behind and â€˜shoulder tapâ€™ in order
to strike up a conversation: In such an individualized setting, this approach was often unwelcome.
Moreover, as we learned from observation and from discussion with participants, much of the clientele
use Internet cafes as a temporary reprieve from school-, work-, or home-based accountability and Â´
responsibility and therefore solicitation was often regarded as an intrusion. In reference to the activity
structure of fieldwork in public sites (Figure 1), these spatial and temporal conditions created very
limiting â€˜rulesâ€™ for interacting with cafe attendees. Â´
Two key exceptions to this, one in Vancouver and one in Toronto, were hobby shops that held
regular Magic: The Gathering card tournaments. While the tournaments took place in areas with no
computers, the seating arrangement along benches, with players looking across the table at each other,
was more similar to LAN events, and more conducive to striking up conversations with attendees, than
the typical Internet cafe. Similarly, the tournament format meant that we could talk to and recruit Â´
attendees during the gaps between rounds.
GLBTQ Gaming Community
Finally, between September 2011 and February 2012, we attended three gaming events put together by
an association of GLBTQ gamers at a pub in the Toronto area. These events were primarily (though
not exclusively) focused around console games. The material contours of this sitewere unique to the
gaming events we visited. Gaming machines were not as numerous as other gaming parties; aside from
the four research laptops we brought to these events, there were only three consoles attached to large flat
screen televisions. In contrast to the prevalence and centrality of gaming machines in other locations
we visited, the consoles were pushed against the walls, creating an open space in the middle where
participants could chat, watch, play, and drink.
This section provided a sketch of the sociotechnical configuration of each event, outlining how conditions â€˜on the groundâ€™ affected our ability to carry out fieldwork. In particular, this sketch indicated some of
the ways that the â€˜divisions of laborâ€™ involved in this fieldwork (Figure 1) were shaped by the arrangements
of bodies, technologies, and spaces. In the following sections, we provide quantitative and qualitative
accounts of these study populations, drawing attention to the ways that our qualitative stories unsettle
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association 769
Table 1 Demographics of different public gaming events
England (n = 183)
(n = 57)
Internet cafes, Â´
(n = 49)
(n = 93)
Sex (%) Female: 12 Female: 16 Female: 12 Female: 14
Male: 88 Male: 84 Male: 88 Male: 86
Age (Mean) 24 23 25 25
Race (%) Caucasian: 90 Caucasian: 63 Caucasian: 63 Caucasian: 66
Asian: 5 Asian: 33 Asian: 12 Asian: 26
Other: 5 Other: 4 Other: 25 Other: 8
SES (%) Lower middle: 13 Lower middle: 27 Lower middle: 16 Lower middle: 13
Middle: 42 Middle: 31 Middle: 37 Middle: 30
Upper middle: 32 Upper middle: 31 Upper middle: 34 Upper middle: 19
Other: 13 Other: 11 Other: 13 Other: 38
Highest level of
Secondary: 31 Secondary: 45 Secondary: 55 Secondary: 32
Trade school: 29
Trade school: 21
Trade school: 19
Trade school: 15
Graduate: 20 Graduate: 6 Graduate: 2 Graduate: 14
Primary/Other: 7 Primary/Other: 9 Primary/Other: 7
an otherwise straightforward quantitative picture, and demonstrating how the material and embodied
conditions of play and research are central to our understanding of online sociality and communication.
The demographic picture below organizes participants by site rather than by MMOG, in order to
emphasize the significance of local and contextual conditions in this study of networked play. For the
purpose of generating a demographic profile of players, we grouped research sites into the following
categories: i) LAN events in England (including all four Insomnia LAN events); ii) Fan culture
events in Toronto (including the GLBTQ gamer events and FanExpo); iii) Internet cafes in Toronto Â´
and Vancouver; iv) LAN events in Toronto and Vancouver.3 From this we were able to generate a
comparative snapshot of the player populations at each site (Table 1).4
At first glance, player populations across these sites do not look very different from each other,
and do not differ greatly from the populations reported on by other larger-scale studies (for example
Williams, Yee and Caplan, 2008). They are all overwhelmingly male-dominated; the mean age is
between 22.5 and 25.5 years old; and over 85% of players in each site claim to be lower- to uppermiddle class (that is, there are no extremes of socioeconomic status at an of the events). Key differences
are with regards to race, with almost all Insomnia participants describing themselves as either Caucasian
or European, compared to much higher numbers of Asian-identified players in the Toronto and
Do you currently participate in virtual worlds?
Because we were recruiting participants from different public sites, rather than via online gaming
forums or within MMOGs, we wanted to ascertain how many participants were actively engaged in
MMOG play at the time of their participation in the study (Table 2). Survey responses show an apparent
inconsistency in playersâ€™ answers regarding their current MMOG play. Although one quarter to one
half of participants at each type of site answered â€˜â€˜noâ€™â€™ to the question, â€˜â€˜Do you currently participate in
770 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association
Table 2 Do you currently participate in virtual worlds?
â€˜â€˜Do you participate in virtual worlds?â€™â€™ No / Yes Percentage
LAN Events, England (n = 183) No 27
LAN Events, Toronto and Vancouver (n = 57) No 36
Internet cafes, Toronto and Vancouver (n Â´ = 49) No 26
Game culture events, Toronto and Vancouver (n = 93) No 51
virtual worlds?â€™â€™ a large portion of these nonvirtual world players listed one or more avatars in response
to the survey item asking them to list the gender and level of their virtual world characters.5 Rather than
looking at this as an inconsistency in self-reporting, we can instead draw on our face-to-face interactions
with players as they filled out the survey, where they explained that they had either recently given up,
or were on temporary hiatus from, a particular MMOG but nonetheless wanted to include their avatars
from that game. In other words, they demonstrated an allegiance to their MMOG avatars even when they
were on hiatus from play, a practice that was only fully clarified through face-to-face interactions with
Our rationale for recruiting participants who may not have been playing MMOGs at the time of
their participation in the study is twofold. First, we wanted to get a sense of how great an overlap there is
between people who play digital games in public, and people who play in MMOGs. Researchers studying
MMOGs have suggested that they act as virtual analogs of, and proxies for, real-life meeting places (for
example, Steinkuehler and Williams, 2006); the underlying notion is that as opportunities to participate
in â€˜real worldâ€™ forms of civic life diminish, MMOGs become sites for new kinds of sociality and civic
participation. We wanted to see whether this notion that online play is supplanting embodied, colocated
forms of sociality holds weight, by getting an approximation for how many attendees at various public
gaming events are also MMOG players. Second, we wanted to explore the ways that playersâ€™ affiliation
with a particular MMOG, or with MMOGs as a whole, and their ability or willingness to self-ascribe as
â€˜â€˜MMOG player,â€™â€™ shifts over time and place. In other words, describing oneself as an MMOG player is
not a simple â€˜â€˜yesâ€™â€™ or â€˜â€˜noâ€™â€™ question. As we saw at all the sites we visited, but particularly at LANcouver
(June 2011), i43 (August 2011) and i44 (November 2011) for instance, many participants either
hesitated to self-identify as MMOG players or simply did not, even though they have been involved
with MMOGs in the past and may be waiting eagerly for new ones (at the time, it was Star Wars: The
Old Republic and Guild Wars 2) to arrive. That is, they were MMOG players in the past, and were likely
to be MMOG players in the near future, but felt uncomfortable labeling themselves as â€˜â€˜virtual world
users6â€™â€™ on a survey. Clearly, at least with regards to these players whose participation in a community of
gamers stretches across multiple games and includes both online and face-to-face contexts, the notion
that online games somehow supplant â€˜real worldâ€™ sociality is inaccurate and limiting.
Stories from the Field
We now turn to what this demographic picture does not capture, by offering stories of our interactions
with participants that illustrate the ways in which they elude (and often explicitly resist) any kind of
straightforward categorization based on which MMOG they are playing at a given point in time. We
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association 771
also demonstrate our own agency, as researchers shaping data gathered from fieldwork at multiple
public gaming events into a single (semi) coherent account, in constructing silences, gaps, and partial
understandings of these player populations.
A Time and Place to Play
As discussed above, for many participants we met, their self-ascription as players of a specific MMOG,
or as â€˜â€˜MMOG playersâ€™â€™ more broadly, was highly contingent upon both time and place. One participant
we encountered at an Internet cafe in downtown Toronto, for instance, was a committed WoW player Â´
at the time we met him. The owner and manager of the sparsely furnished cafe, he told the researcher Â´
that he had WoW open on his computer whenever he worked, since his job consisted almost exclusively
of sitting at his computer at the cafeâ€™s front desk, receiving, supervising and occasionally chatting with Â´
customers. He boasted that he played â€˜â€˜96 hours of the week,â€™â€™ since he worked 4 days a week in 24-hour
shifts, and pointed out to the researcher while completing the survey that his weekly investment in
WoW is literally â€˜â€˜off the chartsâ€™â€™.7 He also explained that he ran a WoW guild comprised mostly of
socioeconomically disadvantaged young men that frequented his cafe, and acted as a kind of father Â´
figure to them by serving as their WoW mentor and by providing them with a safe space to spend time
– a relationship that makes any distinction between â€˜realâ€™ and â€˜virtualâ€™ sociality untenable. And yet, this
participant clearly and repeatedly stated to the researcher that he only plays WoW at work; â€˜â€˜when I
go home,â€™â€™ he remarked, â€˜â€˜I donâ€™t touch that shit.â€™â€™ With such a clearly demarcated division between
work/WoW life and home life, this participantâ€™s MMOG play is bound to the temporal and spatial
boundaries marking his role as Internet cafe manager. Â´
While this participant viewed his WoW play (and his ability to come â€˜outâ€™ as a WoW player) as
strongly bound by time and place, we saw other ways in which participants shifted allegiances and
affiliations to particular MMOGs in different settings and at different times, becoming quite literally
different players â€“ and different people â€“ in the process. One younger male participant whom we
met twice at the Insomnia events (at i40, in August 2010, when heâ€™d just turned 18, and 15 months
later at i44, in November 2011), was at drastically different points in his MMOG career at these two
events. When we first met him, he was in a competitive first-person shooter (FPS) clan, sponsored by
a computer peripherals manufacturer; sporting short hair and glasses, he wore his clanâ€™s soccer-style
jersey featuring the name of the sponsor in large letters on the front. When speaking to us, he described
himself as a committed WoW player who was taking his first tentative steps into EVE Online, at the
urging of other clanmates. When we met him over a year later, he sported long hair, a lip ring, no
glasses, and a tight t-shirt instead of a clan jersey. Since last meeting him, his clan had disbanded for loss
of sponsorship, heâ€™d started university, moved out with another ex-clanmate, and started playing EVE
Online almost exclusively. He not only looked different; partially by virtue of his shifting involvement
in different gaming communities, he had changed as a player and as a person.
We met similar attendees at the Insomnia events who, like the cafe owner in Toronto, only played Â´
MMOGs when they were at events where they could interact with their guild, clan or corp-mates
in face-to-face settings, as well as numerous players in Internet cafes who only had the time and Â´
opportunity to play MMOGs in these sites. Categorizing these players according to what game they
played would mean disregarding the highly dynamic circumstances under which they not only play
MMOGs, but self-identify as â€˜â€˜MMOG players.â€™â€™
In addition to these instances demonstrating the contingency of their MMOG play, a number of participants complicated the categorization of their gaming activities as either â€˜onlineâ€™ and â€˜offline,â€™ using
772 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association
one data collection tool in particular â€“ a virtual world travelogue â€“ to show the interconnectedness
of their MMOG play and their everyday relationships and embodied experiences. Building on the use
of journals allowing ethnographic participants to document their experiences (Denzin and Lincoln,
2011), the travelogue was a web-based form that presented players with a series of questions about their
activities in the MMOG of their choice, to which they appended both textual and visual responses. The
travelogue was designed to get a glimpse into participantsâ€™ everyday/everynight play, giving them control
of what they choose to present to us as researchers, and in that way, providing a visual record from
Rather than only append screenshots of in-game MMOG play, seven of the 24 participants who
completed the travelogue also included pictures of offline experiences, primarily in response to the
prompts, â€˜â€˜What do you do when your friends are not online?â€™â€™ and â€˜â€˜Where do you and your friends
hang out?â€™â€™ While most participants uploaded images of in-game environs where they gathered with
other players or undertook solo activities, these seven participants uploaded pictures of offline leisure
activities and relations – mountain biking, sitting on a beach with a romantic partner, asleep at a desk
next to a pile of empty energy drink cans, to name a few. In the context of a tool explicitly geared
towards documenting in-game activities, these participants seem to be resisting the clear distinction
between game-based forms of sociality and other leisure activities. As MMOGs continue to be framed
as virtual laboratories analogous to â€˜real lifeâ€™ social practices (Huh and Williams, 2010; Keegan et al,
2010; Xanthopolou and Papagiannidis, 2012), these travelogue responses show the ways in which, for
these participants, MMOG play is deeply intertwined with their everyday experiences.
Recruiting Women: Populations of Inconvenience
In addition to the contingencies associated with whether and how participants in our study address
the seemingly simple questions of whether they play in MMOGs, and what they do when online, we
also encountered conceptual and practical challenges in generating a representative sample for our
study â€“ particularly when it came to recruiting female participants. Across all of our sites, women
made up less than 15% of our study participants. While this figure appears low â€“ particularly in
comparison to studies of the proportion of female players in MMOGs (see, for example, Williams,
Yee, & Caplan, 2008) and among more general populations of players (ESA, 2012) â€“ it reflects our
attempts to deliberately recruit female attendees at these public events. We often went out of our
way to seek out and solicit female attendees who were massively underrepresented in these spaces.
We find this gap between rates of female participation as reported on among other (online) gaming
populations, and our own oversampled group of female participants in this study of public gaming
sites, instructive: It demonstrates the extent to which the gaming in public remains a male-dominated
endeavor, at a time when the rate of women involved in video game play is reported to be on the rise
In conjunction with the low rates of female participation, it was difficulty in many cases to recruit
female attendees to the study. Particularly at the LAN events, it was easy for male researchers to meet
and recruit to the study groups of men; in contrast, we rarely saw women either on their own or in
groups of other women. We observed none of the all-female clans that often appear at competitive
gaming tournaments (Kennedy, 2006), and only on one occasion, at one of the Insomnia LANs,
did we observe and meet a lesbian couple. Generally, female attendees were rarely unaccompanied
by male partners, friends or relatives, meaning that they often came as part of a â€˜package dealâ€™:
They participated in the study only because the men they were with participated. This is similar to
findings reported by Williams, Yee, and Caplan (2008), regarding female participation in the MMOG
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association 773
Not only were women clearly a minority across these sites, but the sociospatial organization of their
attendance often made it difficult to approach them. At LAN events in particular, female attendees
who were part of larger, male-dominated groups (usually the girlfriend, wife or relative of one of the
male attendees) were typically positioned at the end of that groupâ€™s row of computers, often playing a
single-player game while the other (male) group members played in multiplayer games together. Both
in terms of their physical and virtual positioning, these women were marginal to their groupâ€™s activities.
While this would seem to make it easier to solicit their involvement, it often felt as if we were singling
them out (of course we were), which seemed to elicit their discomfort on several occasions, regardless
of whether they were approached by male or female researchers.
These examples illustrate the interconnected assemblages of participants, researchers, games and
gaming platforms, and the spatial arrangement of public gaming sites, through which we constructed a
demographic look of online play in public sites. What we have tried to illuminate are the ways in which
research is actively produced, not just by the researchers, but by the material and technological contexts
of research, and by the participants themselves.
If the work of sociology is, as science and technology scholars have argued, to â€˜â€˜reassembleâ€™â€™ the
relationships between actors in a given domain (Latour, 2005), it is crucial that scholars interested
in observing and documenting MMOG play take seriously the processes and tools involved in this
reassembling â€“ particularly as MMOGs are gaining increasing attention in educational (Ketelhut et al,
2007), business (Reeves and Malone, 2007), and military domains (Bonk and Dennen, 2005). The
questions we have begun to address in this work are as follows: what happens when we generate a
quantitative body of data on MMOG players that is driven by the tools of face-to-face qualitative
research? What are the implications, and challenges, of this methodological and ontological shift in how
players are reassembled?
Materialities in Play
The primary implication of this analysis is that time and place matter deeply to participantsâ€™ ability
to engage in networked play, and to our ability to study it. In her look at a local gaming club in
Sydney, Australia, Melanie Swalwell (2006) argues that attention to public play sites can help disrupt
the compelling but limiting notion that online games offer alternatives to (or analogues of) offline
sociality, without the messiness or friction of embodied interaction. Part of what makes this ontological
distinction so plausible (and convenient) is that the technological infrastructures constructing virtuality
make our embodied identities invisible. Invisible does not, and should not, mean irrelevant. The
materiality of the particular contexts we visited – what Simon (2007) calls the â€˜â€˜social contexturesâ€™â€™ of
gaming â€“ shaped the kinds of activity that both researchers and participants were able to undertake. At
most Internet cafes we visited in Toronto and Vancouver, where participants were separated by cubicles Â´
and verbal or physical contact with other patrons was discouraged, this mostly consisted in intense
bouts of play â€“ similar to the stereotypical image of the gamer as lone (and most often male) isolate.
The location of most of these cafes, in large commercial and urban centers and in close proximity to Â´
schools and transit lines, meant that most attendees were â€˜â€˜on the clockâ€™â€™ as soon as they arrived, making
use of a short window in their day (or night) to game, catch up on e-mail, or surf the web in settings
that were ostensibly â€˜publicâ€™ but in practice solitary and private. This assemblage, as noted above, made
approaching and interacting with participants difficult.
In contrast, the temporal and material arrangement of LAN events made it possible for participants
to engage in far more fluid and prolonged forms of play. The heterogeneous mix of activities we
774 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association
observed was similar to that reported on by Taylor and Witkowski (2010) regarding their fieldwork
at DreamHack, the massive annual LAN party in Sweden. Attendees taking part in networked play,
whether in MMOGs or in other online games, most often played with other attendees in physical
proximity to them (usually their friends, romantic partners, or guildmates), emphasizing that for many
of these players, the purpose of attending a LAN is to take part in both the mediated and unmediated
forms of sociality they afford.
This work troubles the persistent notion that MMOGs are analogous to (rather than embedded in) real
life contexts, and that they can act as virtual laboratories in which to study anything from drag (Huh
and Williams, 2010) to leadership (Goh and Wasko, 2009) to criminality (Keegan et al, 2010). This
framework continues to be hoisted in quantitative studies of online gaming, resulting in accounts in
which, for example, game-based practices around the accumulation and selling of virtual currency (â€˜â€˜gold
farmingâ€™â€™) are regarded as significant insofar as they illustrate how real world criminal networks operate
(Keegan et al, 2010) â€“ and not for the ways they re-entrench global systems of economic inequity (and
attendant racialized discourses) through the proliferation of cheap developing world labor supporting
developed world leisure (Nakamura, 2009). As our participants themselves demonstrated, in our
observations and through their travelogue responses, what goes on in MMOGs is not analogous to
offline contexts, as if players are either here in the â€˜real worldâ€™ or there online, but are enmeshed in
these contexts. And yet, this idea continues to shape how we understand the significance of MMOGs.
In contrast to this framework, and in keeping with an actor-network perspective, the attention we
draw here to the material and temporal conditions of these different sites invites us to view networked
play as production made possible by playersâ€™ interactions within a network of human and nonhuman
actors, encompassing both offline and computer-mediated activities. That, for example, the young man
we met one year was a very different person the next time we encountered him, demonstrates with some
force the precarious and often times overstated claims about MMOG players, when these claims may be
more accurately described as simply â€˜â€˜moments in timeâ€™â€™ that we as researchers might log and describe.
Instead, constructed in the ways we have explored in this paper, one is not a â€˜â€˜World of Warcraft playerâ€™â€™;
one is a player who may have played WoW for years and is now fed up with it, or used to lead raids
but now only grinds out titles alone, or only plays at LAN events. These kinds of engagements illustrate
the limitations of categorizing players based on the MMOG they currently play, and of reading that
MMOG play as somehow analogous to but separate from their everyday life.
â€˜Real World Avatars?â€™
We suggest that in holding players to fixed categories – the â€˜â€˜World of Warcraft player,â€™â€™ the â€˜â€˜gold
farmer,â€™â€™ the â€˜â€˜role-player,â€™â€™ and so on â€“ we deny them agency and dynamism as players and they
essentially become, for the purposes of social scientific knowledge-building, avatars. Only they are not
in-game avatars created by players themselves, but â€˜real worldâ€™ avatars â€“ stand-ins for living, breathing
humans â€“ built and deployed by researchers, in order to make the messy, meaty aspects of MMOG play
more manageable. By contrast to the ephemeral, pliable avatars wireframed in the â€˜data pointsâ€™ selected
by quantitative, online research based on a specific MMOG at a specific time, we have attempted to
preserve in our account the lively, unpredictable activities and identities of our participants. Following
from this, the challenge of communications research in studies of networked play, whether qualitative
or quantitative, is to deploy methodologies that acknowledge that online gaming is produced through
coconstitutive relationships between bodies, contexts, tools (including the tools we use as researchers),
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association 775
and games. That is, we need approaches that are as capable of accommodating contingency, multiplicity
and transformation as players are themselves.
Having explored the implications of this work for our understandings of the contingent identities of
MMOG players, what remains is to extend this framework to analyses of playersâ€™ in-game activities.
How do the material settings of play – including other cosituated players (and nonplayers), platform,
Internet connection, and so on â€“ affect how players communicate and interact in online game spaces?
What, in terms of playersâ€™ affiliations and practices, â€˜travelsâ€™ as they move from one MMOG to the
next? Given that we not only collected survey data for the purpose of this study, but also data collected
from players in an instrumented, browser-based multiplayer role-playing game, our next step is to
empirically document how participants become different players under shifting virtual and material
This research was sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory.
1 There is very little about the contexts in which play unfolds that is â€˜â€˜naturalâ€™â€™ â€“ games are, after all,
thoroughly designed spaces, where playersâ€™ interactions are mediated and enframed by
environments enacted wholly through code. Similar can be said for the physical contexts of play
spaces, as has been discussed elsewhere with regards to e-sports tournaments (Taylor, 2011) and as
we will discuss here in relation to MMOG play in public sites.
2 Melanie Swalwellâ€™s (2009) examination of public gaming in Australia from 1999 to 2008, and TL
Taylorâ€™s (2012) look at her almost decade-long study of e-sports, are both vital long-term studies of
3 This organization is based on the following rationale: we wanted to separate sites and events based
on country (Canada vs the UK); the physical configuration of bodies and gaming machines
(FanExpo and the GLBTQ pub nights vs Internet cafes and LAN events); and whether the sites were Â´
managed by businesses occupying a commercial space (Internet cafes) or by organizations Â´
temporarily making use of an event space (LAN events, FanExpo, and GLBTQ pub nights).
4 With regards to race, the top two responses for each group are displayed, with remaining responses
grouped as â€˜â€˜Otherâ€™â€™; for socioeconomic status (SES), categories â€˜â€˜Lowerâ€™â€™ and â€˜â€˜Upperâ€™â€™ are grouped
as â€˜â€˜Otherâ€™â€™; and for education level, â€˜â€˜Primary schoolâ€™â€™ and â€˜â€˜Otherâ€™â€™ are combined.
5 The survey did not make questions about virtual world use dependent on whether the participant
had said they currently play in virtual worlds.
6 While we clarified to participants that for the purpose of the study, the term â€˜â€˜virtual worldsâ€™â€™ was
interchangeable with â€˜â€˜MMOGsâ€™â€™, it is important to note that many participants were initially
confused by the term. They were either unsure of what constitutes a â€˜â€˜virtual worldâ€™â€™ (Facebook?
League of Legends?) or they regarded them as different from MMOGs. In most instances, we were
able to clarify our use of the term with them on the spot, as they took the survey, a clear advantage of
administering surveys face-to-face.
7 On the survey question, â€˜â€˜Approximately how many hours do you spend each week in virtual
worlds?â€™â€™ the highest possible answer is â€˜â€˜30+â€™â€™.
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About the Authors
Nicholas Taylor ([email protected]) is Assistant Professor of Digital Media in the Department of
Communication at NC State University, and codirector of the CIRCUIT Studio.
Address: North Carolina State University, 2200 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, NC, 27695
778 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association
Jennifer Jenson ([email protected]) is Professor of Pedagogy and Technology in the Faculty of
Education at York University (Toronto, Canada) and Director of the Institute for Research on Learning
Suzanne de Castell ([email protected]) is Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University
of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).
Barry Dilouya ([email protected]) is a recent graduate of York Universityâ€™s clinical psychology
masters program and currently serves as a statistical consultant for several academic institutions across
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 19 (2014) 763â€“779 Â© 2014 International Communication Association 779
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