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Archive for February, 2010

The Esquire gamer never shoots for the face.

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

(or: The dire state of video game criticism.)

Stephen Marche in this post and this month’s Esquire claims that Modern Warfare 2 “may be the first protest game.” Even if I amend his sentiment to be “the first wildly successful protest game” (MW2 has set a number of video game sales records) I still can’t get this to parse.

(MW2 screenshot — click to enlarge.)

Marche sees MW2 as a protest for two reasons.  First, the game comments on your character’s death by displaying jarring anti-war quotes (“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” –Confucious).

Second, Stephen Marche is personally confused while playing it (he writes: “I keep asking myself: Why am I here? Whom am I killing?”). I think he believes this is a feeling the game intends to evoke in order to demonstrate the pointlessness of war.

This is the kind of commentary that you get when you put an old-media critic on the spot and ask him something about video games.  Given the importance of video games for… well… masculinity, I can see that Esquire magazine (Marche’s employer) would like someone in those pages to write something smart about them.  Yet the rest of Marche’s writing on culture is mostly about movies and TV, and it shows.  He writes about video games as someone who doesn’t seem to know a thing about them.  (The first protest game? Come on!)  And he writes a commentary on a particular game (MW2) without spending enough time with it to know that he sounds foolish.  Would a television critic write about a TV show without watching it?  Yet that’s the state of the art in high-culture game commentary.

Marche seems to have connected MW2 and the Iraq war based on the box art and the introduction.  That’s quite a gaffe for a critic– like reviewing a movie based only on the trailer. The game’s storyline is about a war with Russia, and the most jarring and memorable moments are a scene when the player is asked to kill civilians as an undercover operative storming a Russian airport, and several scenes where the player must repel Russian paratroopers from strip malls and mega-mansions in the suburbs of northern Virginia.  See a big link to Iraq there, Marche?  I didn’t think so.

Red Dawn: The ‘ Burbs (actually MW2; click to enlarge.)

As any player will know, MW2 also quotes Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and the jarring anti-war quotes include “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose” (Dick Cheney).  Earlier games in the Call of Duty series quote Oscar Wilde  and that masterful anti-war commentator Lois McMaster Bujold.  And as you can already tell, I don’t think the pointlessness and confusion is particularly evoked by MW2.  I think Marche would be hard-pressed to find MW2 gamers to agree with him.

There is a lot in MW2 that deserves critique.  I’m sure the MW2 plot of a more straightforward war with Russia and an evil Putin-like figure is a lot more appealing to audiences than the war we are actually fighting.

That’s not Marche’s premise but some of his points have promise.  He argues that The Hurt Locker is almost more of a video game than it is a movie, and that the Iraq War is a video game war.  (The first Iraq war was supposed to be the video game war due to the smart weapons, but whatever.)  But how can you develop these comparisons when you only know about one half of them?

I’ve always liked the kind of manliness that Esquire tries to evoke.  The Esquire man wants to read advice about cufflinks, politeness, and how to order fancy drinks.  Yet video games are now well established as a common domain of men–not boys–and it still isn’t clear how an Esquire man would play them, or comment on them.

Perhaps the Esquire man always uses a silenced weapon and never shoots for the face?  He always uses a bespoke controller and never does any nuke boosting?  To know the answers and to get a meaningful commentary on MW2 we’ll have to wait for some mass audience video game critics who know what they are doing.

A Plea for the Obscure Parts of Obvious Systems

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

(or: Doing Better User Studies by Looking Away from the User)

This is a brief summary of my presentation at the iConference 2010.  I was invited to address the topic of “Ethnographies of Large-Scale Technical Systems.”  I did this along with a delightful panel of people: David Ribes, Steven Jackson, and Susan Leigh Star.  Here goes:

A Plea for the Obscure Parts of Obvious Systems

As an ethnographer, my plan of attack has often been to choose a somewhat obscure object, technical system, or site (recently, I’ve studied several wireless Internet systems).  It might be a large technical system but it’s usually obscure, and that used to make me feel safe.  Most people haven’t heard of the wireless systems I’ve written about.  I get to have my site all to myself.  If another social researcher suddenly started to talk about my object that would be horrible news–they might contradict me.  (Yikes!)

When writing up my work on obscure systems, I feel an obligation to thoroughly explain and contextualize them because they are almost certainly unfamiliar to my readers.  With my writing, to do a good job I probably need to cover:

  • What is it?
  • Who uses it?
  • What do they do with it? Why?
  • Who made it?
  • Who maintains it?
  • Who pays for it?
  • How is it made? How does it work?
  • How does its design have consequences?
  • Why does all this matter?

When I read other ethnographies of obscure large technical systems, I find they have the same objectives.  For instance, on this very panel I sit with Steven Jackson who has written useful stuff about DWRSIM (which I had never heard of before I read his article), and Leigh Star who has written useful stuff about the Worm Community System (never heard of it before I read her article).  It’s the general theoretical insight I’m after and so it doesn’t matter so much what obscure system it is.

Lately I’ve started to think that it might also be useful to have ethnographies of  large-scale technical systems that have millions of users and are far from obscure.  This is my sentiment as a reader of ethnography as well as as an ethnographer.


I mean systems like Facebook, World of Warcraft, YouTube, GMail, AIM, Modern Warfare 2, and so on.  These systems are the everyday informational infrastructure for most people. They are most definitely studied in Information Schools, but when the system being studied is not obscure, for some reason we rarely find it necessary to do all of the contextualization work I listed in the bullets above.  If someone comes up to you in the hallway of an Information School and says: “I’m studying ____.” and the object in the blank is not obscure (say it’s twitter), you can assume that they are doing a user study (who uses twitter? what do people say on twitter? …).

Some of my Best Friends are Users

Some of my best friends are users, as the saying goes. You are a user.  I love users. I am a user.  I love user studies.  People in Information Schools should do user studies.  But I worry that there is a big trade-off in framing research on what we might call “obvious” systems as being only (or usually) about users.  If someone says “I’m studying YouTube.” When I read what they are writing I often find that they focus mostly on two of my bullet points:

  • Who uses it?
  • What do they do with it? Why?

Hopefully they also spend some time on:

  • Why does all this matter?

The turn toward user studies (and somewhat away from design/producer studies) is generally OK with me but I find it interesting that in a USER study of an obscure system a lot of contextualization work is still required.  Whereas with an obvious system you pretty much get a pass on that part.  (We all know what YouTube is, so why bother with all that?)

People who frame studies of large systems as obviously about users are making a trade-off between access to the site and the impact of the findings they’ll get.  Of course when we propose a study of “Facebook” we probably want to study users because these are the most accessible parts of the system.  I imagine it would be quite hard to talk your way into Facebook HQ to do a producer study, so researchers interested in the topic don’t even pause to consider it as an option.  They also usually don’t learn very much about how Facebook works or who owns it, who designed it, etc.

But I think this trade-off is being mismanaged.  Sure, access is much harder when you want to study powerful corporations who don’t particularly want your critical eyes on them.  But focusing only on the accessible part means that you have the tough job of analyzing the familiar and then selling your insights about data that everyone has.  This can be really hard.

I am no Erving Goffman

To pick a familiar name, Erving Goffman had a great talent of generating amazing insights out of the kind of everyday interactions that everyone experiences.  But I am no Erving Goffman. I’d rather unearth something you didn’t know and ought to know.  If you focus on the accessible parts of a system you’ll have access to the users, but then as an ethnographer you are forced into coming up with something new and insightful to say about an experience where your reader already feels expert.  These studies hail the reader by saying: Here is an article where I, a Facebook user, will tell you, a Facebook user, amazing new things about Facebook.   That’s hard!  So maybe they have no access problem but they have a big findings problem. A user ethnography of Facebook can be done and done very well (remember — I like users) but we don’t want the literature to be only focused there.

If instead of a “pure” user study a researcher spends a little more time on context — digging up information that was not widely known — the resulting work has a lot more chance to gain a wide readership.  It could still be a user study but with a little more contextual research, or it could be immersion in another site of the system along with or instead of users. There is a small but interesting literature in anthropology about the ethnography of the powerful (sometimes called “studying up”).  People in Information Schools are usually very comfortable doing ethnography of the powerful, but only certain kinds of power are OK to study.  It is common to see social researchers studying computer scientists or natural scientists.  They’re powerful interlocutors and this changes your ethnography (no one in those groups will be too impressed by your fancy sociology or information studies Ph.D.).

However we are ready to ignore other kinds of power.  Popular commercial systems are designed, deployed, and managed by the rich, and this is a kind of power we don’t usually want to grapple with.  Access to these sites sounds difficult and in fact it is difficult, but if you can get in there, oh the news you can bring back!

This approach is already out there.  It just isn’t common.  Some of my favorite ethnographies of technological systems are those where the researcher picked an obvious system and then went to the trouble to fully contextualize it (including at least a little bit about many things like users, producers, design, manufacture, maintenance, finances, public policy, and more). Two quick touchstones:  Grint and Woolgar’s The Machine at Work takes care to cover production and use of the Personal Computer.  Boczkowski’s writing about online journalism required him to talk his way into the newsroom of The New York Times.

Let me end by paraphrasing Eugene Webb, Donald Campbell, Richard Schwartz, and Lee Sechrest (from Unobtrusive Measures):  Science should opportunistically exploit all available points of observation.

So here’s to daring.   Here’s to accessing hard-to-reach and unfamiliar sites and populations.  Here’s to putting the hardest part of a research project at the beginning (access) and not at the end (findings).  Here’s to learning more about users by looking briefly away and studying the many other parts of a sociotechnical system that profoundly affect them.


In the live, in-person version of these remarks I referenced a pretty obscure book chapter by Lucy Suchman, Daniel Miller, and Don Slater.  It is titled “Anthropology” and it appeared in The Academy and the Internet edited by Monroe Price and Helen Nissenbaum (Peter Lang, 2004).  It says in part that focusing on the user/producer division in ethnographies is silly.


A truly fantastic audience member (who was he? FOUND: Ira Monarch)  pointed out in the Q&A that for some systems the producers are easier to access than the users and this skews the ethnographic research in the opposite direction that I am talking about.  He mentioned military procurement, where access to developers and businesses working in the area was relatively easy compared to doing a user study on the people who use weapons in wars.  (I guess the term of art is “warfighters.”)


Looks like I could have been more upbeat when presenting this in person?

sociological agency as told by LOLcat

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

The sociological concept of agency as told by LOLcat.



See also Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society and/or Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social.

I made these for iConference 2010 in the workshop “The Study of Sociotechnical Systems” organized by The Researchers of the Sociotechnical.  Original images from pollyann’s Flickr account (under CC license).

I guess you could call this the “yarn cage” instead of the iron cage.  (Ha!)

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