I’m a PhD student at Durham. I’m actually almost at the end of my studies here, as I’ve submitted my PhD thesis and will undertake my viva at the end of the month. It’s natural at this point to look back at your period of study and ask the big questions like ‘Did I make an impact with my research?’ or ‘Did I do a good job?’. Well, I’ve got yet another question I’ve been asking myself: ‘Will I transition smoothly back to being a gamer again?’
This is because I’ve spent my entire PhD researching games and how gamers work in groups while playing MMOs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games) like World of Warcraft. It’s been a fascinating journey, one where my research allowed me to unearth some understandings about how gamers work in groups and how they approach important game-related elements such as competition and gameplay. I loved the experience of discovery that comes from conducting any long-term research and particularly loved conducting it in an environment that I feel passionate about.
I didn’t come to games as a researcher first and foremost; I came to my research as an avid gamer instead, even having some experience with games design. Because I felt something interesting was happening in these types of modern, online computer games, I decided I wanted study the practice of play in these environments, particularly when looking at how groups formed to execute complex game challenges (like game raiding in WoW).
I think there are some real advantages to knowing the community that you want to research. It was easy for me to identify areas that I wanted to concentrate on and to gain access to the community. I knew the gameworld and I knew the players. I was even experienced at raiding gameplay. I was fluent in the language of gaming and as such able to frame questions and discussion points in a way that made sense to gamers.
My biggest research challenge, however, was figuring out how to establish myself objectively in an environment that I knew so well. And as a place of familiarity, it became challenging at points to be mindful of what might be worth noticing. Adhering to that researcher role allowed me to build in a degree of detachment from the community that I knew so well so that I could observe it with a wider lens.
And so it is now, as I shift back from being a gamer-researcher of WoW to being one of its many players, that I sort through the impact it’s had on me as a player—and if I can ever really be just a gamer again. But at the same time, I have to wonder, do I really want to do that? I have always had an inquisitive mind, but now I find it’s often tuned to thoughts about the ways in which players interact and the interesting forms of play and expression that emerge. I feel it has enriched the playing experience more than anything. One tiny example that I noticed this past week, in fact, was the way in which players in WoW congratulate each other on success. Someone might reach a new playing level or solve a complex challenge and suddenly, everyone in the guild (the social group) is congratulating them.
This virtualised form of high fiving is something I probably took for granted before I started my doctoral research, as I had become quite accustomed at social circles in gaming to be quite friendly, but as researcher I now noticed it and even enjoyed the rich variety in the ways that players express these congratulations: ‘gz’, ‘cong’, ‘gratz’, ‘grats’. Despite the fact that these are abbreviations (and mutations) of the correct spelling of the word, one can’t help but be charmed by the sudden uprising of shared celebration. And it happens a lot.
If anything me noticing this seems to confirm something that emerged while I researched WoW. Online games like WoW are inherently social in nature, where many gamers choose to belong to groups that are a mix between a social club and training facility. And their desire to do things together motivates them to find ways (even if it’s not conscious) to sustain that connectedness.
I credit my years of work as a researcher for enabling me to appreciate a greater depth to my gameplay experience, and I am hopeful that it’s something that will always stay with me as a gamer. I suppose the take home message for anyone who has the opportunity to research something they know well is to allow the experience of research to enrich their subsequent experiences in that community rather than alter it. After all, it’s how we engage with communities as researchers that can be an important stepping stone to how our work can positively impact and benefit it.