Ethnographic research in virtual worlds

Sometimes getting out into the field to conduct research is as easy as pressing a button. For Colorado State University’s Ethnographic Research and Teaching Laboratory (ERTL), online gaming has become a new field in which to conduct anthropological fieldwork by using an Internet-based reality. (Ethnography is the recording and analysis of a culture or society, usually based on participant-observation and resulting in a written account of a people, place or institution.)

“ERTL is ultimately not just about research and teaching but about potentially transforming the practice of ethnography and thus the field of anthropology,” says CSU anthropology professor Jeffrey Snodgrass, director of ERTL. “In ERTL, there is the potential to make ethnography more collaborative and social, which would seem appropriate for a discipline that itself aims to comprehend shared culture and social experience.”

Enter Cultures of Virtual Worlds: Research Methods, an ERTL course that was designed by Snodgrass where students learn as well as participate in ethnographic field methods.

A research team comprised of students in the course conduct participant-observation research, record detailed field notes, develop hypotheses, and test the hypotheses in semi-structured interviews and surveys.  The students are then able to develop skills in analyzing quantitative data in addition to transcribing and coding interviews.

The avatars of Jeffrey Snodgrass (center) and CSU students in ERTL virtual worlds research team in the gaming world, Guild Wars 2.
The avatars of Jeffrey Snodgrass (center) and CSU students in ERTL virtual worlds research team in the gaming world, Guild Wars 2.

Snodgrass and his collaborators have identified many positive benefits of online gaming. The lab has also found that even so-called “problem” forms of online gaming often emerge from attempts to positively compensate for life challenges. In some cases, online gamers temporarily and productively escape offline stresses, but other times, in a minority of cases, intensive online gaming can create negative consequences in players’ lives, where gaming competes too much with offline responsibilities and relationships.

“Working alongside Dr. Snodgrass and many others, we’ve been investigating the prevalence and emergence of so-called ‘Internet gaming disorder’ among video game players,” says Evan Polzer, anthropology graduate student, of the latter forms of problem gaming. “The topic is interesting and exciting and demonstrates how anthropology can be at the forefront of new theory and research, especially as the world becomes more and more integrated with the Internet.” Snodgrass adds that, as anthropologists he and his collaborators typically critique medical and psychiatric approaches to online gaming, especially when they ignore social context and try to attribute negative consequences to gaming (such as creating loneliness) which online play is often times helping to address and even productively resolve.

Novel Research And Intensive Internet Gaming

Snodgrass along with CSU alumnus Francois Dengah, USU medical anthropologist, CSU sociologist Michael Lacy, UCLA geneticist Steve Cole, and USF biocultural medical anthropologist Daniel Lende, received a National Science Foundation grant, “EAGER: A Biocultural Study of the Functional Genomics of Intensive Internet Use.”

This research examines the mental and physical health of intensive Internet gamers, both those who play in overall positive ways and also those who report more negative consequences, while also examining the societal influence of individuals from the United States, Brazil, and India.

“Over the years, we’ve examined how this disorder is manifested through a series of techniques and procedures by documenting how social support, stigma, and online/offline stresses impact the potentially addictive qualities of gaming,” says Polzer. “More recently, we’ve also utilized more novel attempts to better understand these issues. Social network analyses revealed how the social surroundings of gamers can impact addictive behaviors and recent results from a biocultural assay can shed more light on how some of these stressful instances of gaming can be seen in one’s biology through various biomarkers.”

Snodgrass has encouraged students to not only experience both qualitative and quantitative research, but also publish in top journals and participate in professional conferences. A group participated in the 2016 Society for Applied Anthropology annual meeting session, “Cultural Models, Resilience, and Health.”

“My experience in Dr. Snodgrass’ Ethnographic Lab, both as a student and a research assistant, was a cornerstone of my educational experience at CSU,” adds CSU alumnus Max Van Oostenburg. “The opportunity to explore anthropological theory and methods in a hands-on way not only helped me feel more comfortable doing my own master’s thesis research, but it also gave me valuable insight into the collaborative research and publication process that has proven beneficial to me as a practicing social scientist.”


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The Ethnographic Research and Teaching Laboratory is in the Department of Anthropology, part of CSU’s College of Liberal Arts.


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