Common Theories and Methods

Aarseth’s article Playing Research: Methodological Approaches to Game Analysis that I discussed in one of last week’s PAB posts is really helpful in getting a general idea about theories and methods in games studies. Since game studies is so interdisciplinary, Aarseth describes the difficulty of having specific methods for game studies, because scholars pull from their own disciplinary repertoire of methods and theories. Aarseth sees this as a positive thing, but “critical self-awareness..should always be practiced” (7).

Aarseth and Smith, Egenfeldt-Nielsen, & Pajares Tosca do however provide simple tables to make it easy to see how different game studies scholars tackle research.

Aarseth’s Dimensions of Game Analysis

  • Gameplay (the player’s actions, strategies and motives) [sociological, ethnological, psychological, etc.]
  • Game-structure (the rules of the game, including the simulation rules) [game design, business, law, computer science/AI]
  • Game-world (fictional content, topology/level design, textures, etc.) [art, aesthetics, history, cultural/media studies, economics]

Smith, Egenfeldt-Nielsen, & Pajares Tosca’s Four Major Types of Analysis

Table 1.1 in Understand Video Games: The Essential Introduction
Table 1.1 in Understand Video Games: The Essential Introduction

While both tables attempt to put English studies within one of the categories, I think English Studies ends up in a number of the categories. This attempt isn’t explicit–rather, the charts break English studies up into a number of subdisciplines such as cultural studies, comparative lit, literary criticism, etc. Clearly game studies has a lot of roots within other subdisciplines of English studies in terms of methods and theories that are used.

Where Does Theory Belong?

Discussions of methods were very common in a lot of the sources I looked through. However, discussion of theories was much less common. Aarseth wrote the following in 2003:

“As long as there are no really outstanding computer game theories (or, as it happens, hardly any at all), it would seem more important to present a well-argued analysis that commands previous scholarship and breaks new analytical ground. Importing and applying theories from outside fields such as literature or art history can be valuable, but not always and necessarily; and often non-theoretical, critical observations can contribute more to the field than a learned by theory-centered discussion” (6-7).

The Understanding Video Games book gave theoretical inspirations in terms of the discipline, but did not really complicate this any further. Since game studies is so interdisciplinary, it seems likely that is expected that scholars will use theoretical lenses from their own disciplines for research. However, Aarseth does seem to also be saying that theory could be limiting, and that there are alternatives for analysis.

Ethnography in Game Studies

At least when studying games within English studies, ethnography stood out to me in particular because of my interest in virtual worlds as objects of study.

Dr. Moberly and I discussed my interest in game studies, particularly in terms of my object of study, massive multiplayer online games, or MMOGs. Dr. Moberly introduced me to the authoritative piece, particularly concerning MMO virtual worlds,

Cover art for My Life as a Night Elf Priest
Cover art for My Life as a Night Elf Priest

Bonnie Nardi’s book My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft, as the book to take a look at when considering doing ethnographic study within MMOGs. While I’d heard about the book before, I hadn’t realized that it was viewed so positively even by game studies scholars in English.

Nardi also co-wrote the Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method to help scholars begin ethnographic study of virtual worlds. The book details how to do observations, interviews, and other data collection within these spaces. The handbook which appeared two years after Nardi’s book My Life as a Night Elf Priest is likely a response to the growing interest in virtual worlds as a place of study.

Cover art for Leet Noobs
Cover art for Leet Noobs

The same year, for instance, another ethnographic account of World of Warcraft called Leet Noobs: The LIfe and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft was published. While Nardi’s book was primarily concerned with an overall account of WoW, Chen specifically focused on a raid group of about 40-50 players.

Ethnography and ethics also came up in one of my PAB posts about McKee and Porter’s article, Playing a Good Game: Ethical Issues in Researching MMOGs and Virtual Worlds. Part of the article included interviews that McKee and Porter did with several researchers doing research in virtual worlds such as Second Life, City of Heroes, and Lineage I & II. While the Ethnography and Virtual Worlds handbook covers data collection and analysis, it also covers ethics. McKee and Porter’s article is firmly focused on ethics and how researchers negotiate ethics within virtual worlds. This article, if it isn’t at the forefront of researcher’s minds as their entire virtual worlds, should be I think. The article forces researchers to confront their own epistemology and views of research, which is necessary when involving human participants.

Researcher Credibility

A common trend discussed by the researchers interviewed by McKee and Porter, as well as discussed in the Aarseth methods article, was the importance of the researcher as also a player of the game. The researchers interviewed with McKee and Porter discuss credibility in terms of how the researcher appears to participants within the study. “In virtual worlds, researcher credibility has less to do with one’s academic credentials and prior publications and much more to do with one’s standing in the communities–what level a player is, how well-known a resident is” (19). Aarseth complicates this further. He goes beyond credibility that the researcher needs to reach participants, but also readers of scholarship. He argues, “If we have not experienced the game personally, we are liable to commit severe misunderstandings, even if we study the mechanics and try our best to guess at their workings” (3). He discusses a description of a Doom II mod created by Eric Harris (one of the Columbine shooters). The reviewer describes the characters in the mod as not able to fight back and says that it resembles the Columbine shootings. Another writer’s walk through however, does not fit this description. Aarseth says that he’s more likely to believe the second writer’s walk through because the walk through proves that the 2nd writer has actually played the game. The initial reviewer’s description made it seem as though he had not actually played or even seen the game being described.


Aarseth, Espen. “Playing Research: Methodological approaches to game analysis.” Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference. 2003.

Boellstorff, Tom et al. Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton University Press, 2012. Print.

Chen, Mark. Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. Print.

Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon et al. Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

McKee, Heidi A. and James E. Porter. “Playing a Good Game: Ethical Issues in Researching MMOGs and Virtual Worlds.” International Journal of Internet Research Ethics. 2.1 (Feb. 2009): 17. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.

Nardi, Bonnie. My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft (Technologies of the Imagination: New Media in Everyday Life). University of Michigan Press, 2010 May 25. Print.