Casey O’Donnell

What would anthropological fieldwork look like if it were a (video)game? How would a (video)game ethnography make its argument or construct its narrative? New forms of writing offer promise and peril for the ethnographic text, writer, and informants. The “ethnographic game” is no exception. This paper and presentation take the game form as a potential aspect of the ethnographic text, and asks, “What can games do that a traditional text cannot?” It proposes that the (video)game can too be part of the ethnographic text. While anthropologists have extended their research endeavors into online and virtual realms, those forms have had little impact on the ethnographic text. This talk combines traditional ethnographic accounts of the fieldsite, game design documentation, the resulting ethnographic video game, and user game play narratives to inform partial answers to this question. Each “text” illuminates and simultaneously obscures aspects of the overarching ethnographic narrative, one that ultimately emerges through play and re-play. Drawing on three years of fieldwork with video game developers in the United States and India, this talk emphasizes the importance of a “grounded” approach to research and ethnographic form. The explicit engagement with design as shaping the resulting possibilities for collaboration, interpretation, and remixing encourages attentiveness to the construction of the ethnographic argument. The game form ultimately offers anthropologists new means to approach their objects of concern as well as new collaborative opportunities for readers and informants.