Comment Eggel: Digital gaming embodied: Ethnographic serendipity and lucky chances at gaming events

Comment by Andreas

On Thursday, January 14th we had the pleasure of getting an insight into cultural anthropologist Ruth Dorothea Eggel’s dissertation project that she is currently working on at the University of Bonn. In her talk titled “Digital gaming embodied: Ethnographic serendipity and lucky chances at gaming events” Ruth presented her research on how digital computer gaming culture is embodied at large scale gaming events (and vice versa) to the lab.

The gaming mega-events Ruth is inquiring into are characterized by the merging of digital and non-digital practices and so blurring the borders between “online” and “offline”. These hybrid fields thus pose new challenges for digital anthropology and digital (ethnographic) methods. The investigation of these fairly uncharted and ever-changing socio-technological worlds calls for a re-tooling of existing social scientific practices, whose new experimentalist approaches necessarily involve digital data as modes of inquiry.

To conduct research in this interconnected field Ruth used a variety of combined digital and non-digital methods, i. e. extensive participant observation offline, continuous participant observation online, situative and semi-structured interviews. To gain a “thick presence,” her research design was multimodal and multi-sited, for which many methods in her ethnographic toolbox had to be tweaked to fit the respective settings.

Ruth focused her presentation on the aspect of occurring serendipity (unplanned fortune discovery of something originally not looked for) while doing fieldwork and its incorporation into ethnographic research. According to Ruth, ‘lucky chance’ moments, when something unforeseen but desirable happens are an integral part of mega gaming events, i.e. a spontaneous conversation which leads to a job opportunity. In the case of the gaming events, these moments are not due to luck, but the interactions made as they increase the chance of ‘fortunate coincidences’, so Ruth. These moments cannot be forced, but one can up the chance they happen. According to Ruth, at and around gaming events, a shared and ritualized playful attitude is fostered: Any given situation can be made into a quest and be solved like one. This implies a high degree of liminality; group boundaries are very permeable in the context of gaming events, as strangers are often asked to be team players as part of a quest.

Ruth illustrated her findings with a story from her fieldwork at a Gamescom event. On the way there, she incidentally got into a train with a group of event visitors. When Ruth lost her cell phone (an indispensable item at a gaming event!), and one member of the group found it, it was instantly considered a group task to return it to the rightful owner. In return, Ruth gave a spare Gamescom ticket to one of the group’s members and was subsequently included in their collective ‘quest’ to arrive at the event location despite train cancellation.

The playful attitude, which ludically connects people, a more outgoing “event persona” and various organizational arrangements to attend the large scale gaming events, lead to numerous lucky chance occurrences, so Ruth.

According to her, the Senecan dictum – “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – also holds true for scientific researchers. In science’s historical course, unplanned discoveries are neither seldom nor unpopular, think for example of Penicillin. Such instances of lucky chances, which are more than the sum of its parts, do not merely fall onto people, but are produced or instead made more likely to happen via preparation. With reference to Petro Medina Ruth put forward the notion of serendipity as an intentioned/directed/strategic happy accident.

For Ruth, serendipity in ethnographic research can be considered and to a degree provoked as the outcome of a lucky chance sequence. Not looking for something specific, but having a playful attitude can in this manner lead to something unexpected (indeterminacy of outcomes), as it invites coincidental moments of the unknown.

Ruth closed on the takeaway that ethnographers cannot make themselves lucky. They may offer potential lucky chances to others, increasing the possibility of a sequence of lucky chances: Sometime after Ruth’s visit to Gamescom a girl reached out to her unacquaintedly as an additional interviewee for her research project. She had gotten Ruth’s card from a member out of the group who got Ruth her phone back on the train and in turn, received an extra ticket and then included her in their travel party on the way to the Gamescom event after which they exchanged contacts… Level up!

The discussion following the presentation pointed out that Ruth’s talk was critical and compatible with our current pragmatism theme. One is usually focused on designing research settings expecting a particular outcome. But one might instead set up a design to give enough space for something unexpected but insightful to happen out of the situative circumstances – or not, and in the latter case just “play again”.