In my blog post from a few weeks ago, I introduced the concept and method of auto-ethnography and recorded my first encounter with the documentary State of Play (2013). This post will take my autoethnographic account one step further in interpreting and analysing my initial thoughts, assumptions and reactions to decipher their wider social and cultural meanings.
Autoethnography is based on the idea of experiencing “epiphanies” which are self-claimed liminal moments of clarity and emotional intensity perceived to have significantly impacted the trajectory of a person’s life (Ellis et al. 2011, p.2). When researchers conduct autoethnography, they retrospectively attempt to contextualise and make sense of these epiphanies by engaging in a critical dialogue with culture, history and social structure (Denzin 2016, p.131).
In my first viewing of State of Play, I was surprised to discover that video gaming is an official profession in South Korea. This was an epiphany that completely transformed my understanding of video games as sites of play and entertainment. When I imagine different career paths in the gaming industry, I instantly think of game developers, designers, animators, composers, programmers and marketers. These are “real” jobs requiring “real” qualifications that exist for the purpose of producing games that provide us with a means of escaping the realities of school, university or work life. While this view might seem rather antiquated as the boundaries between media production and consumption increasingly blur, there is a cultural premise that work and leisure are an inherent dichotomy (Yee 2006, p.68).
According to Malaby (2007, p.100), the history of Western thought has constructed a distinction between productive action as a contribution to society (ultimately in the material sense) and unproductive action or “play”. Games have a long-running, deep and habitual association with “play”, a term historically and culturally specific to Western modernity (Malaby 2007, p.96). “Play” commonly signifies a form of activity with three intrinsic features – it is separable from everyday life (especially as against “work”), safe (“consequence free” or non-productive) and pleasurable or “fun” (Malaby 2007, p.96, emphasis in original). These associations were completely overturned in State of Play by examples of gaming that are harnessed as a source of revenue, incur heavy doses of responsibility and rest on efficiency (the need to achieve a high APM (Actions Per Minute) rate), intensity of focus and arduous training. As such, I struggled to accept video gaming as a legitimate career path precisely because it challenged the Western preconceptions about games as separable, safe and pleasurable.
Wall (2006, p.1) argues that the intent of autoethnography is to acknowledge the inextricable link between the personal and the cultural. Working from insider knowledge, autoethnographers intentionally use personal experience to create nuanced and detailed accounts of cultural experience (Ellis et al. 2011, p.3). Autoethnographers offer these “thick descriptions” in order to facilitate an understanding, and often a critique, of cultural life by encouraging readers to think about taken-for-granted norms, experiences and practices in new, unique, complicated and challenging ways (Adams et al. 2015, p.33).
Whilst watching State of Play, I wondered about the health risks associated with professional gaming. When it was revealed that professional gamers spend 10-12 hours a day practicing, my initial thought was that prolonged game-playing in darkened rooms in front of flickering monitors is not a healthy way of living. This assumption stems from the alarmist moral panics around game culture prevalent in contemporary popular culture, news media and governmental rhetoric (Cover 2006). Within these public discourses, video gaming is predominately analysed from a deviancy perspective, framed as a harmful and addictive activity that fails to offer any positive benefits to users (Ortiz 2014). Upon viewing State of Play, this deep rooted and pervasive societal stigmatisation of video gaming led me to develop a negative perception of South Korean professional gamers and the eSports industry as a whole.
It wasn’t until I watched State of Play for a second time with a more critical eye that my opinion changed. Throughout the documentary, the professional gamers are seen playing outdoor football, socialising with friends and family and participating in a meditation class. In contrast to the often quoted characteristically prejudiced archetype of a video game player who is presented as an overweight, socially inept, lazy and possibly aggressive or violent individual, South Korean professional gamers are model athletes with a healthy social life, outstanding discipline and commitment and a calm and respectful attitude, even after losing (Lischka 2002; Muller 2009, cited in Hebbel-Seeger 2012, p.50).
Studies which have focused on eSports players also challenge these simplistic and reductive stereotypes, revealing that the most significant motive for participating in eSports is the motive of sociability, followed by the motive of fun and only then by the motive of performance (Frostling-Henningsson 2009; Hobler 2006; Jansz & Martens 2005 & Müller-Lietzkow 2006, cited in Martončik 2015, p.209). According to Martončik (2015, p.208), eSports can serve as a means of satisfying the need to belong (through membership in teams) and satisfying the need for power (by upholding a position of a game team leader). As Cover (2006) argues, however, regardless of the personal or social value in gameplay, it remains that in the discourses of moral panic around gaming, passion is re-written as addiction, supported by the witness of a player’s time and dedication. It is of course ironic to note that a passion for a career or sporting activity is seen as “healthy” whereas passion for that which is in digital form is represented as dangerous or addictive (Cover 2006). This reveals the extent to which my initial negative perception of South Korean professional video gamers was conceputalised through the lens of the moral panic paradigm.
Whilst I have already identified that the purpose of autoethnography is to stimulate deeper cultural understandings, I must also acknowledge the personal value inherent in this approach. Chang (2008, p.41) explains that the autoethnographic writing process evokes self-reflection and self-analysis through which self-discovery becomes a possibility. This is true of my own autoethnographic investigation in which I have developed greater self-awareness of the ways in which pre-existing Western cultural norms and contemporary public anxieties have shaped and influenced my thoughts, assumptions and reactions.
This is a fun video to watch if you have a spare 10 minutes:
Adams, TE, Jones, SH & Ellis, C 2015, Autoethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research, Oxford University Press, New York.
Chang, H 2008, Autoethnography as method, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.
Cover, R 2006, ‘Gaming (Ad)diction: Discourse, Identity, Time and Play in the Production of the Gamer Addiction Myth’, The International Journal of Computer Game Research, vol.6, no.1, viewed 1 September 2016, <http://gamestudies.org/0601/articles/cover>.
Denzin, N 2016, ‘Chapter 4: Interpretive Autoethnography’, in SH Jones, TE Adams & C Ellis (eds), Handbook of Autoethnography, Routledge, New York, pp.123-142.
Ellis, C, Adams, TE & Bochner, AP 2011, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol.12, no.1, pp.1-12.
Hebbel-Seeger, A 2012, ‘The relationship between real sports and digital adaptation in e-sport gaming’ International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship, vol.13, no.2, pp.43-54.
Malaby, TM 2007, ‘Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games’, Games and Culture, vol.2, no.2, pp.95-113.
Martončik, M 2015, ‘e-Sports: Playing just for fun or playing to satisfy life goals?’, Computers in Human Behavior, vol.48, pp.208-211.
Ortiz, DA 2014, Playing at work – ‘This is not a friends’ club’: Pro-gamers’ negotiations of play and work, Project Y – Global Youth Cultures Network, weblog post, 2 October, viewed 1 September 2016, <https://globalyouthcultures.wordpress.com/2014/10/02/playing-at-work-this-is-not-a-friends-club-pro-gamers-negotiations-of-play-and-work/>.
Wall, S 2006, ‘An autoethnography on learning about autoethnography’, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, vol.5, no.2, pp.1-12.
Yee, N 2006, ‘The Labor of Fun: How Video Games Blur the Boundaries of Work and Play’, Games and Culture, vol.1, no.1, pp.68-71.