Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Boardgame Designers as Anthropologists

I am a designer-researcher-teacher-anthropologist. How's that for a hyhpenated career title? Lately I've been thinking of myself as a design anthropologist and I feel that's an apt title for who I am becoming career-wise. I should be working on various research papers right now but here I am blogging. I had one of those ideas today that seems too interesting to not write a little about. So, here I am.

In my research I have turned to the study of board game designers. These people are awesome! In parallel to this I have been studying anthropology, it's methods, theories and history rather heavily for the past year or so. And it occurred to me today that board game designers might be wise to see themselves as cultural anthropologist. Weird right? Well, maybe not so weird as you'd like to think.

At the core of most cultural anthropology is a method catagory called "participant observation." This includes dozens of more specific methods but the foundational one is "fieldnotes" which can take the forms of "jotting," "sketching (in words)," "drawings,"  and many others. But the key idea here is that you spend time with the people you are interested in and take some form of notes describing events, ideas and whatever else strikes you as interesting or useful -- you participate, you observe and you take notes. What is this if not playtesting! Playtesting of course differs in some significant ways but my point here is that anthropological methods could be adapted to playtesting and perhaps yield some pretty interesting or even great results.

If participant observation were more thoughtfully incorporated it could reveal tendancies in gameplay such as king-making, alpha-gamer issues, etc. It believe it has the potential to provide many other types of insights but I need to keep this short.

Similar methods are used in various design disciplines. In user-experience and interaction design there is an emerging method called "participatory design." This method involves a design-researcher creating a set of tools or artifacts that they share with potential design users. The researcher provides the users with some set of instructions and cuts them loose to play with the tools and ideas. The researcher takes notes, collects feedback from the users and analyses the session and its outcomes. All of this is then taken and applied on some way to generate or improve a design. Doesn't that sound a lot like playtesting? 

Just some thoughts… I think this is a big idea. Now back to work ;)

Here are a couple of references ...

Bernard, H. R. (2011). Research methods in anthropology: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Rowman Altamira.

Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2011). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. University of Chicago Press.

Sanders, E. B. N., & Stappers, P. J. (2012). Convivial toolbox: Generative research for the front end of design. BIS.

and a couple pages of fieldnotes I generated during a 20 minute visit to a local Starbucks…