This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Tracy's digital ethnography

They [arrival stories] play the crucial role of anchoring that description in the intense and authority-giving personal experience of fieldwork … Always they are responsible for setting up the initial positionings of the subjects of the ethnographic text: the ethnographer, the native, and the reader. (Pratt 1986, cited in Hine 2000 p45)


She arrived at night, unintentionally – but perhaps that was a good thing. The journey was long, and involved many transitions, connections and re-connections. Upon arriving, Hiro felt strange, this place was familiar – yet new. She didn’t know where to start, or if starting would be possible. The place was frankly deserted. But she needed help, answers – she couldn’t do this alone.

She checked into an anonymous inn, nothing flashy – palaces and throne halls were a world away, another lifetime. She was a scholarly creature of universities now – at least she hoped she was. She washed and changed out of her travel stained clothes before making her way to the common area. A few sad looking strangers stared into their tankards or picked miserably at the plain food before them. No one she recognized, but yet – would she even recognize them if she saw them? Who was she expecting to be here? The Keeper? Prophet? Innomi? She suspected they were long dead.

Shaking off panic and the urge to return to her room and get some rest before beginning, she ordered a glass of the local ale and bowl of indifferent looking broth that bubbled on the stove and sat in a corner, making notes in her note book as she ate, as she waited for someone to arrive.

I didn’t want to intrude on the role-play game that was to be the main focus of my ethnography, the Forest of the Moon as that was long established and it seemed impolite to jump in  just for the sake of research. However as I was using Hine (2000) as the framework of my explorations I felt participation was important.

The definition of ethnography as participation given by Hammersley and Atkinson (1995: 2) highlights the interactive aspect of ethnographic research. The researcher does not just observe at close quarters, but interacts with the researched to ask questions and gain the insights into life that come from doing as well as seeing. (Hine 2000, p. 47)

So I asked the FoTM players to join me in a little experiment called “Hirondelle helps out” where I blew the dust off an old character of mine (Hirondelle the Goddess of the Underworld, who many pf the players knew well) and set her up as an ethnographic scholar in a random imaginary world – in this case an inn, a common enough scene for an RPG happening.  This enabled me to (re)familiarise myself with the process – I had forgotten how hard it is, notice the big oops where I forgot to introduce myself and the FoTM GM gives me a gentle nudge in the right direction.  It also meant that I felt a little more authentic and less of a ‘mere traveller’ in an exotic land.  My arrival story was the first post, for a glimpse of the rest of this mini ethnographic RPG please visit us here.

Hine, C, (2000) “The virtual objects of ethnography” from Hine, C, Virtual Ethnography pp.41-66, London: Sage

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This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Tracy's digital ethnography

This is a slideshow of the RPG that is the focus of my digital ethnography, with caption commentary from me. Please click the link to view the images individually or view as a slideshow if you prefer.  Unfortunately I can’t slow the slideshow speed in the settings, so you will have to do it yourself as you view.  The controls are straightforward.

The Forest of the Moon
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This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Tracy's digital ethnography
RPG Maker VX

The following quotation is the rules for the RPG forum on The Northlands.  They were posted (and are implemented) but our moderator, Red.  To see the rules in their environment click here.

We all have to have rules. I like to think of them as guidelines, to be used with your good judgement. Please adhere to them and it will remain fun for all smile.gif

1. Please, no godmodding – every character should have weaknesses, just as they have strengths. They should also be defeatable – there’s no fun, otherwise.

2. Don’t force other characters – you can aim the hit, but it is up to the other player if it lands or not. Work these sort of things out prior to the event via the OOC thread (exactly what it’s created for) or via PM. In some circumstances, players will allow someone else to control their character, if they happen to be away for a long period of time, so as not to hold up the play of the game. However, don’t assume you can control someone else’s character without getting their permission first.

3. Before entering an RPG, speak to the GM (Game Master) first, and make your intentions clear, through the OOC thread (again, that’s what they’re there for) or by PM.

4. Try not to double-post as a character. Wait for another player to chip in. Don’t forget about timezones and that real life takes precedence over RPGs.

5. Keep conversation about the game to the OOC threads. That’s another use for them! Only character posts should be put into the actual game thread. Everything else gets confined to the OOC thread.

6. If conflicts arise and can’t be resolved amiably, seek the help of the moderator (me biggrin.gif) or one of our admin staff. That is what we are there for smile.gif

7. The Admin and Moderators’ word is final – so don’t argue. wink.gif

As I think of rules, I’ll add them, but for now – happy gaming smile.gif

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This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Tracy's digital ethnography


What attracted me to the topic was the level of characterization we see online and how it intersects with the question of authenticity.  In our discussion board RPG at The Northlands (an online community), board members, already ‘hidden’ behind their online identity and screenname create a second (or more) identity in order to tell a story together and inso  doing a new layer of imagined community.  As they are only allowed one forum account they have to use other means of distinguishing their RP characters, most obviously this is done by mechanical process of font style and colour, but also more subtly gender, race, style of speech, dress, and mannerism.

Character sheets are used to help role-players develop their characters.  They are also a useful resource for fellow players and readers as it describes details like appearance, race, skills and alignment. For this reason they are frequently posted in the same forum as the RPG’s themselves.  However the character sheets are just the beginning, characters are developed through this tool – but more so in game, in interactions with other characters, in the choices and responses they make.  Frequently in RPG your character evolves in very unexpected ways.  The nature of the game is character building in both senses of the word. In The Northlands all the main RPG’s have a thread for character sheets.  The character sheets for Forest of the Moon can be found here.  I have pasted a sample sheet below. It is the sheet for Hunter, a character played by our Game Master, Red.

Name: Hunter Conri

Age: 27

Sex: Male

Race/Species: Fey/something else

Alignment: Chaotic Good

Residence: Faerie, Province of Lirgeal, wherever his Army happens to be.

Physical Appearance: Overbearingly tall for fey, at almost 7′, Hunter looks formidable. Not overly muscular, but more sinewy. All leg, he has an imposing air and look. His face appears carved from stone, all angles, but not cruel. Eyes are slate grey. His skin is tanned and leathery, that of someone who works in the sun, rather than bathes in it. Hunter’s hair is cropped short, typical of soldiers, and a deep hazlenut brown. There are some lighter highlights in, and possibly even some grey!
Mostly, he can be found in plain clothes – black riding britches of some sturdy cloth, a brown shirt laced across the neck, which is usually undone, revealing glimpses of his hard chest (and a few fine tufts of hair). Hunter is rarely seen without his riding cloak – a thick black cloak, looking a bit tattered at the ends, suggesting it had seen many battles. Riding boots of the softest brown leather keep his feet dry. The only other adornment he wears is a silver ring on his right ring finger. The middle of it spins, carved with tiny figures, depicting a scene of some sort. What it shows, no one knows and no one has dared ask.

Powers: Hunter has none, except the power of warfare. He has a keen intuition on matters of warfare, being able to seemingly anticipate his enemy. He has extra sharp senses, which have no real explanation, but other than that, he’s a normal soldier. So everyone thinks.

Strengths: As mentioned above, Hunter can anticipate his foe’s moves. He is an exceptional tracker, and, despite his size, very adept at sneaking up on anyone and anything. Calm in the face of utter chaos, his demeanour keeps his men’s morale uplifted. A brilliant General, Hunter is a charismatic man who could probably convince anyone to follow him into battle. He never asks of anyone something he wouldn’t do himself, and always leads from the front. He is also naturally strong, and fast, and has keen senses.

Weaknesses: He is sometimes too much of an introvert. When faced with troubles, Hunter will often withdraw into himself and think about it, rather than discuss it. He also has a temper which rarely reveals itself, but when it does, will deeply frighten anyone who witnesses it. He tends to be a martyr too, preferring to deal with problems alone rather than putting others at risk. Despite his stony exterior, Hunter is a gentle, soft individual. Few can scale the walls he puts up, but those who can could hurt him deeply.

Personality: The General is, as mentioned above, charismatic and very likeable. There are few that dislike him, and the ones that do usually despise him for doing so well. Calm and easy-going, there aren’t many things he gets worked up about. He is very focussed and direct, and prefers to focus on solutions, rather than problems. He is also deathly loyal, and will defend his home province, and all it represents, to the death. As also said above, he is an introvert, and keeps things hidden away inside. He knows, all too well, how things like that can be used against him, but it can sometimes bear heavily upon his shoulders.

Background: Hunter was born in the city of Lirgeal to a father who had a mysterious occupation that his mother never divulged, and a kind, caring mother who worked hard to bring up her only son. From a young age, Hunter helped his mother with house chores and earning enough to feed them both. His father, apparently away representing his country, never sent any money back. Hunter grew up, never knowing his father. However, he was spotted one day, when he was about 10, breaking up a fight in the middle of the market. The fight, between two much older fey, had caught the attention of the city guards and their weapons, but, before they knew it, Hunter, already tall for his age, had dived in, and seperated the fight. although not remarkable in itself, the event was watched by a Squadron Commander of the Lirgealian Armed Forces, who happened to be on a recruitment drive. Impressed by the young boy’s courage, he silently approached as the guards prepared to cart the boys back to their mother’s, spoke quietly with them, and thanked them as they released Hunter to him. Confused, Hunter followed the man to a bench nearby, and listened as the Commander told him all about the Army and why they needed young boys like him.
Persuaded, Hunter told his mother that night. His mother had dreaded the day the Army might find her gifted son, but knew it was enevitable, given what she suspected he might have inherited more of his father than she’d hoped. The next day, the young boy left his mother, filled with excitement about his new future, promising to send money home as soon as possible. His mother wept, knowing she might never see her son again.
Which turned out to be true. She died a few years later, which Hunter has never forgiven himself for. If only he’d been home, working hard, he might have earned enough to save her. He learned a hard lesson there, and, after the funeral, dived into his training even harder than before. Fellow recruits believed him to be possessed, for he rarely stopped, except to eat or sleep. He withdrew, and barely spoke to anyone. It paid off, though. Hunter quickly became the best recruit, and rose through the ranks quickly. Exceptionally, he was awarded a commission at the young age of 16, where he joined the ranks of Lirgeal’s officers. He volunteered for every exercise, and became a highly respected soldier. He was a great leader, inspiring even the most weary of men to follow him. Eventually, he rose to become one of the highest ranking officer in the Province of Lirgeal – General of the Lirgealian Army. He answered solely to the High Chieftess of Lirgeal, which is where he finds himself now.

Extras: Hunter isn’t quite what he seems. His mother was right.

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This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Tracy's digital ethnography


Methodological preambles are far from innocent in the construction of ethnographic authority. The ethnography described in this book is no different. Chapter 4 is there not just to tell you what I did, but to convince you that I did something that authorizes me to speak. Devices such as the technical glossary at the end of this book display the ethnographer’s competence with the local language, just as do the glossaries included with ethnographies conducted in distant places and other languages. (Hine 2000, p46)

An RPG Glossary

Alignment – moral compass; a combination of lawful / chaotic / unlawful + good / neutral / evil

D&D – Dungeons & Dragons

GM – Game Master

God-moding – Making a character like a god with unbeatable powers.

IC – In character

MUD -Multi-User Dungeon, Domain or Dimension (multi-player computer game that combines elements of role-playing games, hack and slash style computer games and social chat rooms)

NPC – non-playing character

OOC – Out of Character

OTBRPG – Online text-based role playing game

PBC – Play by chat

PBEM – Play by email

PBP – Play by post

PBW – Play by wiki

PTB – ‘Powers that be’ (admin, moderators, GM and the like)

Free-form – Minimal formal rules and restrictions.

Re-roll – start over

RL – Real Life

Role Playing RPG – Role Play Game

RPB – Role play blog

Hine, C, (2000) “The virtual objects of ethnography” from Hine, C, Virtual Ethnography pp.41-66, London: Sage

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This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Tracy's digital ethnography


When I asked the Forest of the Moon players why they did it, they gave the following replies (Screen name / Character name[s]):

Being able to be a part of a fun world/idea/plot — more directly than just reading a book — and being able to do something with my tendancy to keep making characters like mad. (Oreta / Rehael)

the creativeness, making our own storyline. Seeing what another person will do and adjusting your own story you have going to match it. (Jessica / Seryina / Kenai)

I like it for loads of reasons. It’s an escape from reality for a moment. It’s a form of venting. I love the players I play with (does that sound wrong? darkside.gif) and the characters they’ve created are fantastic (Red / Hunter / Maia)

I love the creativity of it, the chance to get to write a story which i always want to do, without the hardship of working on all the details yourself. Also you can come up with an idea that sounds good but then it gets work on by loads of different people and comes out maybe nothing like your idea but so much better!!! Also I have dyslexia and working on posts help me work on my spelling, gramma and structure where people won’t kill me if it comes out a little weird or I dont lose marks for it being wrong. (Melas Zepheos / Nimah)

The calibre of the story telling. I love to read what people are thinking, how they react to a scene and (natch) how they write. This is so much cooler than the ol’ pencil and paper D&D route to RP. (Vyxen / Fayne)

Creativity plays a strong part in their motivation, but there is also the element of escape.  This could be interpreted as a negative tendency as Bell (2001, p.105) highlights:

For all their proponents’ chatter about inclusion and heterogeneity, the space of online community is, rather, a ‘domain of order, refuge, withdrawal’ (Robins CR: 91). As he writes in another essay, ‘virtual culture is a culture of retreat from the world’ (Robins 1999: 166). Arthur and Marilouise Kroker describe the withdrawal into VR as ‘bunkering in.

However I believe that in many aspects virtual culture the masks we wear often allow us to be more ourselves rather than less.  However for this to be a positive and healthy aspect of community we need a space where we can take off the mask and be ourselves, and in some way to articulate the learning we have gained from wearing them.  The Northlands RPGers do this in their Out of Character (OOC) thread.  This thread is ostensibly for plotting purposes but it is more frequently used as a place to praise (good writing), catch up (on real life news), make excuses (for not posting), encourage and generally form social bonds.  Looking at our RPG forum, one might suspect the OOC thread are the reason for being there – with the RPG’s being an excuse for a get together.  (Taking The Forst of the Moon as an example the RPG has a mere 18 posts, whilst the FoTM OOC thread has 91!).  This probably follows the pattern of many face to face communities where the ostensible reason for getting together (theatrical groups, bible study, writing clubs, quilting circles) is far less important than the connections made, friendships developed and support given over coffee and biscuits.  Whether we are face to face or online we feel comforted and empowered by being with people who are like us, and who like us.  This is for me a fitting case for community.

I would like to thank the Forest of the Moon players for allowing me to be part of their community for the past 2 weeks.

Bell, David (2001) Community and cyberculture, chapter 5 of An introduction to cybercultures. Abingdon: Routledge. pp92-112

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