By: Benedict Mario Clemente, Rica Rae Gamboa, Monique Juliane Ocampo
With numerous cars filling its relatively vast parking space to the brim, Blue Skies looked just like any other bustling establishment along one of Katipunan Avenue’s many side streets. Although the nondescript appearance of this edifice exposed the usual telltale signs of age and deterioration, it still gave the impression of being rather respectable and well kept. This semblance of normalcy was discarded quickly, though, as we entered through the doors, for it seemed as if the entrance was a portal to a whole new world. As a matter of fact, the radical transformation between the indoor and outdoor environments seemed to further introduce the possibility that its name is somewhat of a misnomer. The name “Blue Skies” calls to mind images of a peaceful, clear summer sky and evokes the general impression of serenity and restfulness, yet this could not be farther from the truth. In spite of the noonday sun illuminating its lackluster façade, the interior of Blue Skies was seedy and dark. The primary illumination throughout this two-floor Internet café came from the rows of computers lined along its walls. A massive central processing unit (CPU) rested on top of each monitor while two small speakers were on opposite sides of the computer, strategically positioned in order to furnish every customer with their own mini surround sound system. As we continued to journey deeper into this foreign territory, our senses were repeatedly assaulted by the powerful and pungent concoction of smoke, sweat, and body odor, wafting throughout the air-conditioned environment. Nevertheless, we held our breath and proceeded to explore the different nooks and crannies of Blue Skies, absorbing the different sights and sounds. Later on, we learned that one significant area was the average-sized counter—located almost completely parallel to the entrance doors—due to the fact that official monetary transactions occur there, as customers pay for the hours they spent using the computers.
Meticulously designed to maximize its limited space, Blue Skies is divided into several rooms, which cater to both smokers and nonsmokers. Each room is efficiently crowded with numerous desktop computers in order to meet the high demand of the customers. Nonetheless, in spite of the substantial number, almost every computer seemed to be utilized, for the entire shop was virtually packed with all sorts of gamers, composed primarily of adolescent males and the occasional female. What was most eerie about this whole setting, however, was that despite the astounding customer turnout, the only sounds that could be heard came mostly from the wide array of computer games being played and from the frenetic tapping of keyboards, save for the intermittent expletives being muttered under their breaths.
After a thorough observation of the Blue Skies environment, we decided that it was time to start engaging in the observation of the gamers and the game before we tried it out for ourselves. The game, Heroes of Newerth or HoN, was rather complicated. It was obvious that there were two teams of five members going at it with each other, but what they were doing utterly befuddled us. In fact, it really seemed as if there was an earthquake going on in the game. Players kept on scrolling across the map from one point to another, from here to there and to everywhere. We found it challenging to observe initially since the sights easily made us feel dizzy. From what we observed, each player controlled one character that had its own respective set of abilities. However, what those abilities were exactly and what they could actually do were unknown to us. Aside from the game itself, another thing worth being noted is the fact that trash talking was widely popular. It seemed to be an integral part of the game, as it appeared to be a way of getting into the minds of one’s opponents. There were, to our entertainment, a whole assortment of insults used in the game. They ranged from the typical Filipino insults, such as “bobo”, to the everyday English profanities, such as “f*ck you” and even to slurs which we, as Filipinos, never heard before, such as “you dog.” As for the gamers, they seemed to be really concentrated on what they were doing to the point that they did not even mind that someone was watching behind them. In fact, we even felt as if they had no idea that someone was watching them play! Truth be told, it was as if the various computer games were able to hypnotize them into a state of oblivion to their surroundings. The gamers would rarely talk, except when they would utter a curse word under their breath after doing something wrong (We were clueless, however, as to why their actions seemed undesirable since their game seemed fine anyway.) or when someone cursed them while playing. As we watched them, we thought that the game seemed really easy: just press four buttons and other keys then — BAM! — the enemy would be defeated. Unfortunately, this simplistic view on playing the game would change when we finally tried participating.
In order to get a better understanding of the game, we all decided to try it out. However, we faced a lot of problems even before we started the game in areas, such as the following: logging in, finding a match, and understanding the graphics. (We eventually solved these problems after transferring to another computer twice, but one of us had to end up using a desktop computer, which was missing the space bar of its keyboard.) When we were finally in the game, we found out that it was not as easy as we previously thought. In fact, it was absolutely challenging! We had to learn how to use the controls and concentrate on the game simultaneously. Mabee was a quick learner, but the girls failed miserably in trying to understand the gameplay of HoN. Our team, too, was not spared of the insults when we played the game for the first time. As a matter of fact, our co-gamers even started to copy our rivals and join the bandwagon in lambasting and badmouthing us because of our lack of experience, which made the whole situation funnier and more confusing than it already was. It was also amusing how our opponents, who came from some other Asian country, immediately identified our Filipino teammates as “Filipino dogs”. This had occurred because one of our teammates accidentally sent an in-game message in Filipino to everyone in the game when it was only supposed to be for us. Not backing down, our teammates started insulting those Asians for their bad English. It was indeed a funny sight, given that it seemed as if everyone was being insulted in way or another for something that was actually quite trivial.
The environment of Blue Skies was undeniably one that we were not used to. As a matter of fact, our informant told us that it was usually worse than what we had experienced. Usually, the players are a lot noisier and the smell of smoke is worse. Also, couples doing PDA usually frequent the second floor. As for the game itself, we were only able to finally win—by reaching the base of our opponent and destroying the Tree of Life—from the tutelage of our informant. He explained to us the various sub-goals of the game, such as getting more gold, more kills, and much more expensive items than the opposing team. He also informed us that trash talking is so common that most players are already indifferent about it. Our informant even joked about how players from the other countries learned how to say “bobo” due to the trash talking habits of the Filipinos. He told us that the insults in the game do not affect him even though they involve disrespect for not only him, but also for his family and especially for his mother and sisters. He then confided to us that he just usually reciprocates these insult, usually hitting the same sensitive topic.
Looking back, the most evident example of our presence influencing the scene is how the gamers paused for a few seconds when they saw us enter Blue Skies, giving us a look, which seemed to express that we were not from the same planet as theirs. It may be a funny thing to note, but perhaps it is important enough to ask why the presence of the two girls in our group had caused the players to do a double take and why it seemed weird that we were there. Could it be because most gamers are guys? Or could it be brought about by the fact that gamer girls do not usually hang out in computer shops due to feelings of inferiority when guys see them play? The second evidence was brought about by our participation. The mere fact that we played already influenced the gaming system and the way the others played. Moreover, the dynamics and interaction between gamers—rivals and allies alike—were also affected in different ways, namely the increase of insults thrown in the chat rooms. This was because our rivals knew that we were just beginners from the way our characters moved aimlessly and absent-mindedly around the arena, so they taunted us repeatedly to just stop playing, complaining that we were ruining the flow of the game. Nevertheless, in order to salvage our hurting pride, we took solace in the fact that we were turning the tables on them since they had no idea that we were actually studying them while we played.
1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
Observation gave us a gist of what was happening around us in Blue Skies: teens playing online video games, smoking, chatting with their barkada, etc. However, even if we could somehow understand what they were doing, we did not have any idea about what they were feeling while they were playing. Though participating would not really point out the feelings of these adolescents and the reason why they would get so addicted to the games, it still gave us an idea of being in their shoes, which helped us gain a better understanding of them than if we had just observed them. Participating also allowed us to learn how the games work – from seeing how people get connected and matched from all around Asia to learning how the controls of the games work and experiencing how lively the noisy chat room can become. We found out that it was not as easy as it originally seemed when we were merely observing. Participating also gave us the opportunity to undergo the different factors that make up the gaming environment, such as the experience of being insulted in chat rooms. Furthermore, it led us to realize that intelligence is somehow linked to the world of gaming when we read various insults about it, such as “Pumasa ka ba sa U.P. ha?!”
2. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
Without a key informant, we mostly would not be able to understand the game. We would have been able to understand why the environment of Blue Skies was such and even, to some extent, the rationale behind the cursing and the trash talking. Nevertheless, the game itself was too complicated for us to understand. Initially, we saw the game as merely a combination of keyboard-mashing, mouse-clicking, and map-scrolling but obviously, there was more to that. Through our informant, we were able to understand most of the actions of the players in-game. We also realized that order existed after all in what seemed to be a chaotic and anarchic game, which players against each other.
3. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
There are things that you really must experience first-hand in order to fully comprehend it. You could ask people to explain to you why hardcore gamers practically live in Blue Skies, but you would not be able to understand unless you see the concentration and the focus on their faces. You could ask people to explain to you why rich kids go to such a sketchy place, but you would not be able to make sense of the reason unless you see how they celebrate when victorious and weep when faced with a loss with their friends. As for the game itself, no amount of answers could make you understand the rush of getting a kill, the excitement of purchasing a game-changing item, or even the thrill of victory. In essence, without actually participating in a game, you would not be able to understand why people are so addicted to it.
4. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
Compared to participant observation, a questionnaire or an interview may be the more effective method sometimes. This is because using participant observation alone impeded us from painting a clear and reliable picture of Blue Skies, its gamers, and HoN since it relied primarily on our assumptions and inferences of what we had observed. Moreover, we later on realized that our findings were unintentionally tinged by observer bias and by the strong stereotypes of society. Thus, this technique did not do justice to our focal subjects due to the fact that it could only answer questions that were mostly at the surface level whereas these subjects had more layers and depth to it. We experienced this quandary when we utilized participant observation in Blue Skies since we were not able to ask the gamers as to what drove them to spend long hours of their Saturday afternoon on computer games, nor were we able to figure out what their backgrounds and personalities were. On the other hand, because we were able to interview our key informant, we were given the opportunity to ask more in-depth questions in order to gain a more holistic and thorough idea of our focal subjects. In this way, we were even given the opportunity to unearth the inside stories and hidden truths that would allow us to see our study in a new light. Basically, a questionnaire and an interview may be more effective than participant observation since it will keep people from falling prey to the age-old adage of judging a book by its cover.