Kevin Evangelista, 154853
Out of all the favorite pastimes of Filipinos, online gaming ranks as among the most popular and most widely seen today. Rarely can you venture through a city or a village without coming across an internet shop. Chances are that the majority of people within any internet shop at a given time are playing online games- as opposed to studying, merely browsing the web, or playing other types of games. In fact, internet cafes seem to report that the online gaming phenomena (which is recent compared to internet cafes themselves) are now making up the bigger percentages and shares of their monthly revenue compared to other activities (Olandres). The online gaming phenomena has even seemed to transcend normal ideas of class distinction, as the image of children playing in a computer shop right next to sari-sari stores on the street isn’t as farfetched as it may have been a few years before. In fact, many of the people these children may be playing against could be in an airconditioned internet cafe in a mall somewhere on the other side of the country. Such is the appeal of this gaming culture. It was interesting enough that I decided to take a look at this culture myself, through the lens of an ethnographic fieldwork.
A short disclaimer before I proceed further: I myself am a gamer, albeit not the sort who’d be familiar in the ever-growing online gaming community that I’ve talked about. The games I mostly play are single-player experiences with no online components. They are more driven by narrative, character and a sense of adventure and grandeur, rather than by fast-paced, team-oriented battles, or massive multiplayer experiences. They are action-adventure games rather than MMOs (massive multiplayer online games). As such, the world of gaming that many of my friends are a part of is completely foreign to me. I’ve never been into those types of games, and so this meant that the prospect of finally getting to try them out and participate in that culture was an exciting one.
To get started, however, I realized I’d have to narrow my search. Online gaming has several different manifestations. There are first person shooter multiplayer games like Counter-Strike and Team Fortress; MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role playing games) like World of Warcraft and EVE: Online; multiplayer online battle arenas like Defense of the Ancients (more popularly known as DOTA); and so much more. To get started, I decided to narrow my research scope down by choosing a game which I knew most of my friends were already familiar with: the online battle arena phenomenon known affectionately as LoL, or League of Legends.
My specific goal for this project was to apply participant observation in order to get a general feel of the practice of online gaming itself, and the experience of participating in an online gaming environment. In order to do that, I decided to visit Mineski, an internet cafe that is popular among students from the Katipunan universities and schools. I asked help from my high school classmate and current Ateneo schoolmate, Joshua Luna, who is an avid LoL player and member of a group of regular players consisting of my other high school friends. He would be my guide and mentor on my first foray into the world of online gaming.
We set our gaming session on April 25, 2017 starting at 6 PM and ending at around 9 PM (for me, as he said he’d be there until at least 1 AM). When I arrived, I found that the internet shop was on top of a cafe, so I had to ascend through a narrow staircase to get there. Outside, four students were smoking, so I had to wade through a thick haze of smoke in order to get to the door. As soon as I entered, I was immediately hit with a wall of noise. Music was pulsing through the air, shifting from pop to electronica to retro with every new song. The beats only served to punctuate the din of conversation noise that reached my ears next, with the drone of excited clamoring and chattering interrupted by the occasional loud curse of defeat or shout of victory. I made my way to the front desk. It was manned by two people in Mineski collared shirts, and they were busy responding to the needs of customers who were also at the counter in order to buy food, extend their playing time or request things that were absolutely foreign to my ears; probably related to whatever game they were playing. When I was able to get the attention of one of the people behind the counter, I requested three hours of playing time (Mineski Katipunan is priced at P30/hour for people without a membership card or special privilege), and then texted my friend to ask him where he was. Out of the sea of people and computers, he stood up and waved me over. I slowly made my way to the far end of the internet cafe, pausing periodically to squeeze through the seats of people who were too focused on their computers to realize they were blocking the way. As I reached my key informant, I realized that two of my high school friends were beside him, which made me more comfortable. Settling into my seat (you are free to choose any free computer terminal), I entered the user code and password given to me at the counter and was faced with a computer desktop. It was a familiar enough sight, except for the fact that icons for games and several extra interfaces for different programs and platforms that I had never seen in my life were crowding the screen as well. I was excited however. It was time to start playing.
My key informant got me started by teaching me how to pull up Garena (an internet platform provider that distributes LoL) and entering the profile information of a friend of his that had agreed to let his account be used for this occasion. We encountered a problem however, as I had to have LoL installed on the computer I was using. We started the install sequence and my key informant and friends decided to play a game on their own while they waited for me. I decided to use this time to observe the game itself, before jumping in. What met my eyes was a flurry of color and movement that looked nothing like the games I was used to playing. There was an interface that went way beyond the normal HUD (heads up display) that was common in adventure games. Instead of just a health bar, a mana bar (for magical or special attacks and abilities), a weapon wheel (for selecting tools and weapons) and perhaps the number of bullets left in a gun for shooters; there were maps, numbers, icons, symbols, foreign-sounding words, several bars and things I didn’t even know what to call covering every inch of the sides of the monitor. As I tried watching, bars of different colors would lessen and slowly refill in different amounts corresponding to what I guessed were the different attacks that were being used. I surmised that some icons were special moves depending on the way they faded out of color whenever my key informant’s character did something that looked complicated and cool. I guessed that the map randomly spouting different lines were for tracking the predicted movements of their characters, and that different icons on the map corresponded to different types of players, NPCs (non-playable characters) and units. That was as far as I got though. The numbers flickering, decreasing, and increasing beside pictures of what looked like potions, swords, and things I didn’t even recognize threw me off completely. Sometimes my friends would open menus and enter quick commands into varied and complicated interfaces that didn’t seem to do anything different in my eyes. That the game didn’t pause for them while they did all this multitasking was something I didn’t comprehend. My own single-player games sometimes required some quick hand-eye coordination and thinking, but nothing on a scale like this, and not with several different interfaces besides the main game. My key informant wasn’t even looking at his keyboard, and instead was focusing on his monitor and periodically glancing at his seatmates to laugh at a joke they had made or to simply say a few taunting words. His hands however were quickly entering commands and instructions that seemed impossible for me to do without focusing on the keyboard itself first.
Despite all this action and skill, what impressed me the most was the calm and playful demeanor with which my friends seemed to do this. They weren’t struggling to keep up with all the information, commands, and visual mayhem that were going on, but instead seemed to know exactly what everything meant, what to do, and how to do it such that they seemed to be able to flow with the game– even making small talk on different topics, and taking bites out of their food, or sips out of their drinks. There were moments of quick anger or frustration when one of them died of course, but they were never exhibited the sort of frustration that occurs when someone is lost, and is unable to process information fast enough to do something. This clued me into the fact that players of this game who did it regularly were more than just people in front of a computer. They seemed a real community; with their own methods, rules, vocabulary, and knowledge of what something meant or what needed to be done. It was a community I wasn’t a part of, however, as I had no idea what the hell was going on in the bigger picture. There were times when I lost what was going on entirely and simply decided to surf the internet or look at Facebook to pass the time. I even ordered some food and simply watched as they played intently.
Soon however, my install was finished and the time came for me to finally join my friends in playing LoL. Needless to say, I was intimidated because of what I had seen. I worried at not being able to follow all the information and execute the commands fast enough. I told my key informant that I was probably going to be laughed at in game, or worse, be responsible for making us lose. He told me not to worry, as both he and all my friends were all first-timers once too, which meant they knew perfectly well how it was like. To get me started, he set up a couple of training matches with me to learn the controls. In training matches, one could fight with A.I. instead of with real online players, which made it slightly easier and put less pressure on me to perform. My key informant showed me the ropes by teaching me how to select my character and get it ready for a match. Then, he taught me how to move around and quickly transition from one place to another on the map.
Despite being a gamer in my own right, this was necessary things as simple as movement controls add camera orientation can differ greatly depending on the type of game you play. For example, adventure games usually are oriented in first person (such as in shooters such as Call of Duty) or third person (such as in Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto), while games like DOTA and LoL were oriented with the camera in a fixed position at a certain angle above the game map, where it didn’t even constantly follow your character like it did in adventure games. As I learned the basics of attacking, defending, casting spells and healing myself, I began to get the hang of it. I was taught to buy certain materials from the shop (which constituted one of the many other interfaces I saw my friends use) and use them in basic ways, to attack minions (basic enemy units), to stay away from towers unless I had extra reinforcements, to hide in bushes and cast spells to reveal people who hid within bushes and so on and so forth. Soon, I was confident enough in my knowledge of how to do the basics that I requested we start sending real A.I. enemies (as opposed to simple minion “pawns”) into the ring. As soon as the battle started however, I was caught off guard. It’s certainly one thing to know what to do and which button does what; but to remember all of those commands and combinations in the heat of war with several different things happening all at once instead of one by one is something else entirely. My key informant kept telling me which attack to use and when to cast defense (as well as when NOT to cast defense) and would constantly reach over and execute a command to ensure I didn’t die completely. With his advice and instructions (such as telling me to follow his character’s movements at all times) I began to slowly find myself do better and better. This culminated in us repeatedly defeating the enemy A.I. and slowly advancing towards the enemy base. When we won the match and a huge “VICTORY” sign was plastered onto my screen, I felt good. Really good. As if I had passed some sort of rite of passage. Little did I know however, that a real match wouldn’t be that easy.
My friends and key informant set up an easy match for me to join them in, and even though I was a bit put out by that (as anyone seeking to prove himself would probably be) I understood as soon as the match started. This wasn’t a training match at all. People moved quicker, there were different roles to fulfill (which my key informant rattled off in a half-focused manner before turning to me to explain what each strange term meant after he died the first time), and it was much harder to battle enemies. In addition to this, different messages kept flashing onto the screen. There were messages commenting on the excellent performance of certain players (“MADFRIES is unstoppable!”) and messages simply laughing and shouting random words at everyone (“KEVIN WHAT THE HELL”) . I barely held my own, following my key informant’s specific instructions to the letter whilst I tried my best to survive. Needless to say, I died several times, and my friends were having good natured fun and laughter at my expense. Everytime I felt brave and tried to attack an enemy player directly I’d be dead in five seconds. As a result, my friends told me to stay in the bushes and hide as much as possible, serving only as support for them. Although we tried our best and I myself had a few glorious moments that earned praise from my friends (successfully “hooking and punching” an enemy player, saving my friend from death), we lost in the end. As all that fun had taken up most of my time in Mineski, I simply took notes of my experiences as an observer and participant before bidding my friends and key informant goodbye and heading home at around 9 PM. It was an amazing experience, but I was happy for it to be over so that my mind could get back to a slower pace after that hair-raising experience.
What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?
Firstly, participating in a LoL match instead of merely observing one gave me clarity as to the nature of the game itself. Whereas observation merely showed me confusing visuals and symbols that I didn’t understand, participation allowed me to be a part of all of that and take part in what I used to think was just something I couldn’t understand or come to learn. It broke down the veil of utter complication for me and actually gave me a semblance of understanding to the madness. Now I can look at other people playing LoL and recognize the general idea of what’s going on. On a deeper level however, I think that participation actually showed me what it felt like to participate in such a culture and feel things because of it. I actually learned how to play the game, and thus learned that such games weren’t as incredibly exclusive as I imagined. I felt disappointment (although light-hearted) at my failures and a sense of both triumph and community whenever I did manage to do something substantial. It gave me a clue as to the nature of the online gaming phenomena in the Philippines as a whole. It dispelled the notions that some people had (that I was aware of) of everyone playing such things being either hopeless addicts or people with no options in life. There I was, someone who used to not be a part of that world at all, having genuine fun and sharing an experience with friends. It felt like more than just a game that people “wasted time” on. It felt like a communal thing that, even if for a brief moment, I was a legitimate part of.
What did having a key informant add to your understanding.
Having Joshua as my key informant was very helpful, because he helped me navigate a culture and a game that was completely foreign to me. He taught me that matches were generally seen as a relaxed thing and that I shouldn’t worry about truly upsetting people for the most part. He taught me how to actually play the game and he was very helpful in me getting a feel for how the mechanics worked instead of just what button to press at what time (although there was a lot of that too). More than just that though, my experience with him also made me more comfortable in playing the game. I didn’t always feel lost and clueless, and perhaps to other players somewhere around the world (LoL matches aren’t limited to single places) I actually appeared competent to a degree. Under his guidance, I was able to truly experience being a part of the online gaming community.
What was learned from participant observation and at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
One simply can’t understand the game by interviewing the players or giving out questionnaires. Such methods may only get you different ideas about it from players. You may even be able to understand which button does what if you ask specific enough questions. What won’t be garnered by such methods though, is the feeling and spirit of the community and culture in a real way. It’s one thing to hear about or read about everything I elaborated on above, but it’s another thing entirely to experience it for yourself. It’s just not the same when you actually put yourself in the seat and try to win a match against real people. In addition to this of course, try learning the mechanics of the game itself through an interview. It’s not going to work at all. It’s far too complicated and coordinated to learn without experience.
For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
While I elaborated that experience may be very helpful in giving someone both the knowledge and feeling about online gaming to really form a complete picture of it, its very nature as a communal activity lends itself well to interviews and questionnaires conducted well. You get a broader view of what the game means and is to lots of other people, and you get a much wider pool of reference for information if you want to learn more about the culture and experiences of the online community as well. Thus, interviews would serve better for a broader approach to the subject.
Using our cafeteria observation exercise as reference, what insights did you gain about Philippine society and culture from the event that you observed and participated in?
Since LoL is an online game it creates anonymity for its players whenever you have a match with them, but the sheer amount of people playing LoL itself within Mineski alone is testament to the broad reach its had within the country. You can see adults, teenagers, and children playing next to each other with the same level of competence. People with school IDs are slugging it out next to kids dressed in nothing but sandos and house shorts. It seems online gaming has no boundaries if one has access either to internet or a computer shop (which usually has very cheap prices, like I mentioned earlier). All of these observations seem to point to the idea that the Filipinos of today really are a people that are technologically proficient and connected with online culture. One normally wouldn’t expect people from all across the social spectrum to be able to learn the complexities of a game like LoL, but the fact that everyone seems to play proficiently with time here speaks to how entrenched such technologies and practices are in Filipino society today. Also, the sense of community it builds and the sense of achievement one can obtain are factors that I suspect play a large role in the popularity of the game. In fact, for thousands of Filipinos (as well as over twenty seven million players worldwide, with around seven million active at any given time), LoL seems to have become a cultural pastime that’s deeply ingrained in the lives of all of its players (Rega). One can only expect this phenomena to grow in the Philippines if the trends continue.
Joshua Luna – key informant
Olandres, Abe. “The Internet Café Business in the Philippines.” GMA News Online. N.p., 28 May 2008. Web. 01 May 2017.
Rega, Sam. “League of Millions: Inside the video game phenomenon that’s selling out global arenas and earning stars up to $1 million.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 28 July 2015. Web. 01 May 2017.