Erica LeBlanc

Using Fiction

I chose to observe an establishment where one can play board games, drink, and eat. I selected this place because I know it to be a busy spot, and I believed that it would provide a dynamic setting for ethnographic observation. I was also intrigued by the idea that people come together in public to play board games, which is an entirely new concept for me. I was interested to find out who participates and how people interact with one another in this public setting. From my experience, competitive games result in “sore losers,” so I paid close attention to see if playing in public improves the ability to control frustration or anger in response to not winning.

I will use two different approaches to analyze the data collected from the site. Both approaches will include techniques more typical of writing fiction. The first approach is a sensorial description focusing on the ambiance and setting of the place. The central character in the account is a composite of many visitors because I was unable to give my entire attention to just one table. This means that the female in the description is a fictive character; she does not exist outside of the ethnography. I could have described the setting and ambiance without creating a character, but I found it eased the flow of description.

The second approach is a thick description with a focus on the players themselves and interpreting their goals. I wrote a piece of science fiction based in the world of Star Trek to present my findings. The world of Star Trek was useful because Starfleet officers go to new places to study people, just like anthropologists do. They also follow the “Prime Directive,” which is not to interfere with the development of societies. This is similar to the ethical responsibility of anthropologists to do no harm, but it also relates to the restriction I had in this assignment to not interact (or interfere) with the players. Choosing this form of ethnographic writing helped make it sound as though I had zero knowledge before arriving at the establishment. Adopting ignorance helped me to find connections that I otherwise would not have noticed. I believe the two pieces complement each other because instead of resulting in contradictory conclusions, they expose two different aspects of the establishment to demonstrate just how little frustration players experience during their visits.


Sensorial Description

Approaching the building, she is greeted by a bright neon red open sign rimmed in blue in the uppermost window. Opening the door, she is given two options: go straight into the pub or go up the narrow flight of stairs directly to her left. She takes the stairs. Reaching the top, she pushes opens a second door and is suddenly immersed in a buzz of voices and a thumping bass. Nobody looks away from his or her respective tables, so her presence is unnoticed. There is a “wait to be seated sign,” but she ignores it. She slows her steps and scans the room with uncertainty.

The room has the appearance of an attic, with wooden beams intersecting across the ceiling as if to hold up the roof. Bright circular lights scatter along the beams on the edges of the room. Somehow, despite the bright lights, it is not hard on the eyes. There are tables clustered in three sections; one to the immediate left of the door, one in the center of the room, and one to the extreme right. In the section to the left, there is an electric fireplace to create the illusion of a hearth. It does not generate heat, but it does convey an aura of warmth and comfort. Directly in front of it, there are two couches facing each other, and a table situated in between. To her left she sees another duo of couches set up in the same way. There is a dichotomy in the feel and the look of the place. It looks like it should be a relaxing place to lounge around with a book in peace, but it feels anything but peaceful. The thumping of the speakers, the agitation of the players talking over each other, and the compelling smell of food creates an exciting atmosphere. She feels her pulse increase in response.

She notices the secluded areas, and regrets that her friends were not able to score a table in one of them. Spotting her group of friends, a smile graces her face and she makes her way toward them. While a bit of privacy is preferred, any table at all is better than none. As soon as she sits down, a member of the staff asks if she would like a drink. She orders a draught beer. Collectively, the group decides to order nachos to share. While waiting for their food, they walk along the wall of games to see what their options are. There are eleven categories to choose from: themed, trivia, party, family, 2 player, cooperative, new games, light strategy, strategy, adult 18+, and dexterity. Pulling three boxes from the wall, they return to their table. There is a rack under the table to store the boxes. They drink and eat. Once the edge has been taken off their hunger, they remove the contents of the first box, replace it empty on the rack, and start playing.

Slowly, the buzzing noise recedes into the background until it is unnoticeable. All that can be heard of the music is the booming of the bass; songs are unrecognizable. Raucous laughter carries across the room in spurts. There is a frequent chorus of “woos,” “ohs,” and “oh my gods,” most likely in response to gameplay. These are the only sounds she registers because they are above the constant drone of voices. Under normal circumstances, she might have been annoyed by these exclamations, but in this environment, it just spurs her on. The other players’ excitement increases her own.

Even though she does not notice how loud the room is, subconsciously she adjusts to it and she speaks louder than she would normally. She has to turn her face and lean toward her friends to understand exactly what it is they are saying. Every once in a while, cool air is let in, which makes her shiver. She is ignorant of the fact that it is because the door has opened to admit new people. She consciously knows that the room is full of people, but this knowledge is peripheral. All her attention is on the game so that she does not miss her turn. Cell phones are forgotten; the outside world ceases to exist.

The next thing she knows, three hours have passed, and it is time to leave. She replaces the game and walks over to the cash to pay her tab. She walks across the floor to the door, and pulls it open. Feeling the cool air, she shivers. Slowly, she descends the stairs. Pushing open the final door, she is back in the real world. She checks her cell phone, sighs, and starts walking home.


Thick Description

            Captain’s log, star date 2017.321, after weeks of searching for new holodeck ideas, I find myself in a strange place. I am in an attic filled with alien people and bright lights. At first, I thought the people must all be here for the same purpose, but as I look closer, I notice that everybody seems to be doing something different. The only thing that they have in common is that they are all sitting at see-through glass tables.

            At one table, there is a contraption with flimsy branches. The people keep piling things onto the branches, which weighs them down. One person actually laughed and pumped his fist after placing an object on a branch. As I keep watching, the apparatus topples over and everything scatters across the table. The person who placed the object made a sound of dejection, and the others laugh. I understand; it is a game. Glancing around at the other tables, I realize that they are also playing games, even if I do not know what these games are. I decide to find out more.

            Over time, I realize that there are two types of players. The first type is quick-play. They finish the game as fast as they can and then trade it in for another game. It seems that their goal is to play as many different games as possible before the end of their visit. They play simple games that deal with a fair amount of chance. For example, a couple in the corner is playing a game called “Guess Who.” The goal of each player is to guess which character his or her opponent has chosen. This does not require any type of real strategy or thinking. They just have to make guesses, and scratch off the wrong answers. Perhaps by decreasing the need for strategy and skill, it diminishes their level of frustration.

The players in the quick-play category play childish games, and from my understanding, their choice is based on nostalgia. One person tells her co-players that she has not played the game in “like a million years.” This statement indicates that the game is one from her childhood. It is like they are re-creating the past or temporarily regressing to a point where they had no worries. Everyone is smiling. Some are even laughing at themselves. So, they are engaging in childish play, but do not adopt a childlike temper.

The second type is long-play. Long-play has two subcategories: role-play and party-play. While there is a significant difference between the two, the goal of both is to play the same game for the entire visit. Role-play games are complicated; they include dice, cards, a board, and pawns shaped like little people. Even the players do not know all of the rules. They consistently consult the instructions manual before making a move. Strategy is required for this type of game; I can see in their faces that they need to think. The role-play games also simulate violence, which I discovered by listening to players’ conversations. One player says “I could just shoot you in the head,” to which another player responds, “Yeah, I think that would be better than burning!” The fact that the game involves a sort of battle between players makes it more intense than the faster games that others play. Violence can be cathartic, which I believe to be a factor in their game selection. These players are more committed to their game than the quick-players. The groups with role-play games were still playing the same games when I left; they had been at it for over two hours.

Party-play games are games that potentially have unlimited rounds, and there is a winner each round. These games are cumulative and are more for the sake of playing than anything. Generally, the point is to laugh. For example, one of the party-play games was called “Cards Against Humanity,” and from the laughter coming from the table, it was light hearted and does not require the same amount of energy and application as the role-play games do, even if they do last just as long. Their faces do not reflect any deep thinking or serious contemplation before laying down their cards.           

Players from all categories openly react to rounds of play, but nobody seems to get overly upset about winning or losing. I have come to the conclusion that while winning makes players feel good, their happiness does not depend on it. The point, it seems, is simply to have fun with friends. While each player gets the same amount of satisfaction, they have different needs, which guides their choice in game-play types. It looks to be pleasant; perhaps a game board holodeck program would be a success.



This exercise taught me a surprising number of things; starting with how difficult it is to write in different voices, especially when one’s own voice has not been fully developed. I found that the easiest way to overcome this problem was to write in different tenses. I have yet to perfect an ethnographic voice, but I did find out that I much prefer writing in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner. While writing, I shocked myself by coming to terms with the idea that, at least in the context of this assignment, an ethnographic scene does not necessarily need to be explained. The sensorial description provides a sketch of what the establishment I visited is like, but it does not tell readers what to think or how to absorb the information provided. I had become aware of this when sensorial ethnography was introduced in class but rejected it for personal use since I like to know the purpose of a written work. My original goal was to try writing an imagistic ethnography but I could not commit to it once I stumbled on game-play types. As a result of this development, I learned that it is important to keep an open mind when writing ethnography and to go with the flow instead of clinging to original goals.

During the semester, I became more aware of the different forms ethnographic writing can take. I am particularly fascinated by an artistic approach, which can be used to attract readers and to clearly communicate one’s wishes. For this assignment, I adopted the practice of composite characters, which I had never heard of before this semester. I am quite certain it would not have occurred to me to do so without learning of it from reading ethnographies. I also learned that fiction, as a genre, is taking a more prominent place in ethnography. I find this appealing, because it makes it possible to present ethnographic data in a palatable form for non-academics as well as other anthropologists and academics. Even though it is an interesting method, it is important to choose the type of fiction properly. For example, this assignment would have been nearly impossible to do in the post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead, where such an establishment is unlikely to exist, even though it is a subgenre of science fiction. In any case, just because ethnography takes on a fictive form does not make the information any less true or real.