Access and Agency of Women Ethnographers in Technical Leisure Cultures

The New Ethnographer will convene a Roundtable at the American Anthropological Association Annual meeting in Vancouver this November.

One of our Roundtable participants, Dr Aleena Chia, Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, brings a new perspective to our discussions at The New Ethnographer, with critical insights on ethnographic fieldwork in a context of gaming. Dr Chia is an ethnographer of gaming cultures. After receiving her PhD in from Indiana University Bloomington, she was a postdoctoral researcher at the Academy of Finland’s Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies. Her work has been supported by training from the School of Criticism and Theory, funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and an internship at Microsoft Research New England’s Social Media Collective. // @aleenachia //

Access and Agency of Women Ethnographers in Technical Leisure Cultures 

My contribution to the roundtable addresses the intersectional tangle of positionalities that researchers often push to the margins as they instrumentalize their bodies to gain access to fieldsites, gain trust of informants, and gain critical insight into technical leisure cultures such as gaming. These issues are pronounced for women of colour ethnographers whose visibility is refracted through their marginality to the expected image of investigative authority and technical expertise. Drawing on fieldwork vignettes from 18 months of participant observation with a US-wide not-for-profit gaming organization, I reconstruct tradeoffs between personal safety, mobility, and investigative vulnerability in the establishment of common ground between researcher and researched. I highlight how the ethnographic ideal of vulnerability is an epistemological choice for unmarked subjectivities within technical cultures, but is a lived condition for the marked others of geek masculinity.

Before I embarked on fieldwork of Vampire: the Masqueradelive-action role-players (larp), I never played a tabletop or larp game. As I got to know my informants on and off the stage of role-playing, my queries about their practices were often reciprocated by: “what’s a girl from Singapore doing interested in Vampire larp?” I would respond with my fan origin story about how I watched the franchise’s television show when it aired in Singapore. Based on Vampire’s mythology, Kindred: The Embraced (1996) ran for barely a season and exhibited all the generic conventions of nineties soap operas. Whenever I brought this up, my informants would joke about how tacky the show was and make fun of their own geeky viewing parties in college dorm rooms with fellow fans. In these moments, I seemed less different from them.

It helped them to forget, if only for a while, that I was an outsider. I was often the only person of colour at Vampire games and conventions in the Northeast, Midwest, and South. I was questioned about my commitment as a gamer, about my hobbies as geek, and about my solitary travel to conventions as a woman. I used my position as a researcher to deflect doubts about my credibility and to shield against unwanted sexual attention. I communicated implicitly that I was not one of them and could not be judged by their standards. I exerted ethnographic distance that anthropology’s reflexive turn (Clifford 1988) has tried for decades to minimize. 

In the field, access comes at a price. The ethnographic encounter is one where all parties embody “multiplex subjectivity”–a condition of crosscutting identifications and subjectivities that is continually reconfigured in relation to its embedding context (Narayan 1993). Balancing access and agency meant cycling through facets of my own multiplex subjectivity as a dispassionate researcher, as an embedded fan, as a pliant model minority, as an exoticized role-play character. Sal Humpreys (2017) reflects on her own silences in the field of games research as a strategy of self-preservation learnt from making herself invisible in male-dominated factories, offices, and bars where she worked, and urges feminist games scholars to be alive in their own work. 

Scheper-Hughes (1995: 417-418) proposes that ethnography operates between objectivism and subjectivism: “While the anthropologist is always a necessarily flawed and biased instrument of cultural translation, like every other craftsperson, we can do the best with the limited resources we have at hand: our ability to listen and to observe carefully and with empathy and compassion.” My body was a flawed and biased instrument for access and insight, in ways that were not transparent to me during my fieldwork. I would have liked, as Humphreys urges, to be more alive in my work. However, I did my best with the limited resources I had at hand. Eventually, I gained my informants’ trust, and they gained mine, and I was able to embody my multiplex subjectivity in all its contradiction and vulnerability. In line with Williams’s (2009; 2017) discussions about endemic harassment of women in fieldwork, discussions about ethnographic vulnerability can contribute to conversations about methodological training to prepare future researchers not just theoretically, but also emotionally, and pragmatically.


LA By Night gaming convention, Long Beach, CA. Credit: Curious Josh Photography.


Clifford, J. (1988). The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Narayan, K. (1993). How native is a “native” anthropologist?. American Anthropologist, 95(3), 671-686.

Humphreys, S. (2017). On Being a Feminist in Games Studies. Games and Culture, 1(19) 1555412017737637.

Rein-Hagen, M. (1992). Vampire: the masquerade: a storytelling game of personal horror. White Wolf Games Studio.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1995). The primacy of the ethical: propositions for a militant anthropology. Current Anthropology, 36(3), 409-440.

Williams, B. C. (2009). “Don’t Ride the Bus!”: And other Warnings Women Anthropologists are Given During Fieldwork. Transforming Anthropology, 17(2), 155-158.

Williams, B. C. (2017). #MeToo: A Crescendo in the Discourse about Sexual Harassment, Fieldwork, and the Academy (Part 1). Savage Minds. Retrieved from: discourse-about-sexual-harassment-fieldwork-and-the-academy-part-1/

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