Research Methods

The objectives set for this research favour an in-depth qualitative inquiry over a quantitative one. In particular, an ethnographic approach to the phenomenon of inquiry seems the most appropriate. Ethnography is a widely adopted method in sociological research even if it originated in the field of anthropology. It is used to study unkown cultures, specific organizational settings and community life in general. The method implies a lasting stay among the people who constitute the object of the research and therefore, within the culture to be studied. The main techniques for data collection are participant observation and interviewing. Inductive analysis (inspired by the Grounded Theory principles) will be used on the collected data.

In this research the object of inquriy does not have a physical location in the traditional sense. The Battle for Wesnoth's (BfW) community primarily exists on-line. Computers and Internet mediate all the interactions that community members engage in. For this reason, the ethnography cannot take place in the traditional sense: there is no place where the researcher can physically go and stay. However, successful studies that investigates human interactions that happens on-line do exist and are increasing. The revised form of ethnography used in these situations is known with many names: virtual ethnography, ethnography of on-line groups, cyber-ethnography. All of them are very similar and slightly differ in their epistomological stances. This research uses a cyber-ethnographic method.

The characterisation of the research field is the first point that distinguish a cyber-ethnography from a traditional one. The field is discovered during the ethnography and not decided a priori. However, some preliminary entry points are needed. For the case study of BfW the two following ones will be used as departing points:

  • Is the official website for the BfW project. It will be the main spokesperson for the community and will be helpful to identify legitimate participatory practices as well as to locate the main communication channels and their role within the project. In the scope of the research, this website can be roughly thought of as the first place where to enter to.
  • Is the platform used to develop and maintain the add-ons for the game. In particular: campaigns, scenarios, maps and races. In the scope of the research, this website can be roughly thought of as a specific locus where specific members do specific things.

The second point to be addressed is the access to the field, which immediately raises the issue of  the ethnographer's presence. In BfW like in all FOSS communities, nearly all accesses are public. Archival records are publicly accessible and registration to the community media is open. On one hand,  these aspects facilitate the 'access to the community life'. On the other hand, I also want to participate, and not only to observe (lurk). Therefore, I need a substantial identity which I can use to interact with community members and, at the same time, can legitimate a particular kind of participation (i.e. I might need to ask questions that could be considered off-topic, or i might need to go beyond the 'RTFM answer'). The purpose of this website is to represent that identity.

I will point members interested in knowing what my research is about to these pages. Moreover, from time to time, when I have enough material to make consistent reflections I will create new content, and leave it open to comments. In this page, I'll try to answer all doubts that the informants might have about the use of their data and about how their privacy will be guaranteed.

The length of my stay in the field is planned to be about nine months, followed by about three months of analysis. During this time-frame I plan to locate and familiarize with the key community practices involving users participation. To discover the links between these practices and the ones related to software development (in the strict sense). I will do so by reading communications amongst members (either on IRC, mailing-lists or forum) and in the cases where this will be possible, also to participate in these discussions.