Multiplayer online role-playing as information retrieval and system use: an ethnographic study

Date14 May 2018
Published date14 May 2018
AuthorJ. Tuomas Harviainen,Amon Rapp
Multiplayer online role-playing as
information retrieval and system
use: an ethnographic study
J. Tuomas Harviainen
Faculty of Communication Sciences, University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland, and
Amon Rapp
Department of Computer Science, University of Torino, Torino, Italy
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to expand the research of games as information systems. It illustrates
how significant parts of massively multiplayer online role-playing function like information retrieval from a
library database system.
Design/methodology/approach By combining ideas from earlier contributions on the topics of game
environments as information systems, the paper explores how gameplay connects to information retrieval,
restricted content access, and information system structure. The paper then proceeds to examine this idea
through an ethnographic study conducted in World of Warcraft during 2012-2016.
Findings By discussing how multiplayer digital game play is a form of information retrieval, the paper
shows that players enjoy the well-restricted access to information that is a constitutive element of gameplay.
Examining controlled access, procedural literacies and emphatic keywords, the paper finds that content
relevances and system use may be influenced by hedonic concerns rather than task efficiency.
Originality/value The study of retrieval issues related to gaming enriches our knowledge on inferences in
retrieval. It shows that people may prefer that their access to information be limited, in order to make system
use more interesting.
Keywords Information systems, User interfaces, Games, Collaborative information retrieval, MMORPGs,
System access, Systems ethnography
Paper type Research paper
This paper investigates digital gameplay as a type of information interaction, particularly
information retrieval. Its focus is on information in massively multiplayer online
role-playing games (MMORPGs), games which can have player numbers in the millions and
include types of content that require the simultaneous coordination of dozens of people to
fully access and to successfully complete (Harviainen and Vesa, 2016). These games are
types of virtual worlds that their players use primarily for hedonic purposes (Goh and Yoon,
2011), in some cases also for other reasons such as professional play (e.g. eSports, gold
farming; Lehdonvirta and Castronova, 2014). The enjoyable use of such worlds usually
requires social interaction and the efficient, enjoyable retrieval of systemic content.
The central purpose of the work is to test the hypothesis of Harviainen and Savolainen
(2014) that at the core of MMORPG play is indeed a system interaction, which consists of
information retrieval done with game elements as its keywords,and to describe how that
so far only shallowly discussed retrieval takes place.
Following Vakkari (1999), this paper considers information retrieval to be the use
of an information system for obtaining relevant information for a purpose (e.g. a task),
while taking also into account Ingwersen and Järvelins (2005, p. 385) view of retrieval as
[t]he processes involved in representation, storage, searching, finding, filtering and
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 74 No. 3, 2018
pp. 624-640
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-07-2017-0100
Received 11 July 2017
Revised 9 December 2017
Accepted 17 December 2017
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
The authors wish to thank the anonymous reviewers, plus Olle Sköld, Wei Zhong, Mikko Vesa, Reijo
Savolainen, and the members of the Finnish Information Retrieval Experts group for their invaluable
feedback during the preparation of this paper.
presentation of potential information perceived relevant to a requirement of information
desired by a human user in context(emphases in the original). It likewise follows Harviainen
and Hamari (2015) in defining informationas the potential message content in any piece
of data, ranging from verbal statements to physical objects. It is selectively ignored or
appropriated into knowledge structures by persons seeking or encountering it[1]. In any
multiplayer online game are present several overlapping information systems, which
together form the whole game (Harviainen and Savolainen, 2014). These information
systems all rely on an underlying retrieval system, based on game code and algorithms.
That retrieval system is the subject of this paper.
Comprehending how system access and information retrieval take place in the context of
games and gaming increases our understanding of game enjoyment, game-related
information practices, hedonic system use, and the way people behave during play or in
relation to it (see e.g. Consalvo, 2007; Harviainen and Hamari, 2015; Jørgensen, 2016; Sköld
et al., 2015). Since play has been noted as an important factor in finding information systems
useful (e.g. Agarwal and Karahanna, 2000), we believe that an understanding of how game
systems facilitate play as information retrieval directly contributes to also wider knowledge
on information system access and use.
By exploring the suggestions of previous research with the results of an ethnographic
study conducted in 2012-2016, this paper considers the research question:
RQ1. How do multiplayer digital games function as information retrieval systems?
The paper first describes existing views on MMORPGS as information systems, then turns
to theories of play as retrieval and the optimization thereof. Then, it discusses the
ethnographical study methods used, followed by examples of play as retrieval from actual
play in World of Warcraft (WoW). The work ends with a short discussion on systemic
structure and some conclusions on implications of the research.
MMORPGs as information systems: core concepts from existing research
To function as mea ningful play, MM ORPGs require se veral interconn ected informat ion
systems: the retrieval core (discussed in this paper), a social system formed by the players
and their play, and external information sources (i.e. analytic and descriptive paratexts on
game structure and play including blogs, forums, and videos) that together can be
considered to be an external information system (Harviainen and Savolainen, 2014).
Without understanding social interactions in virtual worlds, it is not possible to
understand their technological capabilities (Davis et al., 2009). In gaming-oriented virtual
worlds, the focus of play is usually in players overcoming challenges presented by the
system, i.e., the games core algorithms, which is a type of information retrieval and use.
Multiplayer online games are a kind of data polyrepresentation (as per Larsen et al., 2006)
that combines also sources and representations from outside the information system
(e.g. task-based relevances assigned by other players in a group). The focus of this paper,
as explained below, is on interaction with the primary retrieval system (see e.g. Harviainen
and Savolainen, 2014).
During MMORPG play, players access encoded game content the same way in which the
use of database systems takes place. Game elements, instead of words, are its retrieval
keywords (as per Saracevic, 1996; see Harviainen and Hamari, 2015). This is an access type
also known from, e.g., hypermedia retrieval (Steichen et al., 2012). The company that
produces the game functions as both the author and the selector of any retrieval process
within the system (as per Ingwersen and Järvelin, 2005, p. 271). In other words, the company
is responsible for the availability of, access to, and nature of the retrievable content.
It fundamentally defines the context relevance of each bit of information during play, and
create recommendations on what to retrieve and when. The relevances are based on, for
retrieval and
system use

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