SiOE Doctoral Conference 2016 Comic Abstract

Very much looking forward to presenting at Sheffield Institute of Education’s Second Doctoral Conference on 5th November. As well as the text only version of the abstract I also put together the following comic strip version, which seemed appropriate given the focus of the talk.


The conference website is here:

Comic Explorations Presentation

I had a great day yesterday at Sheffield University’s Literacies conference, which is always a brilliant event full of fascinating and generous people. Looking forward to the second day today. Here are (most of) the slides from my presentation…



Comic Explorations: Representing data and visualising complexity in multi-sited, multimodal research


In this presentation I relate a number of ways in which comic strips were used as methodological tools during an ethnographic study of a children’s after-school Minecraft club. This longitudinal research project sought to examine the ‘lived experience’ of a group of participants engaged in collaborative videogame play using this popular world-building game; this included a focus on how players’ identities were explored and expressed in a complex space that enabled multimodal and multi-sited interactions. As the children played and worked collaboratively to construct a ‘virtual community’, a range of visual and participatory methods were used to generate data; this included participants’ use of a GoPro action camera, discussion sessions where players talked whilst constructing virtual ‘identity models’, screencasts of gameplay on multiple screens and photographs of the action in the room. Faced with the dilemma of how to represent this complex data in a way that felt ‘true’ to the original context, comic strips were employed as a medium that enabled multimodal transcription; using a combination of data from the multiple on- and off-screen sources, theses constructed narratives allowed me to take account of the children’s actions as well as their spoken interactions.

Drawing on the rich data generated during this project, I show how these comic strip transcriptions were constructed and how they contributed to an emerging process of data analysis. In addition, building on recent work around the affordances of visual methodologies in literacies research, I explain how I also used illustrated comic strips as a means of developing thought and illuminating ideas. I will demonstrate how these different types of comic strip were included in the final account of the project, helping the reader to visualise the data, whilst also revealing the process of analysis that led to the project’s findings.  As well as considering how this methodological approach helped to explore and represent the identities of participants, I also show how this process of experimentation with emergent visual research methodologies helped to expand my own thinking, therefore reflecting on how this approach impacted on my own identity as a researcher.

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Comic Explorations: Comic strips in qualitative research

This short post was written for the blog for the Literacy Research Centre at Lancaster University, following my recent presentation there. 

During my recent LRDG talk I shared data from my ethnography of an after-school Minecraft Club in comic strip form. Here I will briefly elaborate on how comic strips came to form an integral part of this project. My adoption of the comic form was not a case of me bringing an existing skill to my project; rather it arose as a need that emerged from the project itself. I use comic strips in two main ways: as a form of transcription, and as a means of exploring theory.

Comic Strips as Transcription

My first use of comic strips followed the funeral of a virtual horse. During their Minecraft play, children role-played a funeral for a horse that had ‘drowned’. This was captured using video (in the room) and a screencast of my screen (in the game). When I attempted to produce a multimodal transcription of this episode, using text alone, I felt that my written output did not represent the nature of the events I had observed; it felt like a reduction of what I had seen. As I gradually added visuals to my written account I realised that I was creating a form of comic strip. Rethinking my approach to transcription led me to produce around 25 more such comic strips, based on episodes from the club, identified by me and the participants.

horse funeral comic

Comic strip transcripts have been used by others (Plowman and Stephen, 2008). My particular take on these combine visual data relating to the on- and off-screen action seen in the club, alongside the children’s speech and additional scene-setting comments. The ‘Horse Funeral’ comic uses mainly on-screen visuals, whereas some of the other comics draw more heavily on action in the room; an additional example of this technique can be found in Bailey (2015).

Comic Strips as Methodology

My use of comic strips spread beyond transcription to the development of my methodology. The pages below begin a longer exploration of Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980) image of thought, ‘the rhizome’, using my own staged screenshots from the game itself. The rhizome was fundamental to my methodological approach, which I called ‘Rhizomic Ethnography’.


Where Minecraft screenshots felt insufficient, I turned, nervously, to pen and paper. Drawing did not come naturally, however the process helped me both to exemplify and expand my thinking. This chimes with Sousanis’ (2015) assertion that such techniques can lead to an ‘unflattening’ of ideas. The act of drawing pushed me well beyond my own comfort zone, also giving me an unexpected emotional attachment to the ideas I was seeking to explore.



These comic strips were produced with the help of the application Comic Life:

Bailey, C.(2015) ‘Free the Sheep’. Literacy, Early View[online]:

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F.(1980) A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Plowman, L. and Stephen, C.(2008) ‘The Big Picture? Video and the representation of interaction’. British Educational Research Journal, 34 (4)541 – 565.

Sousanis, N.(2015) ‘Unflattening’. Cambridge. Harvard University Press.


Using Virtual Models #5

I have been using discussion activities throughout this year’s research of Minecraft Club in order to gather reflections from the children about the club. As before, this is inspired by David Gauntlett’s ‘Identity Models’ work. A small group of children build virtual models using a shared map in the iPad version of Minecraft.


Yesterday I conducted two group interviews (#5 and #6) in school before the penultimate week of the club.

My intention was for discussion in each session to focus on three areas:

1. For the children to reflect on the nature of the club itself, with a focus on their motivation to continue attending weekly for a whole academic year.

2. For the children to discuss their perceptions of Banterbury, their ‘virtual community’. I asked them to describe what kind of place Banterbury is…

3. For the children to suggest some ‘episodes’, ‘events’ or ‘instances’ for me to look more closely at during my data analysis, based on what they felt had been ‘particularly interesting or important’. In order to prompt this part of the discussion I gave them two examples that I was already looking at – the horse funeral and the sheep song.

The following is a brief outline of the discussion session 5, centred around the models produced by the children, based on repeated re-watching of the screencast from the sessions.IMG_0470

Discussion Session #5

  • Model 1 created by Callum <Yoloface23jr> – A Place to Relax to convey the value of social gameplay


Callum’s model represented relaxation in the game, which he suggested is one reason to play the game. He then began to focus on the importance of social gameplay, particularly for him as a new member of the class at the beginning of the year, who joined the group from another school: ‘It’s a really great way for me to join in….I’ve got to know people so well through Minecraft Club. I don’t think I’d know anyone this well or be this best friends with anybody without Minecraft Club.’ Asked why a club around Minecraft was a good place for this social time he replied:

‘People talk more, there’s a bit more chance to talk and demonstrate their feelings in what they build… so I think I’ve got to know them quite well… and what they like and stuff’.

I asked if, for example, a chess club would have helped in the same way. He replied that he wouldn’t have gone, neither would anyone else!

  • Model 2 created by Alex <Castaway112> – Mushroom House to convey variety in the game

Alex directed me over to his mushroom house and, after a bit of time establishing how to enter, he gave me a guided tour. This model was intended ‘to explain all of the places you can go’ (in Banterbury) ‘the forest… sand… mushrooms’. Above one of the doors was a sign reading ‘this is not a door’. Confused by this I asked why, to be told that ‘it’s clearly not a door’. Things are not what they appear to be.

As he led me around the house I saw ‘the most dangerous fireplace in the world, a baby sitting room, a room with a sign that says ‘do not enter because of chickens’ (we enter – there are no chickens) and a farm with cows with mushrooms on their heads’. He suggested that this ‘reminded him of the craziness of the world’ in Minecraft Club.


  • Model 3 created by Joseph <Steve> – A Gallery to suggest ‘infinite possibilities’

Joseph created an art gallery as a chance to try out using things he had not used before. He said that this reflected that ‘there are lots of items that they don’t use in the club’ and therefore possibilities that they had not yet explored.

IMG_0469 IMG_0468 IMG_0465Additional points

Alex began by suggesting that I should look more closely at the events around the creation of Banterbury Library. This was interesting as this is already the focus of some of my data analysis. When asked why he suggested, ‘definitely when they were making the books… we were actually doing writing…. We actually tried to do something that is exciting’. Callum agreed and suggested that a focus on the library was important because ‘a lot of people think that Minecraft is just about building structures but you can build books and stories and stuff as well, which is quite good… It’s a feature that is in Minecraft all the time, and it’s part of real life… there’s books in real life…’

Joe discovered a glitch in the game where the doors were only half rendering. They then began to notice that it was possible to change skins in this new version – they left the game to change their skins: ‘Awesome! That is so cooool! Epicness!’

There was also some discussion over the legitimacy of the naming of the town Banterbury. Callum expressed frustration about the town being called ‘Banterbury’ – ‘WHY IS IT CALLED THAT?!’ He attributed its naming to one specific player’s particular interest in the word ‘banter’. Alex suggested a possible origin for the name Banterbury – a youtube video of another game ‘Terraria’ where a player names his world ‘Banterbury’ (I could not find this, however). There was a suggestion that there were some ‘power’ issues relating to the naming and the subsequent perceived ‘ownership’ of the town and control over certain activities was something that they found potentially frustrating and potentially led to the forming of groups within the club. They talked about how the girls (and some boys) like ‘all their stuff private and make a massive fuss when someone goes in’. I will pursue this more specifically elsewhere.

They also further emphasised the important of the social aspect of the gameplay in the club: ‘You can work together… sometimes we talk about other things, we talk about things while we are playing’. This ‘makes it more exciting’.


Banterbury Library, amongst other things (Minecraft Club #22 09.05.15)

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 17.46.25

Still a week behind with my data familiarisation, but I’m catching up! Much of the in game play during this week seemed to centre around the creation of a new library in Banterbury. This post is built around my fieldnotes.

Week 22

Tom has trouble logging in to the game so I let him use my laptop and check that it’s ok for me to screencast his play. I become aware of the fact that there is now a library in Banterbury. I also notice that, now the town has a name, I no longer feel the need to prefix it with the term ‘virtual’ – does naming make it more ‘real’? I can’t remember if there was a library last week or not -when did it appear?

Screenshot 2015-06-02 16.38.27

Someone is singing ‘Milkshake’ by Kelis. Other children join in.

I focus on what Tom and Ben are doing, seating myself behind them. Tom looks at Ben’s screen. He then turns to Callum and asks him if he is writing books to – he isn’t, it’s just them. More singing – the girls start and the boys join in – it’s apparently the Minion’s Banana song.

Ben asks how to spell ‘comeuppance’ – I struggle to remember – it isn’t a word I use very often! I note that the boys flip between different ways of being in the game – writing, moving, writing again. Ben reads his book to Tom. Tom laughs. Ben takes his computer over to read the book to Lisa, the subject of his book. She laughs too. Both boys have inadvertently called their books ‘The Sick Buk!’ – they can’t believe the coincidence. One of them renames their to ‘The Super Buk’. Freya announces that she wants to write a book but Ben says that she can’t put it in the library. He relents saying ‘It’s just banter!’

Tom is typing ‘… swag mentally raged and blew up his…’ (short discussion over what sort of farm – ‘sausage or plastic’? He resumes, choosing ‘plastic’) ‘… plastic farm. Outraged with his stupidity of king pigs he…’ Tom says that his book is now ‘The Poop Buk’.


The girls are now writing books. Mia writes one about Ben and Tom, involving them walking down the isle. The book reads:

‘Happily, Tom and Ben walked hand in hand romantically down the wedding isle as the sunset shone thorough Tom’s big head. The best bit is Freya got it all on record, now that’s one for youtube. 3 weeks later Tom got fed up with Ben leaving his big bloomers on the bed, so they got a divorce :(‘


On hearing this they stand up and walk around the room, holding hands, doing the wedding march. They hug and pat each other’s backs, Ben stating ‘And that is how you deal with banter!’

There’s a reprise of the song ‘Tim Jim’ from week 3. Ben’s computer shuts down, L.  suggests he does some ballet to fill the time. He does. Tom is typing, again. So far he has largely interacted with an interface for typing rather than exploring space – this observation is supported by the screencast of his play. The library was build by him and Ben and seems to have a certain number of set rules, dictated by them (so creation means ownership in Banterbury?) Each book ends with the statement ‘Property of Banterbury Library’. Callum has created a book all ‘IN CAPS’ but Tom is refusing to let it in as it doesn’t fit the correct format…

The stories created by the children seem to largely involve other members of the group. More specifically, they seem to involve bad things happening to other members of the group and, as such, could be considered to be exemplars of the ‘banter’ from which the town gets its name.


Whilst the library draws in a lot of the children, as usual not everyone is participating on the same task. Two of the girls are busy constructing what appears to be pixelart characters using the game’s blocks. One turns out to be me, with the word ‘thank you’ above it in large letters, using Minecraft blocks.


Finally Ben’s computer starts up again and he opens up one of the books he has created – it’s called ‘The Plastic Buk’ (each book seems to be named using this pattern, with an intentional mis-spelling of ‘book’ at the end.) He reads some of the content of the book out, to much laughter from the rest of the group.

Tom decides to hide in the game. He digs a hole under a building revealing a hidden room that he seems to have know was there already. ‘Ben, I’ve gone into operation hideout’ he says. “Ben! Come with me!’. Ben moves to sit next to Tom in the room and joins him in the game, in the hidden room. Ben is using a silly voice and I wonder what they are doing in this space.

There’s some singing from the boys, seemingly to mock the girls. ‘Don’t stop believing!’ they sing with mock enthusiasm. Tom asks Ben to fill in the secret hole.

Ben logs out, and back in. There is a discussion about veganism – about what it is. Ben starts singing a song by Blue. He is playing with words, language, lyrics, melody, tune, rhythm. Ben holds Tom’s hand. How do they drop in and out of the game like this? Ben starts rapping. I film the boys from over their shoulders as they work on separate screens, composing their separate texts – I film them doing this.

Someone asks how to spell ‘submarine’ – this prompts singing of ‘yellow submarine’ followed, again, by Milkshake by Kelis. They show a video of on of the club member at the skate park, on Youtube, on one of the class ipads. ‘How much money do you earn?’ asks one of the class, referencing the fact that people get paid for having popular channels of Youtube. He patiently explains that he doesn’t have enough views to get paid.

Some of the class discuss their Youtube accounts. They are discussing Minecraft videos and the show me a video called ‘the Villager News’

Tom returns to his computer and is typing, referencing something that turns out to be ‘Rap God’ by Eminem.

Cycling, the jeb door, tomatoes, nostalgia, rapping, the ‘flipping sofa’ and Jeffery, my pet block (Minecraft Club #19 12.05.15)

I am worn out when I arrive at the club this week – I have met headwind all the way on my regular uphill cycle to school. Whilst this ethnography clearly doesn’t extend to cover my reflections on my means of transport in (although I’m sure I could come up with enough data for a whole other ethnography based on this – particularly when my chain snaps on the way home) it does serve as a constant reminder that the boundary of the club is permeable, in that it draws the experiences of all participants at times outside of the club’s set beginning and end times. Most notably this week the children are taking part in their Y6 SATs. Some of them have even be entered into the Level 6 tests (tests that are well above the nationally expected level for children of this age – although there is a creeping expectation that schools enter some children for them). This afternoon was spelling, with some children (successfully) spelling words such as ‘recommended’, ‘partial’ and ‘picturesque’.IMG_0253 anon

This blog post is drawn from my fieldnotes. I also left the GoPro with a group of girls and created a short screencast towards the end of the session – I will look more closely at these later (the girls tell me at the end that they’ve done some talking to the camera to explain what they’ve done this week).

One of the dads arrives to pick up his daughter, having forgotten that the club is on (entirely forgiveable as I had to cancel last week’s club at short notice). She bundles him out of the classroom and returns, having persuaded him to let her stay. I’m relieved that all children manage to log in without too much problem and the session runs largely, and unusually, without any technical problems (aside from laptop batteries running out – the children now seem to have made their own rules for the percentage at which they will swap chargers).

Four boys are seated at the back of the class – I choose to focus on their participation for much of the session, and stay out of the game until towards the end (which could explain the lack of technical issues). Tom asks where the girls are located in the game and they refuse to tell him. Game play, this week, is taking place in creative mode – as it ended this way last week. There’s an unusual sense of calm to being with, with everyone seemingly focussed on their screens. 

Ed turns to talk to me: ‘Mr B, I’ve made a hidden Jeb door!’ – he shows me a piston door that he has made, using the instructions from the Redstone Handbook that he helped himself to earlier, proceeding to demonstrate the operation of the door on screen.


Ed then turns to Callum and they discuss employing another Jeb door elsewhere in the building they are working on. They discuss a living room that Tom has created ‘under the room of doom’ – ‘it’s so we can chill out‘ he says. I’m pleased to stumble upon this later on in the session. I ask about the purple floor I see on Joe’s computer. He says that was just Tom’s idea – ‘he likes purple’.

IMG_0256Seemingly out of nowhere, Tom asks Ed ‘What’s your favourite kind of tomato? Plum, Cherry…?’ Ed chooses cherry, as do most of the rest of the class who join in answering the question. Tom nods approvingly – ‘It’s gotta be cherry every time!’.

Across the room there’s a lot of chat happening. Freya’s screen in turned away from her and she’s clearly not playing the game at this point, engrossed in conversation. I catch snatches of discussion about their older brothers and sisters, texting, their dad’s cars (Adam remembers Mia’s dad ‘rocking up in a Mercedes’  – clearly impressed), swimming (Freya reminisces about the time she fell off the baby slide at the local leisure centre, Matt jumps in at this point with a competing story about hurting himself at a swimming pool and suggests that ‘Freya -I think that was the origin of your bad luck!’ ), a proposed Skype call when they get home (presumably to continue these conversations). There’s also an extended discussion, relating to their roles in Christmas plays further down the school. They laugh at having to play each other’s family members (sample quotes: Freya (laughing): ‘I had to be his wife AND sister!’, ‘In Santa’s on Strike – YOU (points to Ben) were my dad!’, Tom: ‘We were the kids with the wooden gameboys!’) As discussion trails off, Freya returns to the game and turns the screen to face her. Throughout this discussion, Mia (next to Sophie) has contributed whilst still engaged with the game.

Even in its absence in this part of the room, the GoPro camera is influencing events – Tom starts singing the recurring GoPro song, changing the words to ‘We’re NOT on a GoPro’. This song soon morphs into a rap – Tom tells me it’s this:

… an imagined Rap Battle between the main characters from ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Walking Dead’ (two 18 rated American TV shows). He gives what sounds like a word perfect rendition of a short section. (Later, watching this video I wasn’t previously aware of, I’m struck by the adult language and the reference to drugs and killing and how different this is to the content of the reading Sats paper that they completed earlier in the week, recalling a discussion with C. about this very thing)


There appears to be some mischief happening. Someone has spawned and abandoned a herd of horses. Tom’s got his mind set on using TNT. He suggests that he has ‘a sick trick to play on central plaza’ – outlining his intention to link a daylight sensor to some TNT. Soon he’s asking the girls if it’s ok if he blows up a section of land. He warns the rest of the group ‘get ready for the boom’ but it seems not to work and, when it does, the impact of his explosion is minor. Meanwhile, Callum is clearing away the horses by setting fire to them. This is accompanied by a slightly unsettling noise coming from his computer, although he’s keen to point out that this is the quickest way of clearing them and sees them as an obstacle rather than a representation of any kind of real animal.

Screenshot 2015-05-12 16.33.38 Jo seems to be working really carefully in his room. I enter the game (and start the screencast) and join him in the room. I’m initially invisible to them, until we realise that I have ‘spectate mode’ turned on. Joe has filled a large chest with ender pills. Callum soon joins us and leads my Avatar off elsewhere, where he gives me a virtual present – ‘jeffery the amazing red block’. He reminds me not to place it anywhere as it will lose its name, so I keep it in my inventory.

I investigate a hole in the floor and end up in the aforementioned lounge room. The sofas are labelled with signs ‘a flipping sofa’ and ‘yet another flipping sofa’.

Screenshot 2015-05-12 16.36.50

A flipping sofa

Screenshot 2015-05-12 16.37.03

Yet another flipping sofa