Human-Computer Interaction Institute
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


Research through Evocative Play:
Play-based Methods for Drawing out Contextual
Complexities and Understanding Power

Anna Michele Kasunic Das

June 2019

Ph.D. Thesis


Keywords: NA

In this dissertation, I present research through evocative play, an empirical researchmethod inspired by and drawing upon design research (research through design,critical design and ludic design) and play research and theory, and that uses declarations of play to reveal nuances of a context and investigate power dynamics therein. Viewing play as a research tool rather than a design end, the approach facilitates the revelation of participants' relationship with that context and others in the context, as well as the ambiguities, conflicts, uncertainties, and discontent those relationships might encompass. In research through evocative play, the researcher designs and declares play in the context to encourage participants to reflect on and engage with the context in novel ways. In this manner, research through evocative play also positions the researcher-designer as an active and integral participant in the study whose perspectives and actions should be critically analyzed and reflected upon as part of the research process.

To demonstrate my path using this approach, I present three related projects. As a precursor to my research through evocative play approach, I first present my mixed methods work on the subreddit r/RoastMe, an online forum community in which people post photos of themselves to be harshly ridiculed by others. I show how the play declaration of "comedy not hate" casts online self-presentation behaviors and harsh humor as play, and explore how this play declaration reveals participants' views on and relationships to standards of behaviors for self-presentation and politeness in related contexts, and ambiguates power dynamics and ludic consent within the space of RoastMe.

Next, I discuss Turker Tales, a Google Chrome extension implemented with 171 participants on Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk). MTurk is a platform where remote crowd workers produce labor for requesters, often for low pay and with limited platform-supported means of voicing their concerns and communicating with peers. Turker Tales allows participants to anonymously create, view and share short identity-based narratives with workers completing the same or similar labor tasks on MTurk. With Turker Tales, I suggest novel directions for supporting crowd workers, beginning fleshing out research through evocative play as a research approach to promote criticism of and reflection on a context and its attendant power dynamics, and highlight the ethical implications of playing with and within a capitalist structure where power is imbalanced.

Building off my research findings and approaches in both RoastMe and TurkerTales, I lastly present YouMercials, a concept and functioning prototype for a design that declares YouTube advertising as a space for play, encouraging participants to manipulate YouTube advertisements by replacing the original audio tracks or by creating short identity-based imagination exercises for viewers to consider while watching advertisements. With YouMercials, I further explore and directly manipulate elements from RoastMe and Turker Tales, including direct play declarations, the use of roasting humor, the implications of play declaration within a capitalist context, and the anonymous sharing of short narrative-based shared artifacts. Through YouMercials, I analyze participants' ambivalent relationships to YouTube and YouTube advertising, reflect on the role of the researcher in research through evocative play, and discuss both the values and limitations of research through evocative play as a study approach.

My work contributes methodologically to human-computer interaction (HCI), design research, and play research by proposing the research through evocative play approach. In addition, as a side product of my pursuit of this approach, my work also contributes recommendations about the effectiveness of specific forms of play in engaging participants that can be useful to researchers and practitioners in human-computer interaction and play.

227 pages

Thesis Committee:
Geoff Kaufman (Chair)
Jeffrey Bigham
Laura Dabbish
Jessica Hammer (HCII/ETC)
Saiph Savage (West Virginia University)

Jodi Forlizzi, Head, Human-Computer Interaction Institute
Tom M. Mitchell, Interim Dean, School of Computer Science

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