HCII PhD Thesis Defense: Anna Kasunic, "Research through Play: Revealing Context through Play Directives in Power-Ambiguous Digital Spaces"

Anna Kasunic

HCII PhD Candidate

Thursday, May 16, 2019 - 10:30am
Newell-Simon Hall 3305
Thesis Committee:
Geoff Kaufman (Chair), HCII
Jeffrey Bigham, HCII
Laura Dabbish, HCII + Heinz
Jessica Hammer, HCII + ETC
Saiph Savage, West Virginia University, HCI Lab
In my research, I present Research through Play, a method of inquiry that uses declarations of play to reveal nuances of a context. Viewing play as a research tool rather than a design end, Research through Play declares a circle of play around or within a given context to encourage participants to reflect on and engage with the context in novel ways. This 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. To demonstrate the approach and the ways in which I have applied it, I present three related projects that show how Research through Play can be especially useful in contexts where power is imbalanced or ambiguous, and where communication among participants in the context is limited or suppressed. 
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, flesh out an approach for using play as a design tool to promote criticism of and reflection on a context, 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 Play, and discuss both the values and limitations of Research through Play as a study approach.
My work contributes methodologically to human-computer interaction, design research, and play research by proposing the Research through 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. 
Queenie Kravitz

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