Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Belonging in a Videogame Space: Bridging Affinity Spaces and Communities of Practice

by Sandra Schamroth Abrams & Jayne C. Lammers - 2017

Background: Focusing on ways a common endeavor brings people together, Gee offered the concept of affinity spaces, which suggests that open participation without exclusion or membership is possible. This theory contrasts with Lave and Wenger’s communities of practice, which called attention to situated, hierarchical participatory practices. Bridging these two theories, we look to discussions of Discourses and specialist language and behavior to highlight how doing–being–valuing combinations situate people within a particular space in ways that can welcome open participation while supporting both inclusivity and exclusivity.

Purpose: This article defines and illustrates features of belongingness visible in videogame spaces, underscoring the dynamics of hierarchical participation in interest-driven practices, an important element to consider when attempting to make education more responsive to contemporary youth.

Research Design: This retrospective cross-case analysis includes data from two separate ethnographic studies of videogame affinity spaces. Data displays, as well as anecdotal notes, help facilitate the qualitative analysis of observations, interviews, field notes, and artifacts.

Findings: Within these videogaming affinity spaces, there were practices and value systems (i.e., Discourses) that promoted inclusivity and exclusivity. Data reveal specialist knowledge, interaction, and proficiency, in particular, to be prominent features in relationship-building in interest-driven participatory spaces.

Conclusions: This study calls attention to the doing–being–valuing combinations that situate one within a particular space while supporting inclusivity and exclusivity. A focus on belonging, therefore, revives the concept of community-based Discourses, honors the practices that situate learners in contemporary spaces, and helps researchers and educators understand how youth configure and reconfigure their social practices to seek inclusion by using and honing specialist language and behavior.

At the Northeast Public Library (all names are pseudonyms), several adolescents were playing the multiplayer Nintendo fighting game, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, in which they used hand-held controllers to get their animated characters to knock opponents off the screen. During game play, the following dialogue occurred among three of the four adolescent males playing the game:

Edwin: “I can’t believe I survived that. I thought I could get you if I knocked [you] off the edge. —Wait, is Mike out? Yeah!”

Timmy: “How?”

Edwin: “Because I am awesome, that’s how.”

Mike: “Spamalink. Everyone knows [you are] a spamalink.”

Edwin: “No I’m not.”

Mike: “You’re annoying.”

Edwin: “I’m just lucky that that worked. I wasn’t spamming. I just owned it. Tell me how I spammed it.”

Mike: “If you press every button”—

Edwin: “That’s not the same thing.”

Mike: “Yes it is.”

In the months Abrams observed videogame play at the library during the 2015-2016 academic year, she noticed that Mike’s proficiency marked him as the player to beat and that Edwin’s frequent roles as either an onlooker or an opponent positioned him as a minimal threat to other players. As such, the interaction above highlights Mike’s anger and annoyance for having been beaten by Edwin in a brawl round; Mike dismissed Edwin’s achievement by calling him a “spamalink” (i.e., someone who haphazardly pushes controller buttons and succeeds without any purposeful manipulation or knowledge of game play). Meanwhile, Edwin’s seemingly random controller use and his misunderstanding of the definition of “spamalink” punctuate his unfamiliarity not only with the game, but also with the terminology used within this particular gaming group. Though this exchange is but a brief moment in one forum, it represents the proficiency-related hierarchies that we found evident in affinity spaces, places in which Gee (2004) said “people interact with each other . . . primarily through shared practices or a common endeavor (which entails shared practices), and only secondarily through shared culture, gender, ethnicity, or face-to-face relationship” (p. 98).

We agree with Gee that many videogame environments encourage collective work toward a common endeavor. However, our research in such open-participation spaces reveals inclusionary and exclusionary practices that warrant continued exploration and theorizing, especially if connecting with particular communities begins with understanding their traditions and practices (Eakle & Chavez-Eakle, 2013). Such investigations help educators and education researchers understand the inherent hierarchical dynamics of student-driven practices that affect meaning making. Videogame play and interaction can be ideal forums for this work. After all, though expertise is not necessarily required to be present in a game space, individuals often need specialist language and behavior to participate (Hayes & Lee, 2012) and, by extension, to belong. Therefore, by examining belongingness in interest-based practices like videogaming, we not only extend research that acknowledges the educational value of gaming (e.g., Alexander, Eaton & Egan, 2010; Squire, 2010) but also support an increasingly responsive approach to learning that values youth culture (Peppler, 2010).


To better understand meaning making and the doing–being–valuing combinations that make such practices possible, however, we first need to address and, if possible, bridge the gap between theories that have examined membership and participation in videogame spaces. For example, whereas affinity space theory emphasizes open participation in the absence of formalized “membership,” the communities of practice theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991) highlights the hierarchy between and among those with and without specialist knowledge. Our focus on the doing–being–valuing practices of learners within the videogame spaces we studied suggests a way to connect these theories, namely by looking at what participants say and do to belong in spaces that also value open participation. To help contextualize this approach to belongingness, we preface our research with an overview of the theories informing our analysis.


In defining affinity spaces, Gee (2004) explained how videogame spaces support interaction among people of diverse backgrounds and skills, creating openness that potentially allows all to participate. One reason affinity spaces succeed, according to Gee, is that the focus is not on trying to label a group of people, which leads to “vexatious issues over which people are in and which are out of the group, how far they are in or out, and when they are in or out” (p. 78); rather, he asserted, affinity groups focus on a “common endeavor” (p. 84), a shared interest that directs the participation within the space, thereby promoting openness in the ways participants can and do interact—ways in which membership-based communities do not.

Later iterations of this theory focused on boundaries of participation. Whether these boundaries were framed by the groups participating in specific tasks (Gee & Hayes, 2010) or by the space in which they performed these tasks (Gee & Hayes, 2011), such discussions indicate the range of factors that can support interest-driven pursuits. Although the nonhierarchical emphasis of affinity spaces seems to welcome and accommodate a greater range of participants, the varying degrees of participation and passion of the participants make it difficult to determine who, in fact, belongs to the group at any given time (Gee & Hayes, 2011). This variation can be particularly problematic if, as Gee and Hayes suggested, “some people (usually, but not always, around 20 percent) must have a deep passion for the common endeavor, not just a passing interest” if an affinity group is to survive (p. 70).


In contrast to affinity spaces, which promote open, nonhierarchical interaction among participants with varying levels of proficiency, the communities of practice theory emphasizes expertise as the way to acquire and demonstrate membership. Examining how people interact with each other in a specific setting, Lave and Wenger (1991) found that people’s sense of belongingness was heavily dependent upon their ability to fully and expertly participate within a given community. Further, they argued that novices needed guidance, or apprenticeship, in mastering the community’s specialist knowledge if they were, ultimately, to become recognized members of that community; it is this mentorship model that establishes and reinforces the hierarchy of membership—a defining feature of participation—within communities of practice.

The emphasis on specialist knowledge creates “unavoidable” formal and informal boundaries between community insiders and outsiders because, as researchers Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner (2015) argued, what constitutes legitimate, recognizable participation is intimately connected to site-specific knowledge and behavior. Nevertheless, scholars investigating contemporary spaces continue to grapple with the residual notions of communities that uphold hierarchical participation models and position newcomers as outsiders (Black, 2008; Gee, 2004).


Although the theories of affinity spaces and communities of practice help researchers understand what participation looks like and how it happens, each theory privileges different factors when explaining how people learn and exhibit context-specific expertise. But there may be a stronger connection between these concepts than what appears at first glance. Specifically, the doing–being–valuing combinations that Gee (1989, 1996, 2001) discussed in his concept of Discourse may provide a link between these views and, in so doing, help educators identify, develop, and promote student literacy practices that enhance belongingness.

Discourse Theory

Whereas the term discourses refers to language-in-use, Discourses “with a capital ‘D’” (Gee, 1989, 1996, 2001) encompass linguistic and behavioral choices, suggesting that meaning making is tied to doing–being–valuing practices—a phrase we use to refer to the highly nuanced individual and collective decisions, as well as the “integrate[d] ways of talking, listening, writing, reading, acting, interacting, believing, valuing, and feeling (and using various objects, symbols, images, tools, and technologies) in the service of enacting meaningful socially situated identities and activities” (Gee, 2001, p. 719).

Discourses are about “‘talking the talk’ and ‘walking the walk’” (Gee, 2015, p. 106), as evidenced in beliefs, values, actions, gestures, language, clothing, and practices that demonstrate one’s membership to a particular group. Consider, for example, Gee’s discussion of the specialist knowledge, language, and behavior of bikers and bankers:

When you go to that tough biker bar or that bank boardroom meeting, you better have the right body and skills, the right identity, and the right tools. Bikers bring jeans and jackets, not suits. They sit at the bar not the boardroom table. They have to know how to talk and act tough, not how to talk and act rich, and they bring bikes and knives with them, not fancy cars and lawyers. Both have been known to carve other people up, just in quite different ways. (p. 108)

Though bikers could be bankers (and vice versa), in particular contexts (e.g., a bar or a boardroom), there are specific knowledges, specialist languages, and behaviors that help people be part of—or remain separate from—a space and an experience.

In some ways, Gee’s notion of Discourse overlaps with communities of practice. Gee (2004) explained that the “key problem with notions like ‘community of practice’ is that they make it look like we are attempting to label a group of people” (p. 78), as evident in the aforementioned labeling of the bikers and bankers, and yet Discourses (e.g., behavior, language, dress) do situate individuals as being part of and belonging to a particular group. Further, Gee’s (1989) initial description of Discourses addressed the apprenticeship component that is inherent in communities of practice:

Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction. . . , but by enculturation (‘apprenticeship’) into social practices through scaffolds and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse. . . . If you have no access to the social practice, you don’t get in the Discourse. (p. 7)

Therefore, we argue that a focus on doing–being–valuing calls attention to membership inherent in situated practices (echoing communities of practice) while sharing interests within any participatory space (drawing upon affinity spaces). In so doing, we agree with scholars who already have begun to consider Discourses and affinity spaces either together or in relation to aspects of community (Abrams, 2009; DeVane, 2012; Duncan, 2010; Hasrati & Street, 2009; Turner, Abrams, Katic, & Donovan, 2014; Xu, 2008), helping to highlight the specificity of context-bound language and behavior—or community-based Discourses. But we also suggest that Gee’s concept of Discourses can help us identify and establish how situated practices create aspects of belongingness. In other words, when we use Discourses to bridge affinity spaces and communities of practice, the features of belongingness become visible, in turn revealing the specialist language and behavior that youth need to participate in particular meaning-making experiences.


Though not new, belongingness remains a rather ambiguous term in education research. Literature that attends to social belonging or belongingness includes a general discussion of belonging (Mitchell & Parker, 2008), a connection to self-efficacy (Van Houtte & Van Maele, 2012), and study-specific definitions (Murphy & Zirkel, 2015) to identify participatory learning; yet questions remain about what belongingness is, the impact it has on participation and membership, and how it can play a role in understanding meaning-making practices in interest-driven learning spaces. Our research on the inclusive and exclusive practices in videogaming environments—affinity spaces that allow some, but not all, to participate in the spaces we studied —addresses these questions.  

Data for this discussion stem from two separate studies: one in which the researcher and participants were co-present in a public library, engaging in videogame-related activities, and the other in which the researcher and participants communicated asynchronously about online videogame-related activities. Within both research projects, meaning making was digitally and socially mediated, and issues of hierarchical participation came to the fore. After introducing each site, we turn to consider how these sites—individually and collectively—help us understand not only how adolescents make meaning when they engage in online and offline interest-driven practices, but also how the inclusive/exclusive nature of participant interaction enhances belongingness.


Since 2009, Abrams has been engaged in an ongoing ethnographic study of videogaming in public libraries, such as the Northeast Public Library located within 15 miles of New York City (Abrams, 2012, 2015). Given the Northeast Public Library’s proximity to local town schools, many teens and preteens arrive on foot to attend after-school programs and/or complete homework until their parents pick them up after work. As an affinity space, the Teen Area at the Northeast Public Library continues to include various cohorts of youth that form on their own according to the adolescents’ schedules and interests. For example, depending on seasonal after-school sports and clubs, the cohorts of attendees often shift, as does their selection of and participation in various activities. One such activity, videogame play, involves different doing–being–valuing combinations that serve as the basis for this research.

When at the library, the youth congregate in one of two rooms designated as the Teen Area. During weekly open play, adolescents meet in the solarium-turned-gaming space, which they have named “the fishbowl”—an appropriate moniker, given that others from the greater Teen Area can observe those in the glass-encased room (Abrams, 2015); likewise, those in the fishbowl typically are aware of youth spectators beyond the room. This was evident when one student temporarily suspended singing in his Band Hero game, gazed into the Teen Area, and exclaimed, “they’re watching me” (October 13, 2010). Adolescent observation of others’ game play continues to be a regular activity at Northeast Public Library and, despite related issues of power that extend beyond the scope of this piece (Abrams, 2012), specialist language, knowledge, and behavior help to “place” the adolescents in the affinity space in ways that either support or hinder their involvement in game play.

Over the past eight years, Abrams has situated herself in the Teen Area to observe and interview youth who participated in videogaming sessions playing a range of games, from Band Hero to Minecraft to Faster Than Light to Mario Kart. Her observation times have varied according to library hours, holidays and snow days, librarian transitions, and her own teaching schedule, but Abrams has remained immersed in the library space across the years. The data reported in this article stem from Abrams’s observation of 2–4 hours of weekly game play and 3–5 hours of monthly tournaments when the library offered them; observation notes and reflective researcher memos (Creswell, 2013) from over 150 hours of videogame play; a total of 16 interviews with 5 focal adolescents and two interviews each with 2 librarians; and debriefing conversations with 5 librarians.

When invited, Abrams has engaged in videogame play with the teens, providing another layer of insight into gaming and cohort culture at the library, further supplemented by youth-initiated sharing of artifacts, such as Instagram photos or mobile-based games and leaderboards. Working to be a “least adult” (Black, 2007) in the library’s Teen Area, Abrams has sought to build trust by valuing the teens’ practices and mitigating differences or hierarchies that naturally exist between adults and youth.


In contrast to the multigame context within the Northeast Public Library, Lammers’s (2011) research involved a single videogame series, The Sims, a life simulation game whose open platform allows players to create families and neighborhoods, design the interiors of homes, and manipulate and document the lives of their Sims. The Sims franchise, established in 2000, has developed global popularity, as evidenced by the chart-topping debut of the most recent version, The Sims 4 in 2014 (Ukie, 2014). Lammers’s study focused on the practices of a particular online discussion forum, The Sims Writers’ Hangout (SWH), frequented by The Sims players who repurposed the videogame for a creative writing activity. On SWH, readers and writers shared Sims fanfiction stories, which are multimodal (Kress, 2003; Kress & Jewitt, 2003), hybrid (New London Group, 1996) digital texts that pair images from a player’s The Sims game with narratives the player writes. Some Sims fanfiction authors write stories that narrate the lives of their Sims, whereas others manipulate the game to create visual representations that accompany their written text. Thus, videogame play may be either central or incidental to a Sims fanfiction author’s process, and SWH welcomed this range of practices.

SWH began as a small Yahoo! Group in 2005. By 2010, it had changed platforms and grown to more than 12,000 members —mostly identified as young females —who had created more than 665,000 posts before the site ultimately shut down in March 2011. SWH included forums for sharing story ideas for early feedback, soliciting the assistance of proofreaders, posting links to finished Sims fanfiction, participating in contests, asking and answering questions, and developing community through “chit chat” (Lammers, 2012), among others. Such activity on SWH occurred through asynchronous forum posts or private messages (PMs), often with embedded hyperlinks to sites outside SWH where Sims fanfiction stories were shared or where downloadable content was available to add to one’s videogame. Participants could post whenever and from wherever they wanted, and because of the archival nature of the forum, their posts remained available online even if they were not logged in and participating in real time.

To explore literacies and learning in and around SWH, Lammers carried out a two-year affinity space ethnography (Lammers, Curwood, & Magnifico, 2012). She began with 12 months of systematic observation (Androutsopoulos, 2008) of SWH to map out the forums and develop an understanding of the people and the practices within the space. Thereafter, to gather data on SWH participants’ perspectives, Lammers conducted semi-structured virtual interviews via email or PM; traced participants’ Sims fanfiction-related activities across multiple websites; and collected SWH profiles and posts, Sims fanfiction stories and readers’ comments, and other digital artifacts. Eight females—ranging from 15 to 23 years old and living in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom—participated in Lammers’s research, and their roles and engagement within SWH represented the “different forms and routes to participation” (Gee, 2004, p. 87) available to participants in affinity spaces (see Lammers, 2016). Lammers and her research participants never met face-to-face, nor did they communicate through any video application. They came to know each other only through emails, PMs, and the participants’ online posts. Participants’ lives beyond their Sims fanfiction and SWH participation were not known to Lammers, other than as shared in response to a few interview questions regarding education.


Similar to Gómez and Kuronen (2011), we “followed slightly different methodological paths but arrived at the same conclusion” (p. 694): We needed to dig deeper into the inclusionary and exclusionary practices in our sites to better understand the meaning making and the dynamics of youth participation we had observed. Therefore, we engaged in a retrospective cross-case analysis (Dooley & Assaf, 2009), assembling a data corpus from our two studies (see Table 1) and reviewing it through a joint theoretical lens that brings affinity spaces and communities of practice together to examine:  


how specialist language and/or behavior situates gamers as insiders or outsiders of particular videogaming spaces, and


how the inclusive and exclusive nature of participant interactions inform adolescents’ meaning making when they engage in online and offline interest-driven practices.

Table 1. Collective Data Corpus for Retrospective Cross-Case Analysis

Data Source

Northeast Library

The Sims Writers’ Hangout

Interview Transcripts

16 total face-to-face interviews with 5 focal adolescents; 2 interviews with 2 librarians

15 total virtual interviews with 7 participants

Other Participant Interactions

Participant observation, game play with the participants

7 email exchanges, with 6 participants

Field Notes

Field notes from over 150 hours of observation




10 SWH story threads (150 pages)

11 Sims fanfiction stories

Additional SWH posts

Given our desire to gain a deeper understanding of site-specific nuanced practices and their inherent inclusive/exclusive nature, we began by examining the data through provisional coding (Saldaña, 2013), looking for instances of specialist language (SpL), specialist behavior (SpB), inclusion (I), and exclusion (X). In the initial round of analysis, we individually coded our data for these four provisional codes and then met virtually to discuss and verify the codes exhibited in our data. We also created data displays (see Table 2), which represented “an organized, compressed assembly of information that . . . helps [researchers] to understand what is happening and to do something—either to analyze further or take action—based on that understanding” (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 11).

Table 2. A Sample Data Display of Provisionally Coded Data

Data Source

Coded Data

Anecdotal Notes

NPL, Ethan, Interview, May 2, 2013

So like at one time, you could have people shooting at you and you can have people boarding you and you need to shoot back, guard your shields, attack the people that boarded you, fix your oxygen, fix everything (SpB) so it’s like a lot of multitasking, a lot of looking around quickly. And there’s also fires. And sometimes if you enter like a space with a gigantic sun, you get these solar flares that light up your ship (SpL). And basically you’ve got to open these doors, open these doors to let all the oxygen out, to get the fire out (SpB). Or the more dangerous way to do it is get your crew, go into a room and try to extinguish it but it’s much longer and much more dangerous (SpB). So I prefer just to open the doors and let the oxygen flow out. But the risk of that is if you don’t pay attention to your oxygen bar (SpL), you’re going to run out of oxygen and you’re going to die of lack of oxygen.

FTL takes place on a spaceship. The player has a blueprint-like image of the spaceship. There are simulated crewmembers aboard the ship and the player needs to manage their movement; otherwise, they will move around rather haphazardly.

When Ethan was explaining FTL, he moved the mouse to identify specific features, such as the oxygen bar, the crew members, and the doors. In this way, the gestures helped to support Ethan’s use of SpL and SpB, especially when discussing it with someone (me) who was less familiar with the game.

NPL, Field Notes, February 6, 2013

[Armond] was playing the vintage game, Bomberman, and the typical cohort was not at the library, he invited another teen, [Tiffany], and me—Bomberman neophytes—to play. (I) [Armond] explained the game, first reviewing the objectives and rules, (SpL) then clarifying tool use (e.g., controller functions) (SpB) and finally introducing strategies (SpB). Before engaging in competitive play, [Armond] guided [Tiffany] and me through several rounds of gameplay, (I) enabling us as new players to experiment with tool use and game moves, (SpB) ask questions about the game, (SpL) and receive feedback from fishbowl observers and him. (I)

I wrote this after I completed the game play but while I was in the library. Because neither Tiffany nor I had played Bomberman before, Armond had to show us step-by-step what to do, including defining rules and how to maneuver our on-screen character/avatar. We learned the terminology, rules, and strategies as we went along. Armond’s overall purpose was to recruit us to play—and play somewhat well so that there would be a challenge for him.

NPL, Field Notes, October 28, 2009

There are two additional (possibly new) boys in the library today.  [Jackson] is trying to play the Band Hero drums. [Jackson] is getting slack from another player, who asks, “Do you even know what the purple line means?” (SpL, X) [Jackson] says no. [Margin note: the tone in the exchange seemed accusatory and judgmental.]

Leo takes over because he says he knows how to. (X) Another boy enters the fishbowl. [Jackson] says “They already kicked me out.” (X) The boy responds, “I told you they won’t give you a chance.” That same boy talks about how the players “take over” and don’t give back/share the controllers. (X)

There was a general jockeying for control of either a specific controller or of game play. With this particular cohort, there was little room for error, and it was difficult for library newcomers and/or gaming newbies to make a space for themselves.

NPL, Field Notes, May 6, 2015

 [Erica] notes that she will be a Wii Fit trainer forever (SpB) and “win this,” referring to the Mario Kart game they are playing. [Margin note: I’m not sure why [Erica] speaks about Wii Fit in relation to Mario Kart]

4:55pm [Erica] states that Pikachu (SpL) is feisty and announces that she came in fourth place. [Erica] turns to [Lonna] and asks “[Lonna], do you want to play so I can beat you?” (I)

[Lonna]: “I don’t know how to play.” (SpB, X)

[Lonna] continues to sit on the floor doing homework. She does not get up to play (or try to play) the game. (X)

Lonna was sitting on the floor doing homework for the majority of gameplay. Erica continued to try to get Lonna to play, and that is represented by the (I) code. However, it is unclear why Erica also explains that she wants to beat Lonna (thereby alluding to Lonna’s lack of proficiency). Lonna chooses not to play, thereby suggesting that lack of SpB led to her X. Only later, when they play Just Dance, does Lonna get up to play. From her ability to play the game from the start and without instruction, it seemed as though Lonna was familiar with Just Dance.

SWH post, Eastwood, January 21, 2009

I kinda know what you mean about the chapters being on the short side . . . I mean, they are each all (I think) over 60 slides (SpL) long but the scenes in them are short and I usually end on some kind of cliffhanger (SpL/SpB) . . . all part of getting readers hooked (I).

Posts in which writers respond directly to readers are a common SpB in SWH. They serve as a way not only for the writer to show that she pays attention to readers, but also for her to further display her specialist knowledge of Sims fanfiction writing, a Discourse community that values SpL related to both the game and storytelling.

SWH, Naomi, Interview, April 15, 2010

I should have read the rules (I, X) when I first came here. I sort of picked up the rules as I read responses from the mods (SpL).

Every sub-forum in SWH had a set of rules posted to direct what should and should not be posted in that section, and moderators (or “mods”) enforced those rules, “locking” threads that got off-topic, moving threads to more appropriate forums, and responding to try to redirect behavior.

SWH, Slide 1 text, Missy’s Sims fanfiction story, September 28, 2006

(SpB): Hiya and Welcome to the second edition of [story title], Chapter 1.

I’m so sorry it’s taking some time but hopefully its [sic] worth it.

To any new readers I advise you to take a look at the prologue first so you’re not too lost (I). Enjoy.

Many Sims fanfiction authors use the first slide of their stories to speak directly to readers through notes like this one.

SWH, Angela, Interview, April 15, 2010

A lot of people won’t read a story that has awful picture quality (X), as sad as that is, so most authors do feel like they have to edit their Sims pictures to perfection (SpB), which takes hours.  

During data collection, a thread was started called “Is the Hangout the Hangout” in which SWH participants debated what they wanted the site to focus on, and the discussion of whether story writing or images were more important was a heated one. Thus, I asked my participants what they thought.

Notes. Codes are as follows: specialist language (SpL); specialist behavior (SpB); inclusionary practices (I); exclusionary practices (X). NPL refers to Abrams’s data from the Northeast Public Library, and SWH refers to Lammers’s data from The Sims Writers’ Hangout.

It is important to note that conducting a retrospective cross-case analysis requires researchers to become familiar with each other’s data. To gain such familiarity, we followed Dooley and Assaf’s (2009) suggestions to write anecdotal notes that “[tied] what we witnessed and read about in the data to what we already knew about each context” (p. 369); Table 2, which provides samples of provisionally coded data across data sources and the two field sites, exemplifies the results. We also used asynchronous digital tools to support our data analysis. Throughout the process, for example, we used Google Docs as a co-writing space, employing the comment feature as an analytical tool; these margin-based comments enabled us to provide anecdotal notes to prompt each other to reexamine the data, clarify or confirm codes, and ensure consistent coding. For instance, when coding the data, [Lonna]: “I don’t know how to play.” (SpB, X), Abrams used the comment feature to highlight the (X) code and explain to Lammers, “This is also related to specialist knowledge—but it is unclear if Lonna is not sure about the terminology or behavior or both.” Lammers responded, “true, but I think you can safely assume that it’s related to SpB, but the SpL is unknown, so this coding makes sense.” Given that Google Docs archives all modifications, we were able to access and review such comments and changes—including those that had been accepted or deleted—throughout the process, using these “anecdotal notes as a place to remind ourselves to look more into issues” as we conducted our retrospective cross-case analysis (Dooley & Assaf, 2009, p. 369).

Our initial insights supported the second round of analysis, which focused on “themeing the data” (Saldaña, 2013, p. 175). Specifically, we searched the provisionally coded data for patterns in the ways that site- and game-specific language and practices were used to mark someone as belonging to the space. The resulting patterns, which we came to refer to as the features of belongingness in this study, include:


Specialist knowledge, which represents particular knowledge of language or behavior necessary to participate in and/or speak about a context-specific activity.


Interaction, which refers to the ways participants speak to and/or behave with each other.  


Proficiency, which highlights one’s adept skill at participating in the context-specific activity.


Rules, which define the known boundaries that outline (and possibly constrain) participation.


Recognition, which reveals others’ acknowledgment of one’s participation and/or proficiency.


Flexibility, which corresponds to changes in language or behavior in response to (un)expected changes in a space or a valued activity.

These features, which highlight how people act, interact, and speak among others engaged in a shared activity, are inherently connected with doing–being–valuing combinations (i.e., their Discourses).

Figure 1. Features of belongingness. The dashed lines and bidirectional arrows between the six features illustrate their flexible interconnectedness.


We will discuss these features in greater depth in the coming pages, but here it is important to note that although a list can suggest a ranking of discrete, isolated entities, these features are interconnected and interdependent. For instance, as demonstrated in Figure 1, specialist knowledge and proficiency may rely on recognition by others; specialist knowledge and interaction may hinge on understanding the rules; and proficiency and interaction may include flexibility. Each combination, however, informs the other. Meanwhile, recognition, rules, and flexibility are instrumental in identifying three components that best support relationship-building and belongingness in particular spaces (i.e., specialist knowledge, interaction, and proficiency) while subsuming the three others that exist between them. By examining these six features of belongingness within videogame affinity spaces, we challenge, clarify, and confirm the relationships we saw between the features of belongingness within and across online and offline spaces.  


Our retrospective cross-case analysis suggests that, within each space, there were practices and value systems (i.e., Discourses) that seemed to promote inclusivity and exclusivity, affecting players’ sense of belongingness in particular gaming affinity spaces. More specifically, our examination reveals how belongingness in interest-driven spaces may present youth opportunities but at times position some as insiders and outsiders. Recognizing that a better understanding of the issues that may arise from proficiency-related hierarchies could help educators and researchers investigate youth practices, we look across these two gaming contexts to highlight features and nuances of the practices that situate learning and participation.

Next we discuss our data through two combinations of features of belongingness:  specialist knowledge and proficiency, as well as specialist knowledge and interaction. Because specialist knowledge supports (and is supported by) proficiency and interaction, we remind readers to consider that, though we parse the features of belongingness when discussing the data, the parsing is artificial, for we cannot disentangle these interconnected components. Ideally, then, the discussion of specialist knowledge and proficiency or interaction also highlights the relationship between proficiency and interaction, helping researchers investigate meaning making in affinity spaces more precisely and thoroughly, while helping educators recognize the inclusionary and exclusionary practices in interest-based communities.


Specialist knowledge refers to specific information about an activity and its related, valued practices that one understands by doing the activity and being in the space. In the context of videogaming, players develop and display specialist knowledge by recognizing and manipulating game features—from characters’ powers to game controller functions—to advance in the game and participate in online and offline activities. Though each game may have its own hardware, rules, language, and functions that allow players to achieve their goals, the degree to which players know and make use of these elements determines the players’ proficiency in the affinity space; player proficiency, in turn, reinforces specialist knowledge.

At the Northeast Public Library, youth selected and played a variety of games simultaneously or sequentially at their own discretion, often congregating in the fishbowl to observe and/or offer game play commentary. Some took turns playing a game, calling “next game” and creating an order of play; others used their mobile devices to engage in parallel game play, while other players monopolized the game consoles. Depending on the particular medium and related devices (e.g., smartphones, console, controllers), the youth situated themselves within and among other gamers, demonstrating their proficiency with aspects of a game and, by extension, their specialist knowledge.

Consider, for example, how game controllers reflect both specialist knowledge and proficiency. The first-person shooter game Golden Eye requires a player to use six controller buttons to move the character on the screen (e.g., James Bond), as the player aims, fires, and reloads a virtual weapon. Other games, such as Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which can be played on a control pad or with a classic controller (among other options), requires players to know how to navigate each device in order to succeed in the game. The same is true for a game, such as Band Hero, that simply requires players to press the colored button on the guitar or drum that corresponds to the virtual, color-coded note on the screen. The extent to which players are both familiar with and competent in using a controller as the particular videogame requires therefore determines players’ proficiency and level of expertise, which in turn is further reflected in players’ inclusion and exclusion. The ways in which youth at the Northeast Public Library were able to participate in the videogame, Band Hero, demonstrates this phenomenon.

Band Hero requires players to use a range of equipment (e.g., guitars, drums, microphones) in place of conventional controllers, and the more proficient players became, the more difficult the game could become, requiring more specialist knowledge to succeed. Derrick, for example, played Band Hero often and noted that the drum features became more complex as he increased the difficulty level. For instance, in the lower levels, players needed to strike one drum pad according to the beat; the more advanced levels required players to use all five drum pads (each a different color) to hit the corresponding color-coded notes, which appeared on the screen at a faster pace as the levels became more difficult. Derrick’s expertise in the game not only helped him to hit the drum pads with accuracy and speed, but also ensured greater inclusion during both game play and exchanges with other players when it came to Band Hero.

In contrast, Peter had never played Band Hero. Therefore, during his first attempt to participate in playing the bass guitar, he heard expert players’ chastising comments like, “You’d better prepare to fail” (field notes, December 16, 2010), reinforcing the specialist knowledge-proficiency connection; in Peter’s case, minimal knowledge meant little to no proficiency, limiting where and how he could participate. Peter, for example, struggled to perform well in the collaborative game and, after failing repeatedly, changed the setting to “easy” in hopes of participating in ways that would promote the team’s success. Yet despite these attempts to play, Peter’s inexperience with the game and the controller, his public declaration that “I’m gonna do horrible,” and his inability to successfully manipulate onscreen (and sometimes offscreen) behavior in a gaming affinity space underscore the connections between and among specialist knowledge, proficiency, and inclusion.

These connections were further magnified when, at times, the proficient banned the novices from playing. For example, Jackson, who was not familiar with Band Hero at all, told one student that the proficient players “already kicked me out.” Another student responded, “I told you they won’t give you a chance,” explaining that the group “takes over” and will not relinquish control over the game controllers (field notes, October 28, 2009). These examples suggest that specialist language and behavior—or community-based Discourses—were necessary for one to belong within a videogaming affinity space, but we also see how the features of belongingness inform inclusive and exclusive practices.


Specialist knowledge of game play also includes an understanding of rules and ways of doing–being–valuing in a particular game, and the degree to which players master these elements helps to determine the types of interaction that are possible. This became clear across numerous situations at the Northeast Public Library.

In February 2013, Armond wanted to play the vintage game Bomberman, but when the typical cohort was not at the library, he invited another teen, Tiffany, and Abrams—both new to Bomberman—to play. Armond explained the game, first reviewing the objectives and rules, then clarifying controller functions and, finally, introducing strategies. He then guided Tiffany and Abrams through several rounds of sample game play, enabling the new players to experiment with tool use and game moves, ask questions about the game, and receive feedback from fishbowl observers and him before suggesting the three engage in competitive play (field notes, February 6, 2013). Although simplified when compared to interactions among seasoned players, this situation demonstrates the role of specialist knowledge. Specifically, Armond wanted to play a particular game that required interaction, which motivated him to share Discourse practices that ensured successful collaborative play: how to use the controller, ways to discern the capacities of game-generated enemies, when and how to create or avoid an explosion, and other strategies to enhance game play for all participants. Through Armond’s mentoring, Tiffany and Abrams developed this specialist knowledge that enabled them to play the game and be included in the affinity space (Abrams, 2015).

Consider another example, one in which Ethan played the real-time strategy computer game Faster Than Light (FTL) in the greater Teen Area. Most videogames, including FTL, have distinguishing rules and associated Discourses, and the importance of these elements was highlighted by the specialist knowledge Ethan called upon when describing one scenario he might face in the game:

So like at one time, you could have people shooting at you and you can have people boarding you and you need to shoot back, guard your shields, attack the people that boarded you, fix your oxygen, fix everything so it’s like a lot of multitasking, a lot of looking around quickly. And there’s also fires [sic]. And sometimes if you enter like a space with a gigantic sun, you get these solar flares that light up your ship. And basically you’ve got to open these doors, open these doors to let all the oxygen out, to get the fire out. Or the more dangerous way to do it is get your crew, go into a room and try to extinguish it but it’s much longer and much more dangerous. So I prefer just to open the doors and let the oxygen flow out. But the risk of that is if you don’t pay attention to your oxygen bar, you’re going to run out of oxygen and you’re going to die of lack of oxygen. (Interview, May 2, 2013)

This description reveals how his specialist knowledge (here in the form of game rules, behavior options and possible consequences for different scenarios, and game terminology) is essential for successful game play. For example, in explaining how “you need to shoot back, guard your shields, attack the people that boarded you, fix your oxygen, fix everything,” Ethan demonstrates his ability to critically analyze game play and use game rules to strategize and solve problems that emerged—behaviors that were supplemented by his specialist knowledge from other contexts (e.g., his understanding of the oxygen-deficient nature of outer space, as well as the basic principles of fire, prompted him to open the spaceship doors to let out the oxygen and extinguish the fire). Meanwhile, specialist language (e.g., “if you enter like a space with a gigantic sun, you get these solar flares that light up your ship”) helped him articulate these informed choices to others.

For instance, when playing FTL, Ethan was confronted with a number of consequence-based choices, such as whether to board another spaceship or whether to take on passengers. Sitting next to his friend Armond, who was playing a different game on the adjacent computer, Ethan announced how he was fearful of having his spacecraft raided. Ethan then explained his moves to his friend, noting, “I can’t do that because my laser didn’t charge up yet.” A fellow FTL player, Armond told Ethan that he could try shooting because “You know what?! You still have an Artemis shot” (field notes, May 2, 2013). Because both youth had a firm knowledge of the specialist language in FTL—in this case, the tools available and the systems players could use to protect themselves—they were able to engage in discussions about strategies and tactical moves in ways that someone with less developed knowledge of FTL or someone unfamiliar with the community-based Discourses might not understand.

Certainly observers unfamiliar with the game could offer general suggestions or moral support to encourage players in their success, and the fishbowl created a context where such exchanges were possible. An element that makes specialist knowledge instrumental to belongingness, however, is that people with that knowledge can move beyond their immediate physical space (which may or may not include other members of the particular videogame’s community of players). Specifically, by drawing upon the doing–being–valuing combinations necessary for playing a particular game, players can expand their participation options, as evident in the ways Ethan accessed and gained online support.

For example, during game play, Ethan texted other online players and responded to game-based prompts, such as “[Eagle1] has invited you to play Counter Strike Source. Click here to join.” He typed “SRY” and explained aloud that he meant “Sorry, can’t right now.” To communicate in this fashion, both Ethan and Eagle1 had to understand not only how to initiate and respond to in-game player-to-player communication, but also what game-related terms (e.g., “artemis shot,” “counter strike source”) meant. Such multilayered features of specialist knowledge enabled Ethan to interact with others and to draw upon specific Discourses necessary to both participate and succeed in this space.

Though specialist knowledge can enhance inclusion, we also see how a lack of specialist knowledge can preclude teens from participating in game play, as was the case for Lonna. When her friend Erica asked, “[Lonna] do you want to play [Super Smash Bros.] so I can beat you?” Lonna responded, “I don’t know how to play,” and refrained from playing (field notes, May 6, 2015). Without specialist knowledge or game proficiency, Lonna could not interact with others on the screen, contributing to her (self) exclusion. Yet, rather than leaving the gaming space, Lonna spent the better part of others’ two-hour Super Smash Bros. game session sitting on the floor doing homework; she noted that she liked doing homework in the fishbowl because it was “more fun to watch them than to be out there,” referring to the greater Teen Area. Such comments suggest that even individuals with limited knowledge of community-based Discourses can remain within the affinity space, even if only on the perimeter of participation. What makes this comfort possible, however, may depend on the individual’s familiarity with related Discourses, general videogame play in this case. After all, Lonna may not have had the specialist knowledge required to participate in playing Super Smash Bros., but when others in the fishbowl changed the game to Just Dance, Lonna’s position shifted from being outside the activity to having a more central role.

Having played Just Dance in the past, Lonna had some specialist knowledge of the game (i.e., this game relies more on behavior than on language in that it requires players to physically enact the game-based dance moves), prompting Lonna to leave her homework on the floor, rise, and begin singing the lyrics to Lady Gaga’s song, “Just Dance.” Following the onscreen prompts, Lonna joined and interacted with the other players as they jumped in the air, moved to the right, took a step forward and then backward, spun around and so on, engaging in a combination of these and other moves for the duration of each song they collectively selected—participation made possible only because Lonna and other players knew the moves and the rules of the game.

The setup in the Northeast Public Library Teen Area allowed Abrams to observe the ways youth physically came together at designated times and self-selected into smaller groups around particular videogames. Their interactions, individually and collectively, reveal how specialist knowledge (however it may be defined by the particular videogaming affinity space) determines who can participate and how, and, by extension, the ways in which individuals belong to the designated community of players. Yet doing–being–valuing combinations may also exist in smaller, online, asynchronous interactions, as evident in the ways SWH discussion forum participants developed and displayed specialist language and behavior.


In fanfiction contexts, participants demonstrate their specialist knowledge and, in turn, their proficiency by writing stories that appeal to audiences, which requires not only producing quality writing, but also attending to whatever else a particular audience values (e.g., the Discourses). As such, fanfiction writers often spend time crafting their own stories, reading others’ writing, soliciting input from more proficient others, and reflecting on the comments they receive to develop specialist knowledge about writing and the community’s Discourses; the participants within SWH were no exception.

One way that SWH writers tapped and honed specialist knowledge was by using proofreaders—members who volunteer their services to check a writer’s work—to ensure the quality of their Sims fanfiction. Although all members could offer suggestions or criticism to help a writer, mostly by posting replies once a story was posted in SWH, proofreaders worked on grammar, spelling, and other aspects of writing to improve Sims fanfiction before it was released to the audience. To help writers and proofreaders connect, SWH contained a Classified forum that allowed authors to solicit proficient proofreaders (i.e., members whose behavior displayed a level of commitment that made a difference to the author and the story) and that allowed proofreaders to advertise their editing expertise. And members of SWH seemed to value this service. For example, Eastwood, a writer on SWH, explained, “I usually had a couple of proofreaders for any given chapter and they’d spot mistakes that I would have passed over many times before . . . I really valued a fresh pair of eyes” (interview, March 21, 2010). Naomi, who both served as a proofreader for other writers and used others to check her own work, also said she appreciated “having 1+ proofreaders that are as dedicated to the story as they would be to an academic essay in school. The people here are really supportive and they do a great job when they sign up to help” (interview, April 15, 2010).

Whereas all writers had the opportunity to get feedback from members with more specialist knowledge in SWH, new writers often received explicit suggestions to take advantage of proofreading support so they could both improve their writing and become an insider adept at using SWH community-based Discourses. Such was the case when Angela shared her first story in SWH and received the following comment: “My next little bit would be about enlisting some proofers, editors, and other people that can help you out, maybe give you some ideas, and tell you if the story is going too fast, too slow, or if you need to go into more detail” (SWH post, August 11, 2009). Taking this suggestion to heart, Angela sought additional help for this and her subsequent stories. To do so, Angela modeled the posts she observed in the Classified forum, articulating her specific requirements for support as follows:

Hey guys. I’m looking for a proofreader for my new story. . . Just a few requirements.

1. Know your stuff, like grammar and whatnot.

2. Be reliable.

3. Color code the changes, just so I know what I did wrong.

4. Be able to get at least the prologue back to me within two weeks.

. . . I’d like two proofreaders. (emphasis in original; SWH post, October 9, 2009)

Angela also included a link to the “coming soon” thread for this story and, later, replied to this post asking a moderator to “lock” it (i.e., close the thread from receiving any future posts) once she had two willing respondents. Such specialist behaviors—from receiving a suggestion to “enlist” the help of “proofers” to modeling her proofreader request post after others in the forum—allowed Angela to learn about and tap into the proficiency of others as well as develop her own proficiency as a fanfiction writer in the SWH affinity space.

Given that SWH was a space that placed a high value on the images in Sims fanfiction, another means of displaying proficiency involved developing one’s specialist knowledge around editing digital images. The trajectory of one participant, Eve, illustrates how developing and refining skills in digital image editing helped to situate her as an expert within this site.

Over the course of 31 months, Eve posted a seven-part Sims fanfiction that generated 119 comments from readers. This series, especially her sets and images, garnered a great deal of reader praise, as evidenced by this post in response to chapter one: “Your pictures are really breathtaking and drew me in” (SWH post, February 1, 2006), and this post on the last chapter: “Like other people are saying . . . you are the queen of Photoshop . . . you make your pictures so real” (emphasis in original; SWH post, October 8, 2008). As these and other posts indicate, the SWH members came to know Eve for her expertise in digital image editing to the point where other Sims fanfiction authors began asking her to create covers for their stories. Further validating her specialist knowledge is the fact that Eve created a tutorial titled “Picture & Pose Editing.” Billed as a way for participants to “master the art of Sims2 cover poses,” Eve offered guidance on how to pose Sims in the game to achieve the desired positioning for a photo, demonstrating how her proficiency in posing and editing photos ultimately gave her the credentials to share her expertise with others in the space.

In contrast to Eve, who became a central figure in some of SWH’s activities, those whose Sims fanfiction did not display proficiency in their images were positioned differently, requiring them to use specialist knowledge in other ways. For example, Angela’s technology limited her ability to take clear pictures within her game; specifically her graphics card was incompatible with The Sims 3. Knowing this site’s expectations, Angela wrote a disclaimer when posting one of her story ideas: “I’m in over my head with this . . . I’m thinking just a few shots . . . I’d have to blur the pictures quite a bit though, considering my computer will only run [The Sims 3] well in the lowest graphic settings” (SWH post, September 19, 2009). Though explicitly calling attention to the fact that her images did not meet the standards valued in SWH, Angela still attempted to participate by taking photos as best she could. But even she recognized how her technology potentially excluded her, as evident in a post she made the next day on SWH, asking other members to help her overcome the technical difficulties: “I’m going to need some help actually finishing the cover/banner . . . there’s a limit to what I can create on my computer” (SWH post, September 20, 2009).

When asked about the importance of editing and images, Angela acknowledged how not having good images could exclude a writer from SWH, noting that “A lot of people won’t read a story that has awful picture quality, as sad as that is, so most authors do feel like they have to edit their Sims pictures to perfection, which takes hours” (interview, April 15, 2010). Though Angela did not have the technical capacity to meet insiders’ expectations, she demonstrated awareness of the site’s Discourses with her disclaimer, which underscored her awareness of what counts as specialist knowledge, even if she could not produce it. Such moves ultimately allowed Angela to continue participating in SWH by outsourcing the image component of her Sims fanfiction to others with that expertise (Lammers, 2016).

Whereas Eve displayed her specialist knowledge and corresponding proficiency through images, and Angela hers by recognizing that low-quality images could detract from even well-written stories, Zarah’s experiences led her to believe that the specialist knowledge needed to gain recognition in SWH was determined by an author’s proficiency in generating both high-quality images and good storytelling: “We are pressured to have amazing photos and amazingly written stories. . . . It seems like we expect everything to be perfect or we do not wish to read the story” (interview, April 14, 2010). Regardless of the accuracy of Zarah’s assessment, tension was evident as SWH members disagreed about whether specialist knowledge around image quality should be valued as much as or more than story writing. For example, in a thread discussing the direction of the site, one long-time SWH member described the increasing focus on photo quality and the use of various editing techniques as a change in the community’s values, saying, “The ‘new generation’ of simmers have different priorities. It used to be having the #1 story, now it’s being the #1 frankensteiner, or simposer or hair drawer or skin shader, whatever” (SWH post, December 30, 2008). Pamela, a site moderator, responded to this post by acknowledging this shift in priorities, adding, “It’s supposed to be the Writer’s Hangout, and the chit chatting about random gossip or posting over 9000 pictures should come secondary. Now of course not everyone does that, and there’s still some really neat stories and creations, but it’s pretty easy to say that the focus has shifted” (SWH post, December 30, 2008). Such exchanges indicate that even members within a single community may have differing opinions about the Discourses one must adopt to display proficiency and about the ways that specialist language and behavior can position an individual within a particular affinity space.


In addition to verifying that SWH participants knew “how to talk” in this space, specialist knowledge affected when and how participants could interact with other members of the community. For example, when Sims fanfiction authors talked about working with images, they used gaming-specific language, as Eleanor did in an interview: “On The Sims 2 to achieve the right sort of images I would use cheats and hacks to get certain poses for my Sims” (interview, February 28, 2010). Having specialist knowledge about where to get “cheats and hacks” that others shared in SWH allowed Eleanor to manipulate her game, get her Sims to look a certain way or “pose” for the photos that accompanied her story, and, ultimately, facilitate her interactions with other SWH participants. Yet, numerous other examples of specialist language appeared throughout SWH discussion posts—the primary form of interaction in this space—marking the participants who used such terminology as insiders of this site.

Consider, for instance, a comment that Eve received about one of her stories: “You’ve gotten so talented with frankensteining! The first few slides look flawless!” (SWH post, June 18, 2008). This reader recognized Eve for her specialist knowledge of constructing an image by editing together a Sims’s body from parts of multiple photos, a technique that the SWH community came to call “frankensteining.” Other posts mentioned custom content, or “CC,” they downloaded into their game; named software programs like GIMP and Adobe Photoshop, which SWH participants used to edit their images; or included other terms the SWH community used in specific ways. In so doing, SWH members used specialist language to display their specialist knowledge and mark their proficiency with and inclusion in this gaming-related affinity space, thereby increasing their ability and credibility to interact with other members. What’s more is that, as writers shared their work in the SWH story forums and readers posted their comments, encouragement, and suggestions for improvement, these interactions created additional opportunities to build and share specialist knowledge.

In a response to one of Angela’s early stories, for example, an SWH member offered her the following guidance on how best to indicate a change in the point of view (POV) in her story: “Perhaps for the next chapters, if you are going to change POVs you should make it obvious, like have each persons [sic] name at the top of the first slide that has their POV. That will make it easier to keep things in order” (SWH post, August 11, 2009). In addition to displaying her own specialist knowledge—both in her use of the writing-related specialist term “POV” and the Sims-specific term of “slide” to refer to a page in Angela’s story—this reader instructs Angela about SWH and Sims fanfiction specialist knowledge, which can help Angela improve her own interactions in the community.

Missy’s interactions with readers also display her specialist knowledge. For instance, in response to a reader’s feedback about how to improve her story photos by adding more props, Missy posted, “I see what you’re saying about props—I have to admit the set building isn’t my strongest asset but I promise you will love chapter 2 because I’ve got some great new scenes coming up. Plus I think I’ll be going on a downloading spree sometime soon” (SWH post, October 13, 2006). In talking about the work she did to set up photos in the videogame as “set building” and by hinting at the custom content she planned to add to her scenes once she went on her “downloading spree,” Missy distinguishes herself as an insider to the specialist knowledge of Sims fanfiction. Such examples reinforce how inclusion in SWH was contingent upon if and how members could use the language belonging to the Sims fanfiction affinity space in their interactions with other participants.

SWH members’ knowing “how to act” (i.e., knowing specialist behaviors) also revealed the specialist knowledge valued within this space. SWH supported interaction between authors and their readers, and the site included a forum where authors could maintain a thread for any ongoing story to engage with their readers. Naomi, for example, directly invited commentary from readers by ending the first post in her story thread with “Author’s Note: This is the first story I’ve announced on the hangout. . . Comments, suggestions, and critique is [sic] more than welcome” (SWH post, August 24, 2008). By letting others in SWH know that she valued receiving feedback from them, Naomi signaled not only belongingness to SWH, but also belongingness as an author who values readers’ input.

Within another story thread for a nine-part fanfiction, Eastwood updated her story over the course of 10 months, sharing chapters as they were written and communicating with readers throughout the process. Some of her interaction took the form of progress updates: “I have all of chapter four written out (as well as half the pics taken) so that should be out real soon” (SWH post, January 19, 2009). In other posts, Eastwood engaged in a common SWH behavior of thanking and responding to every reader’s post [“Michelle: Thank you! It’s always hard to know how to explain the character’s background at the start of a story, I was hoping the phone conversation wouldn’t be too boring” (SWH post, October 17, 2008)]. By evoking community-based Discourses (both specialist language and specialist behaviors), Eastwood was able to signal her belonging to the SWH affinity space in ways that allowed her to interact and build relationships with readers.

As with participants in the Northeast Public Library, SWH members called upon doing–being–valuing combinations to demonstrate and develop specialist knowledge to help situate themselves in particular affinity spaces. But these efforts also affected the degree to which participants belonged in these spaces, as we examine in the following discussion.


In this article, we intentionally look across two videogaming spaces, one meeting face-to-face in a public library while the youth played multiple online and offline videogames, and one a fully online gaming-related forum in which the youth engaged in practices connected to, but not directly displaying, their Sims play. Drawing upon videogaming participation and practices, the findings from this retrospective cross-case analysis helped us examine some of the ways specialized, community-based Discourses work to include or exclude participants in affinity spaces. We are not arguing against or even reinforcing the central focus of affinity spaces. Nor are we looking to privilege the concept of community. Rather, we call attention to the ways specialist language and behavior may help bring the concepts of affinity spaces and communities of practice into conversation so that we, as educators and education researchers, might further our understanding of hierarchies and belongingness as they relate to sites of contemporary meaning making.

A focus on belongingness helps to clarify how specific ways of doing–being–valuing can situate participants within an affinity space. For instance, in the Northeast Public Library, Ethan and Armond used specialist knowledge to discuss and rationalize Faster Than Light moves. In SWH, comments from readers recognized Eve’s specialist knowledge, which was reflected in the beautiful sets she created for her stories. Other cases in both sites illustrate the types of specialist language and behavior that helped to situate people in the space—both individually and in relationship to other members.

Our research also reinforces that specialist knowledge requires time to develop. That is, one cannot simply enter and immediately hope to belong because of the proficiency-based hierarchies valued in these spaces. At the Northeast Public Library, the ways a player might advance in a game helped ensure that only those with proficiency would succeed and be included in future game play, which in turn prevented the less proficient from engaging in the activity. Similarly, it took several SWH participants months of interacting to modify their practices and develop the proficiency necessary to belong to the affinity space, as evident in proofreader forums and individual members’ posts about where they were (still) deficient in some skills.

Gee (2004) wrote that the “vexatious issues over which people are in and which are out of the group” (p. 78) can be dealt with theoretically, and our findings suggest that Discourses help participants signal and sustain involvement in and belongingness to a particular space. As such, we contend that identifying, defining, and understanding features of belongingness, as well as the ways members learn and display specialist knowledge in these areas, can lead to one’s inclusion as a valued expert within an affinity space. For example, in our work, we focused on six features of belongingness—specialist knowledge, interaction, proficiency, rules, recognition, and flexibility—and found that together, these features support meaning-making within an affinity space. Furthermore, when participants gather to pursue an interest-driven common endeavor, their ability to adopt, drop, and/or adapt practices as doing–being–valuing combinations change with the particular space indicates that affinity spaces are neither static nor firm, but instead ever evolving (Bommarito, 2014; Lammers, 2012). Who participates, what is valued, and how to speak or act remain in flux. Recognizing that belongingness within an affinity space is contingent upon the contexts and understanding that participant behavior can support inclusionary and/or exclusionary practices that continually reshape the boundaries of particular affinity spaces, we consider the important implications, especially for educators seeking ways to include interest-based activities that draw upon youth culture.


The examination of the Discourses across two affinity spaces—a public library Teen Area and The Sims Writers’ Hangout—highlights how the features of belongingness can inform one’s meaning making, yet it also suggests that the concerns of placing people (i.e., the vexatious issues related to membership) need to be part of the conversation so that specialist practices are not obscured by common interests and endeavors. Nevertheless, by bridging affinity spaces and communities of practice to reveal the nature of belongingness, we find opportunities to generate multidimensional depictions of meaning making and participatory practices.

Widening the angle of the lens to capture larger practices of a group of people, for example, we might turn to affinity space theory as a means of conceptualizing where participation exists. In many ways, the “affinity space” serves as a way to identify not only a set of practices that support a range of behaviors, but also where those practices take place. A focus on space does not eliminate the “vexatious issues” of placing participants within an affinity space, nor does it signal limitless open participation; however, by examining contemporary meaning making in affinity spaces, we can understand how youth configure and reconfigure their social practices to seek inclusion by using and honing specialist language and behavior.

We also see opportunities for researchers interested in studying participation in and across online and offline environments. In articulating the features of belongingness, we offer a framework to help theorize what motivates participants’ sustained interest and practices over time in particular forums; such information can help researchers more closely investigate and clarify, confirm, or challenge the dynamics of hierarchies and the specialist language and behavior that support inclusive and exclusive practices. Meanwhile, for designers of interest-driven learning environments, we envision more attention to (a) how the design of a space facilitates interaction and mentorship, (b) what opportunities exist to develop proficiency, and (c) how the space remains flexible as participants and values change over time.

There are also opportunities to explore the nuances of situated practices that rely on community-based Discourses. For example, our research underscores that interest-driven practices have specialist language and behavior that may exclude others from participating, even others with similar interests; in other words, just because someone plays one videogame does not mean he or she will be able to engage in any shared gaming experience. Even so, we can examine how youth come together, what sustains or stymies their engagement and belongingness, and how their practices evolve with the introduction of other people, other activities, and/or other media.

Finally, given the burgeoning field of research that examines videogames, learning, and pedagogy, our work suggests that educators need to call upon diverse practices that support belongingness—and be aware of specialist knowledge that can lead to exclusion—when they design their lessons and promote collaboration. Ironically, efforts to support student-driven learning by introducing games or related activities can inadvertently exclude others when essential specialist knowledge is not shared (Abrams, 2012). Recognizing that an interest-driven activity may not automatically inspire participation or summon all student experiences, our research might help educators anticipate a variety of ways to appeal to students with diverse experiences.

Beyond any words of caution accompanying these possibilities, we are encouraged that the practices we observed (e.g., Ethan and Armond’s evidence-based arguments about Faster Than Light and Eve’s development of authorial voice and style through peer review in SWH) have direct parallels to disciplinary instruction valued in school. They also have connections to possible career paths in areas including, but not limited to, design, journalism, and media arts. Such findings can help educators as they tap into students’ interests when implementing curricula and developing instructional activities that guide students to collaborate, design, and problem solve together—skills valued in contemporary educational and professional spaces (Cope & Kalantzis, 2015).  

By focusing on nuanced activities within videogaming affinity spaces, we underscore how community-based Discourses can create proficiency-related hierarchies that reshape the boundaries in seemingly open participatory spaces. Although this article addresses the nature and role of belongingness in contemporary meaning-making spaces, more inquiries remain. For instance, those interested in gaming in particular might pursue how privileged knowledge of the features, language, and values of a particular game also enable players to communicate about and collaborate in the game. Similarly, looking to other fields for their understanding of the emotional component to belonging might help us explore how self-efficacy and affect may be instrumental in understanding one’s degree of belongingness and agency within an affinity space. Finally, we continue to wonder how, if at all, evolving practices and cultural values may lead to the enhancement or dissolution of belongingness. Including affinity spaces and communities of practice in the same conversation draws attention to belongingness in ways that allow researchers and educators to take up these and other questions that emerge as we work to become increasingly responsive to interest-driven practices.


Abrams, S. S. (2009). Real benefits from virtual experiences: How four avid video gamers used gaming as a resource in their literate activity (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from RUcore: Rutgers University Community Repository: http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.7282/T3H70G2V

Abrams, S. S. (2012). Powerful gaming structures and practices: Videogames, situated language, and cultural contexts. Languages and Linguistics, 30, 41–63.

Abrams, S. S. (2015). Integrating virtual and traditional learning in 6–12 classrooms: A layered literacies approach to multimodal meaning making. New York, NY: Routledge.

Alexander, G., Eaton, I., & Egan, K. (2010). Cracking the code of electronic games: Some lessons for educators. Teachers College Record, 112, 1830–1850.

Androutsopoulos, J. (2008). Potentials and limitations of discourse-centered online ethnography. Language@Internet, 5, article 8. Retrieved from http://www.languageatinternet.org/articles/2008/1610

Apperley, T., & Beavis, C. (2013). A model for critical games literacy. E-Learning and Digital Media, 10(1), 1–12.

Beavis, C. (2012). Video games in the classroom: Developing digital literacies. Practically Primary, 17(1), 17–20.

Black, R. W. (2007). Fanfiction writing and the construction of space. E-Learning, 4, 384–397.

Black, R. W. (2008). Adolescents and online fan fiction. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Bommarito, D. (2014). Tending to change: Toward a situated model of affinity spaces. E-Learning and Digital Media, 11, 406–418.

Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (Eds.). (2015). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Learning by design. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

DeVane, B. (2012). Wither membership? Identity and social learning in affinity spaces. In E. R. Hayes & S. C. Duncan (Eds.), Learning in video game affinity spaces (pp. 162–184). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Dooley, C. M., & Assaf, L. Z. (2009). Contexts matter: Two teachers’ language arts instruction in this high-stakes era. Journal of Literacy Research, 41, 354–391.

Duncan, S. C. (2010). Gamers as designers: A framework for investigating design in gaming affinity spaces. E-Learning and Digital Media, 7(1), 21–34. doi:10.2304/elea.2010.7.1.21

Eakle, A. J., & Chavez-Eakle, R. (2013). Museum literacies in Mexico City: Formations of power, texts, and identities. Teachers College Record, 115(3), 1–36.

Gee, J. P. (1989). Literacy, discourse, and linguistics: Introduction. Journal of Education, 171(1), 5–17.

Gee, J. P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in Discourses (2nd ed.). London, England: Taylor & Francis.

Gee, J. P. (2001). Reading as situated language: A sociocognitive perspective. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44, 714–725.

Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York, NY: Routledge.

Gee, J. P. (2015). Unified Discourse analysis: Language, reality, virtual worlds, and video games. New York, NY: Routledge.

Gee, J. P., & Hayes, E. R. (2010). Women and gaming: The Sims and 21st century learning. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gee, J. P., & Hayes, E. R. (2011). Language and learning in the digital age. New York, NY: Routledge.

Gómez, M. V., & Kuronen, M. (2011). Comparing local strategies and practices: Recollections from two qualitative cross-national research projects. Qualitative Research, 11, 683–697.

Hasrati, M., & Street, B. (2009). PhD topic arrangement in ‘D’ iscourse communities of engineers and social sciences/humanities. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8(1), 14–25.

Hayes, E. R., & Lee, Y. N. (2012). Specialist language acquisition and 3D modding in a Sims fan site. In E. R. Hayes & S. C. Duncan (Eds.), Learning in video game affinity spaces (pp. 186–211). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Kress, G. R. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kress, G. R., & Jewitt, C. (2003). Introduction. In C. Jewitt & G.R. Kress (Eds.), Multimodal literacy (pp. 1–18). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Lammers, J. C. (2011). “The Hangout was serious business”: Exploring literacies and learning in an online Sims fan fiction community (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Arizona State University, Tempe.

Lammers, J. C. (2012). “Is the Hangout . . . The Hangout?” Exploring tensions in an online gaming-related fan site. In E. R. Hayes & S. C. Duncan (Eds.), Learning in video game affinity spaces (pp. 23–50). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Lammers, J. C. (2016). “The Hangout was serious business”: Leveraging participation in an online space to Design Sims fanfiction. Research in the Teaching of English, 50, 309–332.

Lammers, J. C., Curwood, J. S., & Magnifico, A. M. (2012). Toward an affinity space methodology: Considerations for literacy research. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 11(2), 44–58.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Mitchell, K., & Parker, W. C. (2008). I pledge allegiance to . . . flexible citizenship and shifting scales of belonging. Teachers College Record, 110, 775–804.

Murphy, M. C., & Zirkel, S. (2015). Race and belonging in school: How anticipated and experienced belonging affect choice, persistence, and performance. Teachers College Record, 117(12), 1–40.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60–92.

Peppler, K. A. (2010). Media arts: Arts education for a digital age. Teachers College Record, 112, 2118–2153.       


Saldaña, J. (2013). The coding manual for qualitative researchers (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Squire, K. (2010). From information to experience: Place-based augmented reality games as a model for learning in a globally networked society. Teachers College Record, 112, 2565–2602.

Squire, K. (2011). Video games and learning: Teaching and participatory culture in the digital age. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Turner, K. H., Abrams, S. S., Katic, E., & Donavan, M. J. (2014). Demystifying digitalk:

The what and why of the language teens use in digital writing. Journal of Literacy Research, 46(2), 157–193. doi:10.1177/1086296X14534061

Ukie [The UK Interactive Entertainment Association]. (2014, September 8). The Sims 4 debuts at top of Ukie games chart. Retrieved from http://ukie.org.uk/news/2014/09/sims-4-debuts-top-ukie-games-chart

Van Houtte, M., & Van Maele, D. (2012). Students’ sense of belonging in technical/vocational schools versus academic schools: The mediating role of faculty trust in students. Teachers College Record, 114(7), 1–36.

Wenger-Trayner, E., & Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015). Learning in a landscape of practice: A framework. In E. Wenger-Trayner, M. Fenton-O’Creevy, S. Hutchinson, C. Kubiak, & B. Wenger-Trayner (Eds.), Learning in landscapes of practice: Boundaries, identity, and knowledgeability in practice-based learning (pp. 13–30). New York, NY: Routledge Ltd.

Xu, S. H. (2008). Rethinking literacy learning and teaching. In K. A. Hinchmann, H. K. Sheridan-Thomas, & D. E. Alvermann (Eds.), Best practices in adolescent literacy instruction (pp. 39–56). New York, NY: Guilford Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 11, 2017, p. 1-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21962, Date Accessed: 8/6/2020 6:26:11 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Sandra Abrams
    St. John's University
    E-mail Author
    SANDRA SCHAMROTH ABRAMS is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at St. John’s University in New York. Researching digital literacies and videogaming, Abrams examines agentive learning, layered meaning making, and pedagogical discovery at the intersection of online and offline experiences. Her recent work appears in The Reading Teacher (Emotionally Crafted Experiences: Layering Literacies in Minecraft, in press), The Routledge Handbook of Literacy Studies (Videogames and Literacies: Historical Threads and Contemporary Practices, 2015), and the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (Layering Literacies and Contemporary Learning, with Michael Russo, 2015, Vol. 59). She is the author of Integrating Traditional and Virtual Learning in 6-12 Classrooms: A Layered Literacies Approach to Multimodal Meaning Making (Routledge, 2015) and coauthor of Conducting Qualitative Research of Learning in Online Spaces (SAGE, 2017).
  • Jayne Lammers
    University of Rochester
    E-mail Author
    JAYNE C. LAMMERS is an associate professor of education and director of the English teacher preparation program at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education and Human Development in Rochester, New York. Through her research exploring adolescents’ literacy learning, particularly in online spaces, Dr. Lammers aims to shape classrooms in ways that best prepare youth for 21st-century futures. Her scholarship has recently appeared in Research in the Teaching of English (“The Hangout was Serious Business”: Leveraging Participation in an Online Space to Design Sims Fanfiction, 2016, Vol. 50) and Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (Going Public: An Adolescent’s Networked Writing on Fanfiction.net, 2015, Vol. 59).
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue