Indie MEGABOOTH Project

Whitson, Jennifer R, Simon, Bart, & Parker Felan. (in submission). “Rethinking Cultural Production: Entrepreneurship, Relational Labour and Sustainability”. European Journal of Cultural Studies. Review version

Abstract:

This paper draws on over 60 interviews and 120 surveys with indie game developers to illustrate relational labour and entrepreneurship practices in cultural industries and their relationship to ‘good work’. We first outline the changing organization of games work, the shift towards so-called indie production, and the associated rejection of creatively constrained, hierarchically managed production models. In the move towards small-scale games making, indies jettisoned producers because producers represented industry modes of work, values, and creative constraints. But indies are now struggling to manage production processes without producers. We use developer narratives to highlight how this ‘missing producer’ work is redistributed in the form of cultural entrepreneurship, cultural intermediation, and relational labour. This relational labour simultaneously supports and undermines sustainable production practices, as developers take on impossible workloads associated with networking and connecting with others. We next illustrate how the inherent valorization of growth and expansion in cultural entrepreneurship discourses may force developers to mimic industry practices and organization in order to find funding, but these practices inherently conflict with their desire to focus on making games as small, sustainable, creatively autonomous teams. Ultimately, we want to demonstrate how interviews and time spent with indie developers help us account for otherwise invisible and ambiguous cultural labour practices and discourses, thus allowing us to make sense of the larger context of cultural production and its possible futures.

 

Parker, Felan, Whitson, Jennifer R, and Simon, Bart. (2018) “Megabooth: The cultural intermediation of indie games”. New Media and Society: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1461444817711403

Abstract:

This article considers the history, practices and impact of the Indie Megabooth and its founders in terms of their role as a ‘cultural intermediary’ in promoting and supporting independent or ‘indie’ game development. The Megabooth is a crucial broker, gatekeeper and orchestrator of not only perceptions of and markets for indie games but also the socio-material possibility of indie game making itself. In its highly publicized outward-facing role, the Megabooth ascribes legitimacy and value to specific games and developers, but its behind-the-scenes logistical and brokerage activities are of equal if not greater importance. The Megabooth mediates between a diverse set of actors and stakeholders with multiple (often conflicting) needs and goals and in doing so helps constitute the field of production, distribution, reception and consumption for indie games. ‘Indie-ness’ and independence are actively performed in and through intermediaries such as the Megabooth.

Studio Studies

What Can We Learn from Studio Studies Ethnographies? A ‘messy’ account of game development materiality, learning, and expertise

Games and Culture. (forthcoming)

Abstract:

This article illustrates a gap between popular narratives of game development in design texts and the reality of day-to-day development, drawing from an ethnographic account of intern developers to highlight the potential contributions of studio studies to both game scholars and aspiring developers. It describes three take-aways. The first is that developers have difficulty articulating their work to others, impacting how we learn, teach, and talk about development, including how we share knowledge across domains. The second is that negotiation with technology rather than mastery characterizes the daily work of new developers, and the third is that problems frequently arise in articulating and aligning the normally black-boxed work of individual developers. Resolution of these issues commonly depends on ‘soft’ social skills, yet, external pressures on developers mean they tidy up and professionalize accounts of their daily practice, thus both social conflict and ‘soft’ skills have a tendency to disappear.

Voodoo software and boundary objects in game development: How developers collaborate and conflict with game engines and art tools

New Media & Society. (2017 online first article)

Abstract:

This article describes how game developers successfully ‘pull off’ game development, collaborating in the absence of consensus and working with recalcitrant and wilful technologies, shedding light on the games we play and those that make them, but also how we can be forced to work together by the platforms we choose to use. The concept of ‘boundary objects’ is exported from Science and Technology Studies (STS) to highlight the vital coordinating role of game development software. Rather than a mutely obedient tool, game software such as Unity 3D is depicted by developers as exhibiting magical, even agential, properties. It becomes ‘voodoo software’. This software acts as a boundary object, aligning game developers at points of technical breakdown. Voodoo software is tidied away in later accounts of game development, emphasizing how ethnographies of software development provide an anchor from which to investigate cultural production and co-creative practice.

Project Background:

Ethnographies of game development

A lot of my writing revolves around the “work of making play”.  In general, I’m fascinated by the people who create the software and hardware that we take for granted – from the user interfaces on our smartphones to the options on our productivity software, to the privacy settings of Facebook.  I also love games.

So, it made sense to not only play games, and read about game development processes, but to actually start researching how games are made, the people who make them, and the “soft and squishy” social aspects of creating culture. I call this work “Studio Studies”, which is also a big part of the work of other researchers like John Banks, Casey O’Donnell, Olli Sotamma, and Aphra Kerr.

I began small: starting with interviews of game developers, then moving to short embedded ethnographies during the summers, and from November 2012 to November 2014 I was fortunate enough to carry out an extended embedded ethnography of Execution Labs, a first-of-its-kind launching pad for independent game studios.  There, I was able to work with a number of development teams and really understand the struggles and success of working in the game industry.

 

Surveillance Studies

I’m an associate editor of the journal, Surveillance & Society and much of my research examines how the ability to monitor and surveil software users changes production practices and economic models behind new media such as games.

With my graduate student, Brian Schram, I am currently working on a project rethinking social networks and surveillance. Notions of privacy coalesce around an individual’s right to privacy, largely centering on one’s autonomy over their information, and the protection from corporate and government surveillance. This project examines the how anonymity and privacy might be reconciled with the conditions of community formation and social organization that are predicated upon lateral surveillance.

Here is a selection of articles on the topic, ranging from identity theft to the Snowden Documents, to games.  For the complete listing, please check out my publication list.

surveillance theory

In this riPoste to an article by Rockwell and Berendt, Brian Schram and I reflect on  the ethics of datafication and how digital humanists approach archive.  We focus on two areas:  the increasing corporatization of data infrastructures and linkages to inequality and marginalization, and a call to problematize the elision between data, databases, and humanistic readings of “narrative”.  In short, data is not narrative.

You can read the article here.

game studies meets surveillance studies at the edge of digital culture

In this introduction to a special issue of Surveillance & Society, Bart Simon and I  tease apart some of the intersections of games and surveillance, beginning with a discussion of the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden on using games to both monitor and influence unsuspecting populations. Next, we provide an overview of corporate data-gathering practices in games and further outline the production of manageable, computable subjectivities. Then, we show how the game Watch Dogs explores the surveillant capacities of games at both the game mechanical and representational scales. These three different facets of surveillance, games, and play set the scene for the special issue and the diverse articles that follow.  In the following pages we pose new lines of questioning that highlight the nuances of play and offer new modes of thinking about what games – and the processes of watching and being watched that are a foundational part of the experience – can tell us about surveillance.

You can read the whole article here.

gaming the quantified self

By their nature, digital games facilitate surveillance. They allow for the compilation of statistics, internal states, and rules to be recorded, thus hiding many of the internal workings from the players and making the games much more complex. This digitization makes it much easier to collect player data and metrics, and then, as a process of function creep, to use this data in new and innovative ways, such as improving the user experience, or subtly shaping users’ in-game desires and behaviours. Increasingly, these practices have moved from non-game spaces into social networking sites and spaces of play.

Find the extended abstract, and the link to the entire article here.

identity theft and the care of the virtual self

Written at the very cusp of the identity theft panic, in this paper Kevin Haggerty and I analyse how major institutions publicly respond to the crime of identity theft.

The paper concentrates on how individuals are encouraged to responsibilize themselves against this potentiality, and what they should do in the event they are victimized. These two distinct discourses (prevention and victimization) aim to fashion a hyper-vigilant citizen whose daily routines, home environment, consumption patterns and sense of self are being brought into accord with wider power dynamics. These measures can be understood as encouraging a care of the virtual self a wider social project characteristic of an informational age that encourages individuals to reduce the risks and maximize the potentialities related to their data double. In the context of identity theft, however, institutionally promoted methods for the care for the virtual self transcend what is reasonably practicable for most citizens and mask the role played by major institutions in fostering the preconditions for identity theft.

Drop me an email if you can’t access the paper, as it’s one of my only ones behind a paywall (which I hate).

special issue of the journal surveillance & society on games, Play & surveillance

Bart Simon and I put together an edited collection of open-access works that look at the use of surveillance in games.  We’re quite happy with how it turned out, especially with the range of scholarship.  I found that the opinion articles and research notes, in particular, go far beyond quick postscripts and are well worth a read.

Indie Interfaces

I’m working on the Indie Interfaces project with Dr. Bart Simon and Dr. Felan Parker. We are collaborating with indie developers and the IndieMEGABOOTH, a game developer organization in an action-research project to foster greater diversity in indie games development as well as to collect and share empirical data on what it means to be “sustainable”, both economically and culturally, in the game industry. On a theoretical level, we are re-theorizing the role of cultural intermediaries in creative industries in terms of their influence on new modes of political economic organization that are focused on sustainability rather than the traditional binary of artistic distinction versus capital accumulation.

Our first publications for the project can be found here:

Whitson, Jennifer R, Simon, Bart, & Parker Felan. (in submission). “Rethinking Cultural Production: Entrepreneurship, Relational Labour and Sustainability”. European Journal of Cultural Studies. Review version

Parker, Felan, Whitson, Jennifer R. & Simon, Bart. (2018). “Megabooth: The cultural intermediation of indie games”. New Media & Society. online first in 2017. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444817711403.

Very rarely, I have time to actually blog.  When I do, it’s at Gamasutra.  You can find my posts here.

If you’re interested in reading more work on game design issues on Gamasutra, I recommend reading Tanya X. Short’s blog.  She’s the founder of Kitfox Games, a truly great game designer, a talented public speaker, a research collaborator, and the co-founder of the Pixelles game-making initiative in Montreal.

Teaching

I am an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo.  I teach the following courses there:

SOC 224: Games and Gamers

SOC 324: Digital Cultures

SOC 413: Surveillance and Society

SOC 701 (Graduate): Digital Media

At the Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business, which is part of the University of Waterloo, I teach:

GBDA 302: Values in Design industry project

GBDA 402: Capstone industry project

Please see the syllabi section for more information.

Game Design by Numbers

Instrumental Play and the Quantitative Shift in the Digital Game Industry

Once upon a time, I wrote a PhD Thesis about the game industry in crisis, as traditional modes of game production became increasingly risk averse, working conditions declined, and game innovation suffered.

Then along came social and mobile games, which promised developers greener pastures, including more creative autonomy, stable careers, and better games.

This thesis is a snapshot of this moment in time.  It offers an analysis of some of the impacts of an increasing reliance on data-driven design (especially that related to marketing and monetization).

You can download the entire thesis here.

Here’s an abstract, for a quick peek.

This dissertation chronicles ideological, technological and economic changes in the digital game industry, focusing on how games are transforming as play becomes instrumentalized. It pays particular attention to the struggles of developers as they search for creative freedom and autonomy in a risk-averse industry. It makes original contributions to the literature on games by situating and explaining industry-wide shifts in terms of the socio-economics of game development and the rationalities that drive individual developers. It contributes to social theory more generally by explaining how transformations in play, games, and creativity are linked to much wider adaptations in the operation of capitalism and how it is justified to both workers and consumers.

I use ground-level accounts from those within the game industry to describe how new media technologies interact with socio-economic forces, detailing the adaptability of capitalist modes of production in the face of critique. I show how definitions of ‘games’ and ‘play’ are changing as they come into contact with technology, allowing games to be reformulated in powerful new ways, so games are not only tools of entertainment but also tools of governance. I argue that the collective valuation of objective quantitative data and the belief in the fallibility of individual creative autonomy has turned game design into “design by numbers”.

The complementary themes of this thesis are bound together by references to the “New Spirit of Capitalism” (Boltanski and Chiapello 2007, 2005), which explains how capitalism is continually reorganizing itself, adapting the language and spirit of 1960s counterculture and emphasizing freedom in order to drive though new, more efficient, work practices and more subtle forms of exploitation. This “New Spirit” accounts for the current upheavals in the game industry. Changes to the Spirit of Capitalism have initiated tectonic shifts, reforming the geography of the game industry and creating fissures in the landscape that allow new game sectors to emerge, while others struggle to avoid being buried. In turn, innovations from the game industry, particularly the emphasis on data-driven design, shore up the weaknesses in the New Spirit of Capitalism, allowing it to operate more successfully.