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.