What Can We Learn from Studio Studies Ethnographies? A ‘messy’ account of game development materiality, learning, and expertise
Games and Culture. (forthcoming)
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)
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.
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.