Studio Studies

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.

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.