Apr 202013

Dear Twitter…

Name my book.


The book has lived in my head for far too long as Developers in the Mist that I can’t really imagine it as anything different. I posed the question to the Extending Play community today and received some very helpful suggestions.

The book is an ethnography of the “AAA” videogame industry. It explores the everyday work of game development practice. The numerous technological, cultural and political-economic structures that surround it, support it and hold it back. It is about a pervasive structure of secrecy and the intense creative collaborative work that goes into building the complex systems that get labeled very simply as, “videogames.”

The text is structured in a way that tips it’s hat to the NES and Super Mario Bros. in important ways. Thus, there is a tendency towards thinking about pipes and pipelines.

It needs a name that is accessible, yet cuts to the quick. Lend me your wit:

  • Manufacturing Fun: An Ethnography of the Modern Game Industry
  • Manufacturing Fun: The Creative Collaborative Work of Videogame Development
  • GAMEDEV.DOC: An Ethnography of the AAA Game Industry
  • Coding in the Dark: Inside the Secret World of AAA Game Development (thanks: @jesperjuul)
  • The Secret Code: An anthropology of AAA Game Development (thanks: @jesperjuul)
  • Pipe Dreams & Pipelines: Secrecy in Game Development Culture (thanks: @ladybethel
  • Feature Creep: ??? (thanks: @miguelsicart
  • Pipe Dreams: ???
  • Lost Levels: ???
  • This is not a Pipe Dream: ???

Thank you.

Feb 162012

[Cross Posted over at Culture Digitally]

It has been a strange couple of days in #GAMEDEV land. For those that haven’t followed Double Fine’s Adventure on KickStarter, now would be a good time to start.

The short story is that a small studio run by a game development luminary employing other game development legends managed to secure a great deal of fan and game developer funding in a very short span of time. Crazier still is that the KickStarter project remains open for another 28 days. Included in this whole production is one that is particularly appealing to me, as an ethnographer of game development, that of a documentary team focused on those developing this game. No longer will I ever fear being asked of my anthropological presence, “will this distract my employees?” Now I can reply, “Double Fine had an entire documentary team.” Of course this wont be “normal” development either, it will be a team focused on a project that was KickStarted, not funded by an external publisher, to whom they are accountable.

As someone that looks at the political economy of the game industry as well, this signals a very strange shift in the game industry that I don’t think (and neither does Tim Schafer) fits into the kinds of questions being asked currently. For many, the question has been primarily, “Did Tim Schafer just break the game industry?” I’d say it was already broken. Steam, The Apple App Store and Android Market saw to that. It doesn’t mean that traditional form publishing is dead, but it was already undergoing a sea change. The old models that once dominated the game industry, rooted in high-priced media and distribution channels hamstrung by large retailers is now changing.

Rather, this is about the maturation of game development and games as a form of media still attempting to find itself. Recently, Ian Bogost on Gamasutra wrote about Game Bundles as a form of entertainment and patronage (among other things). That is certainly part of it, but I’m interested in it as a form of co-production. Many of these recent KickStarter campaigns at the upper echelons offer the opportunity to act as a co-developer, designer or character. It offers another avenue into the game industry, or an avenue to demonstrate one’s existing success as an opportunity to influence or partake in the projects of others with little risk. Or it is an opportunity to get to know a famous game developer who one might not otherwise have the chance to interact with. In an industry so dependent upon social networks, it allows those with enough money to insert themselves into those networks.

Thus, it is part co-production, part entertainment, part patronage and something else. It is the ability to buy your way into a game’s credits, design process or even development team. Isn’t that precisely what so angers gamers about gold-farming? Yet, there has not been the same reaction to these activities for small developers. There has been some negative backlash against Double Fine’s initiatives, but the majority have seen this as a win for game developers. As senior designers leave established studios to begin their own, many will likely explore the KickStarter option as it taps into their fan’s desire to be part of the action and willing to fork over the money for that experience.

I also wonder what this means, long term, for game development projects on KickStarter. I’ve funded several small projects by people new to the game industry, many working on their very first game. KickStarter is used as a means to justify the adventure capital necessary for creating a first game. In many cases the primary fans tapped for these projects are friends and family. In many cases these projects go unfunded or are funded near their deadline with a great deal of the support not from the “crowd,” but rather from those closest to the individuals proposing the project.

For me? I backed it so I could get the documentary. ūüėČ

Jan 272012

As usual, I’m chasing the Ice Cream Truck.

I’ve been thinking a lot about users / producers (and for me this continues to be game developers) and procedural rhetoric(s). Ian’s comments in particular spurred my thoughts on this. I’m going to omit much of the broader conversation around a certain recent essay, but I want to address two things. Thingness and power gamers (Taylor 2006).

I’ll start with power gamers, which I think the afformentioned essay doesn’t get right. In T.L.’s work, power gamers partake in “instrumental play.” I like to think of instrumental play as an alternative narrative to the dominant discourse surrounding “casual” versus “hard core” gamers. Many game developers no longer count as “hard core” within this dichotomy; nor are they casual, either. Instead I posit another term, instrumental players, who are dedicated not to a particular genre or subset of games, but who consistently and persistently attempt to dissect their games from the mechanics up. This may very well be what Gina refers to as a kind of “emergent” understanding/knowledge (and one that I maintain that current educational models of knowledge simply cannot accept).

Many designers play very few hardcore titles because the mechanics are instantly recognizable, and their interest lies in uncovering structures. Many so-called casual gamers are adept instrumental players. Their ability to strategically change their play based on knowledge of the underlying system is precisely the kind of instrumental rationality and sensitivity for the underlying game mechanics that are so crucial for game developers. However, many instrumental gamers find it difficult to simply observe or play games because they have difficulty resisting the urge to determine how a system functions. They continually see the underlying systems and may find it difficult to participate in either casual or hardcore attitudes, immersing themselves in a particularly complex game intensely until they feel adequately satisfied that they understand the underlying systems that make it function.

This is where I really disagree with the characterization of instrumental play in Sicart’s essay: Instrumental play should be distinguished from a kind of “instrumental rationality” or “instrumental reason” as it might be defined by critical theorists of the Frankfurt School (Adorno and Horkheimer 1976). Instrumental play is distinguished from these theoretical categories in that it has no claim to the irreducible or absolute. In fact, instrumental play would continue to probe into the structures of what is considered irreducible.

Instrumental play is about searching out associations, analogies, and relationships, much like “Enlightened” scientific inquiry, but it makes no assumptions about the absolute character of those suppositions. This is where the “play” component of instrumental play is crucial. There is always the assumption that what you are working on or working with will swerve and send you in new directions. This is more in line with the idea of the game developer as “bricoleur” (L√©vi-Strauss 1962, p. 17), adept at performing numerous diverse tasks, “mak[ing] do with whatever is at hand,” (L√©vi-Strauss 1962, p. 17). The concept of bricolage, or the bricoleur, is not new to the studies of technological development, but instrumental work/play plugs into the bricoleur‚Äôs underlying drive, which is to push one’s tools to the brink and pull off “risky” moves, doing what others have thus been unable to do. Put another way, instrumental work/play is what pushes bricoleurs to attempt creations that strain their understandings, no matter the extent to which that bricolage understanding appears to be “reality.” There is always a time and place to question the bricolage system that one has constructed in an effort to pull off a new feat of creative work.

Like with “thingness” and materiality. Ian’s comment, that it isn’t one way or the other, but both is important. Designers DO implement underlying systems. There are limits, particularly for game developers, where they bump into both silicon/electrons/hardware/firmware/software. The design process for game developers — that push and pull of negotiated development — determines where the bottom is. Games are based on something that must be felt out and determined by the players. Much like developers run into the limits of electrons and silicon. Specifications are made, but they are not made up; they‚Äôre the result of a negotiated process, which is frequently the product of instrumental play.

Instrumental work/play is rooted in the culture of gamers, who place significant importance on the act of working through the complex problems found in videogames. Any circumvention of this labor is often seen as a circumvention of the rules. Players are expected to play within the rules of the system, though circumvention through legitimate play is often seen as exemplary play (Consalvo 2007). Personally and deeply exploring the systems one works within is at the core of instrumental work/play. These same motivations also seem to plug into the ethic of secrecy that dominates the videogame industry. Much like “walkthroughs” are seen as the tool of the less adept videogame player, most game developers expect one another to understand the processes and practices that are, for all intents and purposes, undocumented.

Thus, it is both, right? The emergent, but also the very real algorithms, like Tarleton talks about. I do agree that not every player is so dedicated, but I wonder… Maybe moreso than we give them credit for. Its an empirical question that Hector and I have discussed examining around For me, the power gamer lies at the boundary between “normal” user and producer. They really negotiate this tension.

Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. 1976. Dialectic of Enlightenment Translated by Cumming, John. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Consalvo, Mia. 2007. Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lévy-Strauss, Claude. 1962. The Savage Mind, Edited by Julian Pitt-Rivers and Ernest Gellner. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, T. L. 2006. Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Gaming Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Oct 072011

[Cross Posted from Culture Digitally]

My Cow Clicks

My Cow Clicks

I’ve clicked a cow. Twice. One Kotaku article and a game designer’s reflections on that article got me to thinking about Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker, again.

I first clicked a cow when I added Cow Clicker as a Facebook application. I’m sure Ian could even tell me the day that occurred. That’s the strange thing about Facebook applications and the kinds of access they provide their developers. But that isn’t the point here. I clicked my cow for a second time during the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) in 2011. This was an interesting moment for Cow Clicker and for Ian I suspect. Its a moment that isn’t mentioned in either of those articles. It was the time of Cow Clicktivism. Ian partnered with Molleindustria and Oxfam to ostensibly turn cow clicks into real cows. It was hard to tell if, or where the irony ended and seriousness began.

Perhaps it was a first volley in what eventually landed in a pile of bull-shit. I’m not sure. There are certainly enough allusions to broken realities, Gamification and tongue-in-cheek revolutionary game designers. But this wasn’t the first time a struggle was being waged between ironic accounts of shit and sincerity about shit. It was the subject of his GDC talk, “Shit Crayons,” because he was also taking it seriously. The subject of Wole Soyinka haunts the entire thing, much like I suspect prison haunts anyone who’s had to partake.

So why cows and cyborgs then? Because I see, in all of this, parallels to Donna Haraway’s cyborgs. As I read about Cow Clicker and reflect on players and the designer’s intention, I see an old problem. The tension for the academic working in an ironic mode isn’t just that someone might not “get it.” But that in making that ironic turn, we’re also making a playful commitment to the very object we critique. It enters one into a game of cat’s cradle with another player or group of players that are going to take up and read / re-read / interpret it in ways that are unpredictable. Of course Haraway jettisoned her cyborgs for dogs and companion species.

The ironic mode is seductive, playful and fun… at first. But there is also a commitment that one makes in good irony that demands something in return, almost a blood oath. Indeed, if Cow Clicker, like A Slow Year, is a meditation, then it demands commitment to think deeply and carefully about something even if one’s conclusion is to jettison Cows to heaven. Of course I wonder, if Cows are Cyborgs, what is Ian’s companion species?

In the end, it is the Cow’s creator and rapturer that summarizes it best:

Or, it’s both. Or all of them.

I do think this account is a particularly generous, designer-oriented reading. It’s not wrong. It’s beautiful. I see it like that sometimes. But it’s not the whole story either. Like so many things.

Jul 112011

[This post is cross-posted from over at the Culture Digitally site.]

This one has been brewing for a while. Perhaps, as¬†Stephen Totilo¬†notes, ever since¬†Raph Koster¬†voiced his concerns back in 2006. I believe that there is a storm coming between “game people” and educators, precisely at a moment when money is flooding into these realms. So, perhaps, that is reason enough for a storm. But the foundations for a battle have been laid.¬†My concerns, as a participant and researcher, are really fourfold:

  • Technological Determinism
  • Obsession with Literalism
  • Obsession with “Content” Delivery
  • Epistemic Disinterest in Game Design/Development

I wasn’t able to attend G4C or GLS this year, unfortunately due to classes/research/budgets/life/etc, so some of what I have to say addresses second-hand accounts of those events. At the same time, however, I think there is growing awareness and concern about the intersection of games/game design/education that I have been thinking deeply about for the last two and a half years that echos the concerns of others.

Now for Some Serious Education

Now for Some Serious Education

The first concern I have is kind of banal. That much of the conversation is rooted in a kind of¬†technological determinism. “Games will make crappy educational practices better.” I think all of us working in this area know that the issue is much broader than this. That there is the entire context of education that needs to be examined in addition to making educational materials more interesting/engaging/fill-in-the-blank.

The second critique is more subtle, and I was particularly sad to miss Eric Zimmerman’s GLS keynote entitled, “GAMES ARE NOT GOOD FOR YOU.” One element in particular that I struggle with and clearly Eric does as well, is that many people currently interested in games are obsessed with a kind of topical literalism. If the area of interest is diabetes, then the game should be about diabetes. If its about energy management, it needs to be about energy management. My experience has shown that this leads immediately to players, “looks like education, smells like education, not interested.” The line that I’ve used time and again in my work is, “lets make a game about X, without making a game about X.”

Unfortunately, actually doing that well is a difficult and collaborative process. Thus, the next response becomes turning to commercial games and leveraging them into curriculum. Portal, WoW, Civilization, then become our answer. Except that I’d argue that is the equivalent to giving up.

I’m not saying that Portal, WoW, Civ, etc aren’t educational. Or that they can’t compel people to learn in really important ways. Clearly, they can. I am saying that they’re only going to address a very small aspect of what its important for people to learn in school.

More specifically I wonder about the epistemic divide that exists between these communities. A game designer would never dream of putting a quiz into a game, but examine any number of “edutainment” titles or educational games made (often with government support) and often times you’ll be asked to complete a quiz prior to then playing some game like Tetris or Asteroids with an educational venir slapped on top. Which isn’t to say that quizzes can’t be a¬†legitimate game mechanic, I think they can be, but they ought not be your go-to one.

The other option is to really¬†not even make a game, but make something that looks enough like a game that you can get players to pay attention long enough to get your point across. This is really about content delivery. Consume content we have identified as good for you until you realize what we’re doing. This is third criticism, which is why so many educational “games” actually look like workbooks or interactive encyclopedias, sometimes with interactive elements, but little of what game players would recognize as a game or actually call a game. Yet,¬†content delivery is much of what school has turned into.

However, policing the word “game” is problematic, especially when you consider the fraught ground between “casual” and “hardcore” distinction. Yet, the ability to judge something as “not a game” speaks to the issue of epistemic authority, which largely remains in the educational camp currently. Game developers tools and perhaps visual appeal are being leveraged, but does that make it a game?

A good game designer can assess the player at any moment. Do you know how this is game is working? No? Dead, or restart, or try again. It happens all the time in game play. Failure is used to help a player come to understand what they do and their relationship with the game. A game designer can construct a situation where they know the player knows/understands something, otherwise they would not be there.¬†This is a fundamentally different kind of “knowing” than most educators recognize and as such it is discounted. That would explain the, “newcomers exploring a thing they don’t yet grasp.”

The funding for games and education, however, remains rooted in an epistemic community that understands knowing only through traditional testing and is quite disinterested in actually coming to understand what game design means or what the epistemic context of that community actually looks like. It is for reasons like this that I have serious concerns about the future of games that are educational. There remains a tendency to fall back or defer to educators, who clearly haven’t realized that their perspective on knowing isn’t actually working all that well.

Which is where we come back to my recent work, where I’ve taken up the role of the game designer, in a context where educational software (and some games) are being developed. It has become ever more important for me to fight for a kind of game design epistemology that can speak authoritatively. It has also become important to police boundaries in ways that, as a researcher I find not totally unproblematic. “No, that is not a game.” “No, we can’t have a quiz.” “Why does it have to be in the body?”

More and more it seems to be a clash of world views, except for the fact that game designers could ultimately care less. There are some that are committed to making games (that just happen to be educational), but games are the thing being sought and their production ought to be treated more respectfully than some simple technology to be thrown at broader social problems.

Good serious game design is really hard because it is a bridging of these worlds that requires a commitment to both on the part of both sides.