GAMEWORK Seminar 1: Full abstracts

09.00-09.30 – Kristine Jørgensen, Associate Professor, University of Bergen
Introduction: What can the Norwegian Game Industry Teach us about Game Production?

Norwegian game industry has in less than ten years grown from a handful of small and medium-sized companies to into a flourishing business estimated to count 136 companies, responsible for a turnover of NOK 330 million and currently employing 465 persons in Norway as well as 100 abroad (Straumann 2015). With successes such as D-Pad’s Owlboy, Krillbite Studio’s critically acclaimed Among the Sleep, Dirtybit’s multi-million success Fun Run, video games have the potential for becoming the biggest Norwegian cultural export of our time.

Game development in Norway is supported by a unique cultural policy that reflects century old welfare state measures, and aims to secure diversity, equal access, and quality through national production of audiovisual content in a digital era. However, even counting other relevant welfare measures, this cannot alone explain why Norwegian game development flourishes now. In this introductory presentation, I will look at a number of characteristics of the Norwegian game industry and discuss how these have worked in the formation of the situation as it is today. I will also describe the local scene in and around Bergen, how it has become a prominent national hub for Norwegian game development, and discuss its prospects for the future. I will ask whether the situation is something inherently Norwegian or Nordic, and how and whether such marginal national cases can illuminate the challenges of the global game industry.

09.30-10.15 – Aphra Kerr, Senior Lecturer, Maynooth University.
Researching the Digital Games Industry – Going Global through the Local

This talk will discuss the value of a cultural industries approach to understanding the global games industry and games production in a period of increasingly global cultural production and consumption networks. The talk will focus attention on the emergence of new production logics across the cultural industries more generally, and explore their influence on the production of games and the work of game developers. A crucial aspect of this approach is a focus on the worker and the ongoing creative, economic and social challenges that employees in this industry face. Drawing upon 16 years of local and national industry research in the Irish and UK games industries this talk argues that combining a cultural industries approach with mixed methods over a long term is crucial to understanding project based, distributed and precarious forms of cultural work. Finally, experience would suggest that empirical research, collective representative organisations and local regulations can play an important role in revealing and moderating exploitative and gendered working and production practices.

10.15-11.00 – Casey O’Donnell, Associate Professor, Michigan State University.
Game Production Studies: Studio Studies Theory, Method and Practice

Game Production Studies and its sub-sub-field of Studio Studies compromises a relatively recent addition to the field of Game Studies and the study of game design more broadly. Succinctly, Game Production Studies explore the wide array of processes, practices, texts, technologies and aspects that take place in and surrounding the game production process. This process is often referred to generally as «game development,» which while rooted in the practice of making games actually constitutes a wide variety of tasks, disciplinary perspectives, processes, people and institutions. In many respects Studio Studies, conceptually speaking, is rooted in those fields and disciplines that have maintained an interest in the study of human activity in the context of work and technological development. Largely arising from the Anthropology and Sociology of Work and the Anthropology and Sociology of Sciences and Technology were the original fruitful ground from which Studio Studies emerged. In some respects, this places it in a strange position to the rest of game studies, which has largely focused on the product of game development. Studio Studies flips the focus on those creating the object of interest for Game Studies, rather than the object itself. This talk explores a variety of the theoretical and methodological foundations of Studio Studies. It examines the increasingly complex practice of research working in the space of Studio Studies and concludes by examining the myriad of issues that can complicate work of this kind and potential pitfalls that the field faces as it moves forward in the studying of game developers making games.

11.30-12.00 – Heikki Tyni, PhD candidate, University of Tampere.
Examining the cultural by-products of game crowdfunding

Sidestepping the traditional role of the publisher in the games production value chain, games are now increasingly released as independent productions, often through digital distribution channels. Besides relying on self-financing, many of these independent productions seek financing through crowdfunding. Compared to traditional game publishing crowdfunding provides developers with a seemingly ideal self-publishing channel, free from publisher influence. Drawing from critical theory, political economy and cultural game studies, my doctoral research applies a three-fold research approach on the crowdfunding model, focusing equally on the production (game developers), the reception (funders), and the resulting product, the crowdfunded game.

Besides having the seemingly democratizing and emancipatory effect on game production, the immediate consequences of creating and “pre-selling” games through crowdfunding remain unexplored. Crowdfunding model has been examined dominantly in business and economic studies, e.g. possible factors behind campaign success (Mollick, 2014), determinants for backing behavior (Burtch et al., 2014; Bernstein et al., 2014), creator motivations (Belleflamme et al., 2014), and the effects of location (Agrawal et al., 2010), among others. The cultural phenomenon of games crowdfunding has been described in a few seminal articles (Smith, 2015; Planells, 2015), but to get deeper into the subject matter academic research now needs more specific studies.

The research draws from different methods and datasets. First, I have been close-reading a select few projects as case studies, where campaign sites, updates, and project creator messaging on social media are used as data. Similarly, I have followed backer community discussion on campaign sites and fan forums, with particular attention paid on emergent co-creation practices, criticisms the users might have and the ways developers address these criticisms and other concerns. Second, I am conducting an ongoing expert interview study, where participants currently include Finnish project creators, crowdfunding value chain intermediaries, and Kickstarter staff. Third, in fall 2016 I orchestrated an online user survey study (N=426), where both quantitative and qualitative data was collected on user motivations and attitudes.

Among other things, future research should focus mapping key actors within the wider production structure of the crowdfunding eco-system – how does the model differ from the so-called traditional games publishing environment and, for example, are there actual opportunities for emancipatory disruptions? It is also important to ask what kind of games does the crowdfunding model, as a particular kind of economic platform, help produce. Are these games significantly different compared to other production models? Finally, further studies are needed to better understand what are the crowdfunding backers actually doing in this culture; what kind of value users derive from backing crowdfunding projects – e.g. in terms of spending money and time, socializing, co-creating, practicing a hobby – and what can we learn from this new amalgam of game production and participatory culture, on a more general level?

12.00-12.30 – Hrafnhildur Jonasdottir, PhD candidate, Westerdals Oslo School of Arts, Communication and Technology
Innovation process in the game industry

The game industry is a highly creative and fast-paced industry where innovation plays an important role in the long-term success of a company. It is no longer a question if companies should innovate, but how they should innovate. The game industry influences other industries with innovation in technology, software, graphics and more. The combination of creativity and technology pushes the limits for innovation, however game companies often find it challenging to anticipate and plan for innovation as it is viewed as something that just happens, a result of a combination of other activities. The process involving these activities resulting in innovation is ignored. Previous research has treated the process of innovation as a “black-box”, mainly focusing on innovation in products and processes alone. We need to look at the development of video games as a process that is part of a socio-technical infrastructure where the interplay between the technology and the developers influence the innovation output. The developers can exploit the inherent generative capacity of technology to produce innovative results, whether be it products, hardware, software, marketing or work methods. This is especially relevant for the Norwegian game industry as it is quite young, comprising of mostly small to medium sized companies with only a few larger more established companies. The companies are struggling to compete and stand out in the international market, and the low turnover rate reflects this struggle. By researching the use of technology in game development and how changes in technology influences the innovation process we can get a better understanding of the innovation mechanisms and how game companies can take advantage of these mechanisms to address the challenges they face in a highly competitive market. The focus of this talk will therefore be on technology in terms of its generativity and how the developers can exploit this generativity to increase their innovation output and as a result reveal parts of the “black-box” of the innovation process.

14.00-14.45 – Jaroslav Svelch, Lecturer and Researcher, Charles University of Prague.
Shedding Light on the Shadow Economy: What 1980s Czechoslovak Sneakernet Can Teach Us About Game Distribution

Game industry scholarship has mostly focused on legitimate business operations. However, many players around the world have been playing unauthorized copies of game software, disseminated through informal distribution networks. As Ramon Lobato has written of film, “in many settings, informality is a norm, not an aberration.” In this talk, I want to argue that studying informal distribution can broaden the methodological and conceptual toolkits of game industry studies, and question some of the attributes of distribution that we take for granted. I will use the example of 1980s Czechoslovakia, where the overwhelming majority of games circulated in multiple pirated versions, often imported from the West via Yugoslavia and Poland. As games travelled across Europe, users removed their copy protection (or crack them), added pokes for infinite lives, appended their credits, or even drew new loading screens. The games were stripped of original paratextual elements like cover illustrations and instructions. The materiality of the original was replaced with improvised material culture of homemade cassette tape compilations. The analysis of informal distribution networks highlights the transformations and modifications that games undergo in the process of distribution, and the messiness of distribution networks. Rather than neutral transmission routes, distribution channels affect the framing and the materiality of games. Even today, we can find different versions for different markets, or pirated and counterfeit ones. Paratextual information like cracker credits can be read as mementos of the distribution process. In contemporary contexts, barcodes, rating information, patch notes, discount stickers and others can similarly function as windows into the workings of game industries.

14.45-15.30 – David Nieborg, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto.
One does not simply… make money in the app economy

Candy Crush Saga, Pokemon Go, and Clash of Clans are put forward as great successes in the burgeoning app economy. For the great majority of mobile game developers, however, it is increasingly hard to aggregate players and generate revenue. The question then emerges: Why? And what makes the app economy so, I would argue, deceivingly accessible. In this talk I will survey the challenges for app developers associated with the app economy and raise questions about the long-term sustainability particularly of the free-to-play business model. My goal is to contribute to game industry research by combining critical political economic theory with recent work done in the fields of management studies and media economics. My contribution draws from an ongoing collaborative research project with a colleague from the Rotterdam School of Management. Based on recent economic data and analysis we offer a set of propositions concerning major economic shifts in the app economy.

15.30-16.00 – Olli Sotamaa, Associate Professor, University of Tampere
Understanding the Glocality of Game Development Cultures: Case of Finland

While Finland arguably is a small node in the global circuits of game production, well-known hit games like Rovio’s Angry Birds and Supercell’s Clash of Clans have in the past few years re-invented Helsinki as the “mobile industry’s hit factory” and “games start-up capital of the world”. Drawing from observations in game studios and game industry events, in-depth interviews, analysis of trade and business publications, industry reports, and popular media articles this talk highlights the glocal nature of game production characterized by the co-presence of both universalizing and particularizing tendencies.

Understanding the significance (and potential insignificance) of individual developer experiences, studio practices and national level support initiatives necessitates connecting them to larger shifts within global game production networks, recent conditions of creative labour and the regional particularities of game development scenes. This kind of contextualizing approach on game development cultures aims at building a midrange analysis somewhere between organizational ethnography and political economy integrating both observations from the studio floor and critical readings of the dynamics of global game industry.

Finally, the talk reflects on two on-going collaborations with local game companies discussing the practical issues related to access, communication and student involvement.

16.00-16.30 – Ulf Sandqvist, Coordinator, PhD, Umeå University
The Swedish Perspective: the Game Industry, the Developers and the Swedish Model

The Swedish game industry has received a lot of attention the last couple of years. In particular, a few game developing companies like Mojang (Minecraft) and King (Candy Crush) have been celebrated for their spectacular financial success. The Swedish achievements might be extra notable because they coincided with a period in which the industry was going through considerable transformations. However, most reports and stories written about the Swedish game industry are stuck in what Huhtamo calls the “chronicle era” (Huhtamo 2005). Most of the historical narratives are descriptive, sensationalist and focus exclusively on a few successful companies or individuals. Most historical accounts are written by enthusiasts and journalists who lack a critical distance and fail to frame the development within a broader historical context. This work will try to explore the broader social and economic context of the Swedish industry. The aim is to analysis the social composition of the industry as well as discussing the emerging industry in relation to the Swedish welfare state.