Distraction Free Reading

Developer’s Dilemma and Making as Privilege

A book I wrote, Developer’s Dilemma [Press, Amazon Physical Book, Amazon Kindle, iBooks], was recently published by MIT Press. It is an ethnography that explores the secretive everyday worlds of game developers working in the global videogame industry. There is an excerpt of the book over at Culture Digitally if you’re interested in checking out some of the words prior to making a commitment to the rest of the text.

Developer's Dilemma Cover

Developer’s Dilemma Cover

But I didn’t really want to start this year off just plugging my book. I mean, I did plug it. Just then. You should check it out. But that isn’t the point of this post. I recently Skyped into Tom Boellstorff’s graduate seminar to discuss the book. One of the questions they asked me had to do with “game talk” and if I thought game talk had to do more with boundary policing than it had to do with actually having real utility and functionality. Game talk, in essence, is the use of game names as a shorthand means by which to reference the rather complex mechanics and ideas that set certain games apart. It was a wonderful question, because in the book I write:

Game talk, at its core, appeals to an almost instrumentalist logic. “Like Spy vs. Spy” is actually getting at a deeper understanding about the mechanics of a game. The talk appeals to the game and its underlying systems in a fashion that gets at not precisely the content of the game, but its functionality. But while game talk can be a productive tool for uniting disparate disciplines (a topic covered in more depth in World 3), it can also be used to exclude. Anthropological studies of high-energy physics have shown how oral communication enables collaborative communities, but also simultaneously can be used to close communities off. These findings hold true of game development as well.

[A Removed Quote from Sharon Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes]

Oral communication, though, is not used to maintain boundaries simply through resisting documentation. It is also used as a means to convey information for which my informants had no other language. It is, therefore, reductive to consider oral communication only a means of exclusion, for the use of game-talk serves productive capacities crucial to the collaborative capacities of developers. It is incredibly consequential that access to oral communication is closely controlled. Anthropological studies of technical work practice have demonstrated that the closed access to oral communication inhibits our understanding of what goes on in the workplace (Traweek 1988). This has consequences at the level of the cor- poration, but also in the frequent assumption that game development is “merely playing games.” Secrecy simultaneously is used to control access to the community, but it is also productive. It provides the foundations for productive conversations across disciplines. Insider language also does work for those that use it. It is not “simply” jargon. Embedded within insider language is a greater depth of understanding and knowledge than is abstracted into what is often construed as game-geek-technobabble.

But I had also recently read a delightful and insightful review (he also says some delightful things about ethnography as well) of my book by Brian Taylor of Paste Magazine. In his review of the book, he comments:

You can hear in O’Donnell’s writing his anticipation of resistance: he consistently acknowledges the belief held by his informants that game development is special; that things that work in other software development simply cannot work there. Even the idea that a development studio’s problems are uniquely their own is an issue.

Abrahamic religions make heavy use of the book-as-world, world-as-book metaphor. In structuring his book as a videogame (chapters and subchapters are called worlds and levels, each ending with a “boss fight” summary), O’Donnell does two things. First, he provides an unfamiliar audience an insight into the kind of game-heavy thinking that he found in many of his informants. But he also is attempting, I think, to show his subjects, and other industry-engaged readers, that he knows the language.

It’s the same reason he’s a game-developer-turned-anthropologist: this is a world where your credentials are constantly being evaluated. Anything that might mark you as an outsider (race, gender, being an academic, who, as we all know, exist solely to suck the FUN out of everything by studying it) is going to cause a subset of individuals to question your ability to understand them. Meritocracy serves the gatekeepers: it makes those on the inside more willing to police the borders because, well, they got inside because they earned it. It’s the easy lie that who you are, who you know, what you can pay for, is irrelevant to what is deemed “best”. As if something like “best” isn’t already shaped by value judgments about what is and isn’t important.

Which wasn’t what I thought I was doing, but he is right. And a recent article on “making” threw into sharp relief the privilege of making for those of us that also observe, critique, care and teach (indexed in the making article). I hadn’t thought about the privilege that making affords, particularly in contexts where many anthropologists find themselves studying people who make any number of things. I have even talked about my work as an active game developer as akin to other anthropologists staying up to date on current events in their field sites or keeping language skills sharp. But there’s more to it than that.

Making games thus “authorizes” me in important ways that I certainly need to consider further, and Tom’s students asked precisely that question. Game talk does both things. In the book I think I fell more on the side of game talk as functional and necessary. But 2014 was a strange year in gate-keeping (oh, god, the word “gate” again…) around games. It has made me think differently about game talk. It remains functional, but Brian is right in his review to call into question a bit more the role that it plays in gate-keeping as well. Further, not just being able to talk the talk, but literally walk the walk can be markedly important for gaining access to field sites, but it complicates things as well.

Particularly for those of us who frequently find ourselves studying communities of people who do make things, we likely also find ourselves in those moments of tension between being insider and outsider, which is most easily countered with the status of also-maker or former-maker. But that is a privilege worth considering further.

Now go check out my new book: Developer’s Dilemma.

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