Developer’s Dilemma by Casey O’Donnell: An Ethnography of Game Developers

Games Reviews
Developer’s Dilemma by Casey O’Donnell: An Ethnography of Game Developers

Developer’s Dilemma is game-developer-turned-anthropologist Casey O’Donnell’s ethnography of game developers. O’Donnell, Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University, is a self-described “bastard child of a forbidden tryst between computer science/mathematics/technology and sociology/women’s studies/philosophy”. An ethnography, for those of you who didn’t have to read tons of them while studying Cultural Anthropology, is a book-length study of a group of people: their daily life, their worldview, their customs and rituals, their voices. Historically, due to anthropology’s origins in British and American colonialism, ethnographies tended to focus on small communities that anthropologists thought could be summed up in a single book.

Ethnographic technique was picked up by academics in Science and Technology Studies, who found it very useful in studying scientists, engineers, and other communities of practice. Though, to be fair, representing the workings of climate scientists to themselves and others has different kinds of stakes than claiming to represent an entire culture to a group of educated people on the other side of the planet.

In a time when BIG DATA is all the rage (read: has the marketing budgets), the ethnography can seem antiquated. It’s situated in a specific place and time, it deals in interviews and actively resists the kind of quantification that can be put into a spreadsheet, charted and graphed.

But ethnography is important because it’s explicitly situated in a time and a place. It makes no claims to the universality of its findings, but it allows the reader to see the similarities and differences of how people live. It describes, it makes connections. It requires the ethnographer to keep themselves present in the work, make no claims at objectivity and avoid solipsism. It isn’t anecdotal. Its respectful of its subjects and it takes their voices seriously

Anyway, ethnography is very difficult to pull off.

The participant-observer technique that is a crucial part of ethnographic research requires the anthropologist to spend time with their subjects. To experience their day-to-day life while also observing it. They call their individual interviewees “informants”, collaborative partners who are given voice by the work. There are always tricky obstacles to navigate: trying to minimize unintended consequences of the publication of the work leads most anthropologists to anonymize their informants, something that minimizes the informant’s authorship of the work. At least in an academic setting, where others’ citation of one’s work is how one proves their worth.

Most ethnographies, with their self-reflexive authors, also contain information about their research methodology. In endnotes and in the text, O’Donnell explains some of his note-keeping techniques, how and why he chose his research sites. He talks about his interactions with the people he studied, how his presence affected their behavior and how they came to understand and appreciate his role.

O’Donnell observes an obsession with secrecy, with gate-keeping, on multiple levels. Movements like GamerGate are partially built on policing who is and who isn’t a “gamer”, so maybe it’s not surprising that the industry who produces the products key to an identity would have a similar structural shape. Did you notice above that I introduced O’Donnell as a “game-developer-turned-anthropologist”?

That epithet is crucial. The world that O’Donnell’s informants understand and explain to him builds itself as set apart, unknowable except to the few who have managed to break inside. The industry’s perpetual start-up culture, its process of “churning” through young talent, the technological and legal and social structures (both formal and informal) that control access: O’Donnell’s background as a developer is his pass into this world.

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.

Even if O’Donnell weren’t able to establish these credentials, you can bet that any backlash toward him for his observations would be nothing like that directed toward Anita Sarkeesian. While they do share a common goal of a better games industry, their subjects are different. Sarkeesian’s texts are the games themselves, focusing on how they interact with broader cultural ideas and interpretations. O’Donnell’s texts are less material—processes at the ground-level of production; the laborers who piece code and art together, their networks, and how those networks share or don’t share access or information.

Though the book was just published. much of the research was done in the mid-to-late 2000s. O’Donnell acknowledges in his introduction that some things have changed, that Twitter has opened up access to and between developers, that the issues he identified with knowledge of how game development pipelines function have been lessened with the introduction of Unity.

By presenting the complexity of the situation, his critique of the system can be more pointed, and possibly more useful. His concept of “adventure capital” gives us a tool to look at the practice of large companies offloading the risk of the new onto smaller developers by acquiring them once they’ve proven their idea will sell and then franchising it through multiple sequels, always a safer bet. It’s not unlike the strategy of companies like Uber or other “sharing economy” darlings that eliminate what infrastructure they can and make individual employees (oh, wait, wrong term) shoulder what they can’t.

There are things around games and the industry that the book doesn’t contain. There’s not much in the way of information on how Japanese game development studios function. Independent game development refers often to studios who still function in and around the industry as it exists, just less risk-averse. “Independent” as in Miramax, not as in Kenneth Anger.

Except for a segment on homebrew and hacking and industry corporations’ response to them, there’s little outside that industry frame. But O’Donnell’s focus is mainly on commercial game design for consoles, and through his explanations of the history of technological and legal controls, licensing and control of production and distribution, it becomes clear that there are plenty of people outside these walls, because otherwise the companies wouldn’t have built them.

It’s responsible of O’Donnell not to make claims about people he hasn’t studied. Fortunately, the kind of openness and variety that O’Donnell thinks can help games has found a foothold in the world of writing about games, and so this book doesn’t have to stand alone as the single account to define all accounts. Sometime-Paste-contributor-and-friend-of-this-writer Cara Ellison’s Embed With series is a crowd-funded hyper-concentrated kind of developer ethnography.

Ultimately, you can tell that O’Donnell wants this book to be read by people in the games industry. By presenting his credentials and anticipating criticisms (things he’s able to do because he’s studied this particular audience, understands and sympathizes with their way of thinking) he claims not the authority of an outsider but as one who has been through the fire. He does this even as he is able to critique that gatekeeping perspective.

For O’Donnell, removing the gates and poking holes in the walls is necessary to make the industry more humane as well as more welcoming. An industry where the workers are free to share information among themselves in the open, rather than in secret for fear of legal or commercial sanctions, is one where maybe fewer assumptions are made about who can and should know what. One where developers are less threatened by the possibility of sudden obsolescence, sudden unemployment, where they can and do push back against the system that, through its structure, largely favors young, unattached men with few outside interests. One that might be able to set a more open, less tribal example for the people who consume its products. One where the secrets are not so hoarded that they inspire greedy hostility toward anyone who hasn’t gone through imaginary rites of passage.

Because if O’Donnell is right, if the games industry is where the possibilities of New Economy modes of production play out, then it needs to set an example where carpal tunnel isn’t the new black lung and where reactionary harassment can’t find fuel for its fire.

Follow Brian Taylor on Twitter.

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