Precarious workers in game industry: interview with Ergin Bulut

DIGILABOUR: What is ludopolitics and what are the inequalities that structure of game industry?

ERGIN BULUT: Thank you for your interest in my book. Let me first begin with a contextualization. For my book, I ethnographically researched a medium sized video game studio in the United States Midwest. I wanted to understand how labor of love looks like in this industry through this studio. The game studio I examined in my book was producing triple A video games for consoles and PCs. When I was completing my three-year ethnographic research in 2013, a publicly traded game publisher owned it. This publisher would then declare bankruptcy. Ludopolitics is a term that I coined with inspiration from the work of Achille Mbembe and his term “necropolitics.” Mbembe’s term “necropolitics” is a constructive critique of Michel Foucault’s “biopolitics.” Mbembe’s suggestion is to examine the colony and forms of death, ultimately dissecting how sovereignty works in these extraordinary political spaces through destruction. Obviously, connecting the colonial space with the game industry sounds extreme. However, I wanted to emphasize the materiality and invisible brutality regarding how power operates in the video game industry. On the one hand, video game industry’s labor practices look like quite ephemeral and immaterial. Work doesn’t feel like work. It’s fun. It’s about love. On the other hand, the inequalities surrounding the industry and its labor force can be quite destructive and exclusionary. So, I use the term ludopolitics to map and critique the politics of “who can play and who has to work” in the video game industry. I particularly suggest this term to center inequality and social reproduction as a critical lens in understanding the politics of work in the game industry. When we center inequality and social reproduction as a framework, we are able to examine work outside the formal boundaries of the workplace and connect it with the urban space and domestic space. To go back to the second part of your question: There are various levels to the inequalities in the industry. To remind and re-emphasize, a major publicly traded publisher owned the studio I was researching. In that regard, if you were working for this studio, it would mean that the publicly traded game publisher owned your product – the video game itself as intellectual property – through the non-disclosure agreements that you would sign. Now, signing a contract is typically imagined as a free exchange but this is a myth (Pateman 2002; Stahl 2012). Signing that agreement basically takes your work from you through non-violent means. When you are working for a publicly traded publisher, you don’t have anything to say about how they organize their current and future operations, which in fact has great influence on the labor process and workers’ futures. In other words, although you can be creative in what you do, somebody else organizes your work in organizational, spatial, and temporal terms. The video game studio I was researching was a highly successful studio. They made profitable games. And yet, the bad financial decisions taken by their owner created adverse working conditions for the game developers I researched. In their own words, they were almost punished for their success. Although media industry workers and scholars generally imagine that success means safety, this was far from the case. My book demonstrates how innovative work is intrinsically precarious. Another level of inequality emerges within the studio itself. On the one hand, there is the core development team: artists, designers, and programmers. Most of them are full-time workers with better salaries. They have more creative impact on the direction of a game. They are able to freely enjoy the flexible work environment policy implemented in the studio. They have more spacious working spaces. They go to conferences, trade shows, and at times enjoy international travel. However, there are also testers, who feel that they are second-class citizens. This is the case because most of them are contract-workers. They are hired when a project ramps up. Then, they are laid off, or “let go” in the words of the human resources department as soon as that project ends. They also enjoy the flexible work environment policy but not as much as the core creative team. One crucial source of inequality for testers is that one doesn’t need a college degree to become a tester. All you need is passion for video games. Obviously, this is a rhetorical move to devalue their work because passion for games and playing video games is a major skill to possess. I, for instance, no longer have that skill. A third level of inequality I draw attention to in my book is about the fun derived from creative and technological work. The game developers love what they do. They are passionate about work. They enjoy pushing the boundaries of technology. But what they call as “fun” in their video game content can and does hurt women and people of color, mainly because the video game industry is comprised of predominantly white-male demographics. Libertarianism was not uncommon across the game developers I researched. In order to theorize how they understand fun in relation to technological breakthrough and how they disregard criticism against problematic game content, I propose the term ludic religiosity. Ludic religiosity reveals how video game developers frame problematic game content through “fun.” In doing so, they are able to dismiss the ideological content of what they create. For instance, they claim how they don’t target a specific group but equally offend everyone. Obviously, white masculinity lies at the heart of ludic religiosity as a belief system, which is related not only to game content but also deeply connected to the technological systems that game developers enjoy tinkering with for purposes of fun. There are times when they become aware of the problematic encoding of race and gender into games but these moments are unfortunately rare.  A fourth level of inequality is outside the studio, located in the houses of game developers. The domestic space emerges as a venue of crisis every once in a while. We are familiar with such domestic crises all the way back from the infamous EA Spouse case (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2006), which has emerged again and again in other game studios. So, I interviewed the partners of video game developers and asked them what happens when their partners are at work. Who takes care of the family and the domestic space when game developers pursue their dream jobs and work endless hours?  As a male researcher, I have to acknowledge that this was not in my initial plans when I started this research and I am indebted to a number of scholars here (Federici 2012; Mayer 2008; Jarrett 2016; Bhattacharya 2017). When I was interviewing a technical artist in the studio, he told me how his accountant wife considered the game studio to be a fraternity house. This forced me to extend my research beyond the studio, and I believe this is one of the joys of ethnographic research in that you end up in places that you never thought about in the first place.  I decided to interview game developers’ partners. Given the dominant demographics, this meant I would talk to women. So, my conversations revealed how the so-called creative industries are far from eradicating the long-standing inequalities regarding domestic work. At the same time, the women I interviewed raised deeply informed criticism of labor practices and the discourse of love in the industry. In fact, they were way more vocal about the problems emerging from passionate work than their partners.


DIGILABOUR: You wonder “what the precarization of glamorous middle-class jobs means with respect to labor broadly considered, especially in the current context of debates regarding the future of work.” Could you explain this? 

BULUT: Precarization and its discussions have been largely limited to – and rightly so – low-wage and informal jobs. Especially in the mainstream press, such discussions mostly tend to normalize precarity mainly because “low-skilled” workers, who are mostly women and people of color, experience it. Therefore, we are given the impression that precarity is inescapable. It’s normal because, the argument goes, these people are less educated and they don’t have enough skills to trade in the supposedly neutral market place. In critical scholarship, there has been much attention given to the precarious gig-economy workers. In these accounts, it seems to me that there is sometimes an implicit understanding again implicating the question of skill. My goal in the book was to emphasize how capitalism structurally produces precarity no matter what. It’s a system that works through unemployment whether as a reality or a source of fear and anxiety. Obviously, the game industry looks different from the gig economy. Jobs look glamorous. Technology is cutting-edge. Workplaces are fun. There is also the false assumption that the video game industry is immune against economic crises. This is simply wrong. The video game industry crashed in 1983 due to greed and bad planning with respect to platforms and game cartridges in the case of Atari. The industry had other crashes following periods of major growth. The most recent moment was 2008 financial crisis, which caused systemic downsizing and studio closures. The advent of new models such as free-to-play has further exacerbated industrial uncertainties. So, to answer your question… Middle-class jobs in the glamorous game industry are precarious. I acknowledge that the level of precarity is not the same as immigrant workers or essential workers in the current context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, it is important to highlight that the technophilic discourse in the game industry and the broader discussions about “passionate work” and labor of love should alert us to how these discourses operate as a technology of distraction (Frase 2016).


DIGILABOUR: How are gender and race relations in video games industry?

BULUT: As I mentioned earlier, the industry, especially the triple-A segment, is predominantly white and male. In that regard, the game industry is not different from the broader high-tech ecology in terms of gender and race relations. At the representational level within video games, there has been some improvement but again, that has been subject to scholarly criticism in terms of what inclusion means and on what terms (Gray 2014; Murray 2018). Workforce diversity is indeed a major problem in the industry. Non-white populations are still the minority populations in the North America and the U.K. As revealed by the most recent case of Riot Games, “bro culture” and sexism are dominant in the industry, causing dissent across workers.  In my book, I discuss this issue by problematizing the term “diversity.” Perhaps diversity is not the right frame. Maybe diversity is not a bug but a feature of the industry, I suggest. Drawing on the work of Sara Ahmed (Ahmed 2006), I argue that diversity may trap us to a culture of unproductive talk and not enforce institutional reform and action. I propose that we link diversity to broader institutional inequalities derived from professional ideologies and industrial cultures of white masculinity. Thankfully, game developers are speaking out. They are not only speaking out but also, for some time now, producing video games that do not subscribe to the dominant production logics that I previously theorized through “one-dimensional creativity” (Bulut 2018) with inspiration from Herbert Marcuse. Women and queer game developers or game developers who are simply tired of the triple-A games’ repetitive sequel logic are challenging the norms in the industry at the representational level. They are also innovating how labor is organized in the workplace. Finally, there is increasing space for queer game developers who are invested in the idea of rethinking and reframing creativity and fun through critical design cultures (Ruberg 2015; Ruberg and Shaw 2017).


DIGILABOUR: How do you relate spatialization and financialization in your research?

BULUT: In A Precarious Game, and my broader research agenda regarding media industries, I am interested in bringing together critical political economy and ethnographic research. So, on the one hand, there are large structural issues of finance and money. On the other hand, I am interested in how these structural forces unfold in everyday lives of media workers. When I was interviewing game developers about the history of their studio, I got to learn about the organizational and spatial transformations they went through when their parent company bought them out in the early 2000s. The parent company wanted to acquire the game studio I researched because they were making successful games. Once the acquisition took place, the parent company provided the necessary cash to hire the “warm bodies” to exploit for producing competitive and high quality games for the competitive triple-A market. That meant an exponential growth in the labor force. Now, when this is the case, you need space and ultimately have to relocate from the start-up location to a new corporate plaza. Therefore, the city where the studio was got involved by providing the urban space through specific regulations, because the city management was happy about the studio and its employees’ financial contributions to the city economy. The studio also brought legitimation and symbolic value in the so-called creative economy. So, spatialization is a key framework to emphasize how our digital economy is not weightless. It requires specific urban infrastructures to function. Financialization, on the other hand, refers to the processes through which the studio became part of financial markets as soon as the publisher acquired it. Before the acquisition, the studio was independent. It needed cash but it didn’t have to satisfy the investors of the publicly traded publisher. With financialization, as I demonstrate through various events in the book, the studio becomes forever indebted to the publisher. Stock prices start to determine their value as workers. So, while the acquisition initially liberated them from the precarious independent studio mode, it also led to new forms of subordination to financial markets (Lorey 2014; Lazzarato 2015). Perpetual production dynamics, competitive upgrade culture, and endless work have to be understood within the framework of financialization as opposed to an individualized and psychological perception of passion and love at work.


DIGILABOUR: In a broader sense, what are the work conditions of game developers and game testers?

BULUT: In the studio I researched, game developers are considered to be the more privileged, core creatives. This group includes programmers, artists, and designers. Programmers write code or read code written by others. They develop support infrastructures. They deal with logic and manipulation of numbers. Ultimately, they contribute to the production of a smoothly functioning game, while simultaneously satisfying the demands of artists and designers. Artists are involved in the aesthetics of a game. They produce the game’s environment, characters, interface etc. In the studio I conducted my research, they had a peculiar position in that some of the artwork was produced in China. While this initially created uneasiness regarding job security, working with China was concerning for the artists in another way. They would complain about turning into managers and being lost in corporate spreadsheets rather than indulging themselves with creative work. Then, there are the designers. They are the stars of the industry. They are responsible for the feel of the game. They want to make sure to be able to communicate certain feelings to the players. As such, they would meet every once in a while to cultivate a particular design culture in the studio. The appeal of the profession is such that game design is now an emerging – maybe even more than emerging – educational field across colleges in the world. Testers are not part of the core development team but a support group. They are the most vulnerable group of workers in the studio. Their job is to make sure that the final game is free from bugs. They don’t have much agency in the broader creative process. A formal degree is not essential to become a tester. Testing is also regarded as a stepping-stone to “break into” the industry. When these factors come together, the value of game testing is depreciated, creating sentiments of second-class citizenship. Apart from these workers, there are producers, team leads, and project managers in the studio. Producers are responsible for releasing a coherent and profitable game. They are also the interface between the studio and the parent company. Team leads (e.g. of programmers, artists, or designers) are the bridge between the producer and the team. They communicate tasks, work schedules, and demands between these two parties. Project managers are the ones that allocate resources to the team and make sure the team is on schedule. Overall, game testers are the most precarious ones in the studio. They are hired, laid off and re-hired depending on the status of a project. As playing games is part of their job definition, what I previously called degradation of fun (Bulut 2015) occurs across testers, who increasingly play games more selectively and derive less joy from play. Degradation of fun also derives from the endemic precarious working conditions and the lack of free time outside work. It is also safe to emphasize that although there are occupational differences across different kinds of workers, these game developers are testers are united by how their labor is appropriated by rigid intellectual property regimes.


DIGILABOUR You both use and criticize terms like “immaterial” and “creative.” Why (or how)?

BULUT: In the book, I introduce a critical discussion regarding the proliferation of terms within the broader literature on cultural industries and media labor. There are a number of terms including immaterial labor, cultural work, creative labor, digital labor and others to illuminate the working practices in and outside media industries (Lazzarato 1996; Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2011; Banks 2007; Fuchs 2014; Roberts 2019). Among these, I critically use the term “immaterial labor.” I do acknowledge the criticisms regarding the term’s neglect of domestic labor and the problem of immeasurability (Hearn 2010; Dowling 2007). I don’t get into the long-standing debates whether labor can be immaterial at all. However, I use the term to emphasize the qualitative shift in the digital economy. The other fundamental reasons why I still use the term are as follows: First, it still acknowledges the tensions and conflicts between capital and labor. The term is still invested in rendering visible how capital exploits labor through various strategies such as lengthening the work day, introducing flexible work environments, or designing playful workplaces. The term also is intellectually invested in approaching intellectual property as the material embodiment of alienation where game developers are disassociated from the products of their own labor (Andrejevic 2013). Obviously, there might be questions about how I define alienation when workers are able to drink alcohol at work or work in quite flexible ways. I suggest understanding capitalism as a regime of desire (Lordon 2014) and think about alienation beyond the dualities that we typically associate in Marx’s original work. Rather than sticking to the definition of alienation as the loss of autonomy, I propose to reframe it as fixation or “a stubborn affect” (Lordon 2014) where one cannot think anything other than work. We become addicts. Obviously, this doesn’t negate the fact that alienation still prevails in the legal and contractual terms, where somebody takes a thing from somebody else (Stahl 2012). Surely, a game development is a lot more different than hardware production. Yet at the same time, signing non-disclosure agreements, the employment contract itself, incessant corporate demands, producing sequels as opposed to what one would like to, and lack of having a word regarding the future of the studio attest to how alienation materially exists in various ways. Don’t get me wrong. I do find the insights of “creative labor” and “cultural work” useful as they productively attend to the subjective dimensions of the labor process (Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2011; Banks 2007). However, I disagree with their focus on justice rather than politics. Even when one possesses all the features of good work in the workplace, there might still be alienation simply because there is no security or clarity concerning one’s employment future. If we look for justice in the media workplace and prefer terms like good work to alienation, we might ignore the political nature of employment. A game studio, at the end of the day, is a political community if we are defining a political community as something where power unfolds and is negotiated and contested (Lordon 2014). So, my suggestion is to politicize the discussion of good and bad work when it is precisely the soul of the worker that game companies want.


DIGILABOUR: In your book, you talk about universal basic income and unionization, such as Game Workers Unite. How to reimagine in a radical way a postwork society? How are workers’ struggles re-envisioning?

BULUT: When I was doing my research for the book, an issue I explored was unionization in the video game industry. I was curious about how game developers approached it. Some were indifferent to unionization. They had not thought about it. Some believed unions belonged to the industrial past. What they did was creative and not easy to measure and classify. Some thought that unionization was akin to biting the hand that fed you. Overall, it wasn’t within their imagination. As I was concluding my research, the publisher that used to own my research site was having financial troubles. Soon, it declared bankruptcy. Then, I decided to revisit this question. Perhaps, the game developers would now think differently. I was wrong. Their position had not changed. Unionization was a loaded topic. It was a little too adversarial. They didn’t think they were exploited. An associate producer even said: “You’re not in this industry if you’re not a workaholic to some extent.” One game developer involved in community management even compared his position with that of his family members who used to work in the tobacco industry. He emphasized the “nomadic nature” of game developers, who, typically was “an individualistic creature” that “continues to evolve” and “learn best practices.” According to this game developer, the game industry radically differed from traditional industries. He said: “It’s not like you work twenty years in one spot or on a pension and you’re done. I’m working in an industry where it’s entirely possible that I’ll be working in five different places in ten years.” A game tester, as one of the most precarious workers, would highlight the joy and symbolic value of being employed in the game industry: “Especially because it’s game development and it almost feels like a privilege just to be in the industry.” This specific case, however, should not mean that game industry workers are not organizing or are just cogs in the machine. First of all, when we look at the history of the industry, we do come across antagonisms expressed by the workers or their partners regarding exploitation or workplace harassment. Fortunately, these antagonisms now have found a collective voice: Game Workers Unite (GWU). GWU comes as a new union other than the game industry workers’ union in France (STJV). GWU is now a global movement, working to address structural problems in the industry including crunch, contract employment, unpaid overtime, lack of comprehensive health care, poor crediting, toxic workplace cultures, racism and sexism in the workplace, and the highly problematic work ethic in the industry. When you look at their discourse, it is a lot more radical than IGDA (International Game Developers Association). I think one of the most insightful interventions GWU has accomplished is to emphasize that one can be both passionate about work and pro-union. So, it’s a very important voice and collective action against the broader libertarianism in the industry. We should also see GWU as part of the broader unionization movements in the digital media industries (Cohen and de Peuter 2020), and rising discontent against sexism and racism both within and beyond the video game industry, as we saw in the cases of GamerGate and #metoo. When I was concluding the book, I didn’t come across discussions of universal basic income (UBI) or a radical post-work imagination in the unionization movement. I am sure it exists. There are radical critiques of UBI among Marxist scholars. I can understand why but at the same time, UBI is still a radical demand that game workers and workers at large can aim for. I think Covid-19 pandemic made it clear how UBI could save lives. As a citizenship-based income, it can not only financially help workers but also open new spaces (physical and imagination-wise) for workers to explore new ways of working and being in the world. Among these new ways of being is the foregrounding of a post-work imagination. Again, as brutally illustrated during Covid-19, most of the jobs on this planet are not quite necessary. A post-work imagination is crucial to reinvent ourselves, our relations, our infrastructures of care, how we relate to time, how we relate to the broader ecology and the planet. Such imagination is vital if we are to reconfigure how we organize the society in terms of what we prioritize and to destruct “the fantasy of work society” (Chamberlain 2018). Such an imagination unleashes desires that can improve our worlds towards a larger utopia. As Kathi Weeks (2011) beautifully argues, a post-work imagination should not be ashamed of formulating utopias. One thing that game industry unionization reveals is that the industry falls quite short of delivering the ludic futures it promises. Then, why not be killjoys and resist the emotional toxicity that the game industry, and the broader authoritarian discourses of “do what you love” imposes on us as citizens and workers. We can indeed start constructing that utopia of a post-work society through play that is not commodified and instrumentalized.