“Keywords in Play” is an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.
This episode we speak with Dr Brendan Keogh, discussing his new book The Videogame Industry Does Not Exist: Why We Should Think Beyond Commercial Game Production (https://mitpress.mit.edu/9780262545402/the-videogame-industry-does-not-exist/). It is the final part of a special 6-episode Season of Keywords in Play, exploring intersections and exchanges between Chinese and Australian game studies scholarship. This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
Dr Brendan Keogh (he/him) is a senior lecturer in the School of Communication and a Chief Investigator of the Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology. He is the co-author of The Unity Game Engine and The Circuits of Cultural Software (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019; with Benjamin Nicoll), and is the author of The Videogame Industry Does Not Exist (MIT Press, 2023), A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames (MIT Press, 2018), and Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops The Line (Stolen Projects, 2012). He has written extensively about the cultures and development practices of videogames in journals such as Games and Culture, Creative Industries, and Covergence, and for outlets such as Overland, The Conversation, Polygon, Edge, and Vice. You can check out more of Brendan’s work and games on his website: https://brkeogh.com/, and follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/brkeogh.
The podcast series is part of the Engaging Influencers initiative. This initiative is curated by the Australia Council for the Arts and funded by the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations.
As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.
Please consider supporting Critical Distance at https://www.patreon.com/critdistance
Critical Distance is a community-supported project. Support us on Patreon, and join the discussion on Discord!
Interviewer: Mahli-Ann Butt
Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Emilie Reed, Zoyander Street
Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart
Double Bass: Aaron Stewart
Special Thanks: Hugh Davies, Chloe Yan Li
Transcription: Safya Devautour
Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.
As a joint venture, Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Mahli-Ann: Welcome to Keywords in Play, I am Mahli-Ann Butt and today we have Dr Brendan Keogh with us. Yay!
Brendan: Hello, thanks for having me!
Mahli-Ann: Thanks for being here! As I am sure many of our listeners are already familiar with your work, but if they are not, would you like to introduce yourself, please?
Brendan: Sure so, yeah, my name is Brendan Keogh, I am a video games or game studies researcher at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. Previously a game critic and blogger which you can probably find by searching my name on Critical Distance and finding various old bad takes from a decade ago. Yeah and I research the game industry, game making from I guess a labour and practice kind of point of view, it’s how I’m mostly saying it these days. And before that did a lot of textual analysis, did a lot of game criticism, lot of work about how we talk about game aesthetics and all of that. Yeah, that’s me.
Mahli-Ann: Awesome. So, you have a new book out! Congrats.
Brendan: I do, thank you.
Mahli-Ann: And we will be talking about it today. It’s called ‘The Videogame Industry Does Not Exist: Why We Should Think Beyond Commercial Game Production’ and it’s just been published and it’s also open access so you can get it through MIT for a PDF, for free.
Brendan: Yeah, don’t even have to pirate it.
Mahli-Ann: Which we obviously wouldn’t recommend ever. Libgen is a site that us academics do not encourage…
Brendan: Never use libgen.
Mahli-Ann: Never use it.
Brendan: Absolutely. Always avoid libgen.
Mahli-Ann: So maybe we can begin with the title. I think you mentioned that this is a slightly revised title from what it was originally going to be.
Brendan: Yeah so, what I originally pitched to MIT Press when I first went to them with wanting to write a book was, I guess probably much more boringly which is why it didn’t get up, was just ‘The Field of Video Game Production’, I believe? With a subtitle which was something like ‘Video game making’, I’m trying to remember now, ‘Video Game Making Beyond Below and Before the Game Industry’ so it’s like the way I was conceiving of the… The book was really trying to account for everything else beyond, I guess, industrialised, commercial game development and not just accounting for everything else but accounting for how commercial videogame development is, I guess in a deeply symbiotic relationship with non-commercial game development that, a whole lot of people, for ages, have talked about. Hey, there is also arty stuff, there is also hobbyist stuff. Anna Anthropy’s ‘Rise of the Videogame Zinesters’ laid that out very clearly a decade ago, so I am not just trying to make that argument again, but instead trying to point out you can’t have commercial video game development without weird hobby kids and artists and students and all these other stuff that underpin our creative field. So that’s what I am trying to get to with that original title that MIT Press said was too boring.
And then while I was working on the book and getting feedback from my colleague Benjamin Nicoll, who is another game studies academic at QUT, at one point in one of our discussions about what I was trying to figure out what I was actually saying in the book in an early draft, which is a lot of the work of, I guess, humanities academia is, writing and then figuring out what it is you’re actually saying in the writing you’ve already done. And Ben just said something like “Really what you’re trying to argue is that there is no video game industry, that it doesn’t exist”. And I wrote that down in my notes because it was like a really cool provocation, and so when MIT Press came back to me to say the title is boring, I was like, well what about… I think I said, well what about ‘There Is No Video Game Industry’ and at some point, that shifted to ‘The Videogame Industry Does Not Exist’. “There is” is like a passive sentence structure and isn’t a very exciting way to start a book title, I guess. So yes, that’s what it became: ‘The Videogame Industry Does Not Exist’. Which, I kind of see very much aligned with book titles like N. Katherine Hayles ‘How We Became Posthuman’ or Bruno Latour’s ‘We Have Never Been Modern’ like these kinds of book titles that are provocations, and you look at a book title and you go “What! That doesn’t make any sense” and then you read the book and you’re like “Ah, yeah, I see how this sneaky academic kind of got me on a technicality with their clever title”. So hopefully I managed to do that because obviously, it’s kind of an impossible claim to back up that the game industry doesn’t exist, it obviously does exist, so… But I guess the less cheeky version is that it can’t exist without all this other work that I am interesting in exposing.
Mahli-Ann: Or that it doesn’t exist in the ways that we conceptualise it to be.
Brendan: Yeah, exactly. Yeah and the way we conceptualise it as, I guess, this exclusively commercial space of activity doesn’t exist, it can’t exist as just the way we often think about it. “We” being, I don’t know, “we” is kind of a straw man there. But I guess the way, I guess, popular discourses and policy and the industry itself frame it as existing obscures a whole lot of labour and identities and activities and subcultures that also need to exist for it to exist. So yeah, again, I don’t know. It is also just a cheeky title that sells copies. That is also undeniable, but I think that’s a constructive provocation as opposed to just an absurd statement.
Mahli-Ann: And I think what you’ve just highlighted answers a lot of why we should think beyond the commercial games, beyond commercial game production, right? There are a couple of the key reasons there. And the way that the “games industry” in quotation marks is often constructed, in your book you called it this time in history of aggressive formalisation, I think that’s useful to frame it in that way. But maybe let’s start there, right? Let’s go through the historical timeline of how we’ve gotten into this particular construction of the game industry.
Brendan: Yeah, for sure and you’ve also just experienced one of the main challenges I had writing this book after I have decided what the title was. Not actually being able to talk about the “game industry” anywhere in the book because I have just said it doesn’t exist so that was incredibly annoying. Now, whenever I use the term “the game industry” in other writings people just kind of point at it and laugh at me so it’s a massive pain.
So yeah, like historical aspects that I have tried to outline in the book. I guess one of the central questions that I want to address in the book or that I wanted to figure out myself when I started the research project that led to the book is: Why do we struggle with this in video games? Why do… And again by “we” I guess I just mean society. But why do we struggle to account for video games as a cultural form? Why can we all say games are art, you know, as often as we want but we still… There is still something different about games in how we talk about it, how policymakers talk about it, how they fit into museums and galleries, how they fit into art festivals, how they fit into higher education. Like there’s just something about how video games, as a genre or medium, as socially constructed, that makes it hard to just account for them as just another art form, which I’ve always found very fascinating. And I think we often think about that in terms of well it’s because it’s younger, which kind of isn’t, it’s been around for like sixty years now, it’s not young anymore. It’s because it largely focuses on teenage boys, which it’s still largely true for a lot of its outputs. It’s because it’s interactive and weird, it’s because it’s also technology. There’s all sorts of arguments for why that’s the case but I was reading, Casey O’Donnell has a 2014 book called ‘The Developer Dilemma’ – also MIT Press book, and it’s an amazing book where he does this ethnography at a large studio, and I think he also goes to a kind of an outsourcing studio in India that’s working with this American studio, really amazing, just ethnographic work. And towards the end of that book, Casey got this really fascinating weird chapter using actor-network theory where he – which was all the rage in like 2014 when he wrote the book, but in that chapter, I think it’s called ‘The Networks of Inaccess’ and he does this deep dive into the technology of NES or the Famicon from the mid-eighties and how it kind of, I don’t know, I guess like constructs game making as something controlled by publishers, I suppose. You need access to the software development kit and only the console-makers can give you that access. I remember reading that and it both felt like it was written in a totally different era, because this is before the rise of indie, the rise of Unity, the rise of more quote-unquote “democratized game development”. And so his arguments kind of felt on one hand out of date, and on the other hand it’s a really amazing snapshot of a different era of game making. So, after reading that I got really thinking about how can we kind of define this era of game making that Casey has really well articulated and what it has now become since then.
And so I kind of started with his work, and other historical work that I was reading which like Graham Kirkpatrick and Melanie Swalwell and – it’s not historical but I guess, Adrienne Shaw, and other people, all of whom have really clearly articulated how kind of gamer culture emerged in around the late eighties and then became more and more intensified during the nineties, mostly driven through game magazines and these terms like gameplay and gamer and who whatnot. And so, I started to try to connect that to the historical stuff I just talked about, what Nintendo and SEGA were doing in the nineties. This is already a long-winded answer but I guess I get to this idea of aggressive formalisation as the deliberate and explicit closing off, by particular corporate actors in the video game field, to make it very difficult to create video games that are perceivable as legitimate video games, if you’re not doing it in a commercial manner. And you can look at the kind of popular myth of video games around ET and Atari and the crash of the mid-eighties which, you know, is often told as Nintendo coming and saving the day after Atari let too many hobbyists and pirates, you know, release a glut of video games. And you can reframe… And that whole narrative has become a way, or became a way – especially in the nineties, to justify excluding hobbyists, excluding amateurs, excluding pirates, excluding any form of game maker that didn’t kind of contribute to the profit of Nintendo and SEGA and Sony and Ubisoft, and whatnot, as not real game making. And so, there’s a historical argument, there’s like a political economic argument and I think all of this merges with what game studies people have been saying, for at least a decade, about what games are perceived as legitimate and what game players are perceived as legitimate. Especially feminist game researchers such as yourself. So, I think there’s like, trying to draw together all these different threads to point out why we’ve got these long-lasting and ongoing challenges of even justifying video games as an art form because the industry itself worked very hard to exclude and delegitimise that work that is most visibly and undeniably artwork as opposed to just, you know, commercial entertainment products. So we’ve reached a point where we have very visible equivalents of Marvel movies but we didn’t have visible equivalents of weird arthouse cinema or whatnot. And so I guess I’m conscious of how long this answer is now, but when I talk about aggressive formalisation that’s essentially what I’m trying to get at.
Mahli-Ann: It’s so well put! And I think these long-winded answers are not long-winded and always very articulate, Brendan. I find like it’s often the thing, right? The most articulate people would be like “Oh, you know, I’m just babbling on”. It’s really great to deep dive into this and pick it apart.
Mahli-Ann: So, babble away!
Brendan: I will.
Mahli-Ann: So, I also like the way you’ve highlighted I guess this like what constitutes a real videogame, the historical ties there and I guess also the overlap between the points of, you know, what is real and authentic within other subcultures, like the music scene, right? Like a band and real music, and being a real fan of the music or selling out. So this is I guess where it comes in, using French names, right? Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory and the usefulness of that here. So, let’s have a babble about field theory.
Brendan: Yeah, totally. So, yeah, I keep using dead French dudes which, as like an Australian, is a bad idea because I can’t say any of their names but like, apologies to the French listeners. Bourdieu, who is a sociologist has, well for decades did amazing work on like kind of class and taste and distinction. And I think kind of, as far as I understand it from a kind of Marxist background, kind of took these ideas of I guess capital and tried to extend it beyond economic capital – not that Marx was only talking about money, I’m now very aware of. But also, you know, this idea of social capital and cultural capital. So, very crudely, ideas of how, you know, the upper classes don’t just perpetuate their dominance through having all the money, having the means of production, but also through kind of defining society in a way where only they know how to act in society. So, you can imagine if you’re working class and you go to a fancy restaurant and there’s twenty different forks and twenty different knives and you’re stressed out because you have no idea how to act whereas like, you know, for posh dude, billionaire’s son goes then of course he knows what to do because he’s been there all the time. So feels like a very crude example of having social capital, having like accrued the ability to navigate society in a certain way.
And he talks a lot about – Bourdieu talks a lot about like, education and taste as aspects of this. But some of his later work, I think in the eighties primarily and a bit in the nineties, he moved and started looking at what he calls the field of cultural production which, within broader field theory, I guess, essentially like how do you talk about art worlds or art fields? So how do you talk about the field of poetry or the field of punk music or the field of game making – as a field, and so how does that even become identifiable as itself a field and not just a bunch of people working and somehow the field. And so, for Bourdieu, a field is kind of a constant tension or a clash between those who are kind of striving for the field autonomy, i.e., the field actually being identifiable as itself a field and those striving in the opposite direction towards the values that exist kind of outside the field ever broader, the field of the economy and political power. And so the easiest kind of example of that is, say musicians who, you know, just care about their art man, like I don’t care if anyone listens to this or if I ever get popular. If that’s caring about the autonomous values of a field which is just making good music, whereas caring about the opposite of the autonomy – which I think he calls heteronomy, is like caring less about making good music and more about making money and money being the primary value of that broader field of the economy.
And, you know, we talked about this in layman’s terms all the time when we talk about a band selling out or, you know, they only care about the money but they don’t really care about the art or what have you. So, essentially the most powerful positions in a cultural field, are the ones who get to define what is the autonomous legitimate markers of success. And so, I linked that to that idea of aggressive formalisation to say: Through the nineties, it was those dominant positions who most successfully determined the values of a good video game as having good gameplay, having realistic graphics, having a lot of kind of configurative action where the player is making important choices. All these things that are very connected to the gamer identity and kind of the, I guess, more hegemonic aesthetics of play and game studies and game critics have been unpacking for ages. But what we’ve seen since about the late 2000s/early 2010s, especially around 2012, is I guess those bottlenecks that define aggressive formalisation that allowed Nintendo/SEGA/Sony whatever to dominate and to determine the defining categories of the field, have become easier to circumvent. So, we’ve got Unity, we’ve got Steam, we’ve got broadband internet, you can just make some weird little Twine game, put it on your own website and someone can play it. Nintendo can’t stop you doing that. You’re obviously not going to reach as many people as Nintendo can, you can’t make as much money but you can still release, you know, ‘Cry$tal Warrior Ke$ha’ or some other Twine game and people are gonna play that and be like “This is clearly a good videogame” but it’s so at odds with what I have been told is a good video game. So, what we saw was who gets to decide what the field is got radically challenged in the early 2010s and still is being radically challenged and so I guess that’s what I’m trying to use.
So when Bourdieu talks about fields, he talks about it like a constant struggle, a constant, I guess, battle to define who is or isn’t in the field. It’s always those who have the most dominant positions in the field, those who are seen as most legitimate, ever always those who aren’t seen as legitimately in the field who are constantly trying to get in, and not getting in by changing what they do but by changing where the line of a field is drawn so that their current position are perceived as being within it. And so I think we saw that with especially like queer and trans developers in the early 2010s making a very clear aggressive case for their games being real games, not being some other thing. They were like, no, we belong in the game field as well and you need to redraw those boundaries so we’re in it, and that of course led to all sorts of radical tensions and Gamergate and all sorts of things as, you know, the dominant position trying to keep the lines where they were. So, I guess that field theory is like a constant struggle to define. A field is a constant struggle to define where the field is and who is in it and so, when I found that theory when I started reading Bourdieu’s work, I’m just like, shit, that’s what been happening in games for the last ten, fifteen, twenty years, this is exactly what we have been seeing going on and so it became a really viable theory for me to try to, I guess, articulate that and try to, not just say, not just have a story of what’s happening in games, but to have this kind of theoretically robust explanation of how this is how cultural fields work and what we are seeing in games now is that those other positions, successfully to some extent, being heard or being legitimatised in the field which makes it… Which is exactly why it’s so much harder to talk about it as simply an industry these days because these positions have gotten that legitimacy that are clearly not industrial positions. I’ll stop there.
Mahli-Ann: Yeah, good! I had the moment reading your book where, you know when it’s like you both come to something really similar as a conclusion but kind of like slightly differently or separately? Because it’s like, oh yeah in my PhD I’m totally saying like how it’s really important to look at the tensions and the sites of struggle, but just like completely different way into looking at that, so it’s like somewhat validating.
Brendan: Yeah, I mean so much of any academic field is just using different lenses to come to the same conclusions, I suppose. Which I think is always valuable and like reaffirming that we’re probably right as well. You know, Bourdieu for me as a lens is just a particular magnifying glass I can hold up to the phenomenon and be like “What’s going on here?” and you can just as easily hold up, you know, feminist theory or queer theory or any sort of theory and you gotta come to different answers but like… Or you’ll come to the same answers in different ways. Yeah, it’s good.
Mahli-Ann: Yeah, it is good! So we’re talking about… Bourdieu’s term is “newcomers” but I very much appreciate that you’ve also kind of like made a strong note that so-called “newcomers”, they’ve always been there, right? We’ve always been there.
Mahli-Ann: But there’s a really interesting moment that you’ve traced here where we’ve got, for the sake of using Bourdieu’s term described as “newcomers” or the people in the margin, right, the game makers on margins and the peripheries, the voice or amplification or visibility as a more recent – I guess also in the last two decades or decade and a half, is tied to the disorganisation, tied to the platforms, which are now the holders that control the means of production and circulation, but also other forms of organisation have been allowed from that.
Brendan: Yeah, so, I guess there’s a few points on that. I guess like on the newcomers point firstly, I think what’s interesting there is that these marginal positions are newcomers to the field in so far as they’ve only kind of recently been perceived as legitimately within the field as opposed to not games, not game makers out there somewhere. But yeah, they’re not newcomers in so far as they have been doing this stuff for a long time. They’ve always been there, they’ve just haven’t always been legitimate or legitimised. And so, I guess for the kind of critical or maybe even cynical position that I try to make later in the book is that why have I become more legitimate in more recent years or the last decade? And I guess the positive exciting answer which gets a little bit more technologically deterministic is: Well, thanks to the internet, thanks to the broadband, thanks to all these new software tools, it’s easier than ever before to get your art directly in front of somebody and that’s exciting. Then again that implies these people weren’t doing stuff twenty years ago when we were just… it was much harder to kind of see them, it’s like, oh but yeah now it’s easy thanks to the internet.
But I think there is a more critical, and again some may say cynical pessimistic way you can look at it as well, which is kind of capitalism – especially the kind in creative field, has kind of restructured itself over the last twenty or thirty years to figure out how to capture the value of creative workers without actually hiring those creative workers into any sort of stable employment and so this is effectively the gig economisation of creative work or the uberdrivering of creative workers. And what that means, it’s a different way to think about what going indie means where you don’t go indie because you’re like “Fuck the men, I’m going to like forge my own pathway”, which again is a very art over commerce way of presenting it, it’s often people go indie because there’s literally no other options in most places of the world. The vast majority of the world doesn’t have AAA studio and so like your only option is to go indie. And so when I talk about… Oh, and the other people I referenced whose names I currently forget, who taught me this idea of disorganisation. Capital has figured out how to disorganise labour in a way, or what like instead of all of us going to the same factory and working on the same shop floor or going to the same AAA studio where we’re all working in the one room where we may start talking about how much we’re all paid or we might start talking about maybe going on strike, if instead everybody is an individualised entrepreneur relying on a platform like Steam or like Unity or like the AppStore, it puts all us into – “we” is in I guess game makers, it puts us all into competition with each other rather than in solidarity with each other.
So it’s, I guess, a way to think of what’s been going on not just as a liberatory of game making and the game making field but also as maybe just alternative way capital has tweaked itself in order to figure out how to extract value from more game makers through platformisation. And I think the way I frame it in the book is like, a wider range of game makers have been given access to the means of production and distribution to game engines, to distribution platforms but they still don’t have ownership over those tools. So what we see is like, you know, Steam is going to take thirty per cent of every game sales it has, it doesn’t matter if… If I release a game on Steam and I make billions of dollars because some streamer plays it, Steam is happy to take thirty per cent of that despite not investing in the game at all. If I release a game and I only make two thousand dollars, Steam is happy with that because they still take thirty per cent and they didn’t invest anything, it’s win-win for Steam. And that’s just how platformatisation works, it’s just internet landlords essentially.
However, that all sounds very cynical and pessimistic but at the same time what we’re seeing – and that’s how more critical kind of creative labour people already talked about it, but what I found exciting about games is despite all of that being true it is also undeniable that game makers have more power now than ever before to, I guess, find ways to resist those kinds of dominant structures, those landlords of the field, those Nintendo and Sony and what not. And so I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, as this kind of expanding of the field has happened, we’ve also seen the first, much more successful rise of game makers unionisation movements, game journalism that cares much more about who’s actually making the games, not just the games themselves. Much greater pushes for all kinds of kind of diversity and whatnot in games. Like all this has only been able to happen because marginal game makers have pushed their own way into the field, despite still being dependent on these landlords but nonetheless have been able to start conversations that you could not start if you were employed in a traditional AAA company. So, one of the main reasons unionisation in the game industry never really took off before now is because if you just mentioned a union when you worked at some large company you’d probably get fired, or at least you’ll be afraid of what’s going to happen. Whereas if you’re a disorganised indie developer on the one hand, a traditional union is less useful for you because you can’t really strike against Steam or strike against Unity because they’re not really your employer, but you can talk about striking, you can talk about unionisation and Steam and Unity can’t fire you because they’re not your employer. So that’s like, there’s a positive side to it. And so that’s allowed indies and marginalised developers to rock up at GDC, especially around 2018, and be like “Hey y’all should unionise” and actually get that kind of critical mass rolling in a way that the AAA developers feel more confident to be part of it. So, the industry or the field has been deliberately disorganized in a way to make it easier to exploit people, but at the same time has opened up new potential pathways of, I guess, game-maker solidarity and new ways of pushing back which I think are very exciting. Yeah, hopefully, that made sense.
Mahli-Ann: Oh, absolutely, but I am also someone who’s read it, right? But I think that was very clear and I think it is very exciting and kind of like a novel insight there, where it describes very well what’s happening. And some of the quotes from interviews that you conducted really shed light on that, right? The “Oh you know I’m not sure about…” quoting someone here that said “I’m not sure necessarily how I would benefit from it because it’s like… but I’m going to cheer from the sidelines anyway for those who have a harder time for being able to speak up about this, if you know, they weren’t while working at a AAA company”.
Brendan: Totally. Yeah, there is a very great quote in there. I think I named him but I can’t remember if I did so I won’t say the name here, just in case. But they’re like running a Montreal indie company, a slightly larger indie studio and that was just about how important it is to unionise. This is like 2018 so everyone, you almost have to say it’s important to unionise, it was kind of the default thing you say like “Everyone should unionise” blah blah blah blah blah, and they made that kind of call themselves, and I thought it was a great moment of kind of self-reflection. This was like a studio director, they were like “Look it’s super easy for me to say that because I’m never really going to worry about a union kind of like breathing down my neck in the indie space”. Like the indie it’s too fragmented, like this is not her word, this is my words, like the indie space is kind of deliberately designed to make workers solidarity not work, with like just five-person teams of mate, there often isn’t a boss to unionise against. So she was like yeah, it’s very easy for me to say it but then she’s like, because it’s very easy for me to say it and my colleagues in a AAA studio can’t say it, I should say it. So it’s this really nice self-reflection of both: I shouldn’t get like applauded for saying unions are good because it’s really no risk for me to say it, but at the same time because my other colleagues can’t say it, who do need unions, I should say it.
And I think it really perfectly captures what I guess I’m trying to articulate in that section of the book which is like, yeah, the current unionisation movement didn’t start in AAA, it didn’t start with large companies just magically one day deciding “Hey maybe we should unionise” because it’s been decades of people trying to start that and it’s never gotten off the ground. But it’s because of the increase of marginal creators, of indies, of whatnot, exactly the kind of people who exist in those positions because capitalism put them in these positions to not have workers’ power, ironically it’s them who have kind of been able to lead this unionisation movement which is to me super super fascinating and something I think, I guess not just games studies but maybe like labour organisation studies more broadly need to think about beyond, I guess, 20th century’s paradigm of how unions should work when we’re all working in one big Fordist factory to what does worker solidarity look like when we’re all in, when we’re all gig economy precarious self-contractors. And I think games provide a really fascinating space other organisations of other parts of the economy should be looking at to think about this. It’s a fascinating area.
Mahli-Ann: Absolutely, in particular just questions around alternative workplaces that have really grown in the last couple of years and it’s the working from home or hybridity. I guess the questions that have already been pushed around like, in games, in the field of games, where people are game dev but… or game makers actually. We can jump back into that part too!
Mahli-Ann: Where you know, they don’t have a workplace to go to and usually it’s working in a café or something already. So, maybe we should jump back a little bit and go into the question of when you’re asking people are you a professional video game developer and I guess the tension or the uncomfortableness with those terms.
Brendan: Yeah. Yeah, totally. And so I guess the context of that is that I remember reading Adrienne Shaw’s article, I think it’s a 2014 article, ‘Do you Identify as a Gamer?’ which was a phenomenal article and really like predates and pre-empts a lot of the research that was done after Gamergate, about the gamer identity and how hegemonic and selective it isn’t when you’re talking about video game players as it’s kind of much much broader set of identities and demographs. And so I was like, well all Adrienne did was just ask people “Are you a Gamer?” and see what came out of that and I was like I could also just ask people “Are you a game developer?”. So in all my interviews with game-makers I ended with, I think the two questions I asked were “Do you identify”… I don’t think I even asked “Do you identify” I feel it’s “Would you consider yourself a” I think I said “a professional game developer”, that’s right I said “Would you consider yourself a professional game developer” because at the time that I was asking I thought professional was the interesting word to think about, not game developer. And I also asked, “Would you consider yourself part of the video game industry?”.
And so, in addition to being influenced by Adrienne Shaw’s article, the other thing that was really motivating that, and motivated me this entire project, was looking at like surveys that the industry would put out like IGDA and whatnot, being like “This is who is making games in this country” and I was always like thinking: Who actually consider themselves legitimate enough to even fill out that survey in the first place? And so, I thought by asking people “Are you a professional game developer?” that would give me hints as to whether or not they would fill out these surveys or not. So, at the time it wasn’t for the word game developer that I haven’t thought would be complex. But yeah, the way people replied, some people had issues with the word “professional”, other people had issues with the word “game” and other people had issues with the word “developer”. There were definitely – not with everyone to stress I think but like enough to be relevant, people who didn’t consider themselves developers because they might be in roles such as writing or music or community management, you know. And they saw development as a much more touching the game software kind of techy kind of role, and it is, right? Part of the historical baggage of games is its connection to computer science and IT and whatnot, and so video game developers very much builds off software developers as a term. We don’t talk about music developers or film developers, like there’s such a clear tech world connotation of that word “developer” which suggests certain forms of game making and suggests excluding others and so that’s why I use game maker throughout the book, it just feels more neutral and inclusive. And yeah so, on one hand, it’s mostly just an easy shorthand and I use it most of what I think the first chapter of the book, I guess just to really push hard that I am not making this up, that is not, you know, that this isn’t some theoretical exercise that says “What is the game industry and who are game makers or game developers?”. It’s not just some theoretical semantic exercise to be like “It’s actually complicated”. It’s like, no, this is the actual lived experiences of people who consider themselves game makers, is feeling… Some people who are clearly, obviously, contributing to the making of games don’t consider themselves to be game developers or don’t consider themselves to be part of the game industry, and so these terms, these words clearly have an exclusionary aspect to them that we need to think critically about. And, of course, game maker does as well and every word does, that how words work but in the same we should all not be using the word “gamer” when we just mean video game players in our writing. Maybe, we should think about who we are and aren’t, including when we say game developers, as well.
Mahli-Ann: And you’ve got a great response around this too, right? I think it was in the survey where someone was saying, responding to this question, “Well, I made two dollars on Steam, so yes? But also, I’ve made two dollars on Steam, so no?”.
Brendan: Yeah, yeah and that was specifically in response to like “Are you a professional game developer?”. And yeah it’s like, well, the vast majority of people I spoke to perceived or interpreted “professional” as in “makes money” but then, yeah, how much money do you need to make to be professional? And I think that just really nicely shows how, I guess with historical legacy of aggressive formalisation has made being a successful or legitimate game maker one who is commercially successful of how they kind of got merged together and so it’s really difficult now to imagine success as a game maker that isn’t commercial success. Not impossible, like we’re now I think slowly figuring that out but, yes, I think that just points to that kind of very limited way game making has been imagined.
And I find that very interesting say, talking to like students or whatnot or inspiring game makers more broadly who think “Right, I want to be a game developer, that means I need to figure out a way to make this my full-time job” and then really burns themselves into the ground just trying to make it a full-time job. And it’s like, if you’re really into music or really into poetry or really into acting or painting, you wouldn’t just quit your job and then try to start painting or start playing music or start acting. You would be doing that stuff alongside, you know, part-time work in a supermarket or café and what have you, and hope one day your craft is successful enough you’ll actually make a living off it while, you know, having that difficult blend of optimism and cynicism that it’s probably not gonna happen but it could happen. But like in game making that’s not often how it’s approached it’s like, well I wanna be in games, therefore, it has to be my full-time job which can lead to all sorts of crunch and self-exploitation and just stretching yourself too thin, whereas if you’re like “I’m just gonna work at Wally’s and make games on the side and see what happens”, there’s all sort of issues with that as well it’s not necessarily easy, especially if you live in a country that ties health insurance to employment and whatnot but like yeah, I guess the point is just simply that, even game makers themselves, when they approach game making, kind of have these very historically narrow ideas of what kind of success they should even be aiming for if they want to be professional or experts or legitimate.
Mahli-Ann: Yeah, and I guess the expectation of going to study a games degree and then wanting to go jump straight into a AAA company probably is somewhat misleading from actually how video games field or field of production, where the majority of game makers or game making is in very small one/two/three people studios or collaborations, right?
Brendan: Yeah, totally. And so, I have a chapter on education and it kind of draws from my interviews but also my own experience teaching in a game design college and also just the endlessly repeating kind of, I guess, public discourses amongst game developers about the value or lack thereof of going to games school. And it’s a big complicated area but I guess the part that is interesting to me connects back to that, the narrow ways the video game field has historically been constructed and imagined is: Most schools market to and attract, you know, gamers who are this very narrow very gendered aspect of people who are interested in games, interested in certain ways, who want to transition from being players of AAA games to developers of AAA games. Very, very simply. And so, it’s not approached like learning a creative practice or learning a cultural field, it becomes approached like getting a degree to go and work in a tech industry, and indeed a lot of the time game development is taught in kind of computer science faculties, not in the art faculties. So again, that’s interesting both in terms of how it again shows evidence of the limiting and narrow ways we think of the video game field as a cultural field and it also just, I guess, raises questions about how we teach game making and why we teach game making.
Something that I will say in kind of like, week one, whenever I was teaching game making is “You’ve enrolled in a poetry degree”, like I was just trying to think poetry. And Bourdieu uses poetry as the example of maybe the most successfully autonomous cultural field because nobody makes money doing it. And like, essentially, I felt like poetry is like so autonomous from the field of kind of power, and the field of economy, but like people know what poetry is and it does its own thing and very few people make any money from it. So, I would say, you enrolled in a poetry degree, like you’ve enrolled in art school kind of thing. To try to, I guess, try to shock the student into, not into just simply you’ll never make money doing this but you need to approach it in a particular way if you want to make money from it, right? Like, what they are thinking is “I will go to school, I will have these skills of game making revealed to me, I will get a piece of paper that proves it was revealed to me and then I would go get a job and use those skills”. But like, you don’t just like… That’s not how you learn music, that’s not how you learn acting, that’s not how you learn painting. You learn a creative craft or practice by already kind of doing it but probably not very well, going to school to refine and articulate how you do it, while also getting exposed to broader networks and broader ideas and then you keep doing it and then you graduate and then you probably still don’t get paid to do it but maybe you find other work in or around that industry to use those skills and figure something out later.
Which is exactly what I did with my creative writing undergrad which was, you know, I’ll have a go at writing poetry, I’ll have a go at writing sci-fi, doing all of that while working at a supermarket and then slip back into academia which was still using my writing skills but in a kind of adjacent way. And so, a lot of the discourse around games and education become: We have too many graduates for what the game industry needs. Which links to these very neo-liberal kinds of capitalistic ways of thinking about what higher education is actually for, that it’s just for providing the skills needed by employers to produce surplus value when maybe higher education should exist for like much broader reasons than that. But then of course that kind of butts up against the fact that our students kind of do need to live, it’s very easy as like the lecturer to say “Just focus on your art, man” and then students still need to pay rent, students still need to work so, it does get complicated. I guess even if you want, if we want our students to be successful game makers and actually make a living doing it that means letting them, helping them understand that they are trying to enter a cultural field, not that they are trying to enter a technological field. And that that means carrying yourself in different ways, as a professional. Like that doesn’t just mean getting a degree and then starting doing it, that means starting doing it and then hoping for the best.
Mahli-Ann: Yeah and the conclusion that you make in chapter 7 which are things like universal basic income, housing rights, accessible house care, education and other more field-specific things like adequate regulation of platforms, business models. Many of those aren’t field-specific, right? They’re kind of more systemic forms of change.
Brendan: Totally, yeah and like, you know, the game industry loves talking about “we need more tax breaks”, “we need more direct funding” and yes those things are good within a certain capitalist paradigm but if you just gave everyone the money and resources to not die then, you know, more people can take risks, more people can just make games or make other, whatever kind of art they want or innovate. And so, if you raise the rate of unemployment welfare, wages or just, heaven forbid, actually have a proper Universal Basic Income or have access to healthcare and affordable rent, that’s going to do so much more for increasing innovation and experimentation in game making and in every creative sector that any sort of just tax offset ever will. And that’s why I think Australia has so many cool weird indie games in recent years because, while our social welfare has much to be critiqued you know the unemployment rate hasn’t gone up in twenty years or whatever, there is one and you can still get relatively affordable healthcare if you’re young and don’t have chronic health conditions and so, you know, I think pretty sure the ‘Untitled Goose Game’ devs have talked about how several of them were just, you know, on unemployment payment for at least part of the early kind of development on that game and the same is true for various other developers who I spoke to as well. Is not that they’re just bumming around, making games for fun, it’s like it allows them to experiment without worrying about if this game doesn’t sell, I’m gonna die of hunger. So, it’s important.
Mahli-Ann: It is! It is important. And I think it’s also where you open the chapter talking about the more recent thirty per cent tax break, in Australia, but it only applies for I think studios who have more than five hundred thousand… not more sorry, are going to spend more than five hundred thousand. And that’s in comparison to something whereas in Ireland, where they have given out artist funds, so kind of like a universal basic income, for artists.
Brendan: Yeah so I guess the broader point I tried to make about around, I guess, the funding and policy stuff and this kind of, you know, what I was saying right at the start where I started thinking about this work as how the commercial game industry can’t exist without all these other informal activities supporting it, right? Like the hobbyist, the student, the whatnot, that’s where new skills come from, that’s where new innovation comes from, where new ideas, it’s where kind of dominant tired old ideas are challenged like you need the broader field for the industry success and the video game industry can’t exist without that broader field’s labour and activities.
And so, I guess there’s like two different ways to read my book and I think both of them are true. You know, there’s the Marxist way of, therefore we should abolish capitalism and everyone can make cool games and not have to worry about making money in a communist utopia. And maybe even more like maybe actually useful for our policymakers and people the real world is made for, not myself, which doesn’t contradict the previous one but like, while we’re still living under capitalism, if you really, if you actually want to grow your local game industry in terms of jobs, in terms of money, in terms of whatever, you can’t do that by just thinking of it as a tech industry. You have to do that by thinking of it as a cultural industry, underpinned by a broader cultural field. So what that means is, you can’t just – and Australia learned this the hard way in the 2010s, you can’t just be a cheap place for international studios to come to outsource their labour or else the second somewhere else is cheaper, everyone is fired and they leave again. But you also can’t just be indie because it’s super precarious, it’s very difficult to grow, every student just starts their own company and makes the same mistakes as the last student, everyone leaves when they hit thirty and suddenly have back pain and mortgages because you can’t sustain it when you’re not young unless you’re rich, and so you kind of need both. You need the large studios that can suck up graduates, give them some skills, give them some actual professional experience but then you also need to support indie studios so that those graduates five years later can go “Screw working at Ubisoft, I’m going to go start my own thing” but they’re doing that in a position where they’re not eighteen for one thing, they’ve actually worked with adults before and they’re not just students making… they can actually get some mentoring as well because maybe people have actually hung around the industry for more than ten years.
So, the tax offset is great because you need the big companies, you need to make it easier for companies to grow, but you also need the direct funding of artists, for the small-scale stuff. And what Australia has now I think that happened after I wrote the book is we have, I think it’s a really nice structure, we have the tax offset for spending more than half a million dollars and we have direct funding through Screen Australia for projects spending less than five hundred thousand dollars and so… Which is a very nice both side of the coin, direct funding for small projects, tax offsets for the large projects and I really really like that. It needs a lot of refinement as there are a lot of issues with it but like, broadly, the idea of direct funding small stuff, tax offsetting large stuff I think, you’re getting the whole ecosystem, I think it’s really really exciting what Australia is trying to do, now. But, where a lot of kind of funding bodies still fail in terms of, especially the direct funding style, is they still often demand these very kinds of corporatey criteria of like, what’s your marketing strategy, how’s your… You know, give us this really extensive budget or whatever. Whereas if you just gave a bunch of like weird little indie devs like, not even half a million, well you couldn’t get half a million from that, sorry, you could get a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for as long as your entire project was less than half a mill. But if you give 50k or a 100k to like, some kid who is working on a cool little game and who just needs to quit his job at a café and spend one year working on his game, that’s where you get ‘Untitled Goose Game’, that’s where you get ‘Webbed’, that’s where you get ‘Cult of the Lamb’, and stuff like that.
And so, in short, maybe one in a hundred of the games you found will actually be one of those big successes, but like you’re – it doesn’t sound like the best analogy, but like you’re fertilising the field, you’re like laying the seeds, maybe is a much nicer way to say it, to make like some of that roots grow into a big studio that can actually provide job security. So I think that’s the less “abolish capitalism” point of the book, is that even if you want to work in the capitalist paradigm of job and growth, you still need to accept that the game industry is a cultural industry and not a technological industry and that means, supporting all sorts of seemingly non-commercial activity in order to foster the type of commercial tip of the iceberg. I think I mixed enough metaphors there.
Mahli-Ann: Yes, and I think you’ve also given us a lovely summary of how, for anyone else who hasn’t started reading it yet or has, to now go and pick up a copy, even for free as a pdf, or get one through the store, right?
Brendan: Yeah, it’s been, something that’s been very interesting is, because I kept plugging the open access version online, “the book is open access anyone can read it” and I had a few people be like “I wish I could just read it as a real book”. No, you can do that too, you can still just go in your bookstore of choice’s webpage and find an actual real copy of it and spend money on it or buy a copy on your ebook reader of choice but if you just want some PDFs, they’re on the website.
Mahli-Ann: Well thank you Brendan for coming in and talking with us today and talking with me today, on this episode of Keywords in Play. Where else can people find your work and follow you?
Brendan: Yeah I mean I’m still on Twitter because Twitter still seemingly exists, for now, just @BRKeogh, who knows if Twitter is going to exist by the time people listen to this? I have my own website which is also brkeogh.com, which I very rarely update but as social media falls apart, I may well go back into blogging, and you can find links from those to my various books and articles and whatnot.
Mahli-Ann: Awesome! Well thank you Brendan and I want to say thank you Harry, I think he is in the background there too, is he?
Brendan: He’s right over there, I don’t know if he is in the video.
Mahli-Ann: Sleepy Harry! Thank you for listening.
Brendan: Thanks for having me!
Darshana: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play. For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org.