I want to get in the habit of writing semi-regular public updates about my current research. I feel like this is an important thing to do in part to help me work through my evolving ideas and in part because I’m using a large chunk of public money to do this research so some public reflection on it seems fair.
I mentioned previously in my general life update about the new project I’ve started. I’ve received funding through the Australia Research Council to undertake a three-year research project titled “Informal, Formal, Embedded: Australia Skill Developers and Skills Transfer“. The idea is to paint a more nuanced picture of what videogame development is, who does it, why they do it, and how it is contextualised within the broader Australian culture and economy. The focus on ‘skills’ is in part to get away from a focus on ‘jobs’. There are more people using ‘videogame development skillsets’ than there are people employed in ‘the videogame industry’. So focusing on skills and experiences is a way to draw that out.
I’m now about four months into the project. So far it has been a lot of project design, planning, and general administrative processes like sorting out ethics approval and budgeting. Most of that is pretty boring. Here’s some of the more interesting methodological/theoretical stuff that I’ve been working through:
The backbone of the project will be data collected from interviews with a diverse range of people involved in the making of videogames. Employed developers, of course, but also students, hobbyists, amateurs, and aspirants on one end, and then also people like alumni of game development degrees who didn’t join the game industry, people who left the game industry, people working in other sectors but doing game development things (like making exercise apps or whatever), etc. The point of this research isn’t to count the exact number of game developers in Australia or anything, but to do the qualitative exploration of experience and practice and challenges that such quantitive research can often miss. From these interviews I’ll be able to identify broader trends.
I’ve started doing interviews in Brisbane since that’s where I live and it seemed like a good way to ‘pilot’ the project before travelling to other locations where I can’t afford to screw up an interview as I won’t necessarily have a second chance. It’s also my first time designing and executing my own ethnographic project so I’m expecting there to be some bumps. Maybe there are really important questions I won’t think to ask at first. Starting my interviews in Brisbane gives me a chance to chase people up if necessary.
Something I didn’t really account for: Australian game developers are very happy to talk about game development and the state of the Australian industry. I’ve already done over 30 interviews, on average about 45-minutes each, in Brisbane alone. If I keep that rate up, I am going to have a lot of transcribing to do over the next couple of years. I need to start thinking about if I just keep going and get as much as I possibly can (both so the data is more accurate and, selfishly, so I have a massive bank of data that I can turn into publications for years to come after my grant is over), or if I decide to start being more selective about who I talk to rather than just ‘anyone and everyone’. I’m leaning towards the ‘anyone and everyone’ angle, personally. But I’ll see how I feel about that decision when I’m in my 300th hour of transcribing.
The interviews so far have been fascinating, and they already point to a really diverse range of experiences, backgrounds, and skillsets. I would need to actually start exploring my data before I can say anything really meaningful about it but just from the discussions I feel like my starting hypothesis that videogame development is not a homogenous activity or culture and that it is just as diverse and messy as any other creative medium is pretty accurate. Also the diverse number of ways that people identify their practice and future within the Australian context is super interesting and I’ll have more to say on that in the future.
I’ve currently booked some chunks of time to do my Melbourne and Sydney fieldwork, which are going to be the most substantial data gathering sites of my project. At the moment I will be in Melbourne from 13 May to 3 June and in Sydney from 4 June to 23 June. My sole job in this time will be to speak to people involved in videogame making in and around these places. I’ll be reaching out through my contacts to find interviewees in the coming weeks but if you are around these places and want to chat, feel free to shoot me an email or message. I’m also tentatively looking to do more fieldwork in Adelaide and Hobart perhaps around late August. Other capital cities will happen next year. Regional people, I an very keen to talk to you as well, but not sure if that will happen in person or over Skype. Either way. Reach out if you want!
In addition to my interviews, I’ve designed a survey to ask relatively similar questions in a more structured manner that I’m hoping will be distributed around the country to get a broader, zoomed-out snapshot that will complement the discussions from the interviews. Designing this survey is turning out way more complicated than I expected! I want to be really careful with how I word the questions to be as inclusive as possible to map that broader field of formal and informal developers. There are people I want to fill this survey out who probably wouldn’t call themselves ‘videogame developers’. So how do I ensure they feel like this survey is for them?
An example: I want to ask people how much they make from their game development work. For someone employed at a studio, that means I’m asking for their salary. For someone who makes games in their own time, what I’m probably asking is more how much their games have made on itch.io. Likewise, it makes no sense to ask an employee at a large studio what their ‘expenses’ are whereas an amateur will be paying for their own hardware and software.
My solution to this has been to start the survey with a question that asks the participant how they identify their own skills, and then branch the survey off in different directions where questions are worded slightly differently (but from which I should still be able to compare data in a meaningful way. I think.). So at the moment at the start I ask the participant to choose which of the following best identifies the manner in which they contribute to the making of videogames:
- employed at or run a company
- self-employed gamemaker
- Contract/freelance work
- Enthusiast, hobbyist, amateur, or student
The point of these categories isn’t to determine pigeonholes for people but more to hopefully let them determine the context of their own practice and then, hopefully, get asked appropriate questions accordingly. Though, I’ve already encountered some issues with this in my preliminary pilot I’m running. People who ‘run a company’ of 3 or 4 people not sure which of the first two to choose. Australian game dev is a complicated ecosystem. Which is both why this project is necessary and also what’s making it so hard.
I’m not publicly sharing the survey link for now as I still try to smooth out the bumps as much as I can, but if you are interested in completing it in its current ‘pilot’ version and providing me some feedback on the survey itself, please get in touch and I’ll send you the link.
What even are ‘videogame development skills’ anyway?
Last month the Australian Labor Party’s Shadow Minister for Communications and the Arts ran a national roundtable with game developers and academics as a sort of fact-finding mission to see what the Australian game industry wants/needs to be supported and also, of course, what the game industry can offer in return. That is, what would a government need to do for the game industry to in turn be able to stand in front of some cameras and say they created X number of new jobs, essentially.
I’m not going to talk specifics but one thing that got thrown around a lot is how videogame development is great for teaching kids skills that prepare them for the digital world.
What struck me, though, was a real lack of clarity in just what ‘we’ (game developers, researchers, industry representatives) mean when we talk about ‘videogame development skills’. The way most people were using the term when trying to get this politician on board was, essentially, a sexy synonym for ‘programming’. And this is what ‘videogame development’ is often reduced to: programming. Of course, programming is a massive, fundamental part of game development. But game development isn’t programming. That’s perhaps only more true in recent years with the rise of accessible middleware like Unity and GameMaker and Twine. I have this concern that when we reduce ‘videogame development’ to ‘programming’ we sign out own death warrant in terms of what is particular, special, or unique about videogames as a form or industry worth supportin. As we saw in the Australian Government’s response to the recent Senate Inquiry: if you reduce videogames to programming or ‘STEM’ then you make it so you don’t need to support videogames as a creative field. You can just say ‘oh, we’re already helping tech startups.’
But programming and digital literacy are obviously the most visible and sexy hard skills that videogame development produces as a ‘computery’ practice. So it makes sense to focus on that. But videogame development is also design, art, animation, audio. It’s also the less tangible but perhaps even more crucial process skills of production, project management, interdisciplinary communication, etc.
So what actually are videogame development skills? Do they even exist? Or is that like asking ‘what are housebuilding skills?’. There is no one singular skillset that is ‘videogame development’ (though the rise of solo game devs perhaps counters that claim) but there is a particular convergence of technical, creative, and managerial skillsets that is videogame development.
But then if my project is about skill transferability and what videogame development skills offer the broader economy, do they actually offer anything if they are just a particular convergence of pre-existing skills?
I don’t know! But this is the meaty, theoretical argument I am currently having with myself. It feels like a fruitful one to be having at this stage of the project, and one I look forward to investigating as my interviews continue.
A Play of Bodies
Not directly relevant to my current project but my book A Play of Bodies had a launch event in the QUT Digital Media Research Centre last week. Associate Professor John Banks said some incredibly nice and humbling things about it. I also received my physical copies of the book, which was immensely exciting. There is still a real sense of authority and validation that comes from tangible, physical media. I’m so happy with the book both in terms of it presentation and its content.
It feels weird to say so myself but it has been reinforced by others lately: I truly think A Play of Bodies makes seem really important arguments about how we conceptualise and think about videogames as creative works—how they mean and express ideas and experiences. I’m really looking forward to reviews starting to emerge in coming months and to see what sort of discourse it provokes. If you read it, I would love to hear what you think.
Also, if you’re at a university in a town I am travelling to for fieldwork and want me to come by and talk about the book, that is probably something I will be willing to do.
So that’s what I’m up to with my research! If you want to help out with the survey or express interest in an interview, shoot me an email and I’ll pass on some more information.
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