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Institutional Alzheimers: A Culture of Secrecy and the Opacity of #GAMEDEV Work

The massive layoffs and shuttering of Irrational Games is part of a broad set of practices that ultimately contribute to the Institutional Alzheimer's of the AAA game industry. It's time to distinguish between real secrets and just the stuff that happens.

Casey ODonnell, Blogger

February 20, 2014

7 Min Read

[Cross Posted at Culture Digitally]

Yesterday, Todd Harper (@laevantine) tweeted a reflection on several other blog posts responding to recent news that Irrational Games was closing.

Both Leigh Alexander (@leighalexander) and Brendan Keogh (@BRKeogh) reflected on different aspects of the closing. Both of them expressed an awareness of the mundane reality for those working in the game industry (the "grunts") and the disconnect between that everyday labor and the very high-level perspective reflected in the post by Ken Levine. Leigh noted in particular her responsibility as a reporter and the tension between words passed between friends and her role as a game-industry reporter. Brendan indexed how despite a distinct awareness that any given game is a product of the labor of many, only a few often garner real fame or credit for the work. Credits matter, but not so much as press attention and visibility.

All of that said, at least Ken Levine wrote something. Numerous studios are shuttered or undergo significant employee cuts with zero insight or communication. Not that it helps those developers looking for new jobs and likely a fair number who will leave the game industry entirely. Remember, the average life-span for game developers is somewhere between five and eight years. Nothing like being let-go from a job to encourage one to consider another career.

I have also been thinking a great deal about Cara Ellison's (@Carachan1) mission to bring "embedded games journalism" to life. So much of what Cara is attempting to do is in line with what started as a dissertation for me and will soon become a book, "Developer's Dilemma" from MIT Press, which is currently in production. People want to know what game development is really like. The game industry needs some institutional memory, and it simply doesn't exist.

Despite the fact that increasingly we find more and more developers present on Twitter, actively blogging, and/or contributing to community sites like Deviant Art, a sense of transparency into the daily work and creative labor that goes into games seems not just absent, but actively combatted. Even when developers talk about the tools they use, like FlashPunk, Flixel, Unity, etc., you don't get a sense of is how it fits into a kind of daily creative practice. Even the growing number of documentaries fail to capture the mundane, instead create a kind of Game Developer Reality Show.

I spent three and a half years doing ethnographic work at Vicarious Visions (VV), leading up to and after it was acquired by Activision. I maintain that my continued fieldwork likely benefited more from serendipity than any real skill or rapport on my part. But, during my tenure at VV as a participant observer, I observed numerous canceled, shipped, delayed, successful and not-so-successful projects. Things like the Nintendo DS + Guitar Hero attachment were never leaked, at least not by me. And while my actions were in-part governed by the American Anthropological Associations ethical guidelines, I was a significant risk for VV. Yet, I hope it was a mutually beneficial relationship. I remember sitting for a couple of weeks with a team working on Ms. Marvel as part of the Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 game. What was secret about all that anyway?

Put simply, the daily craft of game development work is embodied in those who participate in it. When the industry hemorrhages numerous skilled and experienced individuals, while they can (hopefully) find new jobs, no matter where they go, they must learn those day-to-day practices that constitute game development. New pipelines, tools, engines, rules-of-thumb, standards, etc., must be re-learned. It has been a goal of mine, and I hope Developer's Dilemma helps, to make the daily work of game development more visible. In particular, World 6's Boss Fight, I discuss what I refer to as Institutional Alzheimer's:

The game industry needs to become more open for its own survival and growth. Ultimately this openness must occur both at the lowest and highest levels. Game developers must be able to converse broadly about the practice of game development. Publishers and manufacturers need to be able to differentiate between talking about how one goes about making games and "giving away" a game. Many software companies have made numerous aspects of their work and work processes available online to foster a community of practice. The important difference is that for game companies this openness would go beyond releasing the "source code" of a game. It would also document and reveal how artists and designers went about creating and working within the source code of a game: how they created content and data, which then resulted in a game. Useful discussions should involve samples of real data that artists worked on and their process to get it into the engine. Designers should be able to document and explain how data combined with artistic assets and how it mobilized the source code to create a game. 


Once networks and structures shed the veil of secrecy, teams will have the opportunity to make the numerous design decisions and their impacts visible. Making more transparent the effects of sudden shifts of scope or design dictates from other interests can provide insight into the lived realities of game development. Collectively this information may encourage developers to work with particular manufacturers and publishers in favor of others that detrimentally affect the work practices of developers. Transparency may also help publishers and manufacturers understand why developers are resistant to dictated shifts or changes. Improved visibility could provide publishers and manufacturers insight into when and why studios or development teams are not moving forward successfully. Transparency cuts in numerous directions, all of which would seemingly benefit the game industry.

Transparency will begin to demystify the game development process, so new conversations can begin about these processes, discussions that are explicit and clear rather than general and vague. Companies can discuss aspects of game development that have historically remained closed. More than anything, opening up will encourage game developers to think of themselves in a broader collective context, rather than as individuals in individual studios scraping against all odds against their fellow developers.

Yet, even as several researchers like Jen Whitson, John Banks and others work to develop "Studio Studies," as a sub-field within Game Studies, I worry about the fundamental viability of such a thing. I see it as crucial to a broader understanding of what game development work is and how it unfolds. I've written about it, though in a more academic fashion.

But the reality of this kind of research is that access is one of the most fundamental issues, despite the care that those involved feel for their sites, as others like Ian Condry have noted:

"I failed to get access or interviews far more often than I succeeded. The collection of examples I report on here arose because of the goodwill of people who often didn't know me well and for that I am grateful. I hope I'm not too grateful. The anthropologist Brian Moeran(1996) notes an interesting by-product of fieldwork in his ethnography of a Japanese advertising agency – that is, his fierce loyalty to the firm he studied... from The Soul of Anime pp. 5-6

As an anecdote, while I was back in Upstate New York to deliver a talk about more recent research, I scheduled a bit of time to sit down with old friends at VV. I was relegated to "the kitchen," after having previously been free to roam and converse with developers. Perhaps more than anything, I was struck by how few of my informants remained. It makes sense, I suppose, that six years later only a handful of those "grunts" who I believe had defined the studio remained. Perhaps it was simply bad timing. But the experience reminded me of the fragility of access and the dominance of the culture of secrecy within the industry.

The massive layoffs and shuttering of Irrational Games is part of a broad set of practices that ultimately contribute to the Institutional Alzheimer's of the big-bad-AAA game industry. Occasionally it results in beautiful new projects on the part of those who find themselves without jobs, but more-often than not it contributes to the continued infancy of the industry. It's time to distinguish between real secrets and just the stuff that goes on day-to-day.

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