Over the last few weeks I have had many conversations with friends and long-standing industry colleagues, where our discussions have focused upon how much the industry has changed, especially from when we first joined, nearly 25 years ago.
Our conversations have focused upon the wants and needs of the people, in other words, what motivates the developers who make the products, the media, the games? What keeps them happy?
I mean, if you’d have told me all those years ago that employees within a global development company would be so unhappy with their employer’s choice of contract, so much so that they would send a petition to their employer and the story itself makes news, I would have laughed and said, “yea right!” sarcastically, “it’s good that!”.
It’s funny that before this happened, during the usual run-up to Thanksgiving, the big-hitters released their bids for commercial and critical dominance in the global game charts. One of these games was Red Dead Redemption 2. I’m sure you’ve all played it! I’m even proud to say that a number of graduates whom I've had the pleasure teaching games design and production, are now at Rockstar North and have worked on the game.
However the game’s success was marred by a slew of press surrounding the working ethos/expectations within Rockstar Games, with claims from one of the founders that people were working 100 hour weeks.
It was at this time I was starting to re-review the objects of study within my game design focused PhD, after some important reflection. The title of my study was “Finding the Fun: How videogame developers and audiences can use affective processes of videogame design to create affective videogames.” But from completing the initial qualification of my PhD study (which is was a Post Graduate Certificate in Research Practice), I found that some of the research I had conducted was not gelling with me, especially research focused on ‘Affect’. Having worked ‘in’ the industry all these years, I wanted some form of instant clarity to latch onto, which I wasn’t getting. But serendipitously, my research journey then took me to areas of focus which are so ‘on-point’ with how game developers are ‘feeling’ today, that my research strategy shifted.
Here’s how it happened…From my last blog post on my website I explained how I was attempting a stage within my doctoral research, which I nicknamed ‘Lifting the Fog & finding the Fun’. As an Emergent Researcher, I was attempting to “critically reflect and then analyse further what have I done, what have I learnt (the good and the bad), and what do I plan to do to progress, so that I may carry on with my PhD journey, hopefully moving forwards to achieve my short, medium and long-term research aims.” In doing this stage I started to look back at my 3 key theoretical areas, which I identified would underpin my PhD’s Theoretical Framework.
- Games Design within the context of Videogames
As part of my PhD journey, I have had to complete a qualification called the PGCert in Research Practice. During this period, I had undertaken a large amount of research collation within each specific area. As my core specialism is already Games Design, an area I feel comfortable within, I felt I needed to tackle the area of ‘Affect’ as a priority; this area unfamiliar to me, needed further detailed investigation, especially within the context of how it can/does apply to videogames. As I started to dig deep within definitions of ‘Affect’, I took steer within the Theoretical Framework in my PhD proposal, looking at the relevant literature that I had compiled.
I started by looking at specific literature associated with ‘affect’ This took me to Hardt’s foreword on ‘affect’; it suggested, as cited in Clough and Halley (2007, n.p.), that “Clough’s identification of the ‘‘affective turn’’ in the humanities and social sciences is accountable to two primary “precursors in U.S. academic work”; focus on the body and exploration of emotions”. Looking deeper still and conducting, further research into this area, I was taken to work by Hansen & Gorton (2013); they critiqued numerous analytical definitions of ‘affect’ provided by Shouse (2005), Blackman & Cromby (2007), Clough (2007), Cvetkovich (2003), Ahmed (2010), Highmore (2010), and Stewart and Wissinger (2007).
Whilst these researchers provided these many definitions of affect, they were within their contextually analytical methodologies, looking at both cultural and critical theory (considering parameters such as emotional and physical analysis). However, regarding ‘affect’, I found this definition by Hansen & Gorton’s (2013 p34) a cause for concern, especially when considering videogames and games design:
“the slipperiness of the term and its usage within academic study” and “the notion of in-between-ness and liminality is structured into the definition of affect and makes coming to full interpretations of emotion online increasingly impossible.”
As the main area of focus within the theoretical framework of my PhD is Games Design within the context of videogames, doubt was instilled within me by Hansen & Gorton’s secondary research. As I am in no way an expert on ‘affect’, I appreciate the research done by those such as Clough and Halley. They have spent many years researching the subject. However, having encountered adjectives such as ‘slipperiness’ and ‘impossible’, used by one who has formulated a definition of ‘affect’ after years of research, the creation of ambiguity subsequently led to worrying doubt. To one such as myself, an emerging researcher, who likes to anchor on-going research tasks onto solid foundations, I prefer more stable, less ambiguous definitions.
In comparison, the definition provided by Sara Ahmed (2010 p.30) did provide a more solid foundation. She states in her literature that “Affect is what sticks, or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects”. Hansen & Gorton go onto further analyse this, considering that “affect is a sort of glue”; when applied to ideas, values and objects (such as videogames), they can be affective and remain with us throughout life, both as individuals and as a means of “sustaining gatherings of people or ideas” i.e. the audiences themselves. In their conclusive overview on ‘affect’, Hansen & Gorton (2013, p178) consider that:
“In everyday life, ordinary people’s acceptance of the ‘openness, emergence, and creativity’ of the ‘affect turn’, which ‘is already the object of capitalist capture’ (Clough 2010, 224) may only continue to overcode their time, lives, and loves in ways that make them fall in love with themselves and their electronics.”
As I am a long-standing consumer of digital media, more specifically videogames, for over 40 years now, I now consider myself an early adopter (Rogers, 2003) of new technologies. I am keen to engage with these new technologies, designed by the developers (and the users/audiences), that can sometimes provide innovative experiences, which can lead onto bigger and better things. I am passionate about innovation within interaction, methods in which one can interact deeply with increased immersion, within the all aspects of the videogame itself (the gameplay mechanics, the aesthetics and narratives, and finally the interaction methods).
Therefore I found Hansen & Gorton’s statement resonated positively. Overall though, both statements were positive reinforcement moving forwards; that the area of ‘affect’ is not as ‘slippery’ as first portrayed. Hansen & Gorton (2013 p178) go onto apply an analytical point to the context of “imagining affect as upgradable in the context of a digital media age”, in that “there is always a chance for something else, unexpected, new” (Clough 2010, p224). As videogames evolve, together with the technologies they are delivered on, along with their design and developmental processes, one can only imagine within the realms of the ‘impossible’, what new areas of ‘affect’ are evoked by the delivery of these new end products/user experiences.
As I gathered new re-invigorated hope, I decided to revisit my theoretical framework to now look deeper at areas where ‘affect’ may have an impact. One key area is within the design and developmental processes of creating a videogame. Hansen & Gorton (2013, p42) consider that “affect is vehicular”, that it is “mobile and goes unprotected from one dimension to another”. They also argue that if there is “the precariousness of the private intimate images exchanged between lovers over e-mail or mobile phone that then enter an affective online economy”, then is it at all possible that videogame designers and developers can convey “affect” from the design and developmental processes of creating a videogame, the emotions they themselves experienced during these times, into the actual end videogame itself? If from an emotional perspective, can this ‘vehicular travel of affect’ from the process to the product be either positively associated emotions (happiness) or those associated with negative emotions (anger, frustration)?
As ‘People’ are a key object of study within my research, I therefore decided to firstly preface addressing any further research into ‘affect’ along with research into the ‘videogame design and development process’ by researching and reviewing the existing organisational structures within which these ‘people’ (i.e. ‘the game developers’) work. By having several discussions with my supervisors, it was apparent that I had unconsciously began to research ‘the culture within the workplace in the Games Industry’. I was pointed towards Hesmondhalgh and Baker’s 2011 literature “Creative Labour: Media Work in Three Cultural Industries”; this proved to be a particularly pertinent and time-relevant literature (especially with what was going on at that point within the games industry with the news from Rockstar Games that one of the founders cited his senior management team worked 100 hour weeks on Red Dead Redemption 2; this will be discussed in more detail later). I then started to look at the extension of ‘affect’ towards positive emotions; perceptions of why people gain pleasure from the work they do and does this pleasure manifest itself within the end product.
Hesmondhalgh and Baker conducted a number of ‘intensive interviews’ with people within the creative industries, ranging from journalists, musicians, creatives working within television and film production, and audience members associated with the aforementioned industries. I found it invigorating that they also interviewed the audiences associated with these industries, as this was most definitely applicable to my research, since one of the objects of my PhD study is the ‘People’; both the videogame developers and their audiences too.
To mitigate risk when conducting the interviews, they used a number of strategies including minimising direction within the question/answers. Another strategy which they used, which is one that I also plan to use when I come to the interview phase of my research, is to recruit a number of interviewees “from the same company, or the same cultural ‘world’, to increase the chances that we might be able to check interviewees’ accounts against each other.” (Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2011 p16).
I believe this is particularly important and relevant when it comes to interviewing people within the context of videogame development, as the perspectives of the individuals may be influenced/impacted by a number of different factors. These may include the interviewee’s specific job within their specific discipline (art, programming, design, sound & music, production, sales and marketing, general management) together with other factors which may include their seniority/company ranking/work experience level, their motivation (money, interest, quality of life, challenge), together with their personal feelings and emotions (such as their self-esteem and state of well-being). All of these may contribute to different perspectives given on events which have taken place, therefore it is necessary to gain a number of different perspectives within the interview stage to correlate similar and differing accounts, and the reasons for their differences.
Finally, they also used another technique which again I plan to use, which is ‘participant observation’; whilst their observation was time consuming (over four months they stated), it allowed the pair to observe the participants, from these perspectives:
“when they were off duty and/or off guard, and as they went through a number of different states and experiences.” and “observe much more fully other aspects of creative workers’ lives and subjectivities, such as their comportment, demeanour, behaviour and attitudes.” (Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2011 p16).
Again, whilst working on developing a videogame, there are many different experiences one participates within, again all are open to exposure to the same aforementioned parameters when interviewing. As videogames are created through a number of development cycles (Concept, Pre-production, Production, Alpha, Beta and Final), ‘participant observation’ will be particularly interesting to conduct, as one must also consider that with each development cycle comes different “states and experiences” as Hesmondhalgh and Baker highlight.
As I moved forward within Hesmondhalgh and Baker’s literature, I found some of their analysis points on ‘Affective Labour’ particularly relevant to videogames development. Firstly, they considered that affective labour was included within Hardt and Negri’s (2000 p290) expansive definition:
“labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication”
This then made me question, is a videogame one of these at all? Or, is a videogame all of these? We know by definition an ‘immaterial good’ is one without physical properties, so as videogames exist within the digital realm, this part of the definition suffices. Looking closer:
- ‘as a service’: today many developers and publishers create videogames and deliver them as a service, with patches, downloadable content, microtransactions (gameplay enhancements or cosmetic enhancements to videogame assets). Also considered here are controversial elements such as loot boxes; controversial as they have been considered as an element of ‘simulated gambling’, as a recent Guardian Online article considers the work done by Australian psychiatrists and researchers.
- ‘a cultural product’: Based on the five-part category definition of products and activities associated with cultural products, provided by Kiria (2018), videogames fits both Types 2 and 3 which are:
- “Type 2: reproducible cultural and information products containing the artistic (creative) labour – books, disks, movies, television programs etc.
- “Type 3: semi reproducible products containing the artistic (creative labour), which the reproducibility is limited technically or socially – art books, engraving, artistic craftworks”
One must also consider when discussing culture and videogames, the research conducted by Muriel and Crawford (2018); they consider that:
“Video games are becoming an increasingly central part of our cultural lives, impacting on various aspects of everyday life such as our consumption, communities, and identity formation”
- ‘knowledge, or communication’: one can consider here the educational element of videogames, such as serious games or simulations. As Michael and Chen (2005 p17) define the properties of a serious game as “a game in which education (in its various forms) is the primary goal, rather than entertainment”. Therefore, within this context, focusing upon communicating a message or educating the user with the appropriate knowledge a specific user journey, to simulate a real-world action, can, as Michael and Chen (2005 p17) go onto to argue can cause ‘conflict’. They state that game developers and educators are ‘at odds’, as entertainment and education are combined yet conflict, however they go on to argue that ‘many placed where the two overlap’ and ‘where each side can use the tools of the other to achieve their goals’.
Whilst I was looking at ‘Affect’ and considering the elements associated with the emotional journey associated when creating a videogame, as I delved deeper into Hesmondhalgh and Baker’s literature, I also found their analysis on ‘Creative Workers’ relevant to videogames and videogame development; so much so that this became a nexus for a shift in my research perspective. When it comes to ‘cultural products’, there are a number of factors they considered important desirable characteristics of working in the cultural/creative industries after conducting their research interviews. These include:
- The ability to “gain great pleasure and satisfaction from seeing products have a significant impact on society and on the industry that they work in.”
- “The ability to feel as though one’s work has had a significant effect not only on one’s peers, but on attitudes within society as a whole”
- “Quality, then, provides a sense of meaning and purpose”
- Enhancing “people’s pleasure in and understanding”
- “innovation that has an impact on society and on the industry, work that is ground-breaking, or that reveals injustice in the world”
- Involving “craft elements, the skilful and adroit conveying of information or character or feeling”
(Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2011 p187-190).
On a personal level, I have affinity towards many of these are attributes when I have worked as both creative designer and developer, making videogames for nearly 25 years, and educating and training people to make videogames for over 10 of those years. At the same time, I reflected and considered all the studios I worked at and considered all the colleagues I have previously worked with who have also the same perspective(s) as myself. Going one step further I then also considered the studios I worked at (including my own) and reflected back on their company ethos, their philosophies for creating a good working environment for their creative workers to thrive within.
Serendipitously, at this same time, there were a number of different articles being published associated with the subject of working environments in the videogames industry. The main ones were related to Rockstar Games and the debate sparked from their studio co-founder, Dan Houser claiming that a small team of senior people were working 100 hour weeks during the creation of Red Dead Redemption 2. Whilst he stated that he himself, along with this contingent did so voluntarily, it did provoke the industry to question and scrutinize such an extremely demanding, time-consuming, working regime.
A number of people from Rockstar were then ‘allowed/came forward’ to comment; many stated that whilst they worked overtime as and when necessary, it was done so with pay and not to the extent of 100 hours. The fact that overtime was necessary questions the cultural perspective of the work-life balance, along with the project management techniques used within videogame development today. These articles provoked a great deal of internal reflection on my own auto-ethnographical working experiences within the videogames industry. Having worked at numerous studios during the last 3 decades, I too have worked under strict working regimes of 12-15 hour working days, 6-7 days a week, sometimes working 18-24 hours, until a company deadline is met and then approved.
As the debate ensued, another article which was published was that of GamesIndustry.Biz’s “Secrets from the Best Places To Work Awards winners 2018” . This was again serendipitous to my research as it prompted a shift of focus from what was the Rockstar 100 hour working environment, surrounded by negative perspectives, to what would potentially be a focus upon ideal working environments creating positive working cultures for those videogame developers in the industry. This article interviewed a number of videogame developers in the UK: 4 small organizations, 9 mid organizations and 6 large organizations, all of whom were identified to be ‘The Best Places to Work’ within the UK Games Industry. I analyzed the interviews and I was able to extrapolate, categorize and list the specific strategies they use:
- Financial Incentives
- Free Products
- Social/Team Bonding events
- People, Process & Development
- Physical Workspace
As I analyzed deeper, a few of the interviewees cited Daniel Pink’s (2011) Drive; how they gained inspiration from his ‘Motivation 3.0’ model. Pink argues that for simple tasks, traditional work motivational elements, such as money, are extrinsic methods of motivation which do work, but for more complex tasks, individuals look for deeper, more intrinsic motivational elements at work. His ‘Motivation 3.0’ model focuses upon the intrinsic motivators of ‘Autonomy’, ‘Mastery’ & ‘Purpose’. It just so happens that these are three out of the five core parameters associated with a successful gamification model/system, the other two factors being ‘Progress’ and ‘Social Interaction’. As I have used gamification as a means of invigorating and driving teaching and learning methods within many of my classes, I immediately had a direct affinity to what was said within the interviews towards Daniel Pink’s Motivation 3.0 model, especially focused upon the three pillars I have used myself within my teaching and learning strategies associated with videogame design and development. For instance, looking closer at the three pillars:
- ‘Autonomy’: Pink categorizes this into four elements: ‘Time’, ‘Technique’, ‘Team’ and ‘Task’. When looking back at the interviews and how some of the studios adopted strategies focused on ‘Time’, such as allowing their teams to work on individual projects, or work a number of days on individual work per milestone, again this resonated with me. I reflected back on work I have done at BCU where we too have adopted an autonomy on ‘Time’ strategy for our students within their work environment on the Masters Courses at GamerCamp at BCU (MA/MSc Videogame Development &MSC Videogame Enterprise, Production & Design). Every Friday we echo what Google have done with their employees, and we have incorporated a ‘Google Friday’, every week, so students may work on any project they wish (whether it is one currently running, one which they have completed and wish to progress, or one which is made up of their own volition, individually or in teams or their own making).
- ‘Mastery ’: Pink argues that humans strive to improve the things they do; comes with it is the personal gratification, sense of progress and achievement felt by the individual. Intrinsically motivated within this context, individuals strive to complete work, as long as the correct environment exists for task delivery. For instance, making tasks too easy or too difficult can be counter-intuitive towards a sense of progression; individuals must therefore feel a sense of challenge. Upon further reflection within the work I have done on the undergraduate two-year fast-track degree courses, helping to co-found them and course direct them at BCU, we have created a number of videogame development modules, where the students create videogames in a short space of time. To do this, the products/videogames we ask the students to create must be realistically achievable within the allotted timeframes; and to do this master task, smaller, more challenging sub-tasks are set to the students. They are challenged within the module by working outside of their comfort zones, yet completing tasks regularly and transparently to gain a sense of continual progression, so that they gain the sense of ‘mastery’.
- ‘Purpose’: Pink states that there are three realms of organizational life where purpose exists; ‘goals, words and policies’ (Pink 2005 p43).
- ‘Goals’: He cites the research conducted by Hewlett (2009) on the Baby Boomer generation and Generation Y (also known as millennials or ‘echo boomers’) in that these generations “are redefining success [and] are willing to accept a radically ‘remixed’ set of rewards.” Here the focus is to use financial reward as a catalyst, but instead focus on other non-financial elements as specific goals, which includes “a great team” to “the ability to give back to society through work.” (Pink 2005 p44).
- ‘Words’: Pink highlights an interesting example in how in 2009, Harvard MBA students created a ‘MBA Oath’, in light of the 2008 stock market crash. Their oath was a ‘code of conduct’; the students felt that they needed to take ownership of the financial crisis as they felt responsible. Within a few weeks of its inception, it is said that “roughly one-quarter of the graduating class had taken the oath and signed the pledge” (Pink 2005 p44). Hamel (2009) argues that although management’s goals are centered on words which include ‘efficiency,’ ‘advantage,’ and ‘value’, they do not inspire individuals on an intrinsic level. He goes on to argue that within the context of business, it is instead more important that deeper, more inspirational words be used, such as ‘honour, truth, love, justice, and beauty’.
- ‘Policies’: According to Pink, individuals are more motivated if they feel they are working within ethical organizational frameworks, ones which allow the individuals to perform a task or tasks which have some greater meaning. This could include working one day a week on elements such as research, outward education, community service or charity work. He states that “handing individual employees control over how the organization gives back to the community might do more to improve their overall satisfaction than one more “if-then” financial incentive.” (Pink 2005 p45).
Looking at these three ‘realms’ and reflecting back at the work I have done at the New Technology Institute at Birmingham City University, back in 2014 we created our own set of working philosophies, a code of conduct, that as staff and students we all want to work towards, so that we create a collegiate, holistic working environment. We aimed to be responsible for our actions, making sure we created opportunities to learn, develop and progress, while having a focus upon enthusiasm:
As I mentioned previously, the 3 key areas of my theoretical framework were:
• Games Design within the context of Videogames
• Affect and Fun
At this point, after speaking with my supervisors and going through:
- all of the research done on Hesmondhalgh and Baker,
- reflecting back on my own working within the games industry, from an auto-ethnographical perspective after researching and analyzing
- the numerous 100 hour articles on Rockstar Games
- The ‘Best Places to Work’ article – what these studios do to motivate their employees
- analyzing Daniel Pink’s Drive and understanding his approach due to my own work within the context of gamification, using the pillars of ‘Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose’
I decided that it was time to re-solidify the focus of the three key areas of the theoretical framework underpinning my PhD research; in other words a ‘Rebirth’ was required. The 3 key areas of my theoretical framework are now:
As I started to move forwards within this newly reborn framework, one of my supervisors pointed me to the work of Whitson, Simon and Parker (2018). Their article on ‘The Missing Producer’ contained some contextually appropriate research, linked to the updated framework. Their research focuses primarily upon how indie developers have changed their working processes to omit the need of having Producers, simultaneously investigating the costs and impact of this, on the development of games and on the team’s responsibilities to fulfill roles such as management and business/entrepreneurial activity.
Whilst they consider that the “contemporary game industry is heterogeneous, varying in terms of business model, production team scale and process, budget and infrastructure” (Whitson et al, p3), they stated that the indie developers they interviewed which work within these parameters measure their success by having the ability to continue to make more games:
“’success’ was not vested in the game being produced, nor in individualized metrics of success (critical acclaim, audience reception, sales numbers, average play time and net profit), but in the ability to sustain ongoing creative and collective processes – the social engagement related to both making games together as a team and sharing them with others.” (Whitson et al, p6)
In continuing to move forwards, I plan to focus some investigative research into how videogames design and videogames production work together with the people who use them (the videogame developers along with audiences), and if and how they can consider a focus upon Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose. Whitson, Simon and Parker (2018) provide some establishing groundwork for ‘Good Work’; they state for developers it “is linked to social organization, creative autonomy and the equitable distribution of resources and power within small teams.” (Whitson et al, p8). There must be also be some micro-methods currently used within creative processes which specifically takes Pink’s motivation pillars further, rather than broadly wanting to simply “‘keep on keeping on’” (Whitson et al, p7)
I must also consider if and how videogame developers can utilize and evolve existing motivational systems within the game design process, such as ‘contingent rewards’, where those working within development teams are encouraged to effectively complete regularly assessed tasks, thus accomplishing goals in a timely manner. The system requires frequent assessments of the work completed, so that once appropriately approved as ‘complete’, person is greeted with applicable rewards.
Finally, after speaking with one of my supervisors, he highlighted that as I am a practicing videogames designer, I am different from others who conduct research and then leave their field of practice. I am ‘researching ‘in’ the videogame development process' as opposed to ‘researching ’on’ the videogame development process’; by combining my approach of ethnography with auto-ethnography, I aim to provide a tapestry of narratives and recommendations.
So now, the title of my PhD is “Finding the Fun: How videogame developers and audiences can work together using motivation, wellbeing strategies and affective processes of videogame design, to create affective videogames.”
Watch this space!
Thanks to Dr Nick Webber & Dr Oli Carter
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