Media Ethnographer: Ergin Bulut
“I used ethnography because I was very much interested in how love for one’s work looked like in the everyday lives of game developers,” says media studies scholar Ergin Bulut. Ergin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Visual Arts at Koç University. He received his PhD from the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He researches media industries and cultural production from a political-economic and ethnographic perspective. Currently, he continues his work on the videogames industry and is also examining Turkish dramas. We talked with Ergin about his book A Precarious Game: The Illusion of Dream Jobs in the Video Game Industry.“
You recently published your first book “A Precarious Game” with Cornell University Press. It is an ethnography of the video game industry in the US. What are your findings and conclusion?
First, thank you for your interest in my work. For my book, I ethnographically researched a medium-sized videogame studio in the United States Midwest. I wanted to understand how the labor of love looks like in this industry through this studio. The game studio I examined in my book was producing triple-A video games for consoles and PCs. When I was completing my three-year ethnographic research in 2013, a publicly-traded game publisher owned it. This publisher would then declare bankruptcy.
There has been a lot of enthusiasm about creative industries. They have been positioned as utopian workplaces where one can fulfill his/her career dreams. In fact, this was not true. This finding may not be surprising. However, the studio I was doing research was the flagship studio of a major game publisher. One game developer, for instance, made an analogy between their parent company and Titanic. That is to say, your job is not safe even when you’re working at the flagship studio of a major publisher in the video game market. In sum, a major finding in the book is that innovative work is intrinsically precarious.
If I were to refine this finding and say more, I would emphasize how multiple forms of inequalities exist in the industry. The core inequality is between the studio and its parent company. In this case, the studio got punished when the parent company declared bankruptcy due to its bad business decisions. The kind of inequality I am pointing to here is at the level of the contract. Once a game developer signs a contract, what s/he produces as intellectual property belongs to the parent company. And yet, despite the valuable work that these game developers put in, some of them were not able to avoid precarious employment or unemployment.
There are also inequalities between core creative team (artists, programmers, designers) and extremely precarious game testers as a support team. The former group of workers have better offices. They can internationally travel for work. They are better able to take advantage of the studio’s flexible work environment policy. The latter group, i.e. the testers, are contract-workers, who feel like “serfs” or “second-class citizens.”
There is also a racial level to workplace inequalities in this industry that disguises itself within a discourse of fun. Game developers love pushing the limits of technology and producing offensive game content. However, those libertarian practices can and will often hurt racial minorities. By coding subversive game content through a discourse of fun, game developers are exerting a particular form of symbolic inequality on minorities.
Finally, a fourth level of inequality foregrounds the question of the domestic sphere. The creative game developers are able to pursue their dreams mainly because somebody else is taking care of their families. Here, a major finding concerns gender that my book tackles at its intersection with class since these are mostly middle class women.
I conclude the book by making a call to become killjoys. Love at work sounds all good but it is just not sustainable. It legitimizes self-exploitation. It creates tons of doubt on the side of the workers in that one feels inadequate in terms of doing performance. Therefore, I highlight the need to be more cautious against the celebration of love at work because capital is more than happy to provide the ludic infrastructures for digital labor so that it can consolidate property relations.
Why did you use ethnography as a methodological toolkit to explore a company that develops video games?
I used ethnography because I was very much interested in how love for one’s work looked like in the everyday lives of game developers. I am quite inspired by political economy but at the same time, I want to know how those broader forces unfold in the everyday. There is also something about ethnography where it will push you to ask novel questions that you weren’t planning to pursue in the first place. Similarly, it will force you to come to terms with your own subject position. For instance, I wasn’t initially planning to talk to game developers’ partners. Perhaps, I too had that romantic view of creative work. And yet, upon my observations and encounters in the field, I ended up talking to developers’ partners and now I can document how the digital is far from erasing gender-based inequalities at the domestic level.
In the book, you describe your ethnographic field as a transnational and networked production setting where over 200 employees were working via email, forums, spreadsheets, conference calls, Skype, and VPN (virtual private network). What difficulties and challenges did you face while engaging in such a field, and how did you deal with them?
It’s an extremely fragmented and digital workplace. And I have a particular obsession about grasping social totality. So, because I wasn’t able to work at the studio, it took some time for me to get a grasp of work terminology. Participant observation and interviews were my main tools. Yet, this profession involves a lot of immaterial exchanges and the mobilization of feelings. So, I first convinced myself that I had to let some things go. I knew I wasn’t able to interview people in California or China. I would rely on the accounts of my research participants. As far as feelings are concerned, I resorted to photo elicitation and asked my informants to show me how it feels to work in that game studio. They took photographs of a particular object or space to discuss the meaning of their work and its emotional aspects. I wasn’t able to use these photos in the book but it was useful for me. I anticipate this method will gain more attention during the pandemic.
Do you think that ethnographic research yields insights into the relationship between love and work, which cannot be obtained by any other means of research? And why?
I do. Attending meetings where game developers had heated debates about the value of work is essential in understanding how love unfolds in the workplace. I am sure there would be other means to have access to this. But at the same time, without ethnography, I wouldn’t be able to observe those heated debates between creative teams. I wouldn’t be able to see the heart symbol that a recently laid off worker had put next to her name as she signed the visitors’ sheet at the lobby of the studio. I wouldn’t be able to see drunk game developers playing the very game they just launched. In sum, if you want to witness the messiness of everyday life and tell that kind of a story, ethnography is just vital.
In your research, you put critical political economy, feminist theory and autonomist Marxism in dialogue with one another. How did they theoretically inform your participant observation of the game industry?
As I said, I am embedded within political economy and autonomist Marxism. As far as political economy is concerned, I would be pursuing questions about the power inequalities between the corporation and the game workers. As far as autonomist Marxism is concerned, I am interested in the blurring distinction between waged time and leisure time. I am interested in how the most intimate aspects of human subjectivity are commodified through networked technologies. I am similarly interested in how, for instance, the game company I researched was constructing flexible work environment policies and humane workplaces (drinking beer at work, playing video games at work, open workspaces, being able to shower in the workplace etc.) in order to maximize value extraction. Here, the question becomes tricky because on the one hand, I find Autonomist theory useful (especially in relation to alternative concepts such as creative labor or cultural work) because it the dialectical struggle between capital and labor is still there. On the other hand, I do raise come criticism about some of the Autonomist concepts such as immaterial labor. At the center of my critique stands the very question of materiality. I suggest in the book that the prefix “im” flashes on and off thanks to the work of hardware workers, recycling workers, spouses and partners of game developers, and mining workers that make the gaming experience possible. That is where, for instance, I draw from feminist theorists such as Kylie Jarett (her book Digital Housewife is excellent) who has pointed to the relationship between the mutually constitutive relationship between production and reproduction or between economic and social organization. That is how I propose to materialize immaterial production through the case of videogame production. As far as feminist theory is concerned, it not only pushed me to pursue questions in the domestic space but also reframe the whole project around the question of social reproduction. The main question thus became: Who can play and who has to work in this industry? Once I framed the project around this question, the empirical focus shifted from the workplace to life itself. But to answer your question, I resorted to photo elicitation to reveal the emotional and subjective investments that game developers were making within their labor processes. If the soul is at work as scholars like Bifo Berardi argues, then I had to use photographs to visualize labor-related emotions. I think that theories of immaterial labor have quite remained at an abstract level. I wanted to empirically demonstrate the material and affective dimensions of this particular kind of labor.
Can you tell us a recent ethnographic work that you read and liked?
Our son was born in late December 2019 and since March, we are living a pandemic. So, I will be honest. I wasn’t able to read entire ethnographic monographs or even if I did, I cannot remember! I did read novels though. Murat Uyurkulak’s Delibo was extremely enjoyable. Similarly, Latife Tekin’s Manves City reads like an ethnographic novel. Yet, I can recommend Angela Mitropoulos’s and Donatella Di Cesare’s studies (not ethnographic!) if one is to understand the pandemic. I have been long meaning to read anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction by Design. Maybe I’ll do that during the semester break. But if you have recommendations on exciting ethnographic research, I am happy to hear.