January 29, 2023

Koç University

“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.

Media Ethnographer<br>
Media Ethnographer

New wave of anthropology!

Compared to the past, media anthropology has become much more comprehensive in Turkey. Works produced in this eld follow both the global trends in media anthropology but they also come up with their own unique angles of study based on Turkey’s dynamics.” says media anthropologist Nazlı Özkan. Nazlı is currently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Visual Arts at Koç University. She recieved her PhD in Anthropology at Northwestern University and is currently working on a project on the history of new media technologies in Turkey. We talked with Nazlı about her trajectory to anthropology and reections on conducting interdisciplinary research as an anthropologist.

Can you tell us about the road that merged you with anthropology?

I decided to become an anthropologist in my second year at college after taking the Political Anthropology class. I was majoring in Guidance and Psychological Counseling and took the class as an elective from the Sociology Department. I had no idea about what anthropology was and the syllabus, which included readings from theorists such as Gramsci and Foucault, seemed unfamiliar, if not intimidating. Contrary to my initial perception, however, anthropology turned out to be a way of thinking that is very easy to familiarize myself with (Here, I should also thank Ayfer Bartu Candan, the instructor of the class, for her well-structured and clear lectures). When applied to understand the daily interactions that we usually take for granted, all these unfamiliar theorists turned out to be useful guides that provide a fascinating vantage point to understand the relation of one’s very intimate interactions with power and inequality. I was fascinated by ethnography’s power as a methodology to bring into discussion minute details of everyday life and show how these details usually reproduce and are shaped by various socio-economic disparities. As a young university student concerned about social and political injustices, I got convinced that anthropology could be a way for me to pursue a more social-justice oriented life and decided to pursue a PhD in this field.

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge/opportunity in conducting interdisciplinary research as an ethnographer who is trained in anthropology?

I will start with the challenge part as this is something I frequently think about. Ethnography or participant observation is a very popular methodology that is widely used across disciplines. The ethnographic methods class I took during my PhD studies had students from various departments and it could be one of the most interdisciplinary courses I attended in graduate school.This popularity is great for us as anthropologists since it usually facilitates enriching conversations with scholars from other disciplines. Such popularity, however, also leads to a common misconception that conducting participant observation is enough to produce an anthropological study. This kind of approach usually ignores that ethnography is a methodology that is at the heart of anthropology because contemporary anthropology, as a discipline, aims to challenge dominant or taken-for-granted frameworks of knowledge production, including the positivist framework. Ethnographic methodology requires the researcher to learn the language of their interlocutors and spend at least a year and sometimes two years in the field because it is through such extensive engagement that anthropologists develop this alternative framework of knowledge. Anthropologists tend to criticize doing participant observation with an analytical approach that is produced elsewhere (not in the field) and I think this is one of the most important challenges faced by anthropologists when doing interdisciplinary work.

I think media anthropology is a field that is very conducive to interdisciplinary study. In my own work, I frequently use the communication literature and am currently working at an interdisciplinary department that also includes communication scholars. I mostly benefit from the rich conceptual framework of the communication scholarship. Also, engaging with studies on media in other disciplines help me better locate my observations in relation to what is going on elsewhere in the world. In my work with journalists, I am also interested in how digital technologies transform journalistic production. When studies from other disciplines, conducted in other countries using different methodologies, such as statistics, yield to similar results to my observations, I became more curious about the parallel dynamics that might have caused the similarity. These resonances help me to see the global trends better. And they are also useful because the richness of anthropological data may sometimes make it hard to choose what to focus on so interdisciplinary engagement is one way of putting my data into perspective.   

In a recent article published in PoLar [hyperlink], you present an alternative perspective on minority media and argue that “minority media producers can also be strategic in their alignments with their communities and may use this alignment as a façade when securing their ties with states” (p. 317). The article provides an in-depth understanding of an Alevi-run television in Turkey, which is possible only through good ethnography. And such deep ethnographic engagement often comes with its unique uneasiness and fragilities. Can you tell us about your positionality as an ethnographer and a media producer and the complex ways in which you enacted this positionality in the field?

The article you mention was based on the preliminary fieldwork I conducted back in the early 2000s for my larger dissertation project so it belongs to a period when I was getting more familiar with my field site but also with my own position as an anthropologist. The fieldwork that I conducted for two months during that period was very teaching for me to reflect upon my positionality in the field as an anthropologist. If you are doing ethnography in a setting such as news production, it is very easy to conflate different roles as data collectors, as you also mention in the question. During the research of the PoLAR piece, I became more aware of these roles—as an anthropologist and as a reporter. Depending on the institution they worked at, reporters or news producers usually have certain red lines when covering events. But as anthropologists, we usually focus on those very red lines and analyze them openly. In my case, my opinion about the incident and the network’s coverage strategy was in conflict so I tried to navigate this tension during my stay at the network. Of course, there is no specific formula to handle this situation so I can say that I tried ways to communicate my unique positionality in the field both as an ethnographer and as a reporter. One of those ways was asking some of the questions that I knew I would ask when analyzing the incident. I asked very straightforward and sometimes critical questions about the specific coverage strategy that I knew I would not be able to ask as a reporter employed by the network. Here, one walks a fine a line between being open and not making people uncomfortable. I must say that later, when I was doing my longer fieldwork, I learned to be less straightforward with my questions because even if I do not agree with the ways in which things are done, I am there to understand the reasons and obviously do not want to make people uncomfortable. Staying in the field longer is also helpful to navigate such tensions better because it gives much more insight into people’s actions and the events that they are part of. Also, people get to know you better, eventually you become friends and friendship provides a flexibility that not sharing the same viewpoint is not always a problem. This deeper relationship also made it easier for me to navigate my positionality but even then, fieldwork is full of these moments when you are not happy with the way you acted and the way things are carried out. You slowly learn how to sit through the discomfort and continue showing up despite that discomfort. I think I accepted that the fragility will be there as long as I continue researching and writing and that it is part of being an anthropologist. One can definitely get more talented at navigating the fragility while also knowing that it is not possible to fully overcome it.

What is your take when you look at the ethnographic/anthropological studies about media of Turkey? Do you observe any common tendencies or foci? Where do you think anthropological/ethnographic studies of media in Turkey are going?

I think we are in a time when media anthropology in Turkey is thriving and I am sincerely thankful that your initiative is helping this flourishment while also recording it. Compared to the past, media anthropology has become much more comprehensive in Turkey. Works produced in this field follow both the global trends in media anthropology but they also come up with their own unique angles of study based on Turkey’s dynamics. There are ethnographies on Turkey’s religious and Islamist media, which is an important subfield in media anthropology in general. There are also ethnographies on Turkey’s journalistic production—again another popular subfield of ethnographic studies on media. Yet, in Turkey, in addition to works that focus on mainstream journalism, there are also studies that explore minority news production such as Kurdish women’s practices of news production. Hence, in Turkey, there is an emerging trend to explore minorities’ engagement with journalism. I think this is an enriching contribution to the anthropological studies of news media in the world in general.

As for the future, in line with what’s happening in the world, I think there will be more ethnographies on digital media in Turkey. We already started seeing some examples of this shift. As the media environment got more intensely populated by digital media platforms, we also observe how people shift between different media tools—watching television while Tweeting about the program they are watching. Both in Turkey and also in the world, ethnographers are paying more attention to the simultaneous use of these multiple media tools. I think we are in the process of an anthropological shift, a shift from examining how people consume one medium or produce via one medium—such as the famous ethnographies on television production and viewership—to exploring the use of and production via multiple mediums and how people shift between different mediums and platforms. I think we will be seeing the fruits of this shift in anthropological studies on media in Turkey.

Tell us about your ongoing projects these days.

I recently received a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship for my project on the history of new media technologies in Turkey. In the next two years, I will be doing research on public and official reactions to radio in the 1920s, television in the 1950s, and mobile devices in the 2000s. With the rise of digital media, we are in the middle of another “new media” moment. One of the most exciting angles for me to better understand this moment is by going back in history to similar “new media” moments, such as the ones that emerged with radio and television and examining how people reacted in similar and/or different ways to these new media technologies of their period. Analyzing how people’s responses to new media changes is a well-established method of studying media in the communication literature—and here is another benefit for anthropology to engage in interdisciplinary work. I think it is a useful one to adopt because not only inventors or tech producers but also users play an important role in constructing the newness of technology. In my project, I will specifically look at how technological newness is constructed in relation to a country’s dominant mode of economic production such as industrial-developmentalist or neoliberal. For example, newspaper coverage of the reactions to television as a new medium reveals that, during the 1950s, when industrialization and development were the dominant modes of economic order, people were worried that television would harm labor productivity by requiring “both the ear’s and eye’s attention” (Milliyet). When we look at reactions to digital devices, the new media of the neoliberal 2000s, this time, we see that people embrace it as an item of conspicuous consumption. There are many studies highlighting that it is important for lower classes to own the most recent version of the smart phones as a sign of upward mobility. In a way then, reactions to new media change in line with the mantra of the economic systems of their era: concerns over labor productivity in the industrial 1950s shift todesires for conspicuous consumption in the consumption-oriented neoliberal times. By conducting archival work in the magazines and newspapers of the 1920s and 1950s that covered technological developments and by conducting ethnography with digital media users, my project will try to examine how these shifting political economic trends inform how users play a role in constructing the newness of technology.

Can you tell us a recent ethnographic work that you read and liked?

The last ethnographic work I enjoyed reading is Gabriella Coleman’s book titled Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. I liked Coleman’s work because it focuses on hackers as a community in order to assess the limits of liberal ideas and liberal law in neoliberal times. I think by focusing on hackers, a role that emerged with the very rise of digital media, it provides a new vantage point to study transformations brought by digital technologies. It is not an ethnographic study but I also very much recommend Tarek El-Ariss’ book named Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age. This is another study on leaks and hacks and I like this book because it asks very important theoretical questions about media study that address issues unique to our contemporary moment. El-Ariss rephrases some of the questions we frequently ask about old media technologies—such as media circulation and public formation—in a way that almost updates them for a moment when leaks and hacks are a common mode of information sharing.

Doç. Dr. Suncem Koçer Çamurdan<br>
Doç. Dr. Suncem Koçer Çamurdan

Media and communication anthropologist Assoc. Dr. Suncem Koçer works as a faculty member at Kadir Has University, Faculty of Communication. Koçer’s academic specialties include media ethnography, political communication, news and journalism culture, digital media discourses, and cultural politics in Turkey.