Literature Review &
Study of Identity Work of video game developers

Introduction

For the purposes of this assignment three articles have been chosen and discussed. These are ‘Assessing the work environment for creativity’ by Amabile, Conti, Coon, Lazenby & Herron (1996), ‘Is creative work sustainable?’ by Reid, Petocz & Bennett (2016) and ‘Interrogating creative theory and creative work: Inside the games studio’ by Thompson, Paker & Cox (2015). Although with different perspectives used to discuss creativity, these articles have been grouped together to provide a comprehensive exploration of the concept.  The first paper focuses on effects of perceived external environment on creativity, while the second examines reticulation of these on creative workers’ perceptions of self-worth.  The third article potentially allows to combine and critically examine these findings in the specific context. The latter is also rather interesting as little research has been done on the video game industry and its peculiarities. Consequently, the article permits to assess how well high theory of creative dynamics applies to a specific work environment. Finally, the potential discussion questions are generated to ultimately discuss the identity work and coping strategies of video game developers.

Assessing the work environment for creativity

The purpose of this research was to design a new framework, namely KEYS, to measure the impact of the external work environment on the creative workers. The underlying assumption is that social environments have a capacity to either enhance or impede creative behaviour. With this instrument the researchers were able to discriminate between the high- and low-creativity projects and uncover environmental characteristics that define them as such. However, in the workplace it is frequent to have a different perceived environments depending on the worker subgroups, as they may interpret consistent organization-wide elements differently. Consequently, the paper aim to measure individuals’ perceptions of their environment and the effect of those perceptions on their work. The research is intended to serve as an analytical tool to identify which managerial practices result in positive work environment perception and hence the creative thought.

The data for this research has been collected over a period of eight years from interviews and questionnaires. The study’s participants came from a variety of positions and departments across multitude of companies. Notably, the sample represents a variety of industries, including electronics, chemicals, banking and manufacturing. Therefore, the research did not examine the traditionally creative firms, yet sought to pinpoint practices which influence creativity and innovation levels across all types of work environments.

The study has identified seven main work environment perceptions that enhance creative thought, namely organisational and supervisory encouragement, work group supports, resources, challenge, workload pressures and freedom. Consequently, high- and low-creativity projects had substantially different accumulated perceptions across these measures. Additionally, challenging work, encouragement, group support and freedom had much stronger effects compared to availability of resources and workload pressures. As a result, the study has established a practical framework to assess how strongly and efficiently workplace environment supports creative thought. It also supports the notion that creativity is a complex construct, requiring balanced and individualistic approaches, rather than stereotypical approaches to creativity. However, the researchers have also noted that given perception might be a result of a level of project creativity rather than its cause. Hence, it might be possible that the nature of work and environment perceptions are simultaneously causes and consequences of each other in a grid of feedback loops.

Therefore, although the research’s purpose was to define the psychological context of innovation and determine which work environments affect creativity the most, the results could be interpreted as too general. These findings provide a set of broad trends that are typical to high- and low-creativity projects, yet do not highlight specific practices that result in such perceptions. Consequently, further research could examine what specific supervisory behaviours lead people to perceive such encouragements, while also placing these findings into the context specific industries and creative workers’ personality types.

Is creative work sustainable? Understanding identity, motivation, and worth

The purpose of this article is to study how the creative workers perceive value of their work and its impact on the cultural sustainability. As of today, there has been no other research that inquires how the creative individuals’ self-worth is interpreted from their social environment and lived experiences. Consequently, the paper aims to provide definitive measures against which to understand the needs of the creative workers as well as judge their financial contributions.

Creative work is generally ephemeral and intangible, which complicates understanding the societal scope of impact of cultural work. As a result, creative individuals frequently perceive that the society depreciates their work and social contribution. Moreover, the statistical data often omits the creative workers who have portfolio careers. Therefore, the participants of this study have been targeted through creative associations, industry press and local media to depict a variety of occupations and employment types. The data has been collected in a form of a mix of quantitative and qualitative questions, where the participants were encouraged to candidly express their life and work narratives. Overall, the study has gather 182 responses in Perth, Australia, over a period of two years.

 The researchers have analysed the responses and identified thirty central keywords. Afterwards, the relationships between these have been identified to extract personal meanings as well as find differences and similarities in creatives’ lived experiences. Hence, five elements contributing to perception of self-worth have been uncovered: identity representation, motivation, catalysts of creativity, interaction with society and recognition. These elements have shown that one’s notion of creative identity fuels intrinsic motivation, helps preserve creative interest outside the creative field and largely affects the world perception. The interplay of identity, motivation, recognition and relation to society contributes to feelings of worth.  The study therefore confirms that identity is both a social and personal construct, which is fluid and depends on present circumstances.  Additionally, despite the common conviction that creative workers are mainly intrinsically motivated, these intrinsic motives are largely affected by the extrinsic factors.

These findings prove that intrinsic satisfaction with own work and its quality arises with the perception of supportive work environment. Nevertheless, the need for creative freedom and alignment of work and personal identities complicates the process of managing the creatives. Consequently, this paper emphasizes the need to foster a feeling of worth through five given elements, yet it also implies that there is no universally applicable way to do so. Therefore, managers attempting to manage creative workers have to take into consideration both the industry context and individual personalities to leverage the best results. However, this study is limited in its sample size and cultural variability. In order to provide more insight, it would be beneficial to examine other countries to potentially discover ampler trends or cultural differences in judgements of self-worth.

Interrogating creative theory and creative work: Inside the games studio

This article deliberates on the issues of creative freedom, work-and-play boundaries, identity and skill specialisation inside the game studios. The paper criticises the lack of distinctions between the creative workers across industries and a lack of application of high theory of creativity to specific contexts. Therefore, the paper aims to contribute to a small body of research of the digital game industry and highlight its particularities.  The article also seeks to describe gaming businesses as a part of the value chain and explore the changes of the work practices as this young industry has been evolving.

In order to situate the games industry in wider economical and theoretical context, the study has collected fifty-three interviews from employees at various organisational levels.  The first cycle of interviews focused on pinpointing labour dynamics in the industry and specific practices used to obtain work and contractual agreements. The second round of the interviews asked the participants to reflect on the changes that the industry has experienced.  Overall, the research encompasses thirteen Australian game studios with different market segments, levels of expertise and age, to study the production process and how it is affected by international trends.

The study has revealed that the industry is dominated by publishers and console manufacturers who possess vast of intellectual property and financial power. In contrast, independent studios primarily develop small licenced products, as they do not have sufficient resources to support projects, without external financial aid. Arguably, this results in greater work stability and less precarity, which characterises the traditional creative sector. Yet this asserts stronger pressures for cost efficiency and flexibility, where independent studios compete with each other for contractual work. The industry has also matured: demand for managerial positions has increased, while developers’ jobs became more specialised and repetitious. As a result, workers are experiencing less creative autonomy. Nevertheless, the study indicates that video game workers are fully aware of their commercial realities, thus making a conscious decision to give up creative freedom for stability. Originally perceiving themselves as creative artists, this requires identity renegotiation and development of new attitudes, such as condemnation of play at work.

Research also showed that the intrinsic enthusiasm of industry workers is diminishing as they infer less satisfaction from their daily tasks. Nevertheless, the paper suggests that better planning, equipment availability and higher aspirations could mitigate these effects. Consequently, further observation of the industry developments is necessary to compare its progress to other ‘exemplary’ creative sectors and understand the differences in managerial practices. Moreover, further research could investigate the particular ways in which creative thought could be encouraged under given industry constraints. Finally, the observed firms are at the margin of the global game industry, therefore examination of other countries’ contexts and a bigger sample size could provide more insight and potentially reveal different labour trends.

 

Discussion questions

If creative labour is immaterial, hard to measure and evaluate, how is it possible to estimate one’s professionalism and creative value when hiring?

Creative people have difficulties judging own worth, yet how do employers in the creative sector objectively measure the value of one’s creative contribution? The industry is riddled with stereotypes and biased expectations. It is critical to establish the level of stereotyping in each sector and how realistic or authentic one has to be to secure a job. An answer to this question would require substantial qualitative research, inquiring both the creative workers and industry professionals who hire them.

How different is each sector of the creative Industries in terms of personalities and managerial practices that inhabit them?

The definition of the Creative Industries is very broad and captures a variety of institutions, occupations and worker personalities. It would be interesting to find out whether there are certain trends within each subsector of the CI. These could include behavioural or personality similarities among the people employed. Finding these would potentially help to develop more specific managerial practices for individual sector. Yet this would require a large cross-sectional quantitative and qualitative study with an in-depth analysis.

How specifically video game developers cope with the adverse creativity trends, which impede creativity and diminish sensations of self-worth?

The described trends of the video game industry suggest that game productions are less creative than a decade ago. Does this lead to a sense of dissent with the organisational work? Yet, are there any specific industry practices that help workers cope with the pressures? This might provide a deeper insight into the peculiarities of the gaming sector, understand the level of problem enormity and suggest ways to efficiently deal with it from the managerial perspective. This will be explored in the section below.

Discussion

Start in late 1970s and early 80s with an advent of arcade machines by Atari (Pong, Pac-Man) and Taito (Space Invaders). Mid 80s - first video games were released and a concept of home consoles was introduced. 1995 – first Playstations were shipped into stores (The Strong, 2016). Annual revenue growth 9-15%. The revenue totals (including console and software sales) are comparable to movie box offices, and are approximately five times bigger than global music sales. Only 3% of games productions break even or make profit. This is accompanied/result of high production costs, task complexity, need for highly-trained specialist staff, minimum costs of copies, and piracy proliferation (Cășvean, 2016).

As such, a great number of game developers state that they want to make games simply because they like them (Quora, 2016; O'Donnell, 2009). Moreover, creativity and cooperativeness are among other most enjoyable industry characteristics (Dyer-Witheford & Peuter, 2006). A job of a game designer is to generate original concepts, which involves a great degree of artistic freedom, flexibility and autonomy. Being in the industry provides appropriate resources to accomplish that. “Being creative at work and still using my technical skills…It’s like architecture and engineering rolled into one.” (Dyer-Witheford & Peuter, 2006).

Early game industry was characterised by flat working structures and strong group support, where people felt comfortable with who they were. Frequently referred to as “rebelliousness” characteristic, contrary to stiffness of the “corporate world” - becoming an essential part of the broader gaming culture (O'Donnell, 2009). Also, considered one of the ‘coolest’ sites of modern entertainment media, due to unregulated hours, lenient dress code, free food, fitness facilities, parties, field trips, aesthetic office design, etc (Dyer-Witheford & Peuter, 2006). These allow indulging one’s intrinsic drives to create. Positive social environment, recognition and organisational support ought to encourage a greater sense of self-worth (Thompson, Parker & Cox, 2016).

From 1990s large publishers have emerged (EA, Activision Blizzard, THQ, Konami, Microsoft and Sony) -  act as distributors and financiers – industry gatekeepers. They increasingly own more IP and account for 62% market share (Marchand & Hennig-Thurau, 2013; Caves, 2000). The increased complexity calls to hire more people, hierarchies have been established and strong labour division took place. The game concepts are largely behind the publishers than game designers (Tschang, 2007). Titles produced showcase mere incremental innovation to avoid financial risks. Game projects became an “antithesis of creativity” (Zackariasson, Walfisz, & Wilson, 2006, p.77). About 60% of developers work more than 46 hours a week, 20% work 55 hours.  Management treats it as normal, offering no financial compensation (Dyer-Witheford & Peuter, 2006). As a result, the prevailing aesthetisation of work environment functions as a “smokescreen” to keep attracting young idealistic workers and obscure the reality of exploitation, discouragement ‘work as play’ ethos, lack of space for artistic integrity (Deuze, Martin & Allen, 2007).

According to Amabile, Contti, Coon, Lazenby & Herron (2005), such working conditions are characteristic to low-creativity projects and discourage creative behaviour. Similarly, Reid, Petocz & Bennet (2016) would conclude that lack of recognition encourages perceptions of lack own work value. Lack of control over one’s ideas or organizational task was found to manifest a powerlessness over one’s emotions, decrease confidence, efficacy and fragment sense of self (Abraham, 1998). In social identity theory, one’s self perception is derived from the concept of the ‘I’, its wants/needs, and belonging to certain social groups (Glasford, Dovidio & Pratto, 2016). Being highly invested into their work and passion for games, the identity of professional game developer is inseparable from daily labour. If the game studios do not fulfil creative’s expectations of what it is to be a game developer – disidentification takes place - employees perceive their own beliefs and principles to contradict those of organization’s (Kreiner & Ashforth, 2004). Game developers therefore do not so much identify with their workplaces, but with their projects and social groups (Deuze, Martin & Allen, 2007).

To be able to keep be working, series of cognitive negotiations occur. For example, research has found that even thinking styles can help mediate the dissonances and conflicts of personal and work identities (Abraham, 1998; Deuze, Martin & Allen, 2007).

Video game companies tend to employ “gamers” (Zackariasson, Walfisz, and Wilson, 2006). Studies found that gamers tend to have a mind-set, where ‘winning is everything’ and ‘competition is the law of nature’. Consequently, the same drive that motivates players to keep getting through progressively harder game levels, could also be helping game professionals to keep being creative despite inhibiting circumstances. Any game provides with a definite knowledge that the win is possible, where milestones are needed to be conquered thus providing satisfaction. The real-life work could be justified the same way. Instead of a list of in-game achievements, game workers receive recognition and rewards from a list projects/titles they contributed to (Deuze, Martin & Allen, 2007; Powell, 2007). Moreover, the ability to ‘play’ when testing and creating, further cognitively separates the conventional world of ‘work’ and helps to remain in their jobs (O'Donnell, 2009).  

Social support emerges as a strong moderator of job and identity dissatisfaction (Abraham, 1998). Being in a group can aid by maintaining positive distinctiveness outside the formal workplace and helps release the accumulated feelings of resentment (Glasford, Dovidio & Pratto, 2009). Hence, a strong collective culture of game developers has been established (Walsh & Gordon, 2008). Such communities are founded on the shared passion to making games, interests, beliefs, emotional experiences and other self-referential practices. Consequently, they became a large part of what constitutes being a game developer (Guevara-Villalobos, 2011). On the emotional level, such in-group belonging allows game developers to establish shared meanings, trust and moral support. It provides motivation to keep developing games through enabling networking practices, knowledge transfers and skill learning. One of the interviewees in a study of relationships between community and labour said: “[these communities] can help with the creative sparks, the play testing of games, and how to handle the business aspects of selling the games. Really all sorts of things at all levels.” (Guevara-Villalobos, 2011, p. 4).

Developers’ communities frequently organise events which encourage creative expression, learning and experimentation outside work. Known as Game Jams – competitions to create a game within a span of 2-4 days in self-selected teams. There “reciprocal relationships and shared experiences as a community of practice and production, create conditions to develop trustful bonds, reinforce common values, goals and practices” (Pargman, 2005, p. 106). Jams also provide a sense of freedom, challenge and strong organisational support – all of which according to Amabille et al. (2005) strongly encourage creative behaviour. Established bonds reinforce the idea of making games, and “the wonderment of finding through coding, assembling and testing a representation of their ideas”. A group develops a coherent subjective viewpoint – providing an alternative infrastructure to emotionally deal with industry challenges (Guevara-Villalobos, 2011, p. 11)

Additionally, helps to reinforce one’s sense of authenticity. Authenticity is also socially constructed and it is common for creatives to claim authenticity by immersing themselves into authentic experiences.  Similar practices have been employed by blues players, who were performing in clubs, whose images were coherent with artist’s desired perceptions of themselves (Peterson, 2010). Therefore, Jams adhere to a set of values, which initially attract game workers into the industry. Being ‘authentic’ becomes a matter of own hands, reinforced by other individuals, whose opinions become credible due to also participating in Jams (Peterson, 2010). A lot of developers hence use game jams to get work done and make as much progress as they can (Guevara-Villalobos, 2011).

Nevertheless, emotional or cognitive reconciliations may not always help to withstand the oppressive and exploitative practices. When personal perceptions of injustice become more salient than what current organisation may offer, workers will leave (Hardy & Phillips, 2004). Only 51% of game developers plan to stay in the industry for the entire duration of their careers, while 34% aim to leave within 5 years. This may become a larger industry problem. As the games become more complex and expensive, so requiring more staff, particularly experienced. At the moment only 26% of team leads and visionary workers have 2-5 years of job experience (Deuze, Martin & Allen, 2007).

CONCLUSION

Creativity oppressions, lack of clear crediting standards is increasingly alarming and leads to identity dissonances and emotional resentfulness. Lack of confidence and sense of self-worth also result in a decrease of courage to suggest new ideas or make daily production decisions. This stalls the production process, rendering it less efficient, yet with given time pressures - more stressful. This is a self-perpetuating destructive loop (Zackariasson, Walfisz & Wilson, 2006). With the inevitable onset of job dissatisfaction and exhaustion, game companies must determine whether they are willing to accept the cost of widespread emotional alienation or they wish to proactively prevent such harmful effects. Moreover, the extend of success and implementation of the described negotiation strategies is yet to be tested empirically. There is a lack of subjective account how game professionals negotiate their creative identities, which leaves space for further research.

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