A tale of digital making

This post was initially published on August 14th 2014 on my personal blog – I am republishing. I think the post still makes some valid points relevant to “digital making”.


In 2013 the video gaming press reported the story of a young modder’s quest to break into the industry. You can find it here and here. The trajectory of this young, talented game developer from amateurism to professionalism is remarkable in a number of ways. His journey began, as it is often the case in the video games industry, with increasing degrees of involvement with official modding tools.

When the story broke Alexander (that’s his name) was 19 years old – but it all started much earlier as a passion-driven endeavour across several modding projects, fuelled by the desire to create something as compelling as the games he had enjoyed so much since an early age. The tale is reminiscent of so many others, except Alexander started making headlines when he turned to crowdfunding to finance what had become an ambitious job application. In this YouTube interview he recounts how his love for playing and creating role-playing games led to setting sights on Bethesda, developers of the immensely popular Elder Scrolls games. He came to an agreement with his parents– this is when things get interesting –to not apply to university and rather dedicate himself fully to his project, which over two years evolved into a fully-fledged game expansion enlisting the efforts of other contributors, including 29 amateur voice actors.  The crowdfunding campaign was launched when Alex realised he needed further help to fund a trip to Washington DC, so that he could meet his heroes at Bethesda and convince them he had the skills and the drive to join them.

The tale has a happy ending, although Alexander landed a job not at Bethesda as he had originally hoped, but at the equally prestigious Bungie Studies – creators of the Halo franchise – to work on the upcoming, eagerly anticipated Destiny.

I find this anecdote remarkable because it illuminates – the way only real stories do – a lot of the assumptions and values that can be found – often in an implicit guise – in the area of “digital making”.

In the first place, it effectively conveys the significance of gaming subcultures and practices in providing a template for the field of digital making. The playful and “gameful” nature of digital making has been noted before, but I think it’s worth remembering that since the digital age of the dinosaurs (the early 90s) video games blazed many trails at the intersection of digital technology, the economy  and media literacy: the evolution of shareware alongside the open source movement, the rise of geographically distributed groups of hackers developing “demos” and modifications– a lot emerged from the primordial broth of gaming that contributed to the digital landscape as we know it. The video game industry is also unique in that it’s the only one where private, IP-owning developers release modding tools and free assets alongside their official products. The phenomenon has grown to the point that community involvement has become a fully-fledged business strategy. Take the enormously successful Valve, which nurtures (and profits from) a culture of community-orientated development, data-intensive research and crowdsourcing, or the amazing case study that is Minecraft.

Secondly, it highlights the tension between externally prescribed educational expectations and informal, internally sanctioned labour.  The story shows how individual ambition demanded the interruption of the “conventional” academic path (from school to higher education) in order to be fully realised. Here we have a situation where tangible evidence of productivity – i.e. proof that one can already produce outputs of professional standard – takes priority over evidence of learning – i.e. qualifications and other educational achievements. It appears that competition for jobs in the games industry (and the in the high-tech creative industries in general) is so fierce that the imperative to “stand out from the crowd” translates in a celebration of precocious professionalism and productivity. While I don’t believe this celebration is a problem per se, I see it as symptomatic of a broader shift in the nature and function of childhood and youth (more on this later).

Thirdly, the story draws attention to the accessible and friendly nature of modding toolkits. The striking thing about such tools is that they are simplified versions of those used by the original developers. These are technologies designed to provide fast-tracked access to industry-grade resources, while remaining accessible and user-friendly to novices, who in most cases are young people lacking the specialist background in programming or computer science.

Childhood, youth, education, labour and technology: are we oversimplifying things?  

In his book Between Reason and Experience the philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg describes how the struggle over child labour developed in Victorian intellectual circles during the 19th century. His critique focuses in particular on the deterministic arguments that were made against any form of regulation. Influential and vocal sections of the Victorian establishment brandished economic and technological imperatives to justify the continued employment of children (and women).  A common trope of the time was that the very nature of industrial machines was such that many tasks were better accomplished by workers with short limbs and small hands. Any interference with this “objective” state of affairs was bound to have dire economic consequences, such as productivity slumps, bankruptcy, unemployment and ensuing social tragedies.

Feenberg effectively turns this techno-deterministic argument on its head by showing how Victorian industrial machinery wasn’t inevitably bound up with child labour by some kind of unexplained necessity. Rather, those machines had been often designed from the ground up to be operated by small people, as the famous picture “Girl Worker in Carolina Cotton Mill” (also featured on the cover of Feenberg’s book – see below) clearly illustrates. From this observation Feenberg derives a crucial conceptual point: “technological development is not determining for society but is overdetermined by both technical and social factors”.

Girl working at cotton mill

As we know, child labour was eventually abolished in most Western economies as new machines emerged which didn’t require children to be operated, and a consensus coalesced around notions of childhood as a period of innocence, leisure and unproductive learning that required a mix of moral safeguarding and compulsory instruction – a consensus which, to a degree, has endured into the present. Here’s what Feenberg has to say on the matter:

“A vast historical process unfolded, partly stimulated by the ideological debate over how children should be raised and partly economic. It led eventually to the current situation in which nobody dreams of returning to cheap labor in order to cut costs, at least not in the developed countries”. (p13) (…) today we see children as consumers, not as producers. Their function is to learn, insofar as they have any function at all, and not earn a living. This change in the definition of childhood is the essential advance brought about by the regulation of labour” (p.39)

Feenberg’s outlook is very sociological, especially in the claim that the meaning of childhood – and of the technologies that in different times become “entangled” with it – are not fixed but socially contested and shifting (“overdetermined”).

Going back to my introduction and the following brief analysis, I think Feenberg’s non-deterministic argument can be safely re-deployed to suggest that a range of socio-technical and economic factors have been at work over the last two or three decades to alter once more our understanding of childhood, youth and labour. Digital making, and the subdomain of game development and modding in particular, are for me the main arenas where those meanings are being challenged and contested, and where new values are rapidly coalescing into a widespread, global consensus.

Today’s child as productive, self-motivated, digitally literate worker is obviously not comparable with the uneducated, impoverished and ill-treated Victorian child labourer. Somebody may provokingly suggest that digital technologies are often designed to be “child friendly” and to be operated effectively and productively by inexperienced young users, in a way that uncannily resembles the cotton mills in 19th century factories. But things are infinitely more complex than that, and we should avoid jumping to simplistic and hysterical conclusions.

It seems to me that one amalgamation of factors in particular can act as a conceptual lens through which the latest “assemblage” of childhood, technology and economic imperatives can begin to be understood. This conceptual mixture is the typically post-industrial and post-modern blend of leisure and work. In his study of hobbies in American culture from the mid-nineteenth century, Steven Gelber notes that the boom in leisure activities went hand in hand with the diffusion across all swaths of society of capitalist, self-driven work ethic.

“For a leisure activity to be a hobby it must, above all, be productive. Like work itself, hobbies generate a product and therefore hobbyists have something to show for their time, it has not been wasted. Even if they never even think of selling the products of their leisure, hobbyists know they have economic value, and that knowledge ties their free time to the ideals of the market economy” (p.295)

So, it’s time to summarise things in the attempt to clarify my own thinking and derive one or two points for future consideration.

To begin with, it seems clear that the increasing celebration of precocious productivity and professionalism in the contiguous fields of digital literacy and digital making needs to be seen in the context of a crisis of “traditional” child-centred, educational values. The implications of this crisis are not fully clear to me (and I suspect to many others as well). Our “developed” societies used to place children and young people in a protected (and protracted) state of moratorium, during which they could learn without being productive and explore different identities before choosing a suitable path. This is still true to an extent but is being increasingly challenged and contested.

These challenges and contestations tend to gravitate around two opposite positions, which are ideologically at odds while sharing a common set of epistemological assumptions:  the neoliberal position and the collectivist/democratic one. Are children and young people willingly and enthusiastically subjecting themselves to the logic of capitalist exploitation, having fully internalised and accepted the principles of self-entrepreneurship and constant “productivity”? Or are they appropriating and altering those very principles in highly diverse and unexpected ways, thus contributing to pluralism and hybridising the democratic discourse?

Hence the dilemma: do we celebrate the encroachment of neoliberal values on all aspects of life, including the half-formed subjectivities of children and young people; or do we subscribe to the narrative of individual-meets-collective through networked participation and precocious technological expertise?

For me, the main challenge when trying to make sense of new literacies and practices associated with digital technologies is to acknowledge- and possible move beyond- the above oversimplifications.

End of part 2



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