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Video game development: a tug of war between passion and precariousness

  Photo: Unsplash/Florian Olivo

Photo: Unsplash/Florian Olivo

Valentina Raffio
A study led by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya explores the working conditions of video game developers in Spain

Interviews with leading professionals provide insight into concerns for the industry

While video games are becoming increasingly popular across the globe, little is known about the men and women behind the screen who are to thank for the industry's booming success. In response to this, a new study led by a team of researchers from the Learning, Media and Entertainment Research Group (GAME) at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) has turned its focus to Spanish content creators and the working conditions for video game developers in Spain. The article from the study, recently published in Creative Industries Journal, explains that "Those involved in the development of video games are members of a diverse, emerging professional group that is seeking to adapt and respond to the demands of a frenetic but still unstructured industry, in which large budgets are often found alongside precarious working conditions."

Within the framework of a more extensive research project on the presence and influence of digital games in today's society, the article looks into how video game developers and producers experience, manage and conceptualize their work. Amalia Creus, the article's lead author, went into detail about this: "We explore some of the structural and subjective mechanisms that shape the professional organization of the digital game industry in Spain, and we do so by paying special attention to the nuanced routines and professional dynamics as they are experienced and narrated by video game professionals themselves." 

To obtain a comprehensive blueprint of the industry, the researchers held in-depth interviews with nine reputable professionals who are currently engaged in different areas of digital entertainment development. These talks helped to shed light on the current state of video game creation in Spain and, more importantly, on the challenges that professionals in this field are currently facing. The researchers' analysis rests on three thematic pillars: (i) training and entry into the world of work; (ii) professional dynamics and intra-team relationships, and (iii) society's perception of the profession. Broadly speaking, the researchers conclude that the industry feeds on the passion of video game creators without concern for the job insecurity they face. According to Jordi Snchez-Navarro, a co-author of the article and one of the principal investigators of the larger umbrella project, "it's important that one of the main research focuses be content creators' employment conditions because, although video games come up often in social discourse, their creators are largely unknown to the general public."


Academic limits and industrial chaos

One of the main issues affecting professionals in the video game industry is the lack of regulated training that provides well-rounded professional development. The majority of the professionals interviewed, now leading industry experts, originally studied some form of art or a field of humanities, degrees that have little to do with developing products for entertainment. This explains why they consider the creativity they put towards designing video games and coming up with new settings and plots as their main contribution to the field. However, this stance is at odds with the current demands of the video game industry, which is taking huge leaps forward with the help of emerging technologies. Virtual reality is one such example, which has burst onto the scene, testing many professionals' ability to stay relevant.

The apparent gap between market needs and content creators' aptitudes could be partially justified by the former absence of suitable academic curricula covering video games and their creation. The situation has since turned on its head, however: the recently published study points out that the number of specialization courses has risen exponentially to match the industry's evident growth. The issue on the table now is whether, and to what extent, the industry will be able to embrace the new generations of recent graduates.

The scarcity of opportunities in today's climate is exacerbated by industrial divisions. On the one hand, large enterprises are driving more ambitious projects, have more money and resources, and provide jobs for more people. These jobs are also the most unstable, however, and, as the professionals themselves argue, they squander creative freedom and put them under increasing pressure to perform well. In some cases, 12-hour working days even become the norm in a push to get projects done. At the other end of the spectrum, a proliferation of small, independent firms is offsetting large enterprises' control of the market. In these smaller businesses, content creators have more freedom in the projects they pursue, although this type of work often goes hand in hand with job insecurity.


Prejudices and ignorance surrounding video games

All of the above clashes with society's inaccurate perception of the world of video games, which is often fuelled by prejudices surrounding the industry. Therefore, to stomp out pervasive myths about their work and heighten society's appreciation of what they do, the professionals interviewed call for increased awareness of their role in the industry.

An interesting aspect in this regard is the analysis of how technological advancements – these key elements that are boosting development in the industry – have a direct effect on developers' work and determine the expressive and experiential range that video games are able to offer. Nevertheless, another of the article's co-authors, Judith Clares Gaviln, pointed out that "despite the industry's crucial technological component, the majority of the interviewees defended creativity as being a fundamental part of the job". Taking this stance means focusing on the need to document and disseminate information about professionals' roles in the industry and the different stages and tasks involved in the process of creating a digital game.  

Given the tumultuous and precarious state of video game creation, the article concludes that the solution to many of these issues lies in professionalizing the industry; in other words, in working together towards "regulation of roles and functions, the improvement of working conditions, investment in the sector and the promotion of research on video games".


Photograph of Jordi Snchez Navarro

Jordi Snchez Navarro

Expert in: Video games; film and television; innovation in audiovisual entertainment; youth and new technologies; fan cultures; strategies to promote film; new forms of entertainment; new forms of audiovisual consumption; trends in blockbuster films; major multimedia franchises; event planning; cultural management in the field of entertainment.

Knowledge area: Audiovisual communication.

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Photograph of Judith Clares Gaviln

Judith Clares Gaviln

Expert in: Audiovisual distribution on the internet, on-demand video and online television

Knowledge area: Audiovisual communication.

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