The Cost/Benefit Ratio of Fieldwork at Game Industry Conferences – Jennifer R. Whitson

In this blog post about game developer conventions I want to make two points: The first is about the parallels between precarious indie dev and academic work, and the second is about the exorbitant cost but vital need for ethnographic research in indie communities.

For the past decade, I’ve been studying the game industry. Specifically, I’m interested in what seems to be a precarious balance between creative work and “business”. In short, doing what you love while still managing to support yourself and your family. For those of you who are game developers or have seen documentaries like Indie Game the Movie, it will come as no surprise that most independent game developers struggle to make ends meet. They borrow money and go into debt to fund multi-year projects that, more often than not, fail to earn enough to keep them afloat. This precarity creates selection pressures for developers. If you are young, single (or better yet, have a partner with a secure income), don’t have a family to support, and/or have a nest-egg bank account, you are more likely to turn to indie dev as a career.

With our partners, the IndieMEGABOOTH, Drs. Felan Parker, Bart Simon and I are examining how these phenomena can impact the diversity of game studios and the form of the games we play. To do this, this year our team has conducted participant observation at the three major IndieMEGABOOTH events over the past year (PAXPrime, GDC, and PAXEast), distributed surveys to all 173 exhibiting independent development teams (with a 71% response rate!), and carried out 51 interviews (and counting) ranging from 30 minutes to over two hours.

Simply put, the economic precarity and sustainability issues in the game industry as a whole, drastically impact how diverse our games and game makers are. These patterns of precarity are found in other creative industries such as film, music, and art. But, in listening to game developer narratives, I’m also struck with how often they describe my own experiences of being an ethnographer and trying to make ends meet, and how they echo the words of the grad students I work with now. Bluntly put, scraping together enough funds to carry out qualitative research projects will fail to keep most of us afloat, especially given the scarcity of tenure-track jobs and the lack of research grants for game studies. In our own creative work, we replicate many of the same patterns of sacrifice and emotional labour, of privilege and precarity that indie devs experience.

To illustrate why initiatives such as ReFIG as so important, and to show the parallels between developers’ struggles to market and showcase their games at conventions and our own in collecting and showcasing our research at fieldsites and conferences, I’d like to talk about what it’s like to attend a massive event such as the Game Developers Conference or PaxEAST (pictured below).


As an indie dev, it’s a relatively common trope to write a blog about the costs of showing your game at conventions such as GDC, PAX Prime and PAX East, which you attend with the hopes of serendipitously meeting the right person (be they publishers, platform holders, YouTube personalities, or press reporters). These persons somehow, somewhere, could ensure your studio’s future success (i.e. pay your rent).

Posts like William Chyr’s on the TIGSource forum, which is visualized below, describe in really great detail what it’s like exhibiting at one of these conventions, and provide detailed financial breakdowns to help other developers do cost/benefit calculations of their own.


For one person, crashing on a friend’s couch and travelling from Chicago to Boston for PAXEast, and exhibiting in the smaller “Minibooth” space, it cost just under $2000 USD. Whereas if you’re a team of four driving the few hundred miles from Canada and hostelling it, you can expect to pay $5000 USD, even without a fancy booth with banners and “swag”.

If you get excited seeing budgets and pie charts, comparing how other devs do it, they’re here aplenty. One thing is clear early on – if you’re not in driving distance of the event, or don’t have local friends or a couch to sleep on (i.e. if you’re from Brazil or Slovenia), attending these events is largely a pipe dream.

Even for researchers, it’s often a pipe dream. After nearly a decade of researching the industry, this year was the very first where I could actually afford to go to one of these events. And this was only because ReFIG was able to help subsidize some of the expenses. So what did it cost for my grad student and I to glimpse inside the game industry for just one 3-day PAXEast in Boston?


Even at less than $45/day on food, with passes provided to us for free, and sharing a single room, the cost of the event over $2800, travelling from Kitchener, Waterloo, with another $1500 cost associated with transcription and survey costs for a total of $4200. And Boston is a very affordable city compared to San Francisco and GDC, where Dr. Parker and my own data collection costs were well over $7000 given the two extra days and the ridiculous costs of the city.

Like with game developers, selection pressures, both temporal and financial, benefit some researchers but not others. For example, I don’t have children nor other family responsibilities, and so, unlike my co-researcher, I was able to commit to 12 hr days for multiple weeks doing fieldwork. And unlike my grad students, I have both a stable salary and partner so I could spend $800 to a plane ticket, even if I didn’t have funding. Simply put: if you have money and time you get better data and manage to build stronger research networks. Those without are at a disadvantage.

Of course, at this point you may be questioning my life choices. Why bother spending $7000 to interview developers at a conference venue and watch them while they showcase, tweak, and playtest their games? Can’t I have achieved the same by interviewing online? Don’t worry. I too sometimes questioned my life choices. My personal “why the hell am I doing this?” moment came at the start of that GDC San Francisco trip. My laptop died on the plane (with my conference talk on it). A maxed credit card and trip to the Apple Store later, we walked in to our nearly $3000/week shared AirBnB. Dr. Parker went to forage cheap food at the local Walgreens (peanut butter and toast), and I shed a couple of tears.


I seriously questioned my sanity. Was this worth it? Watching developers for 5 days and conducting a couple dozen surveys and interviews? Why is being HERE important, especially when crowded convention halls, blaring chiptunes, sweaty hotdogs, and endless sweatier lineups is my own personal vision of hell? Let alone dealing with the discomfort of walking up to complete strangers and asking them deeply personal information such as how much money they make and how they gender-identify.

But there is a world of difference between disembodied, static, online interviews and the messy reality of human interaction. The article Talk Is Cheap: Ethnography and the Attitudinal Fallacy is a good summation of why, as an ethnographer, I do what I do. Often, what people say in interviews is a poor predictor of what they actually do. Interviews and surveys can tell us some things, and if we use free tools like Skype and Survey Chimp, this data can be collected at very low cost. But we actually need to go where developers are to understand their point of view. To see the pressures they are under. To understand their lived experiences. Development is not individualistic. It is a situated and social action that is best understood by attending to the communities and interactions of developers.


For example, it’s only during fieldwork we see the differences between what people say and way they do. In surveys and interviews developers they tell us what they think we want to hear. For example when asking “how welcoming is indie dev to marginalized populations?”, interviewees don’t really answer this question. Often they share personal accounts of how they and their colleagues deal with inclusivity, talk about how the industry is changing, and echo abstract messages of support for diversity. Let’s be frank: in an interview, few are going to say they wish developers were a more homogenous group, or that they want to work with all youngish, all white-ish dudes. They are all articulating what they think that we want to hear – echoing the dominant spoken discourses in the community, even if they don’t necessarily enact or even share them.

Visibly, and in practice, we can see that diversity and inclusivity is still a struggle on the floors of these spaces [ LINK TO APHRA’S BLOG HERE]. This is why we need to actually do physical fieldwork – to clearly see the gap between discourse and practice. And while this gap is still large, it is also really important to note that the fact that there IS a common culture and discourse in support of diversity at events such as PAX. The repetitive, generalized responses to our questions relating to diversity attest to this. Real diversity so far has failed to fully materialize both in terms of development team composition as well as the attendance at events such as PAX more generally. But as our interview and survey data shows, outspoken support for marginalized populations is now the spoken norm, and so we can hope that the behaviours to back that discourse up only lag behind, but will materialize in time. And so I will continue to do fieldwork…and stand in sweaty lines for sweaty hotdogs, surrounded by even sweatier developers and players. Because, as while we wait for behavior to catch up with discourse, we can’t critique from the outside, but instead need to move inside of these spaces that we write about, and thus shore up, amplify, hasten and support the processes we are advocating for.