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Opening the Production Pipeline: Unruly Creators

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Author: Banks, John
Opening the Production Pipeline: Unruly Creators and Enjoyment John A. L. Banks Online Communications Director Auran Project Leader Australasian CRC for Interaction Design Postdoctoral Research Fellow (As from January 2005) Creative Industries Research Applications Centre Queensland University of Technology This paper draws on material from a recently submitted PhD dissertation, "Participatory Culture and Enjoyment in the Video Games Industry: Reconfiguring the Player–Developer Relationship". The dissertation is an ethnography of the game developer–fan relationship. Working from the intersection of cultural studies and new media studies, it offers an analysis of the rapidly transforming, reconfigured relationships between users and media producers in the games industry. It provides a mapping of the relations between production and consumption practices in the video games industry, through an ethnographic account of Auran, a PC game development company located in Brisbane, Australia, covering the period from mid-1997 through to 2004. It is about my entanglement, as both a researcher and creative industries worker, in the network of relations built between Auran and online gamer fans. From June 2000 my relationship with Auran shifted when I accepted employment as the company’s online community relations manager. This role largely involves managing Auran’s relations with an online rail-fan community that formed around the game development project, Trainz ( a train and railroad simulation released in December 2001. I examine how Auran has increasingly incorporated and involved train and rail fans in the process of designing and making Trainz. Using the tools provided with Trainz, users can make their own 3D rail world layouts and import 3D models of locomotives, and then share them with other users through the Trainz website Download Station. This end-user creativity and innovation is an integral part of the simulation’s design. These participatory culture initiatives in the games industry are potentially redefining entertainment software towards an open-ended process in which users participate directly in the design, production and marketing processes. Involving fans in the game production cycle has become part of wider media industry trends in which audiences are engaged in ways that are reconfiguring the consumer–producer nexus. The commercial success of the Trainz project over a series of releases (most recently Trainz Railroad Simulator 2004) has come increasingly to rely on the unruly assemblage of this ad hoc distributed coproduction network of voluntary fan labour. This paper describes how the creative activities of a network of fan content creators have become integral to the continuing Trainz project. The disorganised network of immaterial, affective labour of fan community content-creators, forum moderators, beta testers and promoters is a collective labour force and power that Auran requires and relies on. It is precisely this reliance that also opens up possibilities for reconfiguring the boundaries between the proprietary and the non-proprietary. Drawing on recent work by Tiziana Terranova and Maurizio Lazzarato (among others) that considers the status of labour in creative industry networks, I discuss how Auran has sought to manage and enlist this unruly and messy network of affective, immaterial labour. I argue that this is not simply a case of the exploitation of unknowing fans as a source of free labour, as it is from these uneven negotiations that participatory culture itself is being made. I briefly engage with fandom research by Henry Jenkins, Matt Hills and others to consider how these emerging dynamics between Auran and the Trainz fans indicate a significant reconfiguration of the networks through which categories such as fan, consumer, producer and developer are made. I argue that these complex and necessary entanglements of the proprietary and the non-proprietary, the commercial and the non-commercial, are not necessarily an appropriation of fandom by corporate bottom-line agendas. It would be a mistake to view these emerging participatory culture relations as shaped and configured through an opposition between the commercial and the non-commercial, the corporate developer and the fan community. Rather than being exterior and oppositional terms, these entities that are "Auran" and "the Trainz fan community" are immanent to these proprietary–non-proprietary and commercial–non-commercial dynamics. What if these participatory and interactive potentials are not so much constrained by informational capitalism as a condition of possibility for the functioning of the new economy? What are the ideological implications of opening the production pipeline to unruly fan creators? How should we respond to the video games industry’s invitation to participate in the making of new media objects and projects? The opening of the game industry production process to end-user involvement and labour is a strategy to extract and capture surplus value. The paper argues that a condition of possibility for this relationship, and for the emergence of participatory culture, is the fans’ passionate, affective investments in these networks and their creative potentials — in other words, a surplus enjoyment. Drawing on the work of Slavoj Žižek, I suggest that — far from being a site of opposition to corporate strategies — the Trainz fans' passionate attachments to trains and rail— fan affect — is instead the very mechanism through which ideology functions. Are fans’ affective investments contained and controlled by management strategies? What if the very possibility and success of these strategies rely on an unruly excess of fan enjoyment? This relationship between surplus value and surplus enjoyment is not an obstacle to capital. Nevertheless, this excessive supplement which sustains the day-to-day operations of participatory culture networks, such as that described in this paper, cannot be seamlessly harnessed to commercial imperatives — it is radically undecidable. This undecidability and radical contingency in the messy relations among the commercial and non-commercial do not get in the way of doing and making participatory culture. They are not an obstacle to be overcome, but the very condition of possibility for making these networks. This paper’s core argument is that there is a necessary, but quite undecidable, relationship between surplus-enjoyment and the productive surplus-value that game developers such as Auran seek to extract from the labour of these emerging fan networks. In seeking to think through the implications of our participations in the making of these participatory culture networks with rigour and with the wealth of detail of a particular case history, this paper offers a modest witness to the negotiations and renegotiations of these participatory culture relations and to the disturbing enjoyment in playing and colluding in the networks of informational capitalism.
Contact: John Banks, Creative Industries Research Applications Centre, Queensland,
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