[Paper] Mitigating Exploitation: Indie Game Developers' Reconfigurations of Labor in Technology

1361 words papers,

In a totally different direction from the last two CSCW papers, this work studies the indie game development industry. How does the indie community reconfigure labor in their own image? This paper explores these questions in the context of labor and technology.


Authors: Guo Freeman, Jeffrey Bardzell, Shaowen Bardzell, Nathan McNeese

Background and motivation

CSCW has historically been concerned with the consequences of technology on labor (and the relationship between). Past work explored how collaborative technologies (the second ‘C’ in CSCW) and “bottom-up innovation” changed traditional labor. Examples include ridesharing, open design and manufacturing, and emotional labor of online communities.

In this paper, we explore how U.S. independent (indie) game developers’ socio-technical practices inject forms of labor, capital, and production into the game development industry. Specifically, we focus on indie game development because it offers alternative production and distribution structures in the gaming economy and fosters new forms of labor relations in technology.

What is indie game development? The authors define indie developers as people who do not affiliate with large game companies or publishers (“AAA” or “triple A” studios). AAA studios are notoriously exploitative, typically in terms of (1) exploiting production, by treating games as revenue and nothing else, and (2) exploiting labor, by overworking developers, subjecting them to sexism and racism, and exerting power over individuals in a fiercely competitive industry.

“Being indie” seems to represent a new business model of game entrepreneurship, which has the potential to reconfigure and revitalize the mainstream gaming industry.

So why study indie developers? Broadly, to understand the relationship between labor and technology.

Studying how indie game developers’ socio-technical practices offer alternatives of labor, capital, and production in the gaming economy may inform the design of future technologies that not only enable new labor relations and opportunities, but also mitigate the risk of new forms of exploitation associated with them.


The authors collected three types of data:

  • online self-reports of personal experiences on Quora, the Unity (a game engine) forums, and Reddit
  • voluntary semi-structured interviews from indie game Facebook groups, and other direct contacts with indie developers
  • field observations from indie game development meetups

Easy enough. I like reading about the methods that people use, and mentally cataloguing them for later.


Restructuring labor: there’s a lot of free labor in the indie community. Free labor risks exploitation, but it’s quite common to ask questions on social media, yell out “who needs an artist?” at a meetup, and give or receive feedback without any expectation of payment.

Streaming development on Twitch (and engaging with the audience about why certain things are being done, bug fixes, or suggestions) is common, too. Social communities, either on Discord or even indie-exclusive platforms, are widely used for collaboration and socialization as well.

Most of their labor … are free (unpaid) but not exploited. For them, the return is not only the invisible mutual help, the pleasure to connect with people who shared similar interests …, but also the emergence of a distinctive indie culture … that defines them [sic] identity.

Engaging tech newcomers: the indie community is generally considered friendlier to newcomers than the rest of the gaming industry. There are risks here, to be sure: sometimes, people add newcomers to projects for labor, but not education; and other times newcomers will disappear without a trace, setting the project back.

The authors recognize this newcomer-friendliness as being driven by immaterial labor, which is labor that contributes to culture and information (not just e.g., concretely through software).

Engaging the underrepresented: the gaming industry is notoriously sexist and racist. But the indie community better allows non-white-male game developers to “show their voices in expressing cultural and artistic standards, social values, and opinions.” Through this, indie developers fight against exploitation.

Indies tend to have an underdog attitude, so they like to band with other underdogs like women and anybody who isn’t white and non-mainstream artists of every stripe and misunderstood geniuses and the disabled.

And on ownership and empowerment:

I think the best thing indies do is to provide everyone with an opportunity to make a change themselves. Want more games with female characters? You can make them! Want to make a game about the difficulties of sexism in the work environment? Just make it!

The last sentences speak to video games as an art form or as pieces of culture, which is a view that I certainly share but is not quite considered mainstream. The indie community embodies this idea.

Experience-based indie games are a creative and inclusive art form that effectively conveys different cultures, values, opinions, and ideologies. As a result, games become free expressions of sympathy.

Lacking capital: indie developers often struggle with earning enough to sustain themselves during production. They often have to accept making no money while developing a game. “You either work 16 hour days at two jobs, or you live with your parents because they are awesome.”

This leads to heavy use of meetups, networking, and social connections to make a game more visible. Local groups frequently made developers feel “not alone.”

Alternatives to production: a focus on collaboration and co-creation provided alternatives to traditional forms of production. Participants talked about not meeting their collaborators for years at a time, staying together as partners to build skills and portfolios, and building friendships with online strangers.

The use of “free tools and middleware” supported indie production, too. These often lowered the barrier to entry for game development. It’s worth noting that these free tools were often released by AAA studios (e.g., Unreal Engine, released by Epic Games, is free until a game makes $1 million).


The authors connect their findings to the broader HCI context.

As in moral labor, indie game developers struggle with the tension between their independence and the dominant economic power of the mainstream gaming industry.

Indie developers generally struggle with being credited and acknowledged, and, of course, with their economic stability. The benefit is agency over what you create and how you create it, and diversity and visibility as side-effects.

Imagine what the indie community would look like if we had a society that guaranteed everyone a living wage. Think of the amazing indie video games that are out there (my current obsession is Hades by Supergiant Games); what if everyone could pour their full selves into making their own video games, without having to worry if they’d succeed?

The authors list strategies for mitigating exploitation:

  • Shaking up the existing power structures in gaming (held by AAA studios)
  • Building “organization, social, and technical mechanisms” that encourage a diverse community
  • Creating easy-to-use and well-documented middleware
  • Embracing values of participation, diversity, and social support
  • Reconsider the relationship between production, profits, and consumption

They also ask a couple of critical questions:

  • Who is still excluded? Requiring people to sustain themselves on unpaid labor likely means that low-income developers are excluded. Is this only an option for the privileged?
  • Which practices are naive? The authors point out the reliance on tools produced by AAA studios, or a risk that “if the AAA industry is ideologically compromised” then this may fall down to the indie community, too.
  • Which claims seem worthy of reconfiguring labor? The community recognizes that their own reconfigurations might work well enough, but still be flawed (i.e., yes, AAA studios are flagrantly sexist, but what if the indie community is still slightly sexist? how do we fix that?). It’s worth reflecting on how these reconfigurations work in practice, and what they’re missing.

The second point is interesting because it’s not unique to gaming. Small software shops rely on open-source libraries produced by large tech companies, too. Naively, OSS might be called unsustainable (imagine pitching software maintained by communities of volunteers who routinely subject themselves to abuse). But in practice, it has sustained a thriving software industry.

This was an interesting paper. I love hearing about the gaming industry, and it’s not something I read about much besides “oh god why is it so bad over there.” I liked the question that this paper asked (“how is labor in the indie community different?"), and think the authors did a great job of diving deep into this topic.