Ergin Bulut on his book, A Precarious Game

Interview by Xiao Xe

https://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/9781501746536/a-precarious-game/

Xiao Ke: It was a great pleasure to read about such a fun topic, executed in a rigorous way, in your book! I was wondering if you could say more about the responsibilities and risks associated with bringing the discussion of race, gender/sex, and class intersectionality into the discussion of video game industry? Given your critique of DWYL (do-what-you-love), how did you balance serious politics and fun business while writing this book and presenting your research?

Ergin Bulut: Thank you for reading my book and asking more about it. At the beginning of this project, I was more concerned with gender as it shaped the game developers’ domestic relationships. Although I had discussed the criticism regarding sexism and racism in video games with the game developers, I had not planned to theorize the findings as I do in the book. Bringing a more intersectional perspective – even though I don’t call it as such in my book – became an option as I had to push myself thinking about love with the questions raised by the scholars that peer reviewed my manuscript. I am not sure if there are risks in this since studies of labor in media studies scholarship largely foreground the notion of love and passion without that intersectional perspective. The love for their work and the good life imagined by the game developers I researched is possible mainly because their socially celebrated glamorous work rests on various inequalities at different levels and those inequalities involve race and gender/sex. Class is obviously central to my book.

The question about serious politics and fun business is interesting because games are really intriguing and dynamic sites to explore how capitalism is changing in the information age. Theories of capitalism mostly construct work as serious business and outside the realm of emotions. The videogame industry and increasingly many other sites of work are proving this wrong. Obviously, feminist scholarship was well ahead of our time with respect to demonstrating these points. When it comes to the practicality of writing the book – not sure if this is something you are asking –  I mostly tried to be serious in terms of going to library and sitting at a desk, putting a headphone on without any music, and writing from 8 a.m. to noon. Finally, I have written this book about the videogame industry but I would not call myself an avid gamer. I do enjoy playing games here and there (I like Head Ball these days) but some games require so much time and I unfortunately do not have it. My fun time is spent more on music, friends, and my two-year-old son these days!

Xiao Ke: Something I was hoping you could say more about was the following description of the gaming industry: “a global political economy of fun where there is an international division of not only digital labor but also pleasure” (52)? In the research and writing of the book, how did you situate your position, politics, and perspective(s) in this global political economy?

Ergin Bulut: Although I am by no means an expert on his enigmatic work, Walter Benjamin, especially “Theses on the Philosophy of History” has been informative on my thinking in certain ways. He writes: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” (Thesis X) This is really mind-opening because when I look at glamorous technological devices or ludic workplaces in the Silicon Valley, I cannot but help think about the infrastructures and inequalities that sustain these spectacular worlds of production and consumption. In researching the book, I was somebody from Turkey doing field work in a high-tech workplace in the US. People were extremely nice to me, but I also find it a lot easier to conduct field work in my native language, Turkish. As far as politics is concerned, in my conversations, I politely raised the criticisms towards the video game industry but I also have to say that that “techlash” back when I was doing research wasn’t where it is today. It’s also interesting that you raise this question because I initially had signed with another publisher and things didn’t work out for me despite three positive reviews. I am very happy to have published with Cornell University Press but if I were a western academic based in a US or European institution with a different name, the editor I was in communication with would probably act differently in our email exchanges. So, when it comes to the pleasures of research, writing, and publishing, that international division of intellectual labor is also a relevant topic to think about because non-western scholars’ supposed job is mostly to research their own countries, while I was doing a different thing and critiquing the very work ethic to which intellectual workers also subscribe to. So, race, gender, and sexuality as they shape the pleasures of intellectual work unfortunately still matter a lot.

Xiao Ke: When reading about ludopolitics and precarity within the video game industry, I couldn’t help thinking about the trope of ‘love what we do’, the ‘creativity’ impulse, and the relatable immanent precarities of academia for PhD students and junior scholar. When you were doing your fieldwork, writing up your dissertation, and turning it into a book, did you think much about the resonance between two fields (video game industry and academia)? Regarding this process, is there anything you’d like to share with the (precarious) readers?

Ergin Bulut: I did! How can you not, right? Especially with the pandemic, the world is swiftly changing and the academia is no exception. I currently have a job and am happy that I do. I also see brilliant colleagues who are finishing their degrees and are applying for jobs with tons of accomplishments in a world that is tumultuous. What I will say will really sound cliché but I may just suggest that in addition to collective solutions that may be out there, other solutions such as self-care or care collectives might be helpful. Academia can be a really intimidating place where privileges are reproduced most of the time, especially with this masculine discourse of “do what you love.” Tenured professors will demand that you dedicate a lot of time to research, whereas graduate students as precarious workers have families to take care of, debts to pay, and state repression in countries like mine. So, preaching love from one’s comfortable space can be easy. About the practicalities of turning the dissertation into a book: dropping that “graduate student” tone in my writing took some time and I probably still have it. As far as practical advice goes, I would recommend that the precarious readers of my book and this blog may think about the practice and craft of writing. I never thought about it until after I published the book, probably because time was of essence for me as a more precarious academic back then. I will not repeat about the usefulness of writing regularly but Niko Besnier and Pablo Morales’s article “Tell the story” is really good.

Xiao Ke: Earlier in the book you wrote: “…impromptu conversations proved harder than I thought since wearing headphones while working…indicated that the developers had completely focused on work and did not want any interruption” (12) This scenario might ring true for many ethnographers in corporate settings. Do you have any advice for them? Also, what did you hope to write about but which did not end up in the book?

Ergin Bulut: I am not an anthropologist. So, you should probably tell me some advice! But my advice is really to tell yourself inside your head and “go and talk” to that person. While they may be busy at that time, they may be gracious enough to talk to you at another time. Imagine that you are writing in the library and somebody comes and wants to talk to you. It can be distracting. I never did that but now thinking about it, you may perhaps write a note and put it in front of the person and ask for an interview. Finally, I don’t think there is anything that I didn’t write but a friend once told me that there was no reference to Marx in my book. It just didn’t occur to me. Maybe he was in earlier drafts but excluding him was not intentional. His framework really shapes the entire manuscript.

Xiao Ke: You mentioned the global game industry and outsourced labor. (For instance, environmental art content produced in China; e-waste dumped and recycled in Nigeria, Ghana, and so on; Coltan from DRC…) You yourself are now based in a university in Turkey. Do you plan to continue exploring this global chain of video games? What would you like to see beyond the US context?

Ergin Bulut: I do plan to research Turkey’s emerging videogame industry and electronic sports scene. I once applied for a national grant but the government body giving the grant rejected my application claiming that it was “not scientific enough.” Just two lines, no reviews. Maybe it really wasn’t scientific, who knows! My point is that this application was also at a time when I had signed the notorious peace petition that made me a traitor in the eyes of the government. See, precarity also needs to be de-westernized and thought in relation to the state in non-western contexts! If I were to do such research, I would imagine seeing some developmental thinking that shapes the game developers’ perspective on work, technology, as well as skill development. But I have to do the research . . .  

Interviewer’s Note: I thank my classmates and professor from ANTH642 at University of Pennsylvania for reading this book with me. Many questions are drawn from their thoughts. They are Aliyah Bixby-Driesen, Andrew Carruthers, Chuan Hao (Alex) Chen, Hilah Kohen, Kristina Nielsen, and Nooshin Sadeghsamimi.

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