So hey wanna hear a gross word academic circles are using about online marketplaces?~
— Talen Lee (@Talen_Lee) 1 April 2016
Julian Kücklich proposed his term “playbour” in his thesis “Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry” (2005) in order to explain the collapse of the distinctions between play and labour within the videogame industry. He focused on the ability of videogame developers to profiteer from modders, by turning the resulting leisure into commodities.
The term was adopted amongst media academics, who have produced several papers examining labour in different games (Taylor et al, 2015), or analysing it from the perspective of media as an industry (Bulut, 2014).
But what is playbour?
I asked myself this question when I started my social media project: the videogame Kakuma, in which I began working as a sort of play. I was playing at developing a game. The question was, then, was it playbour? And if so, how to know?
The problem is that Küklich has not offered a definition yet. In his thesis he states that “the relationship between work and play is changing, leading, (…) to a hybrid form of “playbour”. That “Modding as playbour” (Kücklich, 2005). In further iterations, he defined the term asserting that “playbour is not work, but is also not not work” (Kücklich, 2009). Playbour, then, is defined by something that is but at the same time is not. Less of a closed circle and more of a Moebius strip.
The most problematic issue with the term is not that it may be considered “aesthetically and critically obtuse” (Moberly, 2012). Rather, the issue lies in creating and promoting terms that are heavily rooted in historical contexts. All the while lacking the precision required by a technical analysis, it does not help to define the new practices of videogame culture. Rather, it impoverishes the conversation around the topic, by trying to encapsulate too many phenomena under one single unspecific term.
But why is this term is so important to deserve a whole blog post to discredit it? By trying to understand the meaning of playbour I was able to explore the intersection between mobile and social media and the gaming industry. Additionally, it allowed me to understand how the boundaries between games and social media; leisure and work; and between social and economic capital have blurred since the article was written.
Social perception of play and labour
“The precarious status of modding as a form of unpaid labour is veiled by the perception of modding as a leisure activity, or simply as an extension of play” (Kücklich, 2005).
Kücklich asserts that modding is perceived as play, which by extension seems to be one of the reasons for which something may be catalogued as playbour.
The author seems to fail to recognise that the same may be said for industries such as sports, porn, media or entertainment. That, not counting the gamification process affecting most of the contemporary creative industries.
For example, we could agree on social media having leisure as one of its main functions, And still, it would be improbable to convince a social media manager about his daily work not qualifying as labour. The videogame industry is no different: before the article was written, it was already considered one of the most exploitative industries in existence.
Some academics have developed the term to explore the perceptions and common understanding around play and labour (Goggin, 2011; Lund, 2015). Understanding the set of meanings associated with both terms and their differences across sectors of society, cultures and languages provides great opportunities for social sciences to better understand the dichotomy between work and play.
In this context, it can help providing a framework explaining the gamification of non-gaming aspects of our life (Deterding, 2012), and how certain industries and work environments (Scholz, 2012) and practices such as teleworking (Broadfoot, 1999) challenge traditional concepts of work and play.
Instead, what we have seen is a development of these ideas by media academics who end coming back to examples and concepts related to gaming (Goggin, 2011; Lund, 2015). There are no articles from a sociological or anthropological perspective that find the term useful for anything unrelated with videogames.
Therefore, the social perception of labour and work cannot categorise in itself anything as playbour. In the end, if the term playbour never came to define professional sports players, it may indicate that the term was not necessary all along.
Unpaid and paid labour
Other of the main topics in Kücklich’s reading is that modding is playbour because it is “[s]imultaneously voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited’ (Terranova, 2000: 32). But truth is, nowadays a large set of unpaid practices is attributable as leisure and commoditised by third parties. The news industry, blogging, entertainment, media or, again, porn, tend to offer their content for free in order to find other ways to capitalise it.
On the other end of the spectrum, tools like Unity Engine have facilitated an explosion of indie developers generate revenue through their work. While modding has relegated to media type in which revenue is generally not pursued, as is the case with fan-fiction or cosplay.
What is more important, this binary split between unwaged and paid does a disservice to current practices in the videogaming culture, as is more a continuum with many intermediate states. eSports players may or may not generate revenue through their work, a form of work that again may be categorised as leisure. Where do we draw the line? It is playbour only when they do not win matches, and therefore money?
Real and virtual currencies, types of capital
Current technologies such as smartphones and social media networks allow for a more liquid understanding of the boundaries between social and economic capital, or even virtual and real currencies.
In 2005, the web 2.0 was a concept, with capital moving mostly in one direction (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013). In 2016 multidirectional exchange of information and capital have made possible obtaining revenue through your content in social networks such as Youtube Gaming or Twitch, and therefore creating an equivalence between social and economic capital.
On the other hand, the differences between real and virtual currencies have become blurrier. While in 2005 the trade of virtual goods and services for money was an event, in 2016 it has become trivial. World of Warcraft allows players to pay their subscriptions with virtual currency; Diablo III includes a trading system that allows the purchase of items from other players in exchange for real money (Prax, 2012).
The games themselves make fewer distinctions to the form of capital you use to pay for them. Ads have become another payment option with our privacy and attention being the currency. Finally, some games, especially those in mobile or social platforms, encourage payment through social capital (Ramírez, 2016). These games usually make the players invite friends and use their social capital as a payment for more turns or resources.
Social networks also profit from their users’ personal data and base their revenue model in displaying ads. Often games and social networks create synergies to benefit from each other strengths.
There are certain practices surrounding the videogame industry in which the leisure is commodified for the benefit of developers, editors, and publishers. These practices include modding, testing, gold farming, trading and streaming (Constantiou et al, 2012). At the same time, these phenomena are in no way exclusive from the videogame industry and have been a constant in sports, media or entertainment.
The junction of social media, mobile devices and the gamification of non-gaming contexts are creating a new landscape in which the nature of capital, currencies, work, leisure, paid and free collapse. This has made terms such as “playbour” outdated, if at some point they had any value. Other terms include social media gaming, which ignores the existence of games acting as social networks and games that use social networks as platforms while being heavily anti-social. Others, such as “serious games” (Moberly, 2012) used as a wildcard, but lacking any real meaning.
Promoting Kakuma has helped me realise the complex reality of videogames as an industry, and the many facets and layers that are ignored by academic production. And worst, how the frameworks created by videogame media scholars often do more harm than good to foster a constructive conversation. I have learnt to appreciate more inclusive and less pretentious proposals such as “prosumers” (Ritzer & Jurgenson, 2010) or “production, consumption, and labour” (Herman, 2014), that can be used to describe modders or Twitch streamers without making the concept limiting. I hope this understanding will help me establishing inclusive frameworks to analyse concepts such as eSports, indie gaming, and videogame prosumers, curators or activists.
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