How do people work alone together? Studying success and community among Montreal indie gamers during Covid

By Hanine El Mir, christian scott martone donde, and Irmak Taner

Image courtesy of Bossa Nova MTL

How do people work alone together? 

During Spring 2021, well into Covidcene-living, a research team led by Prof. Bart Simon was formed to study the themes of community and success among Montreal indie gamers belonging to the GameplaySpace (GPS) co-working space.

Irmak: Actually, this is what we did as well—working alone together.

christian: Zooming in from disparate time zones and geographical locations.

Hanine: Irmak was in Turkey, christian was in Mexico… and then there was me! I was still here in Montreal but, as you know, I was still away from everything, working from home, much like the GPS members.

GamePlay Space, a co-working space for the gaming industry established in 2015, aims to offer “access to knowledge sharing, business opportunities, and a vibrant community” to anyone who plays, designs, builds, and develops games. Located in Downtown Montreal, GPS aims to “nurture the success” of indie game developers.

Hanine: That description, which we found on their social media, aligns all too well with our research questions.. We’ll tell you more about it. Follow along this conversation with us three, Irmak, christian, and Hanine, as we collectively reflect on the process of this research project.

GPS is quite unique in the Montreal ecosystem of gamers and social-entrepreneurs. It operates as a business, a non-profit with a Board of Directors, and a community space where paying members (i.e., people with desk access) and non-members mingle during events like Disco:MTL. Disco:MTL is an annual, week-long event aimed at promoting discoverability and good game dev marketing habits with talks, workshops, roundtables and networking opportunities to talk to experts in the industry. This makes GPS acts a multi-faceted ecosystem that produces different sociocultural and affective entanglements.

Bart (2015, 3): “To  speak  of  indie  games  is  not  to  speak  only of  the  games  themselves or of the experiences  of gameplay  but  rather  of the cultures  of  game  development  from  whence  they came…”

But then came the Covid-19 pandemic, and, as with other creative industries and co-working spaces, GPS shut its physical doors, and suddenly all of the socialising was happening online. Studios had to decide how to internally operate, while the collective body, comprised of conversations, events, and spontaneous encounters, had to live on Discord channels—with whatever affordances and restraints this digital tool offers by design.

Research about the gaming industry during the Covid-19 pandemic consistently shows that the (indie) gaming industry was not as hard-hit as other industries As humans in lockdown turned to video games for fun, several studios increased sales. Very few people lost their jobs, and many employees and studios were already familiar with work-from-home (WFH) structures. 

On the other hand, the same reports point out that isolation and mental health issues became huge challenges experienced respectively by 43%  and 21% of indie game developers. Issues arising from the erasure of the work-home division and lack of communication are also highlighted as significant challenges.

Irmak: Yeah, we were intrigued by these changes in people’s experiences and also wanted to better understand the sense of community being experienced, perceived, and manifested.

christian: And while proper research questions took longer to take shape, curiosities and phrases were guiding our research process/path.

Hanine: Phrases such as “does distance really make the heart grow fonder?”… and how ‘away’ from the keyboard do you have to be for it to still count as AFK? 

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, spaces like this were hot spots for people mingling among beers, game demo-nights, and camaraderie. On regular work days, people from various studios would converse, relate, and help each other when small bugs or design challenges emerged. A game’s success was measured on discoverability, sales, and an engaged fan-base. So, how was this particular co-working space (and the industry in general) adapting to the imposed lockdown restrictions?

Hanine: The purpose of the study at first was to examine and evaluate how the ideas of community and success have changed among indie game developers since COVID restrictions began, and how coworking spaces and the gaming industry can adapt to a post-COVID world in Montreal. In order to conduct our research, we invited people to sit with us in one-on-one interviews.

christian: Starting off with general themes and overarching research questions in mind, we drafted a questionnaire and started reaching out to different people and studios. Cold calling in a way, we didn’t actually get that many responses.

Hanine: It started to pick up slightly later after GPS’ key community event DISCO:MTL during the first week of July. It allowed us to meet so many people from all over Canada, particularly community managers and marketing experts but also some CEOs too. And to get a sense of the community, the conversations. There were people from all over the world that we ended up deciding to include them as well in the larger community of GPS who aren’t necessarily registered members. 

Irmak: Other events like yoga classes and stretch break sessions were really helpful as well!  We regularly took part to be more immersed into the community, but also because, let’s be real, we all needed a posture check. These events were also good because everyone was experiencing Zoom fatigue and these sessions allowed for a different way of being together. 

christian: And of course, snowballing. Folks were recommending other people for us to speak with. They were building us up through emails and putting us in touch with other key folks in the indie gaming world.

Irmak: That said, months were going by, we were getting to know people, attending events, conducting interviews but somehow not getting any closer to having a clear direction.

Hanine: I suspect that one of the reasons why we felt stuck in our place is ‘Zoom fatigue’ — in other words, people were tired. People were simultaneously tired and not doing as much as they did before, and some of our interviewees acknowledged this during the interviews. They wanted to do more, to be more active…

Irmak : Yeah, people don’t want to look at yet another screen even if they’re logging onto a fun activity rather than a work meeting. Even though, in one of the Coffee Breaks, we played pictionary. It was really fun!

The sense of community within GPS had been deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the online events and other in-studio efforts, across the board our interviewees were saying it was not the same as before. Some studio employees and executives became closer to each other through less traditional meeting venues (like outdoors, in parks) and organised their own mini internal events—as well as practices to build and maintain rapport through Discord and remote-work interfaces. But overall, the ‘water cooler’ culture of cross-pollination, community-building, and spontaneous encounters faded out.

There were no generalizable findings around conceptions of success and how it might have shifted during COVID in our interviews—game presales and an engaged fanbase were still important, as before the pandemic. Nevertheless, comments about the importance of focusing on the happiness and health of employees became prominent in regards to success and studio sustainability—in addition to learning how to access new government Covid-relief funding.

The CEO of one of the studios told us: “To me, success has kind of shifted from, you know, just getting the game working, to figuring out how to actually make employees happier, and like, happy in their work.”

Considering our initial findings, and following a thematic analysis/reflection exercise new questions emerged around notions of accountability, mental health, and work/life balance. 

GPS reopened its doors briefly during the Fall of 2021—hosting a couple of hybrid events—though, soon after had to close again as the pandemic restrictions were re-instituted during the Omicron variant surge. They have now reopened again and are hosting weekly in-person events.

While this research began as an investigation of work-related spaces and cultures under a new set of conditions imposed by the pandemic (how do people work alone together?), paradoxically our early data and findings point towards ‘not-work’ matters of health, happiness, and social interrelationships.

We researchers also ended up doing ethnography (and working) alone together just as the indie gamers that we were investigating had weekly team meetings online, Discord channel conversations about studio tasks, and community building events on gathertown, Twitch digital conferences we also, in our own way, had to reinvent collective inquiring alone together, online.

Stay tuned, as our research process continues and takes new forms.

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