Walking into Huli, a pseudonym for a top U.S. tech firm, one would discover a playground within the engineers’ offices, with a variety of gaming TV stands and video game consoles, pinball arcade machines, Nerf guns scattered on the floor, and war-themed posters adorning the walls. Engineers genuinely enjoyed the games organized around these office perks. At one point, the Knight team’s tech-lead, “Bloodseeker,” led his team in organizing a “defensive battle” to protect their favorite team poster from being abducted by their sister team. The poster contains a play on words from Game of Thrones—“In the game of security, we only play to win”—and portrayed these security engineers as brave and loyal warriors, fearless in the face of a security battle. The Knight engineers identified so strongly with this poster that they coordinated a defense strategy to keep displaying this monument to the company’s fantasization of their work life.

On the surface, this workplace had seemingly become a virtual playground for overzealous game hobbyists. Compared to the conventional corporate-fun environment that is usually staged, such as a sports event, a movie night, or a family party, the chaotic fun depicted above is more spontaneous and authentic, and thus, more seductive. Despite the appearance of spontaneity and inclusivity in an employee-centered workplace such as Huli, the reality is that the company reaps the reward of surplus productivity, leaving employees themselves in a highly competitive and sometimes precarious work position. So what is really going on behind the ludic gaming scenes? And how does engineers’ playfulness create surplus through activities such as poster battles? In the tradition of previous labor ethnographies, my forthcoming book – Playing to Submission: IT Industry and Game Capitalism – takes on an ethnographic adventure into the heart of a U.S. tech company, to observe its front stage and behind the scenes, and to uncover the logic behind a fun game-playing cooperative environment.

Squeezing out creativity  

Playing to Submission reviews a paradox embedded in the informational technology sector. On the one hand, two decades after the dot-com bubble, capitalism has continued to evolve toward “informational capitalism,” where creativity becomes the principal productive force. The informational capitalists’ gamble on technological innovation gives engineers access to privileged positions in the labor market and inherent power in the production process, while their desperate demand for a constant flow of high-quality creative ideas fuels greater compromise in terms of workers’ autonomy and freedom. On the other hand, to satisfy venture capital interests, tech firms push iteration of information technologies to an extreme and hustle to establish a “permanent-beta” production mode, which aims to expropriate engineers’ creativity in the fastest, most intense way possible. However, without the engineers’ dedication to “crunch mode” – a term that describes working 100 hours a week for extended periods of time – the permanent-beta production would not exist. This paradox leads to the core question of the book: Why does this seemingly powerful worker group submit to such an intense production mode?

At first glance, the U.S. tech industry’s primary ways of navigating the labor dilemma described above are simple and brutal: tech companies aggressively recruit new graduates and replace senior employees with fresh talent (for example, the median age of employees at Google and Facebook is between 28 and 29). Although these new engineers are energetic about technological innovation, their creativity is difficult to discipline. For instance, these young employees’ resentment levels rise dramatically when their prioritization of technological innovation over profits conflicts with the priorities of their firm and its financial backers.

These circumstances force the U.S. tech industry to develop new coping mechanisms for its young laborers. One such method is for capitalists to take full advantage of a crucial characteristic embodied by these young engineers—their “gamer traits”—to squeeze out creativity. The majority of the Silicon Valley engineers I spoke with were born between 1979 and 2000 when the video game industry began its spectacular rise, making them members of the “gamer generation.” Many of my participants called themselves “gamers” or “game addicts” and emphasized how it was their passion for games that propelled them to learn programming. Long-term gameplay equips the gamer generation with specific “gamer traits,” like quick learning ability, fast reaction, modder traits, and a crisis mentality.

It seems inevitable, then, that informational capitalists developed labor games as a strategy to extract surplus. Targeting the gamer traits of young employees, informational capitalists simulate video games from outside work and capture the imaginations of their employees with characters, plots, and lores to construct an exciting gaming environment in the workplace. To understand these labor games on the engineering floor, my study follows the labor research tradition launched by Michael Burawoy, a Chicago School labor ethnographer who described a game of “making-out” used on the manufacturing shop-floor to motivate competition between workers in a piece-rate system and drive high levels of production.

Labor games

 Playing to Submission marks an attempt to update Burawoy’s insights, highlighting a shift from a labor process defined by the rhythms and logic of a single game to one characterized by a multiplicity of games. Drawing from thirteen months of ethnographic work, this investigation advances labor game studies by documenting the development of a “field of games” that permeates every corner of engineers’ work-life. Via investment into the “field of games,” engineers’ “gamer subjectivity” is leveraged on the work-floor, contributing to their submission to workplace domination.

There are four groups of labor games I want to highlight. Simulation games are integrated into core software development. Through adopting gamification techniques that include mythological storylines and heroic characters, managers simulate the artificial video-gaming environment in the software development process and stimulate engineers’ self-fantasization of the work in terms of adventures full of change and unknowns—normalizing the uncertainty embedded in the scrum process and reducing engineers’ anxiety. Racing games are organized when engineers need to race against the machine to troubleshoot and recover the system as fast as possible. Crowdsourcing games are designed to crowdsource extra skills, knowledge, and labor from volunteering engineers to help the company optimize its minimum viable products (MVPs). Finally, pranking games approximate classic working-class humor and teasing. Engineers organize and patrol these pranking games in order to slay the “beast of monotony” in routine workplace tasks.

Documenting these games, I show that the “field of games” constructs a world of “no exit” and deprives engineers of their right to the sanctuary of work-home divide. As a consequence of the blurred work and gaming life, engineers’ leisure time is inevitably integrated into the labor cycle. Engineers’ skills and traits associated with “gamer subjectivity,” such as disruptive creativity, crisis mentality, and modder traits are exploited by informational capitalists to enhance their innovation capabilities and reified to become parts of the informational products’ consciousness.

Tongyu Wu is assistant professor of sociology at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China. Her book, Playing to Submission: IT Industry and Game Capitalism, is now under contract with Temple University Press.

Image: Tongyu Wu