Dreaming of Game Expats Research: Why (I think) researching the case of immigrant game developers also matters to game research

Doctoral researcher Solip Park from Aalto University School of Arts, Design, and Architecture – Department of Art and Media writes about her research and a particular group of game developers.

Title image of “Game Expats Story” research & comic artwork project. Illustrated by Solip Park.

In the beginning…

“I do research about immigrants in the game industry :D” 

“Cool, but why?”

…A good question. Why? How does studying the cases of immigrant game developers have to do anything with game research? So in this article, I would like to elaborate my thoughts on my doctoral research, some findings from my research data so far, and why I am fascinated by this particular group of game devs.

But first, a bit of an explanation about the terminology. At the time of writing, I am using the term game expatriates (“game expats”) based on how my research participants described themselves to me. There were some reluctant to be called ‘immigrants’ due to several reasons, which came to me as a surprise at first. They claimed that the word ‘immigrants’ gives nuance to those who ‘permanently’ migrated from one country, whereas they do not yet see long-term prospects in Finland — or in any country, due to the unpredictableness of the game job market. Some wanted to distance themselves from the term ‘immigrants’ as it is often negatively portrayed as a synonym for ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’ in Western mainstream media and the internet (e.g., X, YouTube, TikTok). Instead, they preferred to be called either ‘foreign workers’, ‘internationals’, or ‘expatriates’. Out of these remaining options, I choose the word ‘expatriates’ because my participants’ procedures of immigrating to Finland resemble the patterns reported by the migrant group of assigned expatriates or self-initiated expatriates. So to elaborate:

Game expats (abbreviation of game expatriates) are individuals who experienced either assigned or self-initiated migration, primarily due to their game profession, with or without concrete long-term future plans for a settlement, directly or indirectly due to precarious job contracts in the video game industry.

What was supposed to be a temporary terminological framework, however, has since been used throughout my doctoral research. Of course, I am open to any suggestions and look forward to having constructive discussions to develop a more inclusive term. 

So why study about game expats?

First, game expats are already here with us. 

A recent survey report shows that roughly one-third of game developers in Finland are from abroad (including 15% from non-EU/EEA countries) with the number steadily increasing for the past few years, according to Neogames Finland Ry (https://neogames.fi/). In recent years, the major players in the Finnish game industry have been actively advocating for prompt, seamless, and aggressive talent import policies (such as link), which helped Finland bring talented individuals. However, much of these efforts remained in the discourse of the economic impact, whereas the academic inquiries about these individuals’ migration process into the Finnish game development scene have been overlooked. So perhaps now is the time to start building collective knowledge on how relocating from one geographical location to another impacts game developers’ creative cultural practices of game development — and how it would eventually affect the game that we get to play.

Second, game development practices also migrate with people. 

Game development is a value pluralistic process, which consists of practices that are immaterial, social, multitudinous, iterative, and perhaps to some degree, spontaneous — as what pioneering game scholars like Deuze, Kerr, Keogh, Kultima, O’Donnell, Sotamaa, Švelch, Whitson, and others have been actively vocal about for years now. (As a newbie game researcher myself, yay thank you!) Studies have also reported that some aspects of game work conditions are similar to those in other cultural industries (e.g., films) in the sense that the developers’ work satisfaction is inseparable from the creative contributions to the products that they worked for. So I see game developers as “practitioners” (benchmarking Schön’s notion of “reflective practitioners”) as developing games is not just about one person being good at certain digital software tools. Rather, games are developed by the collective expertise of individuals and their conscious effort to acknowledge and formulate the problem, to negotiate and choose adequate skills, know-how, tricks–known as gambits– and tryouts finding alternative ways of doing things derived from their precedent (see also design expertise research by Lawson and others). Therefore, tame expats are not gadgets that can be boxed and shipped from one place to another. They bring something along with them; expertise, values, skills, know-how, tricks, and precedents.

Third, I want to know what happens when two game development cultures meet. 

The practitioners of game development come to Finland with the capacity to influence, reshape and change Finland’s game industry. Intake of people means the influx of new practices that may confront the existing ones, for instance, varying terminological interpretations (e.g., what words to describe certain game mechanics), design and aesthetical preferences or principles, work hours and norms, communication or leadership style, teaming practices (e.g., perceived role and responsibilities), work and life values, prioritisations, and so forth. Such encounterment of two or more cultures is called acculturation; a phenomenon when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, which brings subsequent changes in the original cultural patterns of either or both existing inhabitants and migrants (see the works of Berry and other intercultural psychology scholars). Furthermore, game expats can be regarded as a comparative experiment group when studying game development cultures, as it is often not easy for game developers to articulate the values behind their practices in homogenous conditions (as they might be so natural and thus invisible to articulate). Here, the experience of migration of game expats provides an ‘other’ view — comparable precedents to hidden values within. 

My game expats research so far

“It could take at least 3 months to find someone, settle down, get to know, find out each other’s work style and culture, etc. That’s a risk (for game business).”  (A quote from one of my research participants.)

My dissertation is based on qualitative longitudinal data of interview transcripts collected from game expats in Finland 2020-2023, and “Game Expats Story” comic that I created with art-based research methods. 

Game expats reported that Finnish game companies generally use the conventions of tools (e.g., game engine, cloud services) and business frameworks (e.g., free-to-play, mobile) provided or serviced by multinational global game cooperative powerhouses. Global compatibility enables the local game studios easier access to overseas talent pools. It also gives game expats some sort of mental assurance that, no matter where they go, there should be something that they can recognise; overall, positive to the immigration intention to the host country – in this case, Finland. On the other hand, it also lowers the threshold to re-expatriate from Finland and continue onwards with a nomadic lifestyle without a concrete long-term settlement plan in any country. Thus, negative for long-term retention in the host country. 

Meanwhile, many hands-on practicalities of game development are formulated with unique local cultural interpretations of practices. Also known as “soft” elements of game work (see Whitson and Kultima’s ethnographic study on game development), such as team members’ choice of tools, work attitudes, topics of interest, communication style, teaming, role and task priorities, work and life values, and so on. According to game expats with multiple immigration experiences, each regional hotspot and company also tend to have their own cultural interpretations of practices. The fluency of these local practices can be acquired by practical exposure and tryouts, which could take several months or years for an expat to adjust. But once that happens, it leads to the individuals’ feeling of social connectedness with the host country and regional occupational community of game developers. And thus, positively affects their long-term settlement intention. 

As such, global and local factors impose varying effects on game expats’ migration and settlement; one towards expatriation while the other towards settlement. 

Images from the comic “Game Expats Story” season 2, episode 14 (Published on 28th February 2022, written and illustrated by Solip Park).

But in highly competitive and risky game market conditions, both global and local factors also seem to demand its workers one common goal: to produce game products with immediate productivity. This leads to, what I phrase as, imagined globality: an imaginary constricted monocultural worldview that overgeneralises game developments as something (probably) universal around the world, diminishing the multitudinousness of game development cultures and the potential of new cultural encounters. It depicts the natural lengthy process of adjustment as a business risk (e.g., failure of game product) or career risk (e.g., termination of contract), making game developers even more vulnerable to surprising new encounters. In such conditions, game expats then internalise and individualise the challenges that they face in cultural encounters.

For instance, game expats in Finland said that they are often exposed to the term “culture”, which vaguely refers to all sorts of soft skills normalised at work. Game expats who are familiar with the existing team member’s “culture” are then called “cultural fit” or “culturally fit person”, which roughly means a person who can quickly adapt to what is normalised within the existing groups in the company. This means the candidates’ workability is validated based on how much they are already familiar with local cultural practices shared within the existing group at work (for similar cases in other sectors, see Rivera, 2012), despite the fact that it can only be acquired after some exposure and tryouts. Furthermore, what exactly is deemed “cultural fit” in practice is often vague and contextual, varies from person to person and even contradicts each other. Despite this vagueness, expats who are not aware of the norms of existing members were deemed as “not cultural fit”, a synonym of an unsuitable worker — and thus, more likely to let go and thus re-expatriate. 

To avoid hiring these un-fit candidates, Finnish game companies rely on “closed hiring”; hiring through a personal referral within a close-range network (e.g., former colleagues, friends, friends of friends). Which, decreases the hiring failure but increases the challenges to those who are not within this closed network such as junior game developers and gender minorities. 

Images from the comic “Game Expats Story” season 1, episode 11 (Published on 10th May 2021, written and illustrated by Solip Park).

Therefore, I call for further communal effort between the regional game stakeholders (e.g., Finnish game companies, organisations, game education institutions) that can help overcome the imagined globality. Here at Aalto University, for example, I’m helping pedagogical implications of cross-cultural online game jams in a formal education setting. It is an attempt to expose future game developers to different practices across the earth through an online game jam setting. The goal is to enhance the learners’ cultural competencies as a sort of stress-inoculation; building future game developers’ ability to tolerate and accommodate multiple interpretations of practices, a strength to prevent an insulated worldview.

So how about studying more about game expats?

Deuze et al. once stated in 2007, “(among) professional culture creators in the media world, the ones whose lives are studied the least are game developers.” Fortunately, within just two decades, academic interest in studying game developers and their practices is now steadily on the rise thanks to pioneering scholars in the field. (yay!) We now know that games are created in various ways across the world, leading to the emergence of our academic curiosity on localities of game development — with scholarly efforts to document regional game hotspots. Moreover, I believe the stories of game expats’ journey from one country to another will then broaden our knowledge about local-to-local game development cultures. Debunking the over-generalisation of ‘game as universal language’, and exploring various local game development practices and how they migrate local-to-local. From the implication standpoint, the Finnish game industry is facing a pivotal moment, followed by the end of the COVID-19 boom and the nation’s political push to harden its immigration. Therefore, the case of game expats in Finland offers a groundwork for game companies to prepare and improve their talent hiring plans and implement strategies that could lead to a more balanced integration of their workers and new innovative game ideas, design, and business. 

What happens when individuals already with established values and practices, attempt to re-establish their work in another country in a different local context? How does this affect their practices and the games that are created? And how can we make this better?

Images from the comic “Game Expats Story” season 2, episode 13 (Published on 21st February 2022, written and illustrated by Solip Park)

Solip Park 박솔잎

Solip is a doctoral researcher at Aalto University School of Arts, Design, and Architecture, with her current research interest focused on immigrants and expatriates in the video game industry and cultural diversity in game productions. She is also the author and artist of the ”Game Expats Story” comic series and has two master’s degrees: one from Carnegie Mellon University in the USA (Master of Entertainment Technology), and Aalto University in Finland (Master of Arts) where she was announced as the winner of Game Thesis Competition 2020 by Finnish Game Research Society (Suomen pelitutkimuksen seura Ry)

As for her academic career, Solip works as a co-host and teacher at “Games Now!” at Aalto University, and a project researcher (part-time) at the EU-funded “Ontological Reconstruction of Gaming Disorder (ORE)” project at the University of Jyväskylä. She is also acting as a member of the deputy board at Finnish Game Jam Ry. Prior to her academic career, Solip worked at game companies and startup scenes in the USA, South Korea, and Finland. And was one of the founding members of Nexon Computer Museum – the first permanent museum in East Asia dedicated to the history of computer and video games, located in South Korea. http://www.parksolip.com/


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