Playing across the Playground: Paradoxes of knowledge creation in the video-game firm

Cohendet, P. & L. Simon. 2007. “Playing across the Playground: Paradoxes of knowledge creation in the video-game firm”. Journal of Organizational Behavior. Special issue on the paradoxes of creativity.

As a cultural product, a video game is a complex mix of technology, art, and interactive storytelling. The technological part of the artifacts should disappear beyond the magic of the scenario, the smoothness of controls and the realism of the situation.

The videogame industry hires creators belonging to a very diverse communities of specialists: scriptwriters, game designers, graphic artists in 2D and 3D, and sound designers – not to mention highly talented software programmers.

Beyond these creative characteristics, this cultural product can also be seen as the result of a complex industrial project manager under strict conditions of efficiency.

The management of complex video games projects is the result of delicate balance:

  • an artistic mode relying on flexible and decentralized expertises held by distinct creative communities of specialists
  • a strict managerial attitude looking for the advantages of tight integration of these activities within time, cost and market constraints

The sources of the creativity

The principal sources of creativity rely on the functioning of communities of specialists.

  • Members communicate regularly with each other about their practice for informal cognitive spaces with more or less open boundaries, where people would meet and shake knowledge in a not so organized fashion.
  • these workspaces are not fully monitored through the formal corporate process
  • they are not necessarily aligned with corporate goals and strategy
  • they are also somewhat disconnected from the daily pressure of producing an efficient output designed for specific market purpose

The elementary communities of specialists

The functional departments act as administrative support to the creative teams, which are the essence of the company and are hardly visible on flow charts.

The sources of creativity as well as efficiency rely on the subtle alchemy among the communities.

What brings nuance or variety among knowing communities are the way to deal with knowledge and the associated mode of learning adopted by the community to process knowledge.

Knowledge is constantly exchanged and challenged.

most of the diverse knowing communities are focused both on accumulation and deliberate production of knowledge in the domain of their specialized practice.

Their focus on exploitation activities make them broadly fit the definition of communities of practice, but they clearly also have an epistemic dimension, which means that they are focused on the production of new knowledge (exploration activities).

the coexistence of many diverse community having both an exploration and exploitation dimension is in our view one of the distinctive characteristics of cultural industries and one of the reasons why these types of organizations finally succeeding matching creativity and efficiency.

The local maze of creativity

Montréal’s situation as predominantly French in an English-speaking continent is both an asset and liability: it can be a factor in attracting talent but the need to work and live in French can also act as a deterrent.

Local creative communities have an intricate local network  that directly or indirectly influence in many ways the creative process.

Local institutions that favor creativity

Many employees are members of the local chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA).

Alliance NumeriQ introduces itself as a business network to deal with public financing and lobbying issues.

Communities of specialists and their links with the outside world: dialogue with users and critics

The relationship with gamers is dealt with from two perspectives:

  • from the top: in a quite structured and formal initiative way
  • from the bottom up: in a very diffuse, fuzzy and emergent way

Knowledge from the users seems to be more integrated from the bottom up. As gamers making games for gamers, they identify themselves with the same iconic milestone games they played along the history of this emerging entertainment form.

They would most likely agree on the generic features differentiating a good came from a bad one.

Game critics from magazines and websites act as gatekeepers or as opinion leaders mainly towards hard-core gamer, but also toward some casual gamers to mainstream mass media.

Since each community specialize in a given field on knowledge, the integration of diverse bodies of knowledge in a common thread in order to realize the creative output requires a concordance of interest and objectives between communities which is far from being spontaneous.

The conflict between communities are frequent, especially between communities working on a same epistemic domain.

There is a need of integration at the collective level.

The role of integration (and the justification for the existence of a firm) in such a creative domain is to assure the coexistence of diverse knowledge structures for eliciting at the collective level the sort of learning and problem solving that yields creativity.

Forces of integration: how an organization can enhance the creativity of its informal communities

Management of projects: the choice of a hybrid form

It shares common features of classical project management styles in more traditional industries, but also exhibits some specific traits in order to nurture the fundamental creativity in making a videogame products.

Relies on the design of two hierarchical dimentions:

  • common cognitive architecture of the project
  • the definition of the associated standardized component interfaces

Script: the cognitive reference that glues together the different communities of specialists that work in modules or studios specializing in different domains of knowledge.

Modules: use different pools of knowledge, specific jargons and specific understanding of the project requirements which rely on different specialized generic skills.

Each module is coordinated by a project manager, which are coordinated in time by a producer who acts as an administrative and halfexecutive general project manager.

Creative committee: a panel including some hyper creative employees. This committee has a life-and-death power on projects with stop, improve or go instructions. It has the power to decide on the script and the associated standard interfaces.

Hierarchy and traditional sequential modes

Each project if placed under the responsibility of a producer.

To balance organizational constraints and creativity, the company implemented a stage gate process with a strong focus on the design/construction phase.

Shared space, boundary objects, in an overlapping mode

Management activities endeavor to establish a shared context where people could meet, debate, confront, and even challenge themselves almost instantly. This occurs through physical organization, organizational information and communication processes and also through project managers with an open attitude toward people and knowledge.

Team members gather around a shared boundary object, the monitor, instead of exchanging files. They need to be together to argue on the same shared artifacts. No real technical, artistic or gameplay discussion could take place without the existence of those maps or outside the computer screen.

As a result, the building of the it’s hard architecture of knowledge for harnessing the creativity of the diverse communities of specialists leads to the emergence of a specific hybrid mode of project management that combines the following dimension:

  • A cognitive platform for the development of the script of each project, to assure a large decentralization of the cognitive work of communities and to allow each community to express its creative potential
  • a strict sequential mode for the management of time, with strict hierarchical schedules to be respected. Excludes feedback loops with real risks of losses of creativity
  • a specific mode of management of space that reintroduces overlapping platforms and provides the boundary objects between communities of specialists

How the rather strict nature of the project management may in turn stimulate a further extension of creativity

Project identity

Each project is a specific entity which develops its own identity, history and culture.

Each project will differ in terms of work atmosphere, level of motivation, types of social relationships, etc.

Project members are soon going to act as a community, focusing on the same issues, developing the same language and in defining their own rituals.

Members of a given community of specialists remain connected to their community on a daily basis even when they are assigned to specific projects.

Such a situation offers many advantages for the organization:

  1. it facilitates the interactions between communities
  2. it solves the distance paradox
  3. it reinforces the common culture of the company

The cultural distance between communities

Members of the community who have participated in a project progressively build cognitive links with colleagues of other communities, and tend to bring this knowledge to the daily interactions within their community.

Step-by-step, the cultural distance between the different communities of specialists is reduced and tends to a reasonable level of mutual understanding between communities, increasing the potential for innovation and creativity.

Too close a distance stifles innovation, but too far and it may well introduce new sources of misunderstandings.

Mitigating the distance paradox, and valorizing the creative slack

Organizations attempting to solve the dilemma between creativity and efficiency may physically separate creative work units from more routine work units. However, the implementation of such a solution introduces a major risk of dissonance when creative inputs and creative work practices have to be introduced into the rest of the organization.

The dual identity practice de facto contributes to eliminate this risk and bypasses the need of decoupling/recoupling the organization by providing the specific modes of organization that guarantee a permanent connection between the routine work required in the management of projects and the creative works done within communities.

According to managers, one of the main drawbacks of the stage gate process put forward to strictly control the timing of the project is precisely that this constraint – which excludes any significant feedback in terms of conception – may imply a loss of creativity by killing the micro creative inputs.

  • if a micro creative idea appears as relevant, it can quickly circulates within the communities to regular exchanges
  • many creative ideas that emerged during a project can be stored in the active memory up some communities of specialist, as a creative slack that could be used in further projects

Creative slack: an important reservoir of opportunities of innovative knowledge for the organization, and guides to a large extent the growth of the organization. It is a specific advantage of the firm, that is the only entity able to take benefit of it, but at the same time it is held, nurtured and maintained at bread or low cost by the diverse communities of the organization, sometimes even without an explicit awareness of the managers.

The culture of gamers

Most employees are gamers or playing them on a regular basis, often playing the games they develop.

While the job announcement put the emphasis on the technical job description, the hiring interview generally focus at one point in the former experience of the candidate with the videogame and game culture.

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