Television & New Media
2019, Vol. 20(8) 802 –812
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Precarity and Why Indie
Game Developers Can’t
Save Us from Racism
Exploring issues of labor and inequality at the intersection of AAA and indie sectors,
this article interrogates the perception of the indie sector as key to mitigating the
production of racializing or racist game content. As developers are central to the
industry and the larger games culture, their views reveal how indies are imagined as a
privileged site free from economic pressures where racism can be ameliorated. Based
on interviews with developers, I argue that the project to redress representational
inequities within games is shifted on to indie developers, intensifying their emotional
and cultural labor. Indie game developers are imagined as the solution, yet this
perspective underestimates the precariousness of independent game production.
Economic precariousness may encourage indies to repeat certain patterns of racial
indie labor, precarity, racism, cultural industries, economics, digital games
Digital game labor research on the AAA (i.e., mid-sized or major developers and
publishers) and indie (i.e., small companies or independent) sectors has examined
inequities within developers’ cultural work—inequities which are often repressed
through nondisclosure agreements and other practices designed to protect intellectual
property and trade secrets (Crogan 2018; Hammar 2017; Harvey and Fisher 2013;
Kerr 2006; O’Donnell 2014; Srauy 2017). Exploring issues of labor and inequality at
1Oakland University, Rochester, MI, USA
Sam Srauy, Department of Communication and Journalism, Oakland University, Wilson Hall, Room 303,
371 Wilson Boulevard, Rochester, MI 48309-4486, USA.
851081TVNXXX10.1177/1527476419851081Television & New MediaSrauy
the intersection of AAA and indie sectors, this article examines the perception of the
indie sector as key to mitigating the production of racializing or racist game content.
I adopt Anamik Saha’s (2018, 11) call to “switch the question from how cultural
industries represent race, to how cultural industries make race.” For Saha, questions
of representation are of continuing importance, but we cannot forget that race also is
the result of market-based cultural production decisions and logics: such cultural
production practices are intrinsic to the process of creating race. Furthermore, cul-
tural industries are reductive toward racial identities in part because economic effi-
ciencies are interwoven with strategies of racial governance under neoliberal
capitalism (Saha 2016, 2018).
In this article, I consider why the economic and labor dynamics of indie digital
games development have not demonstrably increased or improved representation of
marginalized subjectivities within games. Assuming that indie game developers are
uniquely positioned to remediate racism is, I contend, misguided because it relies on a
“lack of recognition of how such texts are a product of the cultural industries and also
of rationalized and standardized industrial processes that determine the way that the
text appears at the point of consumption” (Saha 2018, 6). My commentary is informed
by interviews with six developers working in the United States or Canada whom I
recruited through snowball sampling. AAA developers, as the creators of the most
widely circulated games, retain a dominant professional voice within the game indus-
try. As such, AAA developers’ perceptions of indie game development strongly inform
how the “indie” scene, indie labor, and inequalities therein are seen. The majority of
my research participants work for AAA studios, whereas one research participant
works for a major indie studio. Four research participants identified as white and two
identified as people of color. I conducted semi-structured interviews to uncover par-
ticipants’ views of the indie scene, and all participants have been given pseudonyms.
Although my research participants occupied various positions within the game indus-
try, all participants identified as developers, and they expressed similar perspectives
on development, inequality—racism within games, specifically—and indie games as
a force for social change. My participants consistently expressed the belief that inde-
pendent digital games hold potential to free game culture from “greedy” AAA publish-
ers that seek security in sameness or regularly produce and market games for a white,
male, heterosexual player identity. Although this view of indies is echoed in some
game studies literature (Anthropy 2012; Hammar 2017; Westecott 2013), other schol-
ars have suggested that indie developers, too, can reify the industry’s dominant imag-
ined player subjectivity (Harvey and Shepherd 2017).
Joseph A. Schumpeter’s (2008) notion of “creative destruction” is helpful to frame
the macro-level transformations in the game industry that have seen a widening out
from the AAA sector to include an indie sector. Creative destruction is the cycle by
which innovation catalyzes market evolution. One dimension of creative destruction
posits that large firms, which for a variety of reasons, grow weary of innovation (i.e.,
the process which initially led them to dominate their market) and come to be chal-
lenged by smaller actors, whose size affords them increased risk-tolerance and nim-
bleness. As they mature, large firms must leverage their wealth to innovate, swallow
804 Television & New Media 20(8)
innovative upstarts, or risk being displaced as industry leaders (Kumar and Sundarraj
2018). Within this broad economic frame, and drawing from my interviews with
developers, I argue that indie developers are discursively constructed as those who
will “fix” the larger digital game industry’s ills. This positioning does not necessarily
translate into economic reward for indie developers and indeed creates narratives
around indie game development that potentially deepen developers’ exploitation.
The project to redress representational inequities within games, including racism,
shifts on to often-precarious indie developers, intensifying their emotional and cultural
labor. This shifting of responsibility occurs when AAA game publishers and develop-
ers fail to confront their role in addressing inequality in games. Indie game developers
are imagined as the solution, even though, I suggest in this article, there are structural
reasons that explain why indie developers are less able to address such inequities. This
responsibility also constitutes additional immaterial labor (Lazzarato 1996), which
especially burdens developers of color. AAA developers may be inclined to perceive
the emergence of the indie sector as encompassing unique “indie freedoms” that
empower indie developers to ameliorate inequality in digital game culture. However,
this perspective underestimates the precariousness of independent game production
and indie developers. Economic precariousness may in fact encourage indies to repeat
certain patterns of racial representation, which suggests the “rationalizing/racializing
logic of capital” (Saha 2018). Although I do not dismiss the deleterious labor condi-
tions of AAA developers, the institutional power represented by their sector makes
them well positioned to address in-game representation.
AAA Games and Games Culture
The developers I interviewed recognize the critique of racism in games but nonethe-
less see AAA game development as constrained by the assumption that non-white
protagonists, for example, are risky. In the games industry as in television, cinema, or
other media industries, certain markers denote media artifacts as for Others, not for the
mainstream (see Saha 2016). The AAA developers in my research regard indies as a
privileged site to redress inequality in game representation. This idealization is rooted
in the present neoliberal moment, where market forces are viewed as key to resolving
social inequalities. Although indie developers are to an extent free to challenge narra-
tives that depict race problematically, social structures and commercial logics modu-
late this freedom (see Foucault 1981, 1982). Developers, after all, are compelled to
produce games that make money. As Marcus states,
[W]hat’s most important for these games . . . even [to] the independent game developers
who tell stories they want to [is] at the end of the day, they need to sell their games
regardless of the message they’re trying to say. . . There’s a lot of things that are expected,
but they don’t want you to challenge the status quo, almost because it’s not a practical
business decision. And that’s really what’s hindering games. (Marcus)
Marcus’ comments reveal a double-bind that indie developers face, which I will dis-
cuss further below. Simply put, games must make money, and thus business priorities
overshadow content decisions. Yet one of the dominant assumptions seems to be that
indie developers are free from such considerations.
Creative (Indie) Destruction
My participants’ views of indie development—that indie games can challenge domi-
nant depictions of race within game culture—overlook precarious labor issues (see
Ruberg, this issue). Responsibility for contesting racism in games is offloaded from
relatively powerful AAA developers and publishers to relatively powerless indie
developers. According to Schumpeter (2008), few big firms dominate large industries.
Such firms face inducements to limit capital, market, and opportunity risks by innovat-
ing just enough to reduce the threat to their market share posed by competing firms.
Risk aversion, however, allows smaller firms, for whom innovation appears to be a
less risky proposition, to develop a more creative product, production method, or ser-
vice that will contribute to the “destruction” of the current dominant firms’ positions
at the top of the market. Consider this comment from developer Carlos:
Now, I actually think the failure rate of indie games is probably the same, percentage
wise, as big-budget games, right? We’re like, ten percent to twenty percent max of games
are successful. The rest are failures commercially, or critically. I think that’s actually true
of indie games. For every Braid, there are probably dozens of games that no one played,
or heard of, or bought, right? But when they do get their breakthroughs, or when they do
something that is different or unique, it’s very personal. Or at least it feels like it’s more
personal. I think it’s because of the smaller teams that it can be more personal. That I
think is appealing to the rest of us. And, they’re trying new things. (Carlos)
Carlos seems to assume that indie developers have freedom from AAA industry
norms and economic pressures that allows indies to develop diverse narratives and
characters—even in the face of the evidence stacked against them (i.e., high failure
rate, which Carlos mentions). The logic here seems to be that as smaller firms lack
significant market share, innovation presents little risk (money or investment excepted)
and great potential for rewards. Yet the size of the game industry and the trend of pub-
lisher acquisitions (Takahashi 2018) challenge this logic.
In this broad context, indies are seen as a key solution to racism within game texts
(Hammar 2017; Mattos 2016). As industry leaders, AAA developers face endogenous
pressure to avoid risks. Risk aversion tends to lead to media content that relies on
rather than rejects racism, sexism, and homophobia, for example. I contend that AAA
developers mistakenly view indie games as well positioned to correct inequality in
game texts, partly because the prevalence of precarious labor within the independent
game sector makes indies structurally ill-equipped to out-innovate. Indie game devel-
opers may replicate extant inequalities (e.g., game content that is racist, sexist, or
homophobic) to mitigate some market risks. Indies’ risk-ameliorating behavior
806 Television & New Media 20(8)
emulates AAA business strategies, with such emulation providing indies a way to
negotiate the unpredictability of a game’s commercial success.
Challenging Racism: AAA and Publishers
Schumpeter (2008) argues that the barriers to enter the market increase as industries
mature. This means that innovation is not necessarily sufficient on its own to allow
smaller companies to challenge dominant players (see also Glezos 2010; Kumar and
Sundarraj 2018). Indeed, there is a clear market pattern in the game industry whereby
large firms acquire smaller competitors precisely to absorb innovations. Innovations in
game design, including challenging racialized content, could theoretically spread from
indie developers—but only if those types of innovations capture a large enough seg-
ment of the market to warrant being absorbed by large firms in the first place. Indie
firms, as noted, may opt for emulation as a strategy to mitigate their risks (see Saha
2018; Tschang 2007). Within the supposedly more open and progressive indie games
world, there is evidence of tendencies to replicate narratives that exclude marginalized
identities (see Fisher and Harvey 2013; Harvey and Fisher 2013). “Safer” develop-
ment strategies are likely to sustain racial patterns of representation and racism for the
reasons noted earlier. Of course, whether or not racism is actually a safer strategy is
beside the point. As it is impossible to operate in an environment of perfect market
information (Stiglitz 2002), belief in safer strategies is what matters. Firms fill in the
gap with assumptions rooted in societal discourses, including racism (Bonilla-Silva
2009; Saha 2018).
Why Indies Are Less Able to “Fix” Inequality
My analysis of the limits on and inflated expectations for indies to ameliorate racial-
ized patterns of representation in game culture concurs with what Saha (2018) calls the
“rationalizing/racializing logic of capital.” This encompasses the propensity of cul-
tural industries to categorize content produced by people of color as exclusively for a
minority group while viewing content by white producers as for general audiences.
My informants embrace an imaginary of indie game development as an “escape” from
the racial problems of AAA game development. In contrast to AAA games, which they
see as trapped by market pressures, my informants perceive the indie sector as some-
how “outside” of markets (see Anthropy 2012; Westecott 2013; Whitson 2012). This
is shaped, in part, by a game development mystique, where developers are seen as
engaged in labor as “play,” or “not serious work” (O’Donnell 2012, 2014).
The work-as-play view is pronounced in indie game development (Harvey and
Shepherd 2017). The belief that game development is “not real work” and that indie
labor is free from the sullying influence of money arguably intensifies the exploitation
of indie game labor where developers work unpaid or for little pay. Indie developers
do not, of course, completely escape the logic of AAA development, with “the most
celebrated indies” tending to be those “who most closely mirror the aesthetics, mechan-
ics and priorities of the mainstream industry” (Harvey and Shepherd 2017, 504).
Indies remain embedded within neoliberal culture—and within the rationalizing/
racializing logic of capital, which AAA developers identify as shaping why they resort
to racist game narratives (Srauy 2017). Like other creative industries, digital games
has its own “industry lore” (Havens cited in Saha 2018, 120), referring to the “under-
standing of how an audience is going to react to a particular cultural good, gleaned
from a combination of market research, experience and gut feeling” (Saha 2018, 120–
21). My developers imagined a target demographic for whom they believed they must
tailor their games, conflating speculation and normative beliefs about the industry as
data. The view of a gamer as predominantly a white, heterosexual male is the result of
such “industry lore” (Shaw 2009, 2010; Srauy 2017).
As noted above, indie games cannot “fix” inequality, even as the indie game scene
is imagined to permit diverse representations. As Carlos explains,
[A]n indie developer can go: “What do I want to make that’s interesting?” And make
what they think is cool, and not care, for the most part, what other people are thinking
about it. Because they do that, they are able to, at times, make more interesting games. . .
I’m not constrained by what system I work in. Like, I’m constrained at times—and I’m
OK with the constraints because I have tons of freedom—and more importantly, I’m
working on games that I want to work on. (Carlos)
Western societies structurally reify racist discourses in the guise of seemingly nonracist
ideas (Bonilla-Silva 2009). Othered characters are increasingly commonplace in games,
but, to paraphrase Shaw (2009), until games featuring examples of marginalized bod-
ies—racial minorities, in this case—reach a level of mundanity, white, heterosexual
bodies will remain normative in games. So, why does game culture laud the “profes-
sional indie,” when developers largely adopt AAA aesthetics and narratives (Harvey
and Shepherd 2017) that indie games are perceived to counter? To begin to answer this
question, it is necessary to consider the labor conditions within indie development.
Creative Destruction: Precarious (Indie) Labor
Research suggests that creative labor in the “new economy” involves a bait-and-
switch: flexible work is often framed as empowering, but this obscures the precarious-
ness that often results from labor flexibility (Discenna 2017; Gill 2013; Hesmondhalgh
and Baker 2008, 2010). Subjection to precarious conditions prompts labor to hew
closely to traditional power dynamics. Among indie developers, exploitation includes
bearing the affective burden of responsibility for “fixing” games, which is a facet of
the invisible emotional labor of indie development. The responses from the AAA
developers I interviewed give some indication of how the precariousness of indie labor
is neglected in narratives that emphasize indies as a space of freedom. Evoking a cre-
ative destruction process, one developer, Emil, predicts,
I think you’re seeing the old industry explode—the old games industry as we’ve
previously seen it . . . I think what you’re going to see in the next couple of years is a
808 Television & New Media 20(8)
tremendous explosion of independent game productions through crowdsourcing and
through Xbox Live Arcade. As far as how it will go with representation of characters, I
think it will improve. A lot of people are doing this work now, where this is much more
of an art form. (Emil)
Emil refers to indie games as “an art form,” which is contrasted to the “old industry.”
Such narratives underscore that indie labor is “different” and indeed “not quite work.”
As Mathias Fuchs (2014, 153) asserts in the context of gamification, “the attempt to
harmonize play and labour, however, is ideology.” My participants’ belief that they are
less able to address racism than their indie counterparts rests on a perception of indie
game development as more play than work, and in turn allows AAA developers to
believe they lack power to change representational patterns in the game industry.
Immaterial Labor: The Cost of “Getting In” and “Getting
On” in Indie Labor
Indie digital game development is work. For white indie developers, alongside the
insecurities of whether one has a job day-to-day, the stresses of precarious work
include the lack of access to institutional protections in the form of unions, healthcare,
and so forth (Bulut 2015; Neff et al. 2005). For indie developers of color, precarious
labor takes an additional affective toll; that is, indie developers of color must under-
take affective labor (see Hardt and Negri 2000) to address diverse and, at times, racist
content in games, which consequently enables their own self-exploitation. There are
material costs to “getting in” and “getting on” in creative industries (Gill 2013; Jarrett
2014). Although some indie development is solitary, much of this work is collabora-
tive. In addition, there are marketing costs. Indie games tend to be marketed through
word-of-mouth (Lipkin 2012). Constructing oneself as an ideal “game developer” is
Most game studios engage publishers on a project basis. This is similar to how film
and television projects depend on studios for support. But whereas many film and
television production workers are unionized, game developers’ lack of unionization
highlights their precarity. The project-to-project organization of game development
work shapes an industry that is “structurally insecure with a strong dependence upon
freelance and some very poorly paid workers” (Thanki and Jefferys 2007, 113). That
the indie development workforce is demographically similar to AAA (Passmore et al.
2017) and that there are economic pressures on developers to hew closely to normative
aesthetics (Harvey and Shepherd 2017) suggests socio-economic costs for deviation
from industry norms. Moreover, previous studies identify an increased social cost for
Othered individuals to enter creative industries in general (Gill 2013). The new econ-
omy requires labor to actively maintain social connections outside of the workplace
(Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2010). These social outings are more than mere causal
activities; they are ways in which workers in creative industries maintain, increase,
and exercise their social capital in their industry. This becomes an oversized cost for
Othered individuals’ participation in social activities when their racial identity and
heritage are not compatible with white-normative cultural experiences, limiting their
social capital and opportunities for advancement within the industry (Gill 2014).
The Double-bind: The Invisible Labor of Reifying
Research suggests that indies are no more likely to have diverse characters than their
AAA counterparts (Passmore et al. 2017). This implies that despite indies being
regarded—according to the AAA developers in my research, at least—as a privileged
site on which to contest racism in games, imitating AAA game aesthetics of privileg-
ing white characters is also normative for indie developers of color. Because making
games is often a collaborative practice, contesting racism by resisting those norms
risks unemployment. If increasing Othered game developers is a correct strategy
(Hammar 2017), there are additional immaterial labor costs (Jarrett 2014).
“Outspoken” indie developers of color might be less likely to find work (see Gill
2013). For a moment, let us assume that there would be no negative costs to speaking out
against racism during the game design process. Even in this case, however, there would
be additional labor performed by the Othered developer in the games he or she is expected
to make, or in how to categorize them. Likewise, if an LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender, and queer), person of color, or woman developer participates in making a
game that challenges dominant narratives, these developers risk being pigeonholed as
only makers of games for Othered groups, resulting in opportunity costs (see Saha 2016).
These expectations would not necessarily come from consumers; they come from col-
leagues, who are supportive of diverse representations in games (see Srauy 2017).
Game developers may see inequality as a problem. But prior to selling games to
consumers, games must be categorized and marketed in accordance with existing mar-
ket categories. This rationalizing/racializing logic of capital that is present in creative
industries extends to the digital games industries. Difference is categorized, set into a
place where it is assumed it will perform well in market terms. This is the decision-
making procedure within creative industries (Saha 2018). For Saha (2016, 2018), this
rationalizing/racializing logic is in part a socially and culturally shaped economic
impulse that forms in response to risk.
For the AAA developers I interviewed, challenging racism within indie develop-
ment is a net positive. Developers of color are double-bound, that is, forced to con-
stantly expend immaterial labor to either stay silent and maintain work ties or speak
out and become victims of a rationalizing logic of capital that channels one’s career
into bounded categories. Simply having more people of color as developers in the
game industry is not enough to diversify representation within games. As I demon-
strated in this article, the process of cultural production in digital games and the dis-
courses surrounding indie developers act against racial justice. As Saha (2018) argues,
more diversity in creative industry labor does not guarantee more diversity in content.
Therefore, new norms must emerge to elucidate what creative destruction tells us: if
racially equitable narratives are “innovative,” that innovation ought to come from the
most powerful actors in the industry.
810 Television & New Media 20(8)
For my interviewees, the economic logics that govern AAA game development
regard narratives that decenter white, male, heterosexual characters and players as
too risky—and these AAA developers call on indie development labor to “fix”
inequality in game culture. The extent to which the indie game world will do this
remains to be seen. The demographics, norms, and economic pressures on indie
developers belie my developers’ hope in the power of indies. Market strategies
alone are insufficient to elicit change in patterns of racial representation in game
culture. My research suggests that both AAA and indie developers share a desire for
“freedom” to create games “outside” market confines. If game development seeks
to ameliorate inequality in games, the site of struggle is not only market decisions
or game narratives but also the subjectivities of AAA and indie developers. Such
struggles might benefit from greater professional discussion of racial representa-
tion in games as a part of what Casey O’Donnell (2014) describes as the networked
assemblages of game creators, inclusive of “homebrew” developers, who constitute
nodes of resistance. Stating that markets induce projects that reproduce racially
problematic narratives is not novel. Much has been written about this concerning
television and film, for example (see Schatz 2003). This article attempts to move us
toward understanding the problems in shouldering indie developers with the burden
of improving racial representation in games, to provide an account of how market
logics in the game industry reproduce racism, and to offer an analysis of how we
might advance racial justice by attending to the economic and labor conditions of
indie game development.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
Sam Srauy https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6810-9403
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Sam Srauy is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at
Oakland University. His research interests include the intersection of racism and economics in
the digital games industry. He is a founding member of Culture Digitally, a research blog.