A look at quality of life in one of the games industry's most proactive countries.

QOL in Singapore

How does quality of life differ in a country finding its way in games development? Imperial College’s Dr. Patrick Stacey presents his discoveries from a four year investigation…

Singapore is one of the fastest growing hubs in the world for game development. Some of the biggest names in the industry such as Lucasfilm and Koei have established fully-fledged game studios there.

Beyond these arch angels of game development are the lesser-spotted indie angels trying to eke out a living. Many of them have been around in Singapore longer than the likes of Koei Singapore. Over the last four years I have studied them to understand the Quality of life (QOL) challenges they were facing. I conducted 60 interviews with developers in nine studios, as well as with industry regulators, had dozens of informal conversations outside office hours with them, and spent months observing their work practices between 2004 and 2007. To put the scale of the data collected into perspective, this resulted in 1664 A4 pages of discussions.

Summary of findings
This massive data set condensed down into a number of essential, repeating forces of Quality of Life.

Most of the forces are negative, but there are some positives. In summary, interdisciplinary tension, design ambiguity and staff turnover triggered negative QOL, whereas greater tool use, resource awareness, and the ability to improvise triggered positive QOL. Therefore, the QOL in this study is particularly related to work practices and interdisciplinary relations, as opposed to, say, issues relating to pay. As well as eliciting issues that game developers had with regards to their QOL – as other studies have done – the study further revealed the generative forces of QOL.

As you may recall, in April 2009 Develop published its own survey of QOL. It revealed issues particularly relating to hours and pay, and that QOL seemed to be improving slightly. To take this further, what are the dynamics of rich and poor QOL? What are the burning social, technical and political issues that are bubbling beneath the surface? Before these are revealed, let’s put the data into perspective.

Why should we pay any attention to indie studios in Singapore? Until the late 1990s Singaporean professionals were largely engaged in technological innovation, engineering and applied R&D with little tradition in the arts as an enterprise. Yet, it was recognised that more artistic enterprises needed to be nurtured to stimulate techno-preneurship. In Singapore, it was encouraged for the arts to blend with engineering in the form of computer game development. This was admirably spearheaded by the Media Development Authority (MDA) and the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) in the early 2000s. As we will see, brazen conflicts between technologists and artists were ripe sources of poor QOL.

QOL: The bigger picture
Why are we still talking about QOL anyway? Beyond its intrinsic importance, it is also arguably directly related to the quality of the games we produce. I’m thinking here of the extensive research done by Amabile et al (2005) and McGrath (2006); being ‘well’ psychologically is fundamental to being creative. Further, the creative industries are now comparable in size to the UK’s financial services sector – it contributes over eight per cent to the economy, and employs 1.8 million people. There’s a strong case for game studio employers to take QOL very seriously.

Some QOL theory for seasoning
There has already been a great deal of research on QOL outside of games, in settings like developing countries, health, and youth development. A lot of this research boils down into a broth in which a sense of community and belonging is critical to psychological wellbeing, or QOL.

While this can be interpreted in many ways, ask yourself this question: when you’re at work, do you feel that team spirit, that esprit de corps? Do all the participants ‘get’ each other? On a scale of one to ten, how well do you think you understand the needs of your level designer, your animator, your programmer? Sometimes you will, sometimes you won’t.

And then, there will always be unexpected challenges around the corner when everything suddenly falls apart and QOL smashes on the hard floor of business.

Indeed, QOL is probably akin to a wave – it’s an unstable concept with peaks and troughs; a process not a state. So, perhaps we should think in terms of dealing with QOL as a process on a day-to-day basis.

Examples from the study

Given the enormity of the Singapore data and the tight corset of cutting-edge journalism, only representative episodes (refer to table 1, opposite page, top) pertaining to forces of QOL are presented, i.e. interdisciplinary tension, design ambiguity and staff turnover (poor QOL), and, greater tool use, resource awareness, and the ability to improvise (rich QOL).

Distilling the data snapshot in the table above, we can see how QOL at one studio (dubbed ‘CGS’) was subject to micro day-to-day forces. These largely stemmed from pressure on the team resulting from interdisciplinary tensions, staff turnover and lack of shared understanding of design constraints. Such challenges had a negative impact on most of the developers’ QOL since they experienced less team cohesion, and a variety of negative emotions such as irritation, frustration, desperation, loss of enjoyment, stress and dismay, as well as loss of sense of community. Many of the developers coped well by improvising around these challenges. Improvisation, then, is a tool or capability to be fostered in a team in order to deal with those detrimental forces of QOL.

While tweaking factors such as pay and hours is important to QOL, the study raises the issue that we also need to attend to the more micro day-to-day social, technical and political forces that act on our development efforts.

In summary, these are:
• Foster inter-disciplinary harmony
• Do your best to retain talent
• Reduce design ambiguity as early as possible
• Make all design constraints known to everyone in the team as they arise
• Encourage greater tool use
• Develop improvisational skills amongst your staff
• Try to stay positive!

This article has attempted to expose some of the dynamics and forces of QOL through a long term, in-depth field study. The article has also attempted to illuminate a pathway towards better QOL by considering some of the micro issues in game studios in Singapore.

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