Canada's Kickstarter: Grants, the State and the Ontology of Technology (Presented at the Eastern Sociological Society 2012 in New York City)
On february 8th a company in Southern California announced to the world that they were going to build a game for 400 thousand dollars. Here is the video they used to announce it.
The next day they had raised more than 1 million dollars for the project. Right now the current amount raised is above 2 million, with approximately 60 thousand individual backers.
If you aren’t familiar with Kickstarter, it’s essentially a private-sector direct capital investment website. Rather than securing funding through traditional sources such as banks or venture capitalists, organizations of all kinds appeal directly to the public for funding to make things. Oftentimes the things created through Kickstarter have a cultural character to them – rather than, say, a factory that manufactures widgets, they tend to be documentaries, music albums, websites and, as in the case of Double Fine adventure, videogames.
For some, Kickstarter has changed their lives, and changed the relationship that people have with the products they buy. Kickstarter is one of those things that seem like a perfect fit for the Internet – directly connecting people with the things they want to support directly. In this way it reflects some of the utopian visions of the Internet that were hailed by the likes of Nicholas Negroponte or Alvin Toffler, as the ideal decentralized marketplace, reflecting the individualist character of contemporary capitalism: one where the producer lays out what they have to the public, and appeals directly to the market.
This is what Double Fine had to say about Kickstarter:
Crowd-sourced fundraising sites like Kickstarter have been an incredible boon to the independent development community. They democratize the process by allowing consumers to support the games they want to see developed and give the developers the freedom to experiment, take risks, and design without anyone else compromising their vision. It’s the kind of creative luxury that most major, established studios simply can’t afford. At least, not until now.
Sink or swim, it’s your product that counts. It appears on the surface as a transaction that eschews government meddling in the market – a meeting place between individuals that is mediated without the collectivist excesses of the welfare state, without compromising your own creative vision to the whims of outsiders.
For Canadians, however, such a vision of “democratized” funding isn’t available yet. This happens to us all the time actually. We can’t use Hulu either. Good luck trying to find clips from Saturday Night Live. And so with all things that we can’t use, we have our own version. I made this joke a few weeks ago on twitter actually:
People seemed to like it! Mostly Americans I found. I think the idea that Canada has its own, essentially socialized system of support for creative endeavours is something that a lot of Americans have a hard time imagining. This isn’t to say that the US doesn’t have its own cultural policy, its just that, for every dollar per-capita, Canada has way more. Canada has had, since the end of WWII, a rather large state-supported system of cultural grants and regulations that attempt to develop Canadian cultural production on the border of the world’s largest cultural exporter in the English speaking world.
Canada’s Federal Government has developed various arts and cultural organizations, regulatory bodies and tax incentives and that support Canadian cultural production like the Canada Council for the Arts, Telefilm, The National Film Board and various others. Similarly, provinces themselves have developed their own cultural policy that focuses on local culture, such as the Ontario Arts Council.
Rather than appealing to the market or getting a bank loan Superbrothers and Capyberra Games, a small/ish development studio located in Toronto, decided to make their videogame with a grant provided by the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC). I won’t bore you with the intimate details of the process, but essentially the OMDC provides grants to small scale media business projects, ones that need roughly 300 thousand dollars to see it through. They provide up to 150 thousand in a grant, composing half of the project’s total funding, as long as the project is intentionally designed to turn a profit, is based in Canada, and the project retains the intellectual property in Canada.
Adams and Capyberra got the full grant, spent a year in production and released the game. It was a success inside of the first month of sales, and when I talked to him he had made more than twice the amount it cost to develop. I imagine it has made more than double that amount by now.
I’m intrigued by this because Canada’s cultural policy plays such a big role in the creation of culture: it has a very different conception of what culture is – for the policy makers and the governments that approved these grants, they framed Canadian culture as a vital component of public life, something that in the face of America’s cultural industries it needed to be collectively supported lest it drown in the noise. Historically, this meant supporting radio, television, the visual and performing arts, films, etc, but this is beginning to include videogames, even if the OMDC gave funding for Sworcery because it was framed as a profit making venture, something that would develop high-tech immaterial labour industry in Ontario. This recognition by the contemporary state in videogames as culture and a business is an important step for the medium, something which almost every other established media form has went through in the 20th century.
The involvement of the State in the development of new media is something we often forget to bring into discussions of technology, especially in the American context, attributing them to free flows of capital, to the market, individual brilliance etc. Tim Wu’s The Master Switch details the development of telecommunications technologies in the late 19th and early 20th century and showcases what a myth it is to imagine communications technology without the state lurking behind the curtains, be it the film projector, long distance telephony or the Internet. In bringing up the role that, say, acquiring capital from the state rather than the free market, we can talk more broadly about the ideological assumptions we have about technological development such as the ideologies of non-interventionist Hayekian economics vs. The Keynesian welfare state, but also ontological assumptions we have about how technology exists, it’s very being.
Lots of critical theory falls prey to what Levi Bryant calls the Hegemonic fallacy, where in we begin to see one difference as the only difference that makes a difference. A hegemonic object that dominates all others. For example, a purely historical materialist position of Sworcery or Double Fine would reduce the existence of these objects entirely to their development under contemporary capitalism, as only commodities whose being is composed entirely by a dialectic of use and exchange value. This is reminiscent, in some ways, of the thesis proposed by Nick Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter in Games of Empire, whose Hardt & Negriesque ontological position paints videogames as being defined entirely by their process of becoming, which is their relation to global capitalism and Empire. Similarly a post-structuralist take could concieve of Sworcery and Double Fine Adventure as objects whose being is composed of entirely as signs and signifiers operating under the hegemony of language, as texts to be read and understood in terms of play or sociology.
Instead I propose thinking about these videogames as objects existing in what Levi Bryant calls an entanglement, a concept he borrows from Karen Barad, that resists the hegemons of correlationist ontology. Levi Bryant’s flat ontology, called Onticology, instead suggests that objects of call kinds, be they the the 1939 World’s Fair, stoves and icy lakes all exist in ‘entanglements’ (rather than the entirely relational character of Latour’s ontology which is based on networks) of equally real objects, where some exert more force than others but are not overdetermined by other objects like language or capitalism. As Bryant elaborates:
Where a hegemonic ontology treats one agency as making all the difference, an ontology premised on entanglements is attentive to how a variety of different objects or agencies interact in the production of phenomena. Just as new patters emerge when waves intersect one another or encounter an obstacle with no one agency entirely responsible for the pattern, networks of objects interacting with one another produce unique patterns that cannot be reduced to any one of the agencies involved.
In Doublefine’s case, it gives us a way of deconstructing Kickstarter, and its mythos as an example as an ideal 'free market’ that is solely responsible for Double Fine’s success. We can certainly point to things like social capital (Doublefine’s founder, Tim Schafer, is a very well known developer), but we also avoid letting this social critique overdetermine it as well. There are a panoply of human and non-human objects out there playing a role in Double Fine’s Adventure’s existence: fan communities, the late 90s boom of laying down fibre optic infrastructure throughout the United States and the pleasant weather native to California. Similarly, with Sworcery, we recognize the role of the interventionist Keynesian state is playing in allowing videogame developers to practice their craft, but it isn’t a hegemony, a force that overdetermined it as a medium. It isn’t as if we can point to the involvement of the OMDC’s funding as having any one kind major impact on, say, a gameplay mechanic or a narrative flourish. Rather, the creativity that Sworcery exhibits, is also linked to Foxconn Technology Group’s manufacturing plants in Shenzhen, copper deposits in Kazakhstan and the close knit indie development community here in Toronto.
But if we are specifically interested in the role that the state is playing, thinking in terms of entanglements can help contextualize Sworcery’s existence and the role that the Canadian state played, and what this means for it as an object. It can, in part be an example of of oppositional professional practice in a large city that has had very few major development studios (until the last few years with the opening of Ubisoft). Toronto’s development community, for a whole bunch of reasons, has a unique culture where artists, coders and enthusiasts that exist as a community. Grants and funding programs allow this community to have a distinctly progressive and inclusive culture, one that in the last year was host to two successful feminist interventionist projects to help women in Ontario learn how to create videogames. Yet in spite of these grants allowing for what could be described as progressive practices, they are still entangled with the state, and for those of us who study technology interested in social justice and something “beyond capitalism”, should be ready to recognize.