Industry as an ecosystem : the problems of a functionalist analogy

An ecosystem metaphor is often used to describe an industry as a whole, like a cluster, but having a more “lively” aspect. Montreal’s videogame industry promoters I met while doing my master thesis used the expression to describe the industry’s nature nowadays. It carries a strong living aspect as all parts make a whole organism, appearing to be one of the most valued industry in Montreal. However, as I argued in my master thesis: «We should not limit the ecosystem metaphor to its vivacity; ecosystem can easily be unbalanced and even destroyed by an external change.» (Pineault, 2014: 69) Anthropology’s Functionalists made an extensive use of the organic analogy in their attempts to explain culture and critics have showed its limit. In this short article, I would like to explain why we must be cautious about using the ecosystem to describe an industrial or creative cluster.

Functionalism: an epistemological overview

Functionalism has brought some of the best ethnographies of the discipline and rigorous methods to study culture, which was seen as an ordered totality. Like an organism (or an ecosystem), the parts are interrelated and occupy a function for the whole; anthropology’s functionalists often use the body-parts analogy, seeing the body as whole and the heart, lung, etc. as parts having a precise function. On an epistemological level, functionalism was criticized for putting aside the parts themselves and focus primarily on the system.

You may ask why am I comparing an industry model and a cultural theoretical one: what I want to underline here, is the fact that they both share the same theoretical framework. Both emphasizes the whole system over the parts and this may create a teleological explanation of the world (e.g., if a given institution work that way, it’s because it has a function in the system as a whole; if there is corruption, it’s because it has an economic regulatory function).

Robert K. Merton has put an amendment by criticizing Malinowski’s functionalism:

1- Perfectly integrated elements/systems are pretty rare; an element may have multiple functions in a system

2- There are dysfunctional elements that may harm the system; they don’t automatically have a positive effect on the whole

3- There are latent functions that are not easily visible in the system; dysfunctional elements may be latent (Rivière, 1995: 42-45)

Montreal’s videogame industry: perspective from a case study

My researches showed that there may be dysfunctions between what promoters, in their discourse, call the videogame ecosystem and what developers think about their job and the industry.

On the one hand, management schemata show the industry as an integrated system where each part has its own role in the “whole”: think about many big and small studios surrounded by services such as quality insurance, sound specialized studio, translation services, name it… Then add the formation institutions and universities, without forgetting the communities where developers exchange with each other and share knowledge (like International game developers association or IGDA). It creates a really complex but integrated map of the industry’s ecosystem, which is really impressive as it shows the way it involves people from many spheres.

On the other hand, however, it won’t really show the relative influence of the different institutions (or parts) implied. Furthermore I noticed many dissention between the official industry’s discourse and what developers had to say, especially about creation (which was the central part of my work). The point is that the ecosystem metaphor tend to present the industry through pink-colored glasses as a well-greased machine, without paying attention to what’s hiding under the hood and, at the same time, what is the condition of the engine.

In short, I think we can criticize this approach the same way it has been done with the functionalism: it offers a big descriptive map of what is the industry and what should it be, but it lacks to affirm its inherent vision and way to do things. Moreover, ecosystem shows us the beauty of nature and how it holds on a complex system, but one can also notice that nature is arbitrary, and even cruel. At this level, the question should be: why do we use the ecosystem metaphor to talk about the videogame industry and, furthermore, to whom this analogy benefits?

Pineault, Yann, 2014. Créer ou produire un jeu vidéo? Étude ethnographique d’un milieu de production vidéoludique montréalais, mémoire de maîtrise déposé au département d’anthropologie de l’Université de Montréal. SOON TO BE PUBLISHED
Rivière, Claude, 1995. Introduction à l’anthropologie, Hachette inc.

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