Web Exclusive Essay

Co-creative Expertise in Gaming Cultures

John Banks
Spread This

Gamers increasingly participate in the process of making and circulating game content. Games such as Maxis’s The Sims franchise, for example, are routinely cited as exemplary sites of user-created content. Games scholar T. L. Taylor comments that players are co-creative “productive agents” and asserts that we need “more progressive models” for understanding and integrating players’ creative contribution to the making of these game products and cultures (2006b, 159–160; see also 2006a). Significant economic and cultural value is generated through these spreadable media activities. The usual phrases such as “user-created content” and “user-led innovation” can overlook the professional work of designers, programmers, and graphic artists as they make the tools, platforms, and interfaces that gamers use for creating and sharing content. Attention should also be paid to the work of producers, marketing managers, and community relations managers as they grapple with how best to manage and coordinate these co-creative relations.

The Maxis-developed and Electronic Arts–published Spore thrives on user-created content. Players use 3-D editors to design creatures and other in-game content, to guide their creatures through stages of evolution, and then to share their creations with other players. Since Spore’s release in September 2008, more than 155 million player-created creatures have been uploaded to the online Sporepedia repository. Players can also upload directly from within their game videos of their creatures to the Spore YouTube channel. Spreading content is a core feature of Spore; the game is perhaps best understood as a social network generated from player creativity. This spreadability is not just about content, as the players are also sharing ideas, skills, and media literacies.

The puzzle-platformer LittleBigPlanet, developed by Media Molecule and released in October 2008 for the Sony PlayStation 3 console, also relies heavily on user-created content. Players use editor tools embedded throughout the game to create and edit new levels and objects and to generally customize their characters and game environment. They can then share these creations with other gamers through the PlayStation Network online service. LittleBigWorkshop, the game’s official online community website, also allows players to share their level designs and in-game videos. The site provides video tutorials that help players as they learn to use the level editors and to create their own levels. Spore and LittleBigPlanet now integrate the practice of spreadability as a core part of the gaming experience and their video game business model. LittleBigPlanet’s tagline, “Play, Create, Share,” foregrounds the centrality of this spreadability.

The concept of spreadability developed in this book emphasizes the agency of consumers, but we need to keep in mind that this agency is often experienced and negotiated in relation to the work and identities of media professionals: designers, producers, graphic artists, programmers, community managers, marketers, and so on. In short, we also need better understandings of how these spreadable media practices impact media industry workplaces. The daily work practices and routines of these professionals are unsettled and challenged by the need to involve increasingly demanding and unruly users in the process of making and circulating media content.

In the case of Spore, for example, controversy flared about Electronic Arts’ use of Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology. After gamers complained loudly on various forums and the issue attracted considerable online press coverage, Electronic Arts relented by releasing an update that removed and modified many of the more contentious elements of this particular implementation of DRM. LittleBigPlanet players also objected on the Sony LittleBigWorkshop forums to the publisher’s decision to remove user-submitted levels. The developer and publisher were concerned that some of the uploaded content infringed intellectual property rights by including the brands and trademarks of other companies. Players complained that content had been deleted which, in their opinion, had not infringed copyright or trademarks. Sony has since clarified its content-moderation guidelines and provided more transparent information on its reasons for removing content. Game developers increasingly need to take into account the activism of highly literate fan communities that form around games such as Spore and LittleBigPlanet.

Spreadable media networks blur the professional-amateur divide and foreground the increasingly interdependent relationships between “producers” and users. This reengineering of producer-consumer relations unsettles the paradigm of professional expertise and the associated claims to authority and control that have dominated the organization of media production throughout the industrial era (Jenkins 2006, 54; Hartley 2009, 131–135). Innovation and creativity are attributable not just to firms’ professional developers but also to the distributed expertise and co-creative practices of socially networked citizen-consumers. The very identity of professional media workers is therefore at stake in these co-creative media networks. (See especially Deuze 2007.)

Producers, designers, programmers, artists, community relations managers, and CEOs often have very different and at times competing assessments of the risks and opportunities of these emerging co-creative relations (Banks 2009). They also have different understandings of how these spreadable media practices should be realized. Moreover, these emerging spreadable media practices do not play out comfortably within the standard frame of hierarchical organization in a firm. Instead, they disrupt traditional industrial, closed innovation systems and thereby pose significant management challenges. However, as David Stark argues in The Sense of Dissonance (2009), the success of enterprises may well rely on an ability to maintain the ambiguity or dissonance among coexisting and conflicting evaluative principles.

The success of media enterprises such as games developers may rely on effectively combining and coordinating the various forms of expertise possessed by both professional games developers and creative gamers, not displacing one with the other. But such coordination, as Stark argues, occurs not despite of but because of the divergent misunderstandings that characterize such relationships (2009, 191–193). This requires games developers and publishers to recognize and respect the contribution of gamers’ expertise in the context of a co-creative relationship for mutual benefit. The challenge of spreadability here is to develop frameworks and models of co-creative expertise that situate and coordinate the expertise of gamers in proper perspective alongside professional creatives’ expertise (Banks 2009).


Banks, John. 2009. “Co-creative Expertise: Auran Games and Fury—a Case Study.” Media International Australia 130 (February): 77–89.

Deuze, Mark. 2007. Media Work, Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Hartley, John. 2009. The Uses of Digital Literacy. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press.

Stark, David. 2009. The Sense of Dissonance: Accounts of Worth in Economic Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Taylor, T. L. 2006a. “Beyond Management: Considering Participatory Design and Governance in Player Culture.” In “Command Lines: The Emergence of Governance in Global Cyberspace,” special issue 7, First Monday, September. http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1611/1526#t4.

———. 2006b. Play between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *