My scholarship engages with the political economy and cultural politics of video games within a global context, cultural industries and (digital) labor, philosophy of technology, and digital media and politics. The theoretical frameworks that inform my research are cultural studies and critical theory, and the methodologies that I use include ethnography, industrial analysis, comparative analysis, and textual analysis.
Along these lines, my first book A Precarious Game: The Illusion of Dream Jobs in the Video Game Industry (forthcoming, Cornell University Press) tells the story of how a youthful start-up dream turns into a nightmare within the volatile context of finance capitalism. Contributing to media and cultural studies, game studies, labor studies, gender studies, and cultural theory, I explore the meaning of “loving” and “making a living” in the commercialized production cultures of digital media industries. The game developers I have observed and interviewed for a period of three years invariably love what they do, defining it as a “dream job.” This book interrogates the politics of this dream through the lens of inequality. It poses one main question: Who gets to play and who has to do the work in this industry? Grasping the personal, social, and emotional costs of racialized and gendered labor practices, I critique liberal conceptions of creativity and discourses around “quality of life” in this unpredictable industry. I offer new notions such as ludopolitics, emotional toxicity, and ludic religiosity to reveal workplace inequalities, precarity, and alienation in workers’ private lives. A Precarious Game proposes to consider game work as a matter of democracy. This is vital because employment is political and so is love of work. It ultimately invites the reader to demand our right to like work “just fine,” to consider universal basic income and unionization as a strategy, to deconstruct our naturalized commitment to work, and imagine love as a radically transformative force. At this critical juncture regarding the rise of artificial intelligence and the broader debates about “the future of work,” my book will have a significant interdisciplinary impact among scholars of game studies, media industry studies, and political economy of communication.
Expanding the conceptual framework of A Precarious Game, I have introduced the work of Herbert Marcuse to the field of digital game studies. For example, in “One-Dimensional Creativity: A Marcusean Critique of Work and Play in the Video Game Industry” published in triple C: Communication, Capitalism & Critique (Bulut 2018), I theorized the dominant mode of production in the game industry as “one dimensional creativity.” In another article co-authored with Dr. Robert Mejia (Mejia and Bulut 2019), we have examined how casual games and the broader industry valorize play through the “cruel optimism” of both gameplayers and game workers. A shorter version of this piece was recently awarded New Philosopher’s quarterly writing award. These articles on the political economy of casual games and datafication of play builds on my earlier work (Bulut, Mejia, and McCarthy 2014) on how philanthropic digital games address complex historical problems in the Global South in Orientalist ways.
My current and future research activities are now oriented towards e-sports and television production with focus on labor and media infrastructures. Both projects are embedded in the Global South and I draw on ethnographic and critical qualitative methods.
E-sports: In this new research project, I examine media infrastructures and masculinity in Turkey’s emerging e-sports market. The largest three football clubs in Turkey have started their own e-sports teams. A major university (Bahçeşehir University) has been offering e-sports scholarships since 2017. Important themes that emerge within this context are family and gender. As the welfare state withdraws from its responsibilities, electronic sports emerge as a remedy to the crisis of not only employment but also masculinity. In this context, the family becomes a crucial infrastructure of support for the young citizens’ future employment as an e-sports player. Aside from the family, other important themes include body and technology, space, and the state as an institutional facilitator. Global South has for some time been sending male populations abroad for mobility through the channel of traditional sports. In that sense, this research presents a unique case for the entanglement of technology, gender, and the state’s growth-oriented techno-nationalist discourse.
Soap opera industry and labor: This project is concerned with Turkey’s booming soap opera industry. Turkish soap operas circulate across 70 countries located in the Balkans, Middle East, North Africa and even Latin America, which makes Turkey a site from which media counter-flows originate. Its export volume has reached $200 million and comes right after U.S. productions (movies excluded). As far as organization of labor is concerned, soap opera industry is similar to other creative industries in Turkey in terms of its exploitative production cultures. In fact, working conditions in production sets are so harsh that workers, as they try to finish two-hour-long episodes in the hectic urban environment of Istanbul, lose their lives. Since 2017, I have been conducting ethnographic research on the production and affective circulation of Turkish soap operas. In this ongoing research project funded by Koç University’s generous Seed Grant, I ask: What does it take to produce two-hour dramas in terms of workers’ bodily functions, stamina and intellectual creativity? How do industry professionals manage their personal and professional lives in an industry that is structured by high levels of precarity? How do workers recompose themselves as a class against extreme work conditions? Overall, this project examines the working conditions of soap opera workers (directors, cinematographers, costume designers, camera crew, actors and actresses, makeup artists, drivers, light technicians etc.) from the perspective of media materiality studies and media industry studies. This research will problematize creativity and precarity in the context of the Global South and contribute to global media industry studies.
Aside from these scholarly activities, I have contributed to other platforms to advance my public engagement. I translated Guy Standing’s important work Precariat into Turkish (İletişim Publishing, 2014), and wrote two articles for the leading literary magazine Varlık’s special issues on “Precariat” (January 2018) and “Posthumanism” (January 2019).
Ultimately, the goal of my research is to complicate celebratory accounts of creative labor in the age of media convergence and highlight how media workers struggle over the control of their labor process and intellectual property. As younger generations aspire to work in creative industries, foregrounding the experience of current workers is vital to improve the material work conditions in these industries. Moreover, as new media outlets are increasingly celebrated in the context of global social movements, I believe it is important to point to continuities in terms of how power operates through both “old” and emergent media. Digital technologies are surely vital in the reconfiguration of geopolitical relations at the global scale and formation of new populisms. While I acknowledge the transformative role of digital technologies, my research raises the need for a cautious approach towards media-first explanations of such political transformations and draws attention to historical, spatial and national contexts for such major political changes across the globe.