What does it mean to patch a video game? The word patching implies an act of reparation, therefore a state of imperfection. If video games are imperfect and are always in need of fixing, how do we appreciate them and come to terms with their imperfect state?
After turning on a new console, it notifies us that it needs patching. We must wait for the loading bar to fill up. Loading speed is based on our broadband speed as the patch needs to downloaded, and on the console’s power as it needs to be installed. The loading bar is the representation and obfuscation of cable output that facilitate the internet, our fiscal power as it determines broadband speed, and the capability of the console itself. The whirling noise of cooling fans during patch installation reminds us of the console as a tireless machine, while its dependencies point to our own relation to concepts and dynamics of power. Patching conceals and reveals the imperfect state of the console as well as ourselves. We may subscribe to faster broadband, but our options are limited by where we live; our place of living is determined by the work we do; and options for jobs depend on our education and social background. We may follow this train of thought to its branching conclusions, but where does it lead when internet subscription is quite affordable, one may ask.
Capital makes us think of purchase, investment and options of similar kind. This thought operates through comparisons and associations to seek better or different. It dwells in the past and imagines a future through references that conceal and reveal parts of ourselves from ourselves. Patching also dwells in the past by focusing on parts to change while looking into the future to deliver them. It wonders and stumbles upon parts to focus on, engages in focusing as well as looks to release the results of focusing. Imperfect parts are stumbled upon, engaged and imagined to be perfect or concealed to disregard and forget their imperfection. This doesn’t happen in a linear timeline, because whenever engagement stops, it may wonder about the future based on what happened or linger in the past only to ponder about the future, then go back to engagement or dwelling or looking. Since new parts emerge as engagement modifies them and disregarded and forgotten parts can seem new, focusing conceals parts to deliver perfection and reveals parts that remain imperfect upon delivery. Parts are concealed and revealed simultaneously and intermittently as patching dwells in the past and looks into the future at once.
Glossy patching screens and reductive notifications paint over these dynamics. But fragments remain visible through the cracks to associations. This simplified representation of patching fold over the aforementioned past-future duality and its concealing-revealing effects. The implications of this folding over reaches far and wide and leads to layers appearing-reappearing and folding into each other as we think of them in terms of associations and comparisons. We should keep this in mind as this effect will become more transparent. For now, it’s enough to know that patching aims to sway our attention to an idealized future through reduction. Patching then points towards a better state where it’s only a matter of time and power till the console is improved.
When the console boots up after patching, we’re reminded that this is it, we’ve finally reached a perfect state. What does another patch mean then?
Patching has been used to squash so called bugs, may they be graphical hitches and errors that prevent play. But these bugs often offered novel ways of play, like strafe- and rocket-jumping in Quake, animation canceling in Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, and denying, stacking, blocking creeps in the original DotA mod for Warcraft III. With the availability and widespread of the internet, patches modify multiplayer games to offer a wider selection of characters in competitive play. This act is often referred to as balancing. But patching is about adding and taking away parts that modify the whole: what we experience as change. Narrative modifications, like the “Extended Cut” of Mass Effect 3’s ending, then, isn’t any different from balancing. These choices of words frame patching in positive terms, cementing it as a force that deals with imperfection. This force is ubiquitous in today’s multiplayer games as they won’t run without the latest patches. The console restlessly applies them, often in parallel with play, hidden and omnipresent, but sometimes appearing unexpectedly to prevent play by installation. These games are born imperfect, watched over and transformed by an elusive force to give birth anew. One may think of an indiscernible authority figure, like God, who wields power over state of things, such as perfection, imperfection and play. Patching is then a subjective act related to power that renders anything it changes as unintended play.
Who determines what is considered unintended play?
It’s a negotiated process, as myriads of platforms for communication claim and allude to. One may engage with developers and community managers, read carefully crafted development plans and patch notes, and provide as much feedback as their heart desires. These player reactions to patches are often euphemized as “controversies” that stem from player “passion” and take the shape of harassment, death threats and petitions to the White House. Player feedback is encouraged nonetheless. Customer service assistants and community managers are employed to take care of brand image by navigating and tending to the emotions of players who provide feedback. Players give feedback, because they have an emotional bond to the brand, and video game workers engage with them so that it remains so. This circular activity points towards a future state, laser-focused on brand image. Press releases work to the same effect: they make claims about a subject, like acknowledge player feedback and outline a patching schedule, but also hide how player feedback is perceived and what are the ramifications of patching. Marketing draws focus to brand image and mimics focusing as part of dwelling in the past and looking into the future while referring to care, sense of community, perfection, and topics with idealistic connotations. Its effect becomes indistinguishable from what may be considered real or genuine as it alludes to a web of intertwining references. Video game workers are not exempt from these dynamics either, since they navigate complex and paradoxical rules and references relating to a brand while dwelling in the past and looking into the future. Communication about video games thus exists in a past-future duality while engaging in obfuscation and idealization.
The prevalence of ever-changing games, like Destiny and Fortnite rely on these obfuscating and idealizing dynamics through patches and communication. Community events and promotional materials precede and coincide with radical game altering changes. These events and materials refer to game mechanics, to community and to the intersection of them, while pointing towards the future. They aim to build player expectations. How does one imagine such future? Through a series of references to the past. These ever-changing games have sophisticated systems in place that encourage socialization as well as accumulation of items. Self-expression takes shape through items which are accumulated, therefore socialization is inseparable from accumulation of items. We make sense of this static but ever-changing world through a series of associations with accumulation and socialization. From one fragment to another, our attitudes form and reveal themselves for us to make sense, but as soon as they do, reconfigure and conceal themselves to accommodate our existence in this rigid world. They fold over each other as these ever-changing games present socialization and accumulation in tandem, like economic activities overlapping social ones, intertwining into shape that causes anxiety, then becoming fragmented to elude us. This folding over happens whenever we think of them, upon introduction of change, and when communication asks us to imagine a future. They emerge as thoughts, temporary and fragile. How do we make sense of purchasable items for self-expression, such as virtual clothes and dance moves? The appearance of money in such direct manner may fold into configurations of social and accumulated in-game capital, fracturing the game world’s facade and the idealization of communication. This folding over and into another ceaselessly dwells in the past and looks into the future, piecing together fragments before they get shattered again.
Recruitment for these ever-changing games are also forward looking in terms of time: large teams are formed to develop and support these projects. They are populated by millions of players and cultivated by workers in the hundreds and thousands. People are the lifeblood of ever-changing games and some may call them “living games.” Business-minded people know them as “games as a service”, abbreviated as “GaaS”, according to Wikipedia at least.
One report details inhumane work hours developing Fortnite where the frequency of patching is named as one of the culprit for overwork. An anonymous developer describes overwork as such: “At first, it was fine, because Fortnite was a big success and that felt good. We were solving problems that were new for Epic: how to run a big, global game as an online service. But now the workload is just endless.” Looking into the future while trying to hide the past is transparent in this retelling where one overlooks the past in favor of an ideal future fueled by ambition and optimism.
Is patching responsible for the acceleration of overwork in developing video games?
Not in and of itself, since it’s a transformative force rooted in concepts and dynamics of power folded over and into one another. Patching simultaneously refers to powers within work relations, to an author who wields power over their creation, to a player who has the power of ownership, and to powers muddled by the reductive force of capital. These powers appear and reappear as they refer back to patching and to each other. This appearing and reappearing creates configurations that are temporary, but leave behind fragments with referable parts. Fragments can fit into new configurations, but only through fragmented references. Through these fragmented references, concepts and dynamics of power fold over and into another. Can these powers be untangled from one another when they weave and intertwine and our perception conceals and reveals them at once?
Attempting to untangle these powers can reveal valuable lessons and lead to better understanding, although each one of them amounts to an essay of its own. What can be said is that patching is located in past-future and imperfection-perfection states, and became more paradoxical by anchoring itself to intertwining powers. This anchoring has accelerated each power dynamic: the accumulation of capital and exploitation of workers by megacorporations, player attachment to video games by investment of time and money, and ressentiment towards one another within power hierarchies.
Workers may form configurations in line with a hierarchy, get shattered, then pieced together again in line with a different one. Since hierarchies are numerous and often overlap, this shattering and reconfiguring can go on for a while, pitting workers against each other. When this configuration becomes concentrated, it may lead to a formation of power able to express itself towards a singular goal, like to the betterment of work conditions in shape of a trade union. But obfuscation can lead to formations according to concepts and dynamics folded over and into each other, confused, ensuing spillage of power in shape of chaos. Given that workers have no public platform, their misplaced power remains invisible. Players on the other hand are given multiple platforms to express themselves, but only under certain conditions, while being exposed to obfuscation. Committed players may perceive a codependent relationship with video game workers who give them access to expression of power through play, purchase and communication, but who simultaneously remind them of their lack of it in-game and otherwise. It’s no wonder that players’ ressentiment festers and wrecks chaos whenever a patch is rolled out.