Toronto Metropolitan University
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Distributing productive play: a materialist analysis of Steam

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posted on 2021-05-23, 12:59 authored by Daniel Joseph
Valve Corporation’s digital game distribution platform, Steam, is the largest distributor of games on personal computers, analyzed here as a site where control over the production, design and use of digital games is established. Steam creates and exercises processes and techniques such as monopolization and enclosure over creative products, online labour, and exchange among game designers. Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding framework places communication at the centre of the political economy, here of digital commodities distributed and produced by online platforms like Steam. James Gibson’s affordance theory allows the market Steam’s owners create for its users to be cast in terms of visuality and interaction design. These theories are largely neglected in the existing literature in game studies, platform studies, and political economy, but they allow intervention in an ongoing debate concerning the ontological status of work and play as distinct, separate human activities by offering a specific focus on the political economy of visual or algorithmic communication. Three case studies then analyze Steam as a site where the slippage between game-play and work is constant and deepening. The first isolates three sales promotions on Steam as forms of work disguised as online shopping. The second is a discourse analysis of a crisis within the community of mod creators for the game Skyrim, triggered by changes implemented on Steam. The third case study critiques Valve Corporation’s positioning of Steam as a new space to extract value from play by demonstrating historical continuity with consumer monopolies. A concluding discussion argues Steam is a platform that evolves to meet distinct crises and problems in the production and circulation of its digital commodities as contradictions arise. Ultimately, Steam shows how the cycle of capital accumulation encourages monopolization and centralization.





  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Communication and Culture

Granting Institution

Ryerson University

LAC Thesis Type

  • Dissertation