Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Crafting Context: Understanding the Social Organisation of User-Generated Content in Digital Gameplay

  Panagiotis Koutsouras (2013 cohort)   www.nottingham.ac.uk/~psxpk3


This project focuses on the practices that revolve around the creation and the subsequent distribution of content in gaming communities, alongside the monetisation prospects that are linked to them. Much research has already been conducted on the practices of creating content in many different industries, such as the participatory culture literature on fan communities [4] as well as the study of modifications in video games [7,8]. However, the kind of user-generated content that we are looking at is of a different nature, as the practices entailed in its creation and further sharing lie inside the context of the game, hence forming the experience players have while playing.

The existing literature has looked into the matters of formulating what defines the experience of games such as Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet (occasionally coined as “sandbox,” or “editor” games) [1,2,5], and matters of ownership in regards to the created content [6]. The actual work practices that are involved in the creation and distribution of said content have not been thoroughly investigated though, leaving the question of what is done in the doing, and how players create content unanswered. On top of that, these studies treat those practices as ludic endeavours, leaving the professional prospects of working in those games untouched.

This is where this project situates itself; we aim at investigating and teasing out the organisational matters that constitute the work of creating (“crafting”) content in those games. At the same time, we hope to unpack the division of labour in the context of said games, by elaborating on the individuals who are involved in commissioned work.

In order to address our research interests, we are using Minecraft as our main case study. Even though there are many videogames that share similar characteristics with Minecraft (such as LittleBigPlanet, Project Spark, and Lego Worlds, to name a few), Minecraft is by far the biggest and most successful of them all, having an established user base of over 100 million players. In parallel to that, a vibrant commissioning market has emerged from its creative community, in which professional builders appropriate the game as a creative and professional platform for conducting their commissioned work.


Our approach for addressing the aforementioned research goals is ethnography; we attend building sessions where Minecraft builders are managing their work of creating in-game content. Even though our main aim is the social organisation of the commissioning market, the players we follow are both people who are building content for professional reasons, as well as for pleasure. Besides observing the work of building being unfolded in front of our eyes, we are conducting informal and unstructured interviews, through which we try to build a solid understanding of the structure of said market, as well as capture the practical reasoning that is entailed in doing the work.

The analytical lenses that inform our work is ethnomethodology [3] and Strauss’ [9] take on work and the division of labour. Ethnomethodology informs the analysis and the construction of our understanding of the social organisation of Minecraft’s commissioning market, especially when it comes to the work of building in-game content. Furthermore, Strauss has elaborated on the notion of the arc of work and on the actors, actions, and accountability systems that are involved in the work of producing something. All of these matters are relevant to every work setting, therefore applicable to Minecraft’s commissioning market too.

Progress till now

We commenced our fieldwork study by coming in contact with builders (both for professional and leisure work) and developing a network of informants of up to 15 players. This initial approach can be divided into two stages: in the first one, we observed builders working on their project in their free time. These observations revealed to us the ways in which players collaborate with each other in the game, the ways they locate themselves and share information, as well as the tools they use (both in-game and external to it). Even though valuable information was revealed to us through this stage of our fieldwork, we consider it more like as a “sensitising study” that informed our decisions of where to focus on in the remainder of this research project.

The second stage was all about the commissioning market and that became the main corpus of our current work. By talking to a variety of professional players who belonged to different teams, unions, or were even doing freelancing work, we became aware of the main actors that play a role in this market; the clients, the contractors, and the builders. On top of that, we managed to map out the overall arc of work of commissioning a Minecraft project, as shown in the following figure.

 The overall arc of work of commissioning a Minecraft project

Currently, we are in the process of explicating what is involved in each one of these matters, by going into the details of the exact roles each of the actors has to play during these steps, how actors collaborate with each other, how they communicate their work, and how they make it accountable to each other.

Further studies

The focus is going to shift to the client side of the business, as this is something that has not been covered extensively up until now. Our immediate plans involve establishing communication with a variety of Minecraft server owners (the biggest group of clients) and conducting informal interviews and observations on a number of matters, including: how they search for contractors; how they establish communication with them; how they discuss the details of the commissioned work; and how they finalise their collaboration with contractors (payment, receiving the build, etc.).

This investigation will enlighten us on matters that have already been touched upon by the builders and the contractors we followed (as mentioned above), as well as complete our understanding of the arc of work in the commissioning market.

Expected outcomes

The main outcome of this project would be the understanding of the social organisation of the monetisation practices that take place in Minecraft. This is a novel contribution to the fields of HCI, game studies, and CSCW, as there is no such elaborate investigation of how these practices come about and enacted in game settings. Given the rigidness of our findings, we can draw implications for the design of such games and elaborate on Minecraft’s design elements that have led to the emergence of the commissioning market.


  1. Pablo Abend and Benjamin Beil. 2015. Editors of Play The Scripts and Practices of Co-creativity in Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet.
  2. Sean C Duncan. 2011. Minecraft, beyond construction and survival. Well Played: a journal on video games, value and meaning 1, 1: 1–22.
  3. Harold Garfinkel. 1967. Studies in ethnomethodology.
  4. Henry Jenkins. 2006. Fans, bloggers, and gamers: Exploring participatory culture. NYU Press.
  5. Panagiotis Koutsouras and Paul Cairns. User-Generated Content as cues for performance in LittleBigPlanet.
  6. Greg Lastowka. 2013. The Player-Authors Project. NSF Summary Report. http://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2361758
  7. David B Nieborg and Shenja Van der Graaf. 2008. The mod industries? The industrial logic of non-market game production. European Journal of Cultural Studies 11, 2: 177–195.
  8. Hector Postigo. 2007. Of mods and modders chasing down the value of fan-based digital game modifications. Games and Culture 2, 4: 300–313.
  9. Anselm Strauss. 1985. Work and the division of labor. The Sociological Quarterly 26, 1: 1–19.

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/G037574/1) and by the RCUK’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute (RCUK Grant No. EP/G065802/1).