NOTE: ALL STATEMENTS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS ARE THEIR OWN AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT BELIEFS AND OPINIONS HELD BY THE WELL-RED MAGE. -Editor
“The following is a contributor post by the Optimistically Sentimental Alabaster Mage.”
Being a fan of video games, and fanatically following the industry, unfortunately, also means following the news cycles. Every so often a cycle comes along that just hits a nerve. There’s a very real problem that exists with much of the media that covers the gaming industry, and it’s a matter of perspective. Liberal biases are so inescapable that many journalists fail to take into account the basic capitalist nature of the industry, and their coverage shies away from this aspect, so much so, that the benefits of a free market are lost entirely on the readers. This attitude also forsakes the symbiotic nature of developers, publishers, and media outlets. This seems to have increased in recent memory, as there are new opportunities for the marketing departments of major publishers to charm influencers, and effectuate a new media boom… But that’s a topic for another day. I’m sure most of the journalists feel that they’re doing the right thing, and maybe they are. However, the sensationalism that builds with each article feeding off the last is just as toxic as gamergate. When an intelligent investigative piece breaks, one that actually has some poignant commentary to make, it gets drowned in an echo chamber of muddled ideology.
In the interest of honest discourse, I’m writing this as an open letter to anyone who wishes to debate how horrible the working conditions for game developers actually are. Let’s talk about it. As Casey Hudson asserted in his email, there are actual solutions to these very real problems, but this writer will content that those solutions do not involve badgering development companies or publishing houses.
Honestly, what have we become as a society and a community when those working in the entertainment business–building the games we love–have to take leave because of excessive stress and anxiety? This is an entirely first-world problem that doesn’t need media outlets demonizing faceless corporate oligarchs and pointing fingers. I don’t want to come off as being heartless, or making light of what others are actually going through–just as I don’t want to condone policies that are deliberately implemented to institute misery. Though, it’s difficult to fathom a situation where designing graphics, coding, composing music, or attending to the multitude of other disciplines that support the industry, are jobs and careers that can possibly be THAT stressful on the average worker.
I believe there are several things to consider:
- If you work in the video game industry for a major publisher, your life is not that horrible. Being able to take leave for “stress” is a luxury which signals you belong to a socio-economic strata that millions of westerners can’t even begin to fathom as a viable way of life, let alone the rest of the world.
- The call for unionization is a bit ridiculous… What is there to unionize against, ample compensation and full benefits? Workers aren’t losing limbs in unsafe machines, and these jobs don’t pay pennies per day. What we’re talking about is an industry run by postcollegiate individuals who have a choice in what they do, and how they conduct themselves professionally to earn a living.
- The end product is a piece of entertainment… People’s lives aren’t at risk if a video game doesn’t launch to an 80+ Metacritic score.
- “Crunch-time,” or 65-80 hour work weeks, still carries with it near six-figure incomes withample overtime pay, and it is always optional.
- I agree with BioWare.
Poor project management is not a call to arms for us as a community to protect a poor working class of indentured servants. If anything, it is indicative of how horribly we’ve managed our wallets, how little discretion we have when “pre-ordering” titles, and not being honest with ourselves as gamers about our chosen hobby. The decisions being made by development houses and publishers are directly related to all of the outrage bull that people spew on social media, and the fact that microtransactions continue to remain a viable source of income, as well as a predictable monetary strategy for most titles being released these days.
We’re educated professionals, not sweatshop laborers:
Anecdotally speaking, and for a slice of context: I don’t work in the gaming industry, however, I am employed by a company where I go to work in a button-up shirt, wear a pair of slacks, and sit in a cubicle. And I’ve worked in industries that function socially in a similar manner to the gaming industry.
My job is stressful. It sometimes requires much more than a Monday through Friday, nine-to-five existence. Generally, it is more of a Monday through Saturday, eight-to-six reality. My job can, and often time is, even more stressful when deadlines are involved. This is the real world, my co-workers depend on me, and I depend on them, so I put in as much effort as I possibly can to ensure that we all have a building to come back to the next day, and a business to still work for.
Because the true beauty of capitalism and free market exchange is embodied by the myth of the American Dream, I won’t sit here and tell you that the rat race doesn’t exist, reality is far crueler than that. The majority of people who work extraordinarily hard will never ascend to Rockefeller levels of wealth, that’s just a fact. Elon Musk is a cyborg in disguise, his brain doesn’t function like 99% of the human population. No matter how badass of a writer you are, you may never be the next Ken Levine. Yet, statistically speaking, educating yourself and working hard can allow you to at least rise one or two rungs up in the class ladder. If you grew up in a trailer park to parents who toiled away in menial labor to pay the bills–like I did–it is entirely possible to pay your way through some college without any debt and one day own a house (or real property), keep some money in the bank, and look forward to your retirement years.
The bottom line is this: if your job is too stressful for you, and you can’t handle the decisions being made by upper management, you might be in the wrong line of work. Stressing so hard that you want to murder anyone in your general vicinity can happen, but managing that stress is a skill. It can be learned. And, despite what the general public believes and the narrative that most media outlets want to push, working for a major AAA game developer is not on the same level as working for a sweatshop.
But, if you are one of those individuals drowning in a sea of stress and anxiety, we as a community are here for you. There’s always someone out there to talk to, and help you work through any issues you’re having, or situations you may be experiencing.
While it may not be true of BioWare in particular, I know that a lot of major studios go to great lengths to ensure that their employees have facilities and accommodations available to deal with the stress of crunch. Though, it could be that the studio(s) I’m aware of, and the major publisher that they are under, have just figured out the right mix of expenditures to splurge on in order to make sure their employees are happy and productive in the final stages of a product. Perhaps they’ll share their trade secrets with others in the industry, in light of the recent expose.
(Feast of Fools / Alan Katz / 1982-85)
Unions are an antiquated form of labor organization:
Unions are an integral part of society in a historical context, specifically that of the industrial revolution, and civilzation’s crawl away from being inextricably linked to an agrarian essentiality. But, just as industrialization shifted populations to metropolitan areas, the digital revolution is antiquating the notion of labor unions. At its core, within the concept of “Unions,” there lies the notion of free association, and that principal alone is far more imperative than any central organizational structure, or bureaucracy, that could possibly be birthed organically from the gaming industry.
Just as the body politic agrees to a social contract for governance, the same is true of the workforce in relation to for-profit enterprises established expressly for producing entertainment products. By agreeing to work for a company, business, or corporation, an employee is agreeing to give up their waking and most productive hours through a contractual arrangement, freely and knowingly, where labor is pooled with others of a similar ilk, and that labor is extracted to be monetized beyond the individuals for the benefit of the enterprise. The internal plight of a few employees should not be weaponized against the entire industry.
That being said, I have been told, by at least one person in the trenches, that the conversation regarding unions needs to happen. My own personal take on the matter is that it will most likely transmute into something wholly different than what is traditionally considered a “union.”
Video games are often likened to the film business, but the dynamics of production between the two are disparate enough that the methods for organizing labor aren’t congruent. Though, if we were to use movies as an apt comparison, then the institution of Guilds would be a far better way to approach raising the standards of the working conditions, as well as the end-product, but this would also change the current contractual nature of the establishment with its workforce.
We’re talking about video games, a form of entertainment and escapism:
The community and the industry, along with the media, almost universally let out a collective groan every time a studio is shut down due to the poor performance of a particular title, or the succession of a few bad titles. Why do we all act as if we have amnesia when it happens? Each worker in the cogs of the production should be cognizant that this is the way business is conducted. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck on an $80k salary (before overtime), you should reconsider your lifestyle to account for the fact that there are lulls in employment from time to time. Competing studios are constantly reaching out to the newly unemployed in a bid to forge raw talent. Much like many other industries, the gaming industry is fairly incestuous. Provided you aren’t morally or ethically ambiguous in character–or you just rolled hard with chaotic evil on your first project and offended a bunch of your co-workers–chances are you’ll soon be gainfully re-employed without much trouble. There’s always a new project on the horizon.
“Crunch” is normal for dedicated young professionals:
Video games as entertainment and art are currently the ultimate form of human expression. The medium is evolving at a breakneck pace when even compared to the Renaissance. Not only do games encourage active participation in the interpretation of their stories, design decisions, and mechanics, they also call for players to be active and willing participants in unraveling the messaging and meaning behind it all. Often times, video games at the pinnacle of AAA are the ultimate form of contemporary art; they are a collaborative and sovereign entity unto themselves, embodying the creative energy of hundreds or thousands of individuals. Unlike staring at a painting for hours and contemplating the brush strokes, the systems of a game offer and encourage its participants to be the brush, and for the gamer to create their own meaning with the tools handed to them.
For the individuals involved in creating games, it’s an intoxicating allure to be instrumental in building fantastical worlds that challenge our perceptions. It’s not that crunch and overtime in the late stages of development are forced upon the workers, it’s that three to six years of their lives have been dedicated to working on a singular project, and there is a sense of comradery and obligation for fellow workers. People choose to involve themselves in crunch because there is an innate obligation to the sense of accomplishment that comes with shipping a game.
They still have a business to run, despite your protests:
Several media outlets lambasted BioWare for their response and blog post directed at the Kotaku expose, claiming that it was a PR nightmare and garbage fire… I don’t agree. BioWare did as any company would, they issued a safe statement that acknowledged their obligation to their employees and the community, while also asserting that they still released a commercially successful product. I might not personally care for Anthem, and was fairly critical of the “demo,” the fact remains that it still sold better than Mass Effect 3, and it is an achievement over the horror that was Andromeda. Just because Schreier found several employees who suffered from extreme stress, it should not discount the hundreds of thousands of hours and hard work that hundreds of other perfectly contented BioWare employees put into the game, and who are most likely very proud of the game that they shipped. As much as BioWare has an obligation to its disenfranchised casualties from the development of Anthem, BioWare also has a duty and an obligation to all of the employees that have moved on to the next project.
In closing, I’m sure that many who read this might feel that I’m some sort of EA shill, and if you are one of the people who feels that way, you are more than entitled to your opinion. My main concern is that too much of the impetus is being placed on developers and publishers to course correct, when it is we, the consumer, who heedlessly throws our money at these companies and expects them not to act accordingly. Stop pre-ordering games! Stop spending money on microtransactions! If you don’t want companies to operate the way they do, then why do you support them?
I didn’t buy Anthem. I’m not going to buy Anthem. I’m voting with my wallet. I encourage everyone else to do the same.
The Optimistically Sentimental Alabaster Mage is also known as Berkough, you can find his other musings about video games on the blog section of his user profile at SIFTD.net (http://siftd.net/#!/profile/berkough), or by following him on Twitter @berkough.
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