Opinion

“Stress and News Cycles”

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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

 

 

FF3-NES-Geomancer “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:

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. “Crunch-time,” or 65-80 hour work weeks, still carries with it near six-figure incomes  withample overtime pay, and it is always optional. 
  5. I agree with BioWare. 

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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.

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(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.

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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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9 replies »

  1. I agree with Daniel. Yes, people working in the game industry probably have a better quality of life than a lot of other industries. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a right to complain or that they shouldn’t complain. Otherwise, we might as well have a testing scale saying, “Well, if your job doesn’t have w, x, y, and z, then you can complain, otherwise, deal with it.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anyone can complaint if they want to. But, there are plenty of people who never get the opportunity to finish high school, let alone a post-secondary education. If you’re privileged enough to be educated, then you can certainly do your homework before entering into the games industry, so that you know what it requires of you as a person.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ok so like I mentioned to you in the DMs, this phrase haunted me: “Video games as entertainment and art are currently the ultimate form of human expression.”

    My mind kept going back to language. I think language is the ultimate form of human expression and necessary for civilization, but obviously it’s not entertainment or art for a whole lot of people. It’s much more basic and fundamental than that. It can be an art, I think, as in writing or oratory, but these are methods for delivery of the language, not the language itself. So I dismissed that comparative thought with language.

    However, sometimes I get tired of playing video games and I want to read a book or watch a movie. This might be because games are still very young but it seems like there’s so much in books and film that is nowhere to be found in games. I’m reading Paradise Lost right now and it’s about as far from games as I can imagine (minus some themes adapted into certain games). I suppose this is merely an argument for the value of a range of human expressions in one’s life. What do you think about this?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Specifically regarding the sentence that you pointed out, I say that mainly because game development is such a collective endeavor. It’s quite an accomplishment to focus so much creative energy into a single focal point.

      I suppose you could argue that auteur theory applies to video games, where one personality (such as Ken Levine, Sid Meier, Hideo Kojima, John Romero, Miyamoto, etc.) stamps their signature on a project, but it’s quite a bit more nuanced than films are. Even when there is one figurehead to a studio, the outcome of a project is directly proportional to all the people working on it. One of the major differences from Oblivion to Skyrim was the loss of weapon degradation. Ironically, Ken Rolston, one of the systems designers that worked on Morrowind and Oblivion, left Bethesda before Skyrim to work at 38 Studios on Kingdoms of Amalur; yup, you guessed it, Kingdoms of Amalur has weapon degradation.

      Then, of course, there’s the fact that, because games are interactive, you have all these other facets of life after the product is “final;” Modding, Speed Running, Streaming, Competition… No one is measure how fast someone can read War & Peace, or holding competitions about who can most accurately quote a novel or a movie.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes, I appreciated that point about game development being collective and video games being the products of very large groups of people. That further distances them from historical artforms which were much more auteur in nature; in other words, auteur theory is in games but it’s much less dominant as in other arts.

        I suppose we’re talking about both the limitations of games, currently, in the scope and scale of what they address of the human experience (why I compared them to books and film), and also the scope and scale of the creation of games as art, which is certainly frequently unprecedented.

        Your final paragraph is very interesting to me (of course all of your comment is interesting lol)! The interactivity of games is, to my mind, not as unique among the arts as I think it’s made out to be. Plays involve interactive play between actors and dance involves extreme interactivity involving the entire body, though there’s no argument that these are nowhere near at the scale of millions of players engaging with a game’s interactivity either separately or corporately. No one speedruns War & Peace, yes, but there are ways in which War & Peace has been enjoyed and studied which games can’t or haven’t yet. Back to my initial point, I don’t know that games have reached the point where they can tell as story as complex and as huge as War & Peace, but that’s because books are different than games, right? Books are pure text, pure story, whereas there are other concerns in games.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Agreed. I think the major hurdle for games, and specifically narrative-driven games, is the ability to create believable emergent narrative. I often drop Ken Levine’s name because I really admire the man, but, he gave a talk at GDC a few years back about narrative lego, and the idea of building in NPCs that have multiple dimensions to how they are affected by the player, and what their motivations are. I think we’re going to start to see some of that stuff in the near-future if companies are actually able to harness cloud computing and have large data centers do all of the processing behind the scenes so that it’s a more seamless experience for the end-gamer.

          Liked by 1 person

          • That is really fascinating… NPCs have seemed really flat to me recently. Un-memorable and boring, talking as you pass them without much more significance unless they’re telling you to grab mushrooms from the forest for them so they can stand around and do nothing. I’d rather have world-building through NPCs rather than having to read mini-Wikipedia articles stowed as optional items throughout dungeons.

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  3. There is a lot here to unpack, enough that I could write a response piece and it easily break word count to be featured on the site. Instead I’ll just break down my thoughts in the comment section here as best I can.

    First I don’t think that any of this has much to do with politics. Issues of work to life balance in a job affect all of us regardless of what political viewpoints we gel with.

    I think the next problem with your open letter in general is this idea that somehow because these people aren’t throwing around steel beams or doing hard labor that what they are doing isn’t stressful work. I don’t work in the field of games, but I’ve read enough about it from enough sources to know that it can be a horrible grind with little satisfaction for the people in the trenches. Personally I sit behind a computer all day as a job as well, but the stress of expectation of a job as unimportant as mine can sometimes be through the roof—usually at odds with the level of stress the people in the management chair feel. Sure, I make a decent living wage, but they make nearly twice that and constantly benefit off my hard work. Just because these people went to long hours of college, got a job, and managed to make $80,000 a year as per your number doesn’t mean management gets carte blanche run them into the ground.

    It is this idea that because they have a job some of us want that they shouldn’t be allowed to complain. That this is just the way things are, and if they don’t like it they can just get out. That sort of attitude is never going to make anything better. We live now in a time where we get mandatory lunch breaks, get paid overtime, and have all sorts of benefits. None of that would have ever gotten better if everyone just kept their mouths shut and suffered for their art. It is a real problem in the tech industry in general that you have a competitive industry where a lot of people want in, so companies are able to take advantage of that and demand the world of them in return. Working a little overtime isn’t the same as crunch in gaming where people are literally living in the office.

    It has been understood for a long time that crunch and the volatile nature of game studios closing is a problem in the industry. This is an issue that isn’t going away any time soon and isn’t even remotely secluded to BioWare alone, but it is an issue that will never get better until articles like this one are written. Internal studio feedback forms are a joke, if you work in corporate as I do you know this to be true, and so saying they heard their employees is silly. Jason Schreier is one of the few voices in all of gaming that can actually be called a journalist, and he had a large sample size. If this was one or two employees then it would be easy to write off, but 19 of them echoing similar sentiments? Clearly, perceived or not, BioWare has an issue on their hands—they’ve confirmed as much via their response.

    Why unionize? Maybe for work life balance? You mention people’s lives may not be at risk for not hitting a certain score, but their livelihoods sure can be and everyone doesn’t bounce back as quickly as you seem to infer. In addition typically the kind of people who are salary don’t get overtime, they are paid the same whether they work 40 hours or 100 a week. I’m sure that in some cases there are hourly wage employees there, but I’m assuming that these individuals make so little that it doesn’t matter. Full-time game developers in most states are classified as exempt, meaning they’re not eligible for overtime during crunch.

    So is your take that people shouldn’t be allowed to have a job they enjoy or are passionate about AND still have a life outside of that job? These companies make so much money that they could easily hire staff and not have to crunch. They could rotate weekends, or handle it in a million different ways. Why don’t they? Money. Pure and simple. It is far easier to pay this one person $80,000 and then run them into the ground then it is to address the issue. After all, there is always another 21 year old raring to go when they are all used up.

    Who do you think actually benefits from all of this? The people shipping the games. The people that are making money hand over fist. The CEO, not the individual developer.

    All of this is even more strange to talk about because inside the story the crunch was just the smallest part about it. Mostly it was about a studio that had sky high expectations, a management staff that wasn’t sharing a clear vision, a ton of bad choices and poor management from leadership, constant direction shifts with no clarity, and an engine that was not designed to make the kind of games that BioWare makes, but upper management still forces it on the studio to save a buck on licensing a real engine like Unreal. The stress, the crunch—that was the smallest part of this.

    BioWare’s response wasn’t quite as bad as people made it out to be, but it was certainly tone deaf. First of all it was posted not even 15 minutes after the article went live, so they couldn’t have possibly read it all, and their insistence that they didn’t comment because of people being singled out proves they didn’t read it since that doesn’t happen in the article at all. It was filled with this same corporate nonsense speak that assures that they are taking things into account, while also trying to buck any and all blame for the situation.

    Ultimately I bought Anthem, and I had a really good time with it. At this point you can’t really put that genie back in the bottle, and even if I could I don’t believe in a life as a consumer trying to live completely clean with the products I buy–mostly because it is impossible.

    I do believe, however, that no matter what job you do you deserve to be able to do it and still have a life outside of that. I don’t care if you are a singer, football player, actor, or a game developer; just because you have a job other people want doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve to have a work life balance—especially considering the people that really profit off of your hard work do so by many more magnitudes than you do.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with the majority of your comments, which is why I suggested that something akin to professional guilds would be more of an organic fit for the games industry, as opposed to a union. Guilds tend to be more focused on letting professionals appropriately negotiate their employment contracts, rather than being an imposing bureaucracy that threatens the profit motives of the employer.

      “Who do you think actually benefits from all of this? The people shipping the games. The people that are making money hand over fist. The CEO, not the individual developer.” Not everyone is suited to that type of a job. Have you ever noticed how grey a president goes after their first year in office? It’s easy to criticize the wage gap between top executives and the lowest paid employees… And I tend to think that Japan’s rules for maximum percentages between CEOs and janitors make sense, as a CEO, the more you’re able to pay your employees, the more you personally make. But, I think there would be an alarming rate of failed businesses if everyone who complained about how much CEOs make actually spent a year doing that job. Being able to make decisions that affect hundreds of people is not an easy task.

      From what I understand, BioWare was given a copy of the article ahead of publication, but it was only a few days. That’s generally not enough time for the legal team to approve language that would address everything in an 11k word article.

      I suppose some of the way that I worded my piece comes off as “deal with it,” but I don’t feel that I should apologize for that. It’s not about taking the next fresh-faced 21 year old and beating them into the ground, it’s about what it means for the people who do rise to the top. Struggling against adversity and managing stress is a good way to build mental fortitude. And if you’re never put in that type of position, then you’ll never know if you ever had it in you to overcome those types of challenges. We’d never have any games like these to play if there weren’t deadlines or pressure from management to get things done. Case is point is Star Citizen, if people keep giving Chris Roberts money that game is never going to ship in an 1.0 form. He’ll continue to languish in development hell for the next 20 years while the team obsesses over pointless minutia.

      Liked by 1 person

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