Goon Squads

Conversations around major video games serve oppressive labor practices, lazy design, and the intolerant minority of gamers

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In December, what was positioned as the video game launch of the year, if not the decade, landed less as an epochal event than an absolute fiasco. The game in question — Cyberpunk 2077, developed by Polish game studio CDProjekt Red — had been so consistently hyped since the first trailer for it was released in 2012 that it had spawned its own cycles of backlash and counter-backlash. The discourse about it became a cottage industry in itself: The developers, marketers, and game journalists told a tale of the most immersive, biggest, most exciting open-world RPG experience ever seen, as a new generation of hardware power pushed us into a dystopian cyberpunk future so lifelike in its neon grime that it would feel like we were already there. Even the dissenting journalists who feared that the game couldn’t possibly live up to the hype seemed to wish it would.

Yet when Cyberpunk 2077 was finally released, it was so broken, full of bugs, and incomplete that within days Sony and Microsoft had to starting giving out refunds. Its Night City (the fictional L.A. of the game) was bland and boring to look at, and its characters (even the leftish terrorist rock star Johnny Silverhand, played admirably by Keanu Reeves) are bad clichés at best. Any non-player characters that haven’t been programed to kill you, sell you something, or send you on a quest will simply say something like “get away from me” as you approach them — which doesn’t feel like an edgy future urban experience so much as a decades-old RPG cliché.

We have critical “conversations” as major game developers continue to pursue the most capital-intensive games with the smallest possible outlay

Now, with the game thoroughly digested and the media hype cycle moving on, it can be tempting to forget all about it in favor of the next thing. But a postmortem of Cyberpunk 2077’s moment can reveal what the hype cycle’s momentum works in part to disguise: how the symbiotic relationships between the bosses of game studios, the games press, and organized right-wing gamers shape the general orientation of the video-game economy — that is, how outside mobs of “fans” and “gamers” act as volunteer Pinkertons and scabs, goon squads disciplining both game developers and critics into keeping certain kinds of games at the center of the industry and the conversation.

Game makers cater to gamers whose entitled fervor and willingness to react without scruple is such that it can keep much of the games press in line; critical approval marks not an independent endorsement of a game’s achievement but the degree to which this hegemony continues to operate. That’s how a Game Informer reviewer could get a life-threatening grand mal seizure from flashing lights in Cyberpunk, still give it a 9/10, and get mass harassed by fans anyway simply for talking about having the seizure. Even though she had already internalized the demand to appease to the point of praising a bad game that tried to kill her, a mob of angry gamers still came for her, with some trying tactics to induce another seizure. It’s also why CD ProjektRed could link developer bonuses not to meeting sales targets or development deadlines but to achieving an over 90 percent Meta Critic score. And it’s also why Cyberpunk 2077 remained massively hyped despite the increasingly ugly reports and demos that were coming out of the studio — huge game presales and click-based engagement meant gamers and journalists alike had a vested interest in the emperor being clothed as long as possible.

Two issues marked Cyberpunk 2077’s release: the way the company used transphobia, misogyny, and racism for marketing; and the way it mislead the public about the labor conditions under which it was made. Stacey Henley traces the first of these in a Kotaku piece released a few weeks before the game, which details how CDProjekt Red helped build anticipation by releasing edgy transphobic and misogynist images, scenes, and trailers and defending them with half-hearted claims of “diversity.” This cynical strategy both built up the enthusiasm of crypto-fascist Gamergaters and also baited liberal journalists into taking seriously the press releases explaining the “artist’s intent” behind the imagery. As the title to Henley’s article sums it up, “It sucks that Cyperbunk 2077’s edgelord marketing worked so well.”

With respect to labor conditions, CD Projekt Red publicly declared in mid-2019 that developers on Cyberpunk 2077 would not be required to work “mandatory” overtime a form of exploitation so endemic to the industry that it has its own term, “crunch.” The company got a burst of positive attention for this announcement, though, as most anyone who has worked in offices or on large projects can attest, the difference between “mandatory” and “appreciated” overtime can be pretty small. Then in September 2020, as the third of an eventual four announced launch dates approached (repeated delays typically secure free press coverage and stoke pre-sales), reporting broke that, in fact, the Cyberpunk team had instituted a mandatory six-day work week. Some developers had been working nights and weekends for over a year, which means that sometime shortly after CD Projekt Red publicly declared it would avoid crunch, it effectively began to institute it.

These two issues have often treated as separate, as separable. The ideological content of the game and its marketing are seen as unrelated to the game maker’s mode of labor exploitation. But we must understand that they are of a piece: that transphobia’s profitability can be a means of instilling labor discipline, and that exploitive labor conditions allow fascist gender politics to flourish more broadly.

Cyberpunk 2077 is valuable as a case study in part because this connection is evident in the game itself. Developed in response to criticism (that CDProjekt Red went out of its way to instigate with its marketing), players get to select for V, the game’s protagonist, a gender as a separate option from their genitals and physical appearance. This widely promoted feature is central to the game’s first moments in the character creator, where you see V nude — how edgy, adult, queer. Game critics praised these options well ahead of its release, playing directly into cis obsession with our genitals while giving transphobic gamers a chance to gawk at and fetishize trans bodies.

But slapping dick pixels on the “girl” body model is the extent of it; choosing to make your character trans has next to no effect on the gameplay, on V’s experience. Indeed the gender you select hardly plays into the game at all, except in changing which voice actor you hear and gating off which romantic options are available to you based on body-essentialist criteria. Similarly, the game’s use of the cyperpunk genre’s orientalism and anti-Japanese xenophobia (in early trailers V is referred to as “samurai”) was laundered by a critical discourse that allowed CDProjekt Red to present its game as a platform to “push forward the discussion.”

The only remaining sublimity that big-budget open-world games can provide is the overwhelming experience of interacting with hundreds of millions of dollars

Cyberpunk 2077’s reactionary approach to gender — turning it into an arbitrary menu option with no concrete consequences — is sometimes regarded as progressive, a kind of “genderblindness” that theoretically leads to equality. But the whole thing about gender is that it’s experienced socially; it’s a lived reality that plays out in a thousand interactions every day. A game in which being transgender was genuinely possible would have to actually render trans experience, culture, and lifeworlds to an extent beyond another character’s occasional sexual preference. But while the world of Night City is chock full of sex, it is devoid of queerness. Instead, its attention-getting gimmick plays into both transphobic and liberal-assimiliationist trans discourse while allowing the game to be yet another “heterosexual male consumerist fantasy,” as Jon Bailes writes in this excellent breakdown of Night City’s visual and marketing culture. The gender-bending posthumanism of the cyberpunk genre at its best is mostly replaced by a plethora of bland sexist “shock” advertising — an echo of the game’s IRL marketing strategy.

Cyberpunk 2077 is hardly alone in this, of course. Dozens of triple-A games solve their “diversity problem” by letting you use a skin-tone filter in your character creator or letting you choose an avatar body that at least feels okay, and critics dutifully praise these token gestures, even while games remain infamously bad at offering, for example, actual black hair styles or good-looking nonwhite skin tones and still center narratives that presuppose an everyman (e.g.: cis white male) protagonist. But Cyberpunk 2077 said the quiet part loud: It played out the grift — getting free marketing by way of edgy provocation and half-hearted apology — directly through the games media and revealed the press’s complicity, even in its “critical” and liberal flavors. Under the guise of critique, a hazy concept of a “conversation” about “charged topics” is put forward that does little to change these conditions. Instead these “conversations” rearticulate the links between oppressive labor practices, game design paradigms, and the intolerant minority of gamers who help make those possible.

To build branching-narrative game worlds that respond actively to the subject identity of the protagonist would require huge lifts creatively and developmentally. It would require more money into narrative development, art design, writers, and actors — people who are much less productive and more expensive per hour than coders and quality-assurance workers. It would demand rethinking game systems so that they could hinge on more than just gathering items and killing baddies. And it would mean that games would have to be more culturally specific, which goes against the grain of producing media that can scale across global markets.

Major developers are pursuing none of this. Instead, we have critical “conversations” as they continue to pursue the biggest, most capital-intensive games possible with the smallest possible outlay on narrative design: This means more options and more things to do, but always within the most readily available stereotypes and stories, produced with the most fungible and commoditizable forms of labor available.

In the wake of Cyberpunk’s release, it became something of a meme among left-leaning gamers to repeat the slogan “I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people paid more to work less and I’m not kidding.” At first glance, this seems appealing. It makes the unimpeachably good (if insufficient) demand of more money for less work, and it sings with the moral righteousness of sacrifice even as it goes after the two easiest flaws to point to in triple-A games: bloated run times and hyperbolic promises of graphical excellence.

But this line of critique gives too much aesthetic credit to the big-budget prestige flagships of the industry, whose more expensive graphics are not necessarily “better” and whose over-stuffed campaigns don’t necessarily equate to a longer or more involved experience. Over the past decade, these franchises — Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Watch Dogs, Rockstar Studios’ latest — have become as dull and repetitive as Marvel movies.

At their best, third-person action games can immerse players in an intricate narrative world. But even in the “best” of these — CDProjekt Red’s widely acclaimed The Witcher 3, for instance, or the perennial favorite Skyrim — the narrative is less a single story arc or even an episodic one than a cacophony of synchronous tales, like the musical harmony of a casino floor where all the slot machines are tuned to the same key. Such worlds have often proved ineffective at conveying political and historical narratives or encouraging personal, psychological, and philosophical exploration — aims that have been better served by games that are much cheaper to produce. A highly stylized visual novel and walking simulator or even a more traditional adventure-style RPG can get at a wide-variety of different political themes and angles much more convincingly than an triple-A open world.

Similarly, prestige games are touted as filled with moments that inspire awe, as when you crest a digital mountain to witness a beautiful sunset over a strange land. But these moments have become formulaic, necessary beats that every open-world game strives to hit. Even when they pull it off, it feels less wondrous than obligatory. Meanwhile, smaller-scope, idiosyncratically stylized platformers and action games — like Ori, Gris, Celeste, or Hollow Knight — have been able to merge game mechanics with narrative and aesthetics, eschewing the brute-force hyper-realism of open-world and third-person action games.

Game developers toss red meat to their army of online Pinkertons and crumbs to the rest of us, knowing that the games press will pretend that the crumbs are true artistic achievement

The only remaining sort of sublimity that big-budget open-world games can uniquely provide is the overwhelming experience of what interacting with hundreds of millions of dollars might feel like. Much like cinematic blockbusters, the games let you spend time inside a kind of digital cathedral that flaunts its cost in money and human “crunch” time. As graphical “breakthroughs” have become routinized, bigger and more expansive worlds are required to convey the sense of what playing inside what a lot of money feels like: more details, more missions, more things to do. This means more labor hours to produce more named characters with backstories, more hours of replayability and side missions, more more more!

As larger labor forces are needed to produce marginal improvements, more managerial discipline is required too, pushing necessarily toward a factory model. While sweat-shop style asset farms in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia churn out character models, the more “creative” offices tend toward the “flattened at the middle” corporate culture preferred by Silicon Valley, which features no less strict hierarchy but pretends toward more creative autonomy. This form of organization — sold as permitting more creative freedom to designers by cutting out micromanagement — actually works by incentivizing co-worker competition, driving workers to internalize management’s prerogatives and compete with one another to prove their worth in the office. Designers burn out in the middle while “creative direction” from the top is no less arbitrary and disconnected from the labor process than before. As a result, storytelling, world building, and art style fractalize and slide inexorably beyond the control of any individuals or story briefs. “Creatives” at the top are necessarily given absolute power over what a game “should” be as more and more people are required at the bottom to achieve their banal vision, like an entire media industry shaped in the image of Damien Hirst.

Such workers, many of whom got into games because they loved them and wanted to work creatively, must be kept in line when the carrot of creative fulfillment disappears over the horizon.  A corporate culture of racism, misogyny and transphobia is effective in its own right as a mode of workplace discipline. For example, when management publicly defends racist, misogynist and queerphobic jokes — as CD Projekt Red did during the Cyberpunk 2077 hype cycle — the targets of those jokes are made to feel vulnerable and are thus less likely to push back against managerial demands, report workplace abuse or harassment, or resist the pressure to put in overtime and accept crunch. While sometimes this can lead to organizing, as in the walkout at Riot games over workplace harassment, it mostly leads to a culture of fear about speaking out, as when two Arenanet devs were fired after gamers caused a massive controversy around their calling out mansplaining on twitter.

Direct workplace discrimination and intimidation is technically illegal (a technicality most of us know is just that), but the gaming industry has figured out how to outsource some of that pressure to these organized fans, who are more than happy to brigade anyone insulting their favorite games. In the wake of Gamergate, rather than reckoning with the frightening results of a culture of white male grievance long in the making, the industry doubled down, becoming almost fully symbiotic with those most reactionary fans, while occasionally introducing tokenistic gestures of reform (like the genital options in Cyberpunk). In return for their loyal service in driving the cost of labor down, the gamer boys are rewarded again and again with reactionary power fantasies that reinscribe hegemonic gender, race, and sexuality roles.

Game developers toss red meat to their army of online Pinkertons and crumbs to the rest of us, knowing full well that the games press, no less obsessed with appearing respectable and serious, will pretend that the crumbs are true progress and artistic achievement. If Cyberpunk 2077 hadn’t been so hilariously broken, it would have been just another blockbuster title playing out the same logic. Game critics would have praised it, wrung their hands about the transphobia, dutifully put it on their game-of-the-year lists, and drowned it in unearned superlatives. Fascist gamers would have flexed their disciplinary power where necessary to keep prices low, story lines conventional, and critics cowed, while reasserting their model of gamer identity as the “real” one.

When Reddit-organized amateur day traders and shit posters got together to manipulate the stock market earlier this month, it was telling that the stock they tried to ride to the top was GameStop (eventually followed by other publicly traded consumer-entertainment stocks like AMC), and that most of them refused to sell at the top of the squeeze. This stock rally could be understood as a show of similar power, even if or even because it failed as a financial strategy. Loyalty to the industry, even in its most banal, avaricious and destructive form — GameStop famously gobbled up smaller retailers and monopolized games sales by destroying the used sales market, only to be disrupted toward bankruptcy by a combination of digital sales platforms and disastrous corporate strategy — is a mode of identity, nostalgia, and belonging more important than the material effects and outcomes in the world.

It may perhaps seem absurd to link together the failure of the Trumpist January 6 coup attempt, the disastrous December 10 launch of the Cyberpunk 2077 and the GameStop stock fiasco. It is more than a little cheeky to say that all three share similar roots in the gaming communities of 2013–14. But it has some truth too. If we’re incredibly lucky, these high-profile failures represent high-water marks of a certain tendency of far-right action and consciousness, in which gaming communities and fascist mobs have overlapped.

But while video games may no longer represent the absolute cutting edge of computer technology, they increasingly appear as the cutting edge of internet-mediated class collaboration and labor discipline. The fully immersive cyberpunk dystopia promised by CD Projekt Red wasn’t available to the players who piloted V through the bland and predictable Night City, but for the thousands of laborers who animated the body-modded inhabitants, drew puddles to reflect the neon billboards, and shaped V’s various genitalia, the dystopian immersion was all too successful.

Vicky Osterweil is a writer, editor, and agitator based in Philadelphia. She is the co-host of the podcast Cerise and Vicky Rank the Movies, where they are ranking every movie ever made, and the author of In Defense of Looting.