All Work and All Play

In enjoying the detail and minutiae in open-world games we are consuming the miserable labor conditions that produce them

Well Played is a monthly column about video games and how they both reflect and shape capitalism’s development. What role do they play in reproducing society, transforming ideology, and sustaining capital’s pool of labor? The answers suggested here are meant as openings for debate rather than comprehensive, conclusive statements; exceptions to some claims may be obvious, but these don’t nullify the general trends, which must be met with social resistance. This series is offered as a contribution to a map of the territory for those who would join that conflict.

During a quarterly earnings call on February 11, Bobby Kotick, the CEO of Activision Blizzard — one of the biggest companies in video games, publicly traded with a market cap of about $35 billion — announced excellent news for investors: His company had just completed a “record year” of revenue. But then he had even better news for them: Activision Blizzard was set to lay off 8 percent of their workforce, to further increase shareholder margins, meaning 800 employees would be losing their jobs.

The brutal juxtaposition of the layoff announcement with the news of the company’s success has driven some ordinarily “nonpolitical” journalists and commentators (that is, those who haven’t typically challenged games publishers’ marketing lines) to express shock, outrage, and solidarity with workers, feeding an already growing conversation about labor conditions in the industry.

Thanks to the increasingly visible work of Game Workers Unite, as well as the ongoing repercussions of the 2016–17 voice actors’ strike, the tenor of the discussion had already shifted at mainstream gaming-news sites like Waypoint and Polygon, with calls for unionization becoming increasingly prominent. The trajectory of journalist Jason Schreier at Kotaku could be considered typical. Once a conventional “apolitical” games journalist who reported corporate press releases like they were in good faith, he has over the past few years become among the most consistent at breaking industry-workforce news in the U.S. and also calling for unionization. It’s as if the very fact of reporting on the industry’s labor conditions has started to radicalize him.

“Crunch time” is not contingent on how successful a particular game turns out to be; it’s about seizing any opportunity for profit

Games companies are, in fact, rife with brutally exploitative overwork, so much that the industry even has its own term for it: “crunch.” Workers are asked to put in 60- and 70-hour weeks in the run up to a game’s release, after which they are frequently let go as the studio retracts in size (or just closes up shop) after putting out its product. As the Activision Blizzard case shows, this labor-use pattern is not contingent on how successful a particular game turns out to be; it’s about seizing any opportunity for profit.

The cycles of extreme crunch and job churn have meant that game employees often burn out after a few years in games: In 2017, the industry had the highest turnover rate of any in the country. Games companies are not troubled by this, because they bank on the aura that their products and their fan communities give them. The idealism and passion of the young people who come to games hoping to work in a field that inspires them and brings them joy end up making them ripe for exploitation, a pattern many young writers, actors, and musicians might recognize. At so-called triple-A studios like Rockstar or Ubisoft, they get chewed up and spit out in the name of creating an expensive few hours of pleasure for middle-class consumers.

At the other end of the production spectrum is the indie space, where small teams of self-exploiting “entrepreneurs” make games under conditions that are often even worse than those in the well-capitalized studios. They are rife with crunch and, as is the case with many passion projects, rely on workers willing to accept low or no wages. The indies hope against hope that their project will be picked up in the increasingly crowded, uncurated, and cutthroat storefronts full of clones, shovelware, and rereleases.

The huge success of Dead Cells, made by Motion Twin, a studio horizontally organized around anarcho-syndaclist principles, points to a different way small games could be made. It’s worker-owned, with total and even profit sharing, and a democratic mode of worker self-management — no managers, only co-workers. The studio’s approach greatly reduced crunch and turnover, which ended with developers feeling much more committed and involved creatively in the final product. Motion Twin has been in business for more than two decades, with senior staff who’ve been there for almost the entire duration despite being paid the same as entry-level employees. But Motion Twin’s success is as much a serious outlier as its organizational model.

Some have blamed the “Indiepocalypse” for these conditions — the idea that there are just too many games. But that obscures how marketplaces like Steam have figured out that storefront negligence does little to hamper their profits. What does Steam care whether a game is a loving and intimate but short look at an immigrant family’s struggles in America, or if it’s just another rip-off of Clash Royale? They get the same cut of the $2.99 asking price either way, and besides, the vast majority of their money is made off the massive triple-A titles. The replacement of the curated experience of a physical store with the platform economy’s long-tail wasteland is part of the collapse of traditional middle-class economies discussed in the last column. Increased consumption and income inequality has meant that video games are increasingly striated between prestige, triple-A experiences produced under the most exploitative corporate labor practices and more consumer-exploitative free-to-play and mobile games, made much more cheaply and built around more direct extraction from the consumer.

So even as powerful and increasingly easy-to-use development software has allowed for an explosion of creativity, expression, and experimentation in games, market conditions have turned that cultural blossoming into a terrible burden on creatives. Creators who hope to make a living on their art find cutthroat competition rather than support among their developer peers. Meanwhile, when an indie studio gets successful enough, it will often get snapped up by one of the triple-A companies; it will be incorporated as just another team working on the major games, or its creative output will be transformed and controlled by management.

Unionization would give workers at big studios more power over the production process and would hopefully help mitigate problems with working conditions. This in turn could help transform the indie landscape as well as designers came to expect higher standards and more and more workers enter into unions and demand union rates. These unionization efforts deserve our full support and total solidarity. But it’s important to recognize that successful unionization for games workers in the U.S., even in a best-case scenario, would likely make the industry reproduce the inequalities already seen in the heavily unionized industries of TV and film production.

A truly revolutionary transformation of video games would require organization among and across the entire global supply chain, a task no movement has yet cracked

Almost everyone who works on a film set above the level of production assistant belongs to their own union with its own pay schedule. Those unions are relatively strong, rare among private trades in the neoliberal era. This forced film and TV producers to devise different ways of cutting expenses than squeezing workers. In the midst of a writer’s strike, in 1988, TV execs hit on the perfect scab workaround: Cops. Not the police, or using Pinkertons to break strikes like the robber barons used to, but the TV show. Cops was the first reality TV show, which, technically classified as a documentary, could be slipped through a union contract loophole and made during the strike. This set the stage for the eventual explosion of reality TV in America, which has been less a matter of meeting audience demand for a particular kind of content than a method of strike-breaking and cost reduction.

Even though reality shows are often in effect as scripted as any other kind of TV show, they don’t have to pay actors, writers, or other creatives at union rates. Similarly, game companies have relied on user-generated content to buttress marketing, replace tutorial or other explanatory content, harvest and sell gamer data, and, in the case of multiplayer games, provide the majority of the fun for others through their willingness to play together.

Perhaps even more relevant to video games has been the movie industry’s solution to unionization: digitization. Major films are now so thoroughly dependent on digital production methods that they often have barely any location filming or set construction at all. This is not because digitization necessarily gives filmmakers more creative leeway; rather, the employees with the requisite digital skills — animators and modelers — are not unionized and are often located overseas. Hollywood can hire hundreds of animators to create a fully CGI car chase in a month for less than it would cost to film the equivalent scene in meat space in a few days.

Video game production is similarly structured. While many games-industry jobs are difficult, terrible, and poorly paid in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan — the ones in quality assurance, for instance —the programmers, developers, and other creatives at the established studios tend to be relatively well-paid. They live under the threat of crunch and layoff, but often in relative material comfort. The same cannot be said for the workers in “asset farms,” the globalized video-game sweatshops where a huge percentage of the grunt coding work is done. As Will Partin wrote in a piece for the Outline, asset farms “take on the tedious work of turning concept art into three-dimensional models, a process that should, in theory, leave no space for the modeling artist’s interpretation … Meanwhile, the more prestigious and supposedly more ‘creative’ work of designing games gets to stay in North America and Europe.”

One thing unions in the games industry could do is force more transparency from big companies about how much they rely on these sweatshops. But as the “farms” grow more sophisticated, more of the game-building labor ends up there. Which is to say nothing, as Partin rightly points out, of the horrific conditions under which hardware like computers and consoles are produced and recycled. The minerals for computer parts are mined under miserable conditions, overwhelmingly in Africa, then are assembled in similarly shitty workplaces in Southeast and East Asia, while computer “recycling” involves the poorest of the poor living atop e-waste dumps, picking through the highly toxic garbage for pieces of recyclable hardware, at incredible cost to their health. A truly revolutionary transformation of video games would require organization among and across the entire global supply chain, a task no movement has yet cracked.

Fan communities, hooked into a competitive game often through addictive mechanics, end up acting as organized scab labor to keep their own hobby alive

The way major video games are made — by a crew of thousands under exploitative labor conditions, with a dehumanizing division of labor emphasizing small, repetitive tasks — is reflected in the kind of games you get. Many of the major games released each year are massive open-world adventures full of thousands of discrete things to do, objects to collect, tasks to complete, and so on, held together by character and design and perhaps a narrative. This describes many major games from the past few years, including financial and critical successes like Red Dead Redemption 2, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Marvel’s Spider Man, as well as longstanding industry hit-series Far Cry, Fallout, and Assassin’s Creed and many more besides.

It’s not that these kind of games aren’t fun: they often are! But this pleasure is in service of accommodating players to broader cultural conditions, as I argued in a previous column: Automation, globalization, financialization, just-in-time production, precarious and part-time labor, and the rise of service economies mean workplaces are constantly shifting, and many workers, even white-collar ones, need to constantly hop from job to job, technology to technology, trying to stay one step ahead of obsolescence. Video games emerge as a dominant popular cultural form at a time when workers must commit themselves to most mundane of tasks to get an edge over fellow workers. Games glamorize the violence of competition and the otherwise stultifying process of learning arbitrary information and gestures through play and repetition.

But the pleasure players derive from today’s games also reflects and distorts the conditions of their creation. These games allow consumers to enjoy as an experience of freedom, fun, and joy what the legion of programmers who made them have experienced as repetitive labor and stress. The products those workers painstakingly make have the effect of directly smashing solidarity, creating a volunteer nation of scabs who are rejuvenated through play for long days of stultifying, dog-eat-dog labor of their own.

These effects are even clearer in the multiplayer game field, in which the “community” takes on the task of making the game fun, worthwhile, and even playable, often keeping the game alive for years while the company reaps the rewards. Companies design the environments, characters, and rule sets — certainly no small task to get right but cheaper than crafting an entirely contained game of missions, scenarios, stories and worlds, puzzles and AI. Players, meanwhile, create YouTube video explainers and walkthroughs to make up for lackluster or barebones tutorials within these often complex games. They produce streams and lets-plays that replace the necessity of marketing and storytelling from the developers. They compile lore, write fan-fiction and update wikis that fill out the game’s world, and keep each other informed of game and company news through forums and social media, driving down the value of games journalism. Gamers, excited about their favorite game, do the vast majority of the labor to keep it alive; the studio keeps the servers up and releases new characters, maps, and downloadable content into the game, all of which they charge for. Fan communities, hooked into a competitive game often through addictive mechanics, end up acting as organized scab labor to keep their own hobby alive.

The effects of this has been seen many times in the history of video games, where gamers have attacked game-company employees, creatives, and designers (though rarely the executives) in bursts of vitriolic hatred. The most infamous incident was Gamergate, in 2014, when gamers organized a misogynist and racist campaign to drive women, queer, and/or nonwhite people out of the industry — a campaign in which much of the skeleton of the alt-right took shape. Last July, Arenanet fired two writers when a bunch of gamers got angry about a frankly milquetoast tweet from writer Jessica Price about being mansplained to on Twitter. (Price was fired, as was another writer, Peter Fries, merely for defending her arguments.) This highly activated and organized segment of game fandom thus represents a significant bulwark against better working conditions in the industry.

If the labor conditions of game creation are horrendous, the products of that labor themselves directly work to reproduce the general social conditions that makes that labor possible. Games have confused the very questions of play and work and have deeply embedded certain notions of fun, productivity, creativity, competition, beauty, and storytelling into a whole generation of media consumers. The gamer and the developer work in a cyclical process of mutual exploitation and alienation, deepening the ideological hold of current capitalist relations of production while buying Paris pied-à-terres for executives like Bobby Kotick. Unionization will be one of the tools to break out of this cycle, but alone it will not be enough. A major political and social transformation will be required before the games we play are actually fun for everyone involved.

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.