At the start of April, Kotaku released an article about the nightmarish conditions that Bioware workers had to endure in order to get Anthem out the door. There were stories of poor leadership, long hours, unresponsive and uncommunicative management, people locking themselves in rooms to cry, and being pushed so hard that people were required, by doctors, to take months off at a time.
Around the middle of that same month, Game Informer published an article online that detailed the rise and fall of Telltale games, the adventure-game behemoth that produced games like The Walking Dead (the good one) and Tales of the Borderlands. While it was not the main subject of the article, the topic of crunch – and the fact that the episodic nature of their work meant that they had less time to work on their games – did come up, with one of the co-founders defending the practice as “part of the culture”.
Near the end of the month, Polygon released a report that, after interviewing dozens of current and former Epic employees, painted a picture of a genuine sweat-shop, a place where people were expected to spend insane hours every week, almost non-stop, at the whims of their managers and executives. Where people burst into tears, walk out of the office and are never heard from again, and where contractors are treated like disposable bodies that they can work to the bone then replace the moment their contract is up.
And even now, just a few days away from May, former NetherRealm developers have gone out to accuse the company of forcing workers to stay at work for 100 weeks at a time, criminally under-paying their contractors, and generally just being dicks.
First things first: I’d like to offer a big fat congratulations to GameInformer, Polygon, and Kotaku. Gaming media has, for the longest time, served mostly as a hype machine, a mix of a marketing firm and political lobby, where actual journalism came second to reviews, previews, and interviews with executives about how great their upcoming game will be. It’s refreshing to see websites like these go beyond that well-trotted, safe content and actually do some good and proper digging, uncovering a dark and uncomfortable underbelly to the gaming world that many people are either only tangentially aware of or actively try to avoid/defend. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this gives absolute credibility to games journalism as a practice – but it’s great to see proper games journalism kick off conversations like this.
But secondly, and this is far more important: what the ever-green f@#king f@#k is going on here?
I feel like this issue, the crunch and ‘disposability’ of workers, is kind of like the island of garbage out on the ocean. Most everyone is aware of it, in some form or another, will say or think ‘oh that’s a damn shame, a real pity’, and then try to think of something else. It’s only when you see the pictures or, god bless, actually fly out and see it with your own eyes, that you realize what an enormous and immediate problem it actually is.
For the longest time, people in and around the gaming world have sort of known, open-secret, that things are pretty nasty. And talk of unionizing had always come up every once in a while, but more of a hypothetical talking point than an honest suggestion. But now the curtain is being pulled back, the pictures are being dropped in our laps, and we’re sort of forced to confront the ugly truth behind so many of the games that bring so much joy to people all around the world. Confront the ‘myth’ behind game design, that it’s grown-up kids making toys for other grown-up kids.
Because I mean, f@#k, some of the stuff we’re reading about is nothing short of horrendous.
Now, the frustrating part is that I know – I know for a fact – that some people will read all that information and just shrug it off. Like, “boo hoo, you work long hours: in your comfy desk at a high-paying developer job. There are people out there who are actually suffering, working long hours for almost pennies a day, why make a big deal out of this”?
To which I say two things:
First of all, f@#k you.
Second of all, f@#k you, you’re not wrong, but your point isn’t even a point. Yes, it’s a problem that there are millions of people out there who are living like – or literally as – slaves in the modern world. Yes, we need to address that. But that doesn’t mean what these developers are going through is any less bad, nor that it shouldn’t be addressed at all. Just because your leg is broken doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also be taking care of your cold: you have to take care of both and there’s literally no reason why you can’t do both at the same time.
Oh, and of course, there are people who also argue that the game studios need to employ crunch, that it’s necessary to ensure games are put out on time and that they’re worth the money and meh meh meh. F@#k you, every single industry in the goddamn world has made that same argument before unions were formed, and literally every single one of them was wrong or lying. There are lots of ways to save money: say, not paying your CEO thirty times what you pay your ground-level employees. That’s a pretty damn good cost-saving measure right there. Plus – are any of us really, really in the thinking that game studios are somehow restraining themselves on the money front? They have micro transactions, marketing deals, data sales… they’re earning hand over f@#king fist, they can afford to treat their workers like goddamn human beings.
I’m mad about this, people. The last time I was this mad at my favorite goddamn hobby it was Gamergate, where I wrote an extremely stupid article declaring “war” on the toxic attitudes that formed the backbone of that stupid movement.
Look. I’ve never worked on a video game before, but I have been worked so hard that I’ve cried. Back in the college years I worked at a temp agency, and I spent a lot of times in factories. Paper factories, mostly. I never worked less than ten hours a day, and in one notable case I worked a few twelve-hour shifts. Normal employees would have this extra workload offset with longer weekends: they only worked four days a week and took the other three off. Contractors like myself had no such luxury, and I have to say, some of the people there were the strongest goddamn people I ever met. Working long hours, on their feet, doing the most mundane, mind-melting labor for who knows how long… it really helped me appreciate how spoiled I am now, being able to write about video games in my free time while I work at a cushy office job, which only occasionally asks me to work an extra hour or two when things get a little tight.
Still, even in my current, cushy job, I get stressed out. I get tired. I go through the very normal and very human ups and downs that are proof that we’re alive. There are days when it’s hard to work. And there are times when you just need a few seconds, or even a few minutes, to breathe. And I can only imagine the kind of mental toll it takes on someone to never get that time to breathe: where they don’t have vacations or weekends to unwind and allow the stress from work to just seep out of them. That kind of stress and tension can literally kill someone, but they’re expected to do it because their overpaid executives want to milk the Fortnite fad for as long as they could.
Which, hey, I get. Ride the high while you have it. But if that comes at the cost of literally killing your workforce, then I save the biggest f@#k for you, kind sirs and ma’ams.
And if you’re really one of those people who can’t get angry or demand change if something doesn’t affect you personally, then here’s something for you to chew on: people do worse work when they’re overworked, tired, miserable, and stressed. So imagine how great Fortnite could be if the people behind it were given the time they needed to be healthy and do the best work possible?
And finally: it’s really, really time that developers decided to actually commit to the union thing. I know there’s been some fear because many developers don’t want to lose their jobs, but after seeing all these reports: Christ almighty, maybe losing their jobs would be good for some of these people. Just what the doctor ordered – literally, in the case of Bioware. I can’t imagine something worse than going to a job you hate every day for 10, 12 hours a day and being so stressed out you have to find locked rooms to cry in. Not even unemployment. So take some of that passion that got you to endure the crappy positions your bosses put you in and use it to form a union already.
I get it. I’m not a developer. I’m not even in the industry. I literally have no right to say that.
And I wouldn’t if I was the only one. But I’m not. I’m just echoing what other developers have rightfully been saying.
All ya’ll have to do is just do it.