The Videogame Industry’s Invisible Workforce: Part 1

How A Conspiracy Of Silence Erased A Medium’s Humanity

A Special Report from Don’t Die
Reported and Written by David Wolinsky
Edited by Scott Gordon

Note: As editing was finishing on this series, announcement of the SAG-AFTRA videogame voice actor’s strike came out. This is one part of the game industry’s labor force showing unrest.

This piece was written over the course of 2015 and 2016. Many major outlets expressed interest in publishing this, but ultimately backed away.

The videogame industry is bad at reaching mainstream audiences. It sounds like a cocky Buddhist koan, but one need only search the internet for a few Googles to see the game industry has not coexisted with the mainstream scrutiny and journalistic probing other entertainment industries have known for decades. Whereas film writing began in academic journals, videogame “journalism” and criticism began in enthusiast publications like Nintendo Power, where software companies and publishers kept information about products on a strict IV drip as prescribed by marketing plans. The dynamic hasn’t historically existed for picking up phones, chasing down leads, and taking scalpels to big systemic problems in the industry.

As your cursory Googles can tell you, for the last few decades the totality of what gets written and thought about videogames has tended to be: “Are they any good? Who should you buy them for? When are they coming out?” As a result the games industry, media, and large portions of its audience have been complicit in blotting out and not thinking about an entire workforce, rendering it largely invisible.

Cinema and TV have numerous unions, oftentimes for specialized fields within each respective process. Videogames, with the exception of voice actors and a few writers, have no unions at all. They straddle the entertainment world and the far less union-friendly tech world. Employers treat videogames work as software development, while media and the broader culture treat them as entertainment. Virtually all conversations about the state of the industry and how to improve it, therefore, don’t start on equal footing. They may as well be in different languages.

The closest thing the game industry workforce has to a governing body is the International Game Developers Association, which considers itself an advocacy group and professional association. It does not have collective bargaining power. Its job isn’t to change working conditions but, as its executive director Kate Edwards explains, “to promote professional development in communities for game developers worldwide through education.”

Edwards says workers in the game industry sometimes seek help from her organization as though it were a union, but the most they can do for those workers is raise issues of concern. The IGDA’s effectiveness is somewhat tainted: It makes “a certain percentage of money from studio affiliates,” as Edward acknowledges. That means pushing for meaningful change presents a conflict of interest.

Kenji Ono, IGDA’s chapter coordinator for Japan, is more blunt, saying his organization has had “no victories.” “Unfortunately, we don’t have much power in the game industry,” Ono says. “I think we need our own budgets.”

When anecdotes surface about internal memos at a major company telling female employees to honor all orders given by male superiors and be unquestioningly subservient because “men have been in the workforce longer,” all that happens is cringing, complying, and looking for work elsewhere. If you think parts of the audience for videogames are toxic: so are many of the companies.

Unions have been discussed in the industry before, though seldom in actionable or public ways. Marie-Josée Legault, professor of labor relations at ESA-Teluq with University of Quebec and Johanna Weststar, associate professor in the department of management and organizational studies at Western University gave a presentation at GDC in 2015 titled “Do Game Developers Want a Union?” According to their findings, 64 percent of industry workers polled said that, yes, they do want a union, but didn’t know how to start organizing.

In 2014, famed game designer Raph Koster and 30-year game industry veteran Greg Costikyan held a panel at IndieCade discussing sustainable business models for independent developers — people who make games on their own, not employed by a game company — and Rochdale cooperatives were discussed as one possible solution. Those are arrangements in which consumers are organized into buying groups to purchase from a collectively owned wholesaler, who would then gradually help these buying clubs convert their operations into retail outlets by supplying management, inventory, and capital. Disagreements about charting out a future path aren’t inherently destructive, but because the industry has been moving fast since its inception, it creates a landscape where people don’t even know what targets to aim at. It’s just that all this is compounded by the industry’s strange way of giving the mainstream the slip.

This is what happens when an industry has been allowed to grow and grow for so long without scrutiny or outside pressures: Everyone’s pulling in different directions, even when they agree.

“Unionizing is hard even under the most favorable conditions,” Weststar says via email. “The climate in the US in particular is not very labor-friendly. It is harder in tech industries because there is no starting point and no culture of unionization. In fact, the culture is quite anti-union. People have an impression that unions will somehow stifle the creative impulses of the industry. What it would stifle are the work practices that cause burnout in the name of the creative process.”

Because the videogame industry also shares DNA with the tech industry, it too is plagued with the types of exploitative conditions The New York Times exposed in its “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” piece from last summer. Kathryn Greenbaum, who worked for Rockstar Games as a motion-capture artist and has since quit the industry, sums up what it was like crunching on Grand Theft Auto V: “I had a lot of friends that when I came out of [time-crunching on the game] and started seeing people again were like, ‘Oh, we thought you had just moved to LA and hadn’t told anyone.’ Like, a lot of people thought I had just moved because I had disappeared.” She hadn’t. She had just been working.

This is not unique to videogames, but often in games, life and work become one thing. It’s not uncommon to sleep in the office, lose touch with friends, or forget what day it is. The attitude of “you’re lucky to be here” is the reward.

This, still, is nothing new. Rewind to 2004, when the wife of an EA employee posted a powderkeg of an essay documenting how her husband was sacrificing his health to work on their games. The essay had little impact in the long run.

“EA made a few changes to their policies,” Weststar says. “But there is a broad sense that not much has changed officially.”

Dr. Greg Zeschuk, whose company BioWare was sold to Electronic Arts in 2007, says while it’s tempting to draw conclusions about major game publishers or studios based on anecdotes like these, there’s more to it: “It’s really funny because people have this kind of negative view of EA, but within a company there’s a lot of good stuff going on and then there’d be an island of horror and everyone going, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on over there?’ Whereas the other 10 studios are doing great and doing really good work… it’s those really dumb managers in that particular studio that were bad at messaging, bad at managing work/life balance, and common sense didn’t apply.” Still, Zeschuk remembers the level of project management at EA was “pretty shoddy” when BioWare was first bought by them.

In 2010, another anonymous post similar to the EA one, this time by anonymous spouses of employees of Rockstar San Diego was published online, detailing 12-hour days six days a week, pay cuts, and limited vacation time.

Edwards says there was a time in the early ’90s up to the mid-2000’s where Microsoft was “very much like the picture described in the Amazon article… but in Microsoft’s case, they eventually changed and matured.” This is contradicted by a creative director who worked on recent Halo titles for Microsoft and preferred to stay anonymous who asked me, “Why aren’t we talkin’ unions?” As Edwards correctly points out, “Crunch mode is like in other industries, though they usually call it poor project management.”

But just because it’s typical doesn’t mean it’s normal and doesn’t mean it should be the norm.

Other industries remotely like this have unions. They understand creativity is not some manna from heaven, but rather a resource like any other that can be managed and regulated. That you should treat your people like, well, human beings.

Margaret Heffernan, an author of business-analysis books like A Bigger Prize: Why Competition isn’t Everything and How We Do Better and Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, says that what surprises her most about the game industry is its “failure to recognize talent and how you actually treat people. [That] has quite a big impact on what you’re able to do. If you think of the analogy in between, say, the games business and movies, people do understand in the movie business you have to look after your talent, and that’s why they pay stupid money for it. I was amazed the game industry doesn’t do that. It doesn’t even think of doing it, as far as I can see.”

Heffernan adds that the game industry “suffers from many, many misapprehensions about what talent is, what it looks like, how it behaves, and how you identify it.”

David Wolinsky is the creator and moderator of Don’t Die, an oral history intended to paint the videogame culture and industry around it onto a broader canvas. Support his Patreon and follow him on Twitter @davidwolinsky.