The Videogame Industry’s Invisible Workforce: Part 2

Self-Destructive Management, the Exploitation of Passion, and Eviction Rooms: The Harsh Reality of Working in Videogames

<< For part one, click here.

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.

If you work in videogames at a major company and are not in a leadership role, your work has, by now, likely become commodified to an extraordinary degree. Some people’s jobs are literally making digital rocks. Some are diminished to contract work, performing tasks like ensuring that game characters blink correctly. There is no such thing as a small job, but ownership over the work done in a big-budget videogame is rare. Feeling voiceless is not.

It gets further complicated for workers, as due to the lack of best practices being established, oftentimes the same title or role at different companies entails a completely different set of tasks and responsibilities or expectations. If videogames ever have strong unions, they’ll have a hard time replicating the very specifically defined roles around which unions revolve in many workforces. For instance, in film, there are separate unions for sound editors, makeup artists, grips, location managers, and so on.

Granted, there is nothing sinister with having amorphous roles on a team, per se, and it is common in the tech world as well. This mindset can encourage collaboration and inspire ambitions beyond what a worker was hired on to do and build new core competencies. But there’s a fine line between being ambitious and being exploited, and union contracts are meant to impose and protect boundaries so both the end product and the people behind it are all the better for it.

There is a regional and translation-based miscommunication here. Most but not all roles at US-based firms will use the same nomenclature, but often this is done differently in Japan, where the roles have been historically translated differently. This is likely a product of both the American and Japanese industries being established around the same time separately as opposed to film, which began in the West and migrated East.

Still, the next videogame a company works on, even if it’s a sequel, will be unpredictably different from the one that preceded it. Things are always moving, but they aren’t necessarily progressing. Many in the game industry say it feels like it isn’t learning from its mistakes or even able to identify them because there’s never time to reflect.

“This is the generation who defined virality,” says Adrienne Hunter, a game developer who quit Nintendo and has since changed industries. “You can’t tell me all that creative fire and clever humor and willingness to boldly experiment can’t be trusted.”

It’s likely not an issue of trust but rather one of catastrophic and lucrative inertia. The game industry has gotten bigger and allowed its production budgets to swell by a factor of 10 every subsequent hardware generation — even after the economic crash of 2008. Just about the only thing that has not kept pace is input from the creative talent on what they’re working on and how.

“The growth between the people who make the games [and] the people who sell the games probably didn’t match,” says Hiroki Kikuta, a game composer who has worked in the industry since 1991.

And as games have gotten bigger, few standards for production have arisen. Instead, game companies throw any number of solutions at the problem of increasingly expensive content and publisher schedules. While crunch certainly continues to be a problem in the game industry, it’s far from the only one.

So this is the part of this story that, logically, would suggest the videogame industry should adopt unions. It isn’t that simple — even for a company like Sony, which is also in the film and TV business, and could have had inter-departmental sharing of wisdom and advised on a push for structural change in games endeavors at least internally when it entered the market with the PlayStation in 1994.

But understanding the videogame industry and how to properly categorize it has always been a problem for those trying to make sense of it. Sony struggled with this in the early ’90s. The company siloed videogames under its Sony Music division, for the sole reason that both PlayStation games and albums both come out on CDs.

This makes a certain categorical sense, like why you put yellow mustard and honey-blasted sriracha on the same refrigerator shelf. But just like how you can’t put a CD game in a boombox, you wouldn’t put sriracha on everything. Okay, some people might, but specific to the game industry here: The categorization of CDs as the umbrella for videogames and albums points to how after decades of vgames being around on cartridges, companies still haven’t figured where they fit in bigger corporate pipelines and how to properly manage their specific pipelines.

Rather than letting videogames be their own thing, the Sony approach was to hamstring them through the framework of something that came before. Which is, well, human nature, but a limiting and incorrect one. And when that is the lens, what seems confusing gets overlooked or back burnered. Something you can’t quantify becomes something that defies classification. Something you can’t classify sure is hard to maximize efficiencies for.

What is clearer is that as much as the videogame industry likes to pride itself on moving fast, videogames as an industry is moving incredibly slow to protect itself as an enduring legacy and profession: Videogames had a 20-year head start on the internet, yet new media companies like Gawker or Salon gained unionization rights faster.

Dr. Greg Zeschuk, a co-founder of Edmonton, Canada game company BioWare who retired from the industry in 2013, says the problems that continue to be so entrenched at game companies come partly from both a misunderstanding of what management is and a fear of data among that group.

“People assume because someone’s got an MBA they’re a manager and maybe even a good one,” says Zeschuk, who got his MBA from Queen’s University in 2004. “That’s got nothing to do with it. What everyone complains about is the fact that you still have a huge variability of quality of management in the games business. It’s like every business, but I think games in a sense is worse because it’s easier to use the passion of the people making the product to their disadvantage.”

The problem in games, Zeschuk says, is so many office culture habits were born from the “self-destructive management of a lot of young dudes that were super-passionate, trying to get things done at all costs.” This was back before the game industry could even be considered an industry at all, but instead a smattering of small groups of friends in garages pulling all-nighters for the thrill of creating.

These origins have become the stuff of corporate folktale wet dreams. As a result, games employees work in environments where badges of pride are awarded for hollow accomplishments that actually drag productivity down — often motivated by the illusion that pulling longer hours somehow equals getting more work done. This is regularly legitimized with unfair and exploitative policies. As the work on games ultimately falls down to teams and the individuals on that team, practices like turning “limited mandatory overtime” into “mandatory overtime” without compensation are seen as reinforcing the team mentality, when in fact it devalues and sacrifices each individual on that team.

“We can have a deep conversation on globalization and offshoring of work,” says Zeschuk. “But at the end of the day companies are encouraged to have minimal payroll, and one way to do that is to have lots of contract workers because your benefits are down.”

BioWare is an unusual game company in that all its employees own stock. And while that spirit of altruism and inclusiveness is seemingly rare in the industry, Zeschuk says many of the laws “almost prevent” leadership from treating contract workers better: He recalls ways they had to get clever, like hosting a “separate” lunch event for contract workers next to one for their salaried employees, or selling team T-shirts to their contracting agency to filter them down to workers. “It’s incredible how much of this stuff is set up to create some divide,” says Zeschuk. That is, the game industry is susceptible to the same things Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have been talking about this past year, that a lot of global trade agreements and big companies are crooked, or incentivized to hurt people.

Stories about sexual harassment, not getting credit for work done, not getting royalties, working a full-time job under the guise of contract work, outsourcing, ageism, firing someone because the internet demands a sacrifice, and the overall commodification of the work are not hard to unearth. It’s also easy to rattle these off and not take them in, because they sound like the same complaints rampant in any corporate workforce in America. That is to say, the videogame industry is like any other now, though it doesn’t get the same sort of scrutiny, attention, or pressures as the film industry or even Silicon Valley. That can’t last forever.

“Does there need to be a countrywide union of artists and a countrywide union of programmers and a countrywide union of musicians? Maybe not. But why not?,” asks Ryan Morrison, an attorney who practices as outside counsel for videogame companies and independent developers. “Why not this industry that makes so much money, that has so many intelligent members?”

Morrison warns, “But that kind of regulation, if it doesn’t exist, if it doesn’t start coming in a lot stronger, it’s gonna come in from the government and it’s gonna be a lot worse. Every game studio calling their employees contractors is gonna get a huge bite in the ass soon. The IRS is not ignorant to it happening. Every contractor that gets in a dispute with their employer files a misclassification action and then has an audit at that game company. All of a sudden the IRS says, ‘Hey, we’re doing all these audits of game companies. None of them have employees apparently. What are they doing?’”

Johanna Weststar, associate professor in the department of management and organizational studies at Western University, says there have been some attempts at unionization or at least mobilization in the videogame sector and in the IT or software sector more broadly. They all hit dead ends.

“One of the first was the Ubifree movement in France where workers of Ubisoft created an unofficial virtual union online that was successful in pressing for a few demands before it was pressured to disband,” Weststar says. “There is presently a website called Ubifree 2.0 referencing the original and documenting the work conditions and challenges at Ubisoft in Montreal. However, there has been little traffic on that site in general and nothing since 2010.”

Weststar also cites a “very long effort” by the Communications Workers of America to form a union at IBM, a campaign called Alliance@IBM that has since been abandoned. However, the Washington Alliance of Software Workers has successfully organized workers at Microsoft.

Zeschuk speculates part of the reason why there aren’t stronger pushes for a giant tech workers’ union is because employees at Google and Apple are treated “pretty well generally.”

It’s also difficult to discern whether the growing trend of rage-quit missives on Medium or open-letter posts about unlivable working conditions in Silicon Valley are aberrations or indicative of workplaces that need re-examining. “I think the conversation or what’s happening is exactly the same as it’s always been,” says Zeschuk. “The plight of the worker will improve, but I don’t think the plight of the contract worker will.”

Whether unions are “the answer,” or not, says entertainment attorney Sheafe B. Walker, who has presented panels on labor and employment issues for comic book creators and publishers at New York Comic Con since 2007, the game industry should renounce the International Game Developers Association if it is dissatisfied with its performance. The IGDA is the leading professional association for games workers, and gets some of its funding from studio affiliates. Unlike a union, it has no bargaining power and lacks independence from the industry in which its members work.

“If they’re claiming to speak for you and they’re not actually speaking for you, or if they claim to be an advocacy group and they’re not doing much advocating, then you should reject them,” says Walker, who has advised on key issues in contract negotiations of Actor’s Equity, Local One of the Stagehand’s Union, and Local 802 of the Musicians Union, with the Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway theater industry. “You should reject them publicly. You should say, ‘They do nothing.’”

Many workers view the IGDA as something of a vestigial joke. It’s unable to meaningfully help the workforce but because it is the closest thing to a union the industry has (insofar as it is a venue to air grievances), there is an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude.

Kenji Ono, IGDA’s chapter coordinator for Japan, said the organization has had “no victories,” but the game industry remains a lucrative field for those who are able to ascend in and profit from it. Industry events like the annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco often feature panels or speakers celebrating their triumphs and creative methodologies, which then ripple with little to no deeper analysis in the games media. In lionizing these success stories without skepticism and probing questions, it feeds into a bigger ecosystem where the industry doesn’t know what it isn’t hearing, and so it can’t learn and change as a result. This is true everywhere, though: Industries and their success stories thrive on silence. The IGDA is complicit in this.

One alternative would be pushing for the IGDA to get more power, but it has been around since 1994 and these are the conditions that have been allowed to thrive under its watch. But would it even know what to do with greater influence? Currently, it is a facade concealing a lack of real change.

How would unions be implemented in regional offices for international companies? It’s complicated, and the people freed from those problems likely just want to stay independent, or hire a small team of people they know and won’t screw over. What’s more likely are domestic efforts that would need to be big enough to warrant standards. Otherwise, inevitably federal-level pressure to shift the industry will come.

But if the industry wanted to unionize, it could. It doesn’t want to in part because those who get clout use their influence only to protect the status quo, even when the status quo is unstable. Recent examples of this include Ken Levine and Hideo Kojima, two studio heads responsible for videogame series with colossal followings who watched and said nothing publicly while their companies imploded. Most companies have the good graces to not publicly blow up, but the Levine and Kojima examples serve as high-profile cautionary tales.

Levine was the creative director and lead writer with Irrational Games, responsible for publisher 2K’s biggest non-Rockstar series with BioShock in 2007. In 2014, Levine closed down his 17-year-old studio with a terse blog post announcing that he planned to start “a smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavor at Take-Two” and mentioning that his laid-off staff “will have access to the studio for a period of time to say their goodbyes and put together their portfolios.”

What happened? Did sales of BioShock Infinite not meet projections? Were there conversations about maybe reassessing the precarious big-budget model and introspection on games costing as much as they do? Would him talking about the problems his company faced have helped others? Is he okay looking like whatever happened is his fault? Is the only thing the industry consolidated around “no snitching?”

The question of projections and sales are pertinent and seemingly basic, but in reality are largely ongoing mysteries in the game industry. Although barebones information is accessible through websites like VGChartz, information on sales aren’t transparent to the layman or average independent journalist. The most valuable tools for tracking such information are, understandably, part of a suite of services aimed at marketing departments of game companies.

So, like many parts of the game industry, it’s hard to understand why big companies go under or even financial basics like budgets and sales figures. It’s safe to assume, however, that your average big-budget videogame costs around $24 million to make and at least that much — if not more — to market. These are conservative estimates.

“We are aware that the budgets are ballooning at at the same time, for us, they’ve been more and more successful,” says Neil Druckmann, creative director at Naughty Dog, who earlier this year released Uncharted 4. “We haven’t had that discussion, like some kind of existential crisis for the studio. It’s good those curves are lining up with each other [for us].”

Druckmann continues, “I feel like we’ve seen the worst of it, as far as, ‘Yeah, these games have gotten more expensive and the studios that can make this kind of game have shut down or gone more lower budget.’ You’re not seeing the middle-budget version anymore.”

As the “4” in the new Uncharted signifies, playing it relatively safe and throwing down with a sequel is one way to mitigate risk. And the more a studio head is able to mitigate risk with that much money on the line, the longer they’ll be able to keep making games. Druckmann estimates at the height of production Uncharted 4 was made by 300 people, and double that including all the people who were external, temporary hires.

But don’t the people at the top use their clout to improve the treatment of workers? Like detailed sales information, this is also difficult to track.

“The trick to clout is it’s a political battle,” says BioWare founder Zeschuk. “One of the things people forget when they look in from the outside is it’s all a numbers game. You can have a critically, wonderfully successful received game. That gives you a certain amount of clout within a big company. If you don’t make a ton of money with that, it gives you a lot less clout to also control the business.”

In 2015, Kojima, who had worked with publisher Konami since 1986, had a very bizarre and public, though completely silent, falling out with the publisher, for which he had worked on and co-created many big series like Metal Gear Solid. Save for a leaked corporate memo, no official explanation of substance has been given for why Kojima and Konami parted ways and his contract terminated in December last year.

In the months leading up to December, rumors swirled online about draconian reprisals being carried out against Kojima’s staffs in Los Angeles and Japan. Allegedly, employees’ email addresses were being changed weekly in Konami Japan to prevent headhunting, specific individuals in Japan had their internet modified so they could only communicate internally, their offices were being monitored by cameras, and people who took longer lunches than usual were “shamed.” There were also reports that when the remaining staff “liked” a Facebook post from a former employee announcing their departure for another company, they were transferred elsewhere within Konami.

Although these rumors caused a shock — and no subsequent discernable changes — former and current Konami employees say this is business as usual in Japan. Those email addresses changing? They’re typically modified every quarter at Konami Japan. The cameras to monitor employees? They were not newly installed, but actually always there. Reports of employees taking longer lunches being “shamed?” It wasn’t just true of Kojima’s production crew — it’s just true of all divisions of the company in Japan.

Through all of this, neither Kojima nor Konami elaborated on or substantiated the news that he was being let go — even though he was on the hook to still complete production on Metal Gear Solid V, a title whose story abruptly stops, allowing players to view a haphazardly attached ending. Konami stripped Kojima’s name from the packaging of MGSV and renamed his production company “Number 8 Production Department” — an act of either conveniently timed reorganization or strange punishment.

Although Kojima’s exit garnered coverage in the New Yorker in mid-December, that story makes no mention of the fate and status of the teams Kojima helped build and left behind. The workers and allies he hired and collaborated with and made videogames with for decades disappeared.

But this gets to the heart of what does make the game industry unique. So many of the companies are international in a way that other companies in other industries simply aren’t. As such, the videogame industry has inherited genes from Japanese business culture which, as Ono says, is “very conservative.”

“Before World War II and after World War II, the Japanese economy was very bad,” says Ono. “Many managers… thought there would be a revolution like in the Soviet Union. So, Japanese capitalists thought they should give more rights to labor and to protect their social system.”

What emerged, Ono explains, is a culture where problems don’t get discussed publicly, and also one where it’s very difficult for bosses to fire employees. Instead, bosses try to shame or wear workers down into quitting. This is not a game industry-specific practice, but rather a system-wide part of the business world in Japan. Ono says it is common knowledge in the games world that companies like Capcom, Square-Enix, and Bandai Namco use this tactic against employees they’d like to part ways with. It exists elsewhere, too: In 2014, stories circulated about Ubisoft Montreal’s similar “developer limbo.”

This practice has not only a name — “voluntary termination” — and long history, but also a designated room in some companies. The “eviction room” is where permanent employees are sent to be given no work at all, be given humiliating tasks not in their job titles, or just be sent to be in isolation and disconnected from their company to eventually tender a “voluntary resignation.”

Again, this is nothing new. The Wall Street Journal in 1999 wrote about Toshiyuki Sakai, a Sega employee whose bosses one day told him “his work was below par.” Sakai disagreed, and so he was sent to the “Pasona Room,” after the English word “personnel.” From WSJ:

“He arrived to find the room empty, except for a desk, three chairs, a bare locker and a telephone that couldn’t make outside calls. Mr. Sakai was given no work to perform and allowed no diversions.”

Ono speculates that many Japanese game companies and publishers have rooms exactly like this and although there was a spike of coverage about it in 1999, he notes that, ironically, the rate of permanent workers in the game industry has increased since then.

When asked about IGDA’s handling of the situation at Konami, IGDA executive director Kate Edwards said, “Obviously, an organization like ours, which is international but happens to be based in the United States… we don’t want to inflict some form of cultural imperialism on a company that is under completely different cultural mores and guidelines.”

But we are talking about the videogame industry here, built upon a medium that unceasingly defies and rewards people for undertaking extreme challenges all the time. Why should this be any different?

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.