The Videogame Industry’s Invisible Workforce: Part 3

Videogames Aren’t Bigger than Hollywood, But Their Labor Issues Are

<< For part two, 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.

At some point long ago, the game industry got it in its head that it’s just like the movie industry — entertainment, not software — and films are the business to beat. This is why the videogame industry often likes to brag that it is “bigger than Hollywood.” But this has always been a flawed and fuzzy comparison. It’s not grounded in the reality of either business.

Still, the reasons for this thinking are simple.

“You think of Hollywood and one of the images that pops up into your mind is the limousine rolling up to the red carpet and the big star steps out with his gorgeous woman on his arm, and they march up with people cheering and cameras flashing,” says longtime game developer and Game Developer’s Conference founder Chris Crawford, who infamously and publicly quit the industry in 1992 during a speech at his own conference. “Golly, they’re just so glamorous. They’re so sexy. And me? I’m just an ugly, fat geek. I got no glamor.”

Crawford jokingly calls this “Hollywood envy,” in analogy to Freud. It sounds laughable as a summary of the soul of an entire industry, but Warren Spector, the studio director and producer responsible for helping oversee many popular game series like Deus Ex and Epic Mickey, corroborates this: “Game developers aren’t sexy. All of the movie magazines in the ’20s and ’30s, they kinda got the ball rolling. Movie grosses and budgets are publicized because movies really are a mainstream medium in a way that we’re not.”

But movies have always informed the way people think and talk about games are, perhaps in part because of this insecurity. However, one need look no further than this year’s Academy Award boycotts and controversy for the lack of non-white nominees for the second consecutive year and contrast it against Gamergate. If videogames were going to transplant Hollywood’s mentalities, shouldn’t it have done so while avoiding preventable mistakes? The timing of these recent awful frictions over the lack of diversity in both industries is likely coincidental and also points to corrosive elements of Western culture in general. It also illustrates that for as much as games wants to be like movies, it clearly doesn’t understand what it it’s imitating and has not thought about how to improve upon it.

In fact, the film business is about the most diametrically incompatible comparison you could make when looking for a comparable framework for the game industry. In Raph Koster’s 2007 GDC talk “Where Game Meets the Web,” the longtime game designer presciently calls out this fallacy. Koster lays out how movie studios own production companies, distributors, plus video rental and cable channels. In other words, because movie studios don’t own theaters, they have structured their deals so they are making money at every stage of release except the box office. When videogames talk about earning more money than Hollywood, it’s talking only about its equivalent to box office — and further fudging those numbers by including hardware sales, when you don’t see movie studios including sales of projectors, theater seats, and film stock in its earning statements. In other words, videogames brag the most about the transaction Hollywood least cares about.

Aside from that, we usually learn to discard false analogies because they are faulty arguments.

“How is the game industry different from the movie industry?” asks Dan Cook, Spry Fox’s chief creative officer and a former game designer for Epic Games and Microsoft. “That’s like asking how the romance novel business is different from all possible types of sport. Maybe they are very different things.”

Via email, Cook continues:

One big difference between movies and games is that movies are a standardized media product. For the most part they run 90 to 120 minutes and are consumed in a single viewing. The movie industry has created a myriad of ways of bundling that consumable product and selling it across standard media channels like television, theaters and digital media players. Games are not standardized. Some are indeed $60 consumable experiences that last 6 to 10 hours. These feel confusingly close to movies. However, there are also free games with stores inside them that are played for thousands of hours and a closer to a hobby like woodworking or quilting than a movie. And there are 99-cent games that people play for minutes at a time, for months. And online worlds that operate like vibrant cities. And gigantic gambling machines. And there are eSports with celebrity athletes, endorsements, and stadium-sized events. Each form of game has a unique business model. Most are not consumable. Most are not standardized. None are served over traditional media channels.
Another big difference is the rate of change. Everything form of game I just mentioned above is likely to shift radically over the next five years. The idea of giving away a game for free barely existed in Western markets 10 years ago. Now it is a dominant business model. Established companies die easily when the markets shift. So we’ve got a fragmented, high-risk business that is always in flux. (History? Our history is pounded into dust via regular market earthquakes.)
The business model for the game industry depends on three main roles: Game studios, who make games; game publishers, middlemen that fund, market, and manage portfolios of risky games; and storefronts that distribute games to players. Storefronts often control platforms like the Microsoft Xbox or Google Play that have captured an audience of players they can easily sell to.
These roles get mixed together in dozens of different forms. Sometimes there’s a big bad business owner that cracks the whip over poor artists. But more often than not there isn’t.
For example, in AAA games, often the storefronts, publishers and studios are all owned by the same company. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are examples and they exercise tight control over who gains access to their players. For smaller independent PC developers, one to three person studios handle marketing and act as self-publishers. Their primary storefront, a piece of software called Steam, barely cares what they do or how they do it as long as they are selling games and making players happy. Free-to-play developers have stores inside their games, building a business model within a business model.

All of this to say: Even when the game industry is congratulating itself, it misunderstands itself. In fairness, though, it’s never really gotten a chance to see itself clearly. This is due in part to a lack of expert, independent media coverage. Outside of the Nintendo Powers of the world, the media of the ’80s and ’90s underestimated the importance of geek and nerd culture and covered it very poorly. Instead, games media focused on product evaluations that would seem at home in Consumer Reports, but often more compromised as beneath that veneer was the influence of publishers and advertisers.

“The media got everything about this culture wrong,” says Jon Katz, an author and journalist who was among Wired’s first writers. “They didn’t see it coming and they didn’t respond to it and they didn’t know what it was and they basically led the charge claiming it was dangerous and destabilizing.”

That, essentially, takes us to today and the strange cultural limbo videogames and their workforce are still in — and games are still trying to be like Hollywood.

“The publishing channels [in games] have collapsed,” Koster says via email, supplementing his 2007 talk with a quick rundown of what has changed in the last decade. Koster adds that games have made a big push to get into subsidiary markets with toys and soundtracks “and there has arisen a very active industry effort to keep old IP alive via official emulation and nostalgia products. The latter approach was around 10 years ago but not nearly as widespread.”

And while highlighting the ways videogames are trailing and copying the film industry eventually distills itself into a highly specific round of Family Feud, the reality is comparisons between the game industry and Hollywood are unsound. This is because games don’t have the kinds of formalized institutions and regulations that laid the groundwork for Hollywood’s growth. Actually, videogames is lagging behind other entertainment industries as a whole — lacking both the societal scrutiny mentioned above and also meaningful governing bodies.

Movies had longer to build up institutions and best practices. Videogames missed an opportunity to learn from the film industry’s long experience and replicate some of the structures that exist in the film world.

And without journalistic pressure or meaningful channels for protest and change for the workforce or audience, it is unlikely anything will change anytime soon in the game industry. The game industry is not blind to the fact that it has problems, but it ignores them publicly, moves on, and only speaks out about how much money it makes and when its next big games are coming out.

The truth is, too, that if many employees weren’t treated as disposable and the press and game publishers were more willing to take their audiences to task, Gamergate would have never happened.

“Regular” journalism has Poynter, CJR, and the Nieman Journalism Lab — entities that exist to ask questions about news coverage and inject accountability measures. Videogames journalism does not. Although post-Gamergate there has been a rise of media companies who likely noticed the magnetic spikes of traffic for writing about videogames and have entered the fray, the result is a crowding and simultaneously crumbling online media environment where many writers and critics are attempting to elevate the medium by writing about videogames as cultural artifacts and not merely consumer products. Many websites are, in effect, playing with the same food that’s been on the plate for years. They are continuing to ignore the people in the industry who have remained voiceless since nearly the beginning. That many media outlets are toothless and ignoring possibilities to push for meaningful systemic change is only aggravated by the rise of awareness that writing and journalism at large may not have a place in capitalism. Some game-focused outlets like Polygon openly question whether freelance writers devalue writing, whereas another, Kill Screen, massively cut its entire freelancer pool.

But Gamergate is not emblematic of something new. It’s just a label for the way groups of the audience have read into the lack of public discourse — an anonymous developer in the UK who used to work for banks says the financial sector is more transparent than the videogame industry — and assembled meaning and intention out of it. Like the industry, the audience hasn’t had a chance to clearly understand itself either.

The industry even misunderstands its own current relationship with unions. Critics who scoff at the very notion of unionization in the game industry overlook the basic fact that there are already some unions there.

“In the world of games, the WGA does cover some folks,” says Miranda J. Banks, author of The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild. “The structure of game design production is entirely different, but unionization and labor are major issues. Some of those might come under the WGA, but there are many people who work in games who would traditionally fall under other unions. Plus, there is the question of game design being international, with much of the labor done overseas, so that complicates unionization issues as well.”

Complicated or not, the rhetoric around unions and workers organizing in 2016 tends to be either dismissive or self-defeating. As Banks implies, a game developers union would likely be too broad to even make much sense. The needs of a junior designer or someone in quality assurance are completely different from those of a producer. And, again, you run into the lack of standardization in roles around the globe. The same is true of unions. Still, while unions mean different things in different territories, workforce abuse has no problem crossing borders.

According to a former Crytek employee, the Frankfurt-based developer once bent German law so only non-German workers would be asked to work overtime. Germany has very strict overtime rules, and Crytek knew foreign employees wouldn’t likely know about them. A full-time employee’s Glassdoor review of Crytek from 2014 reads, “For a long period, Crytek stopped paying its employees and just kept saying, ‘Thank you for your loyalty as we move through this difficult time.’ Any company that can’t pay its employees on time is a company you don’t want to work for.”

When Eurogamer interviewed Crytek Co-Founder Cevat Yerli about his company’s financial state in 2014, he explained, “Some people were very impatient and got angry at the smallest delay… we had even shared with people how they should maybe work with different banks at a personal level to prepare. Or, if not, they could make a choice to resign and look for other jobs.”

In many cases, practices like these are instances where a union — or something like it — would have made a difference. So rarely do these offenses ripple past the employees working on specific projects and their families that making the case for unionization or changes in labor seems, inside the industry, as an oddly framed argument that is nobody’s business. It isn’t like, say, issues facing teachers or nurses. Imagine if each individual hospital could contract individual nurses or groups of nurses and run them ragged, make them miserable, and make them not want to do a good job. If that were the case, then we’d have worse patient care. There’s a demonstrable benefit to actually having those unions.

But because videogames are positioned as a “cool” industry with “fun” jobs, it dupes young, impressionable workers coming into the industry into equating exploitation with love and passion for the work. Young workers need protecting, and are the least susceptible to suggestions and calls for systemic change when they’re fresh from college and just amazed they landed any job at all, much less in the industry they’ve fantasized about being part of since childhood.

Adrienne Hunter, a game developer who quit Nintendo and has since changed industries, recalls a time earlier in her career when she was doing quality assurance for a third-party company that frequently does contracts for developer ArenaNet: “You have a room full of QA veterans in love with their game and who were laid off a couple of years ago so QA could be parted out to a third-party contracting agency, I’m assuming to reduce costs, and then the company asks us to do illegal things like work for free on the game after hours. Imagine asking a room full of people who are being paid $11 an hour where you have to stock the staff kitchen with supplies for PB&J sandwiches because half of us can’t afford to feed ourselves, asking us to work for free. The sacrifice was glorified by the floor manager and we were praised for reluctantly submitting to things like last-minute overtime.”

Adam Gascoine, who has worked on writing and designing on games like Call of Duty and Last of Us, remembers being warned about working conditions when he first joined the industry. “‘You know you work long hours here, right?’” Gascoine recalls being asked. “It’s pretty hard. We don’t tell you to work those hours, but people are here a lot.”

Gascoine, who transitioned from working in theater to videogames, remembers responding, “‘Oh yeah, I’m in theater. We’ve pulled all-nighters.’”

He adds: “I had no idea how hard they work in this industry. People were sleeping at their desks all of the time. People had beds under their desk, which just blew my mind.”

Ryan Morrison, an attorney who practices as outside counsel for videogame companies and independent developers says, “There’s a huge need for another group saying, ‘Here are your rights, game developers. Wake the fuck up. Follow this. Know that you have to do this before you own your work, know that you don’t have to give away all your work to sign with a publisher and you’re a fool if you do in most cases.”

But people are, understandably, trepidatious about making inroads.

“I didn’t know whether or not people would be into unionizing,” says Gawker staffer Hamilton Nolan via email, who led the union drive there. “I spoke to an organizer at the WGA and then sent out a Facebook invite to a meeting at the union. In fact there was heavy interest, and dozens of people showed up for that meeting, and then some meetings. It turned out the latent interest was already there, it just needed something to get it going.”

Hamilton says that while contract negotiations are ongoing, it’s too early to say what they’ll achieve, though they are pushing for “a salary structure, a system of annual raises, severance pay, protecting certain benefits, editorial freedom, and diversity in the workplace.”

When asked whether other industries could replicate the process he and his colleagues undertook, he says, simply, “Absolutely.” While he admits there wasn’t “a ton” of pushback from management, he does “think the benefits of unions are more or less the same no matter what the industry is, so when workers grasp that the idea of unionization should sell itself. There are obvious structural barriers that make organizing hard particularly among low wage workers or those with little job security, but I don’t think anything is impossible.”

So what? The game industry is to just upend the IGDA and try to build something cohesive amid the chaos?

“The IGDA seems to be more of a mediation setting,” says Josh Druckerman, an associate at White Harris PLLC focusing on employment in new media, electronic, entertainment, and technology realms. “They do not seem to be the sort of combative, assertive body that a union would be.”

What Druckerman suggests for the game industry is to pay attention to what happens with Gawker.

Druckerman’s colleague, Evan J. White, partner with White Harris PLLC with a background involving labor unions and experience in private practice representing unionized industries, says to pay attention but not take literal notes. “I think it’s useful to an extent… A gaming operation and a movie production are two different things, involving two entirely different work cultures and workforces.”

White adds, “To say that they’re apples to apples would not be accurate; but to look at certain specific criteria saying yes, okay, hypothetically yes, in Hollywood there are multiple collective bargaining agreements in play on the same project, could that be possible in the videogame industry? Possibly. Yes. But I think there are some cultural components that are so distinctly different in the game industry. You’re dealing with people that are almost exclusively very technical and creative versus the dramatic arts, which can be an entirely different business model.”

Druckerman, also, adds, “We have an industry that’s very much got its feet in its roots. But it’s now fully grown up and it has been for a while, but it’s now dealing with some of those growing pains.”

Taking a sober look at how you treat people and whether you want to do better is a mark of maturity. As the industry has grown, it certainly has splintered and spread to many markets that didn’t exist decades ago, like mobile gaming. This is an additional roadblock. Even with the presence of unions in television, it took the workers of reality TV shows many years to get some recognition and representation. Some still do not have it. There is a similar lapse and concentric pattern in games where, as Banks says above, some writers and voice actors in games do belong to pre-existing unions.

But regardless of where videogames spread to, they’re still being made by workers. People.

Videogames are not alone in resisting the lessons of the 19th century: rogue Uber drivers, Airbnb scams, and millions of dollars in charter-schools fraud are reminders regulations exist for a reason.

“The industry is definitely a cartel,” says artist-critic Lana Polansky, who is collaborating with a Montreal thinktank of developers and designers to grow a co-op for people with the least job security in game development. “Part of the problem with unionization, at least where the corporate structure is concerned with major publishers and subsidiary or in-house development studios who are all owned by those publishers is the structure doesn’t really permit a lot of collectivization.”

Perhaps an even more apt characterization of the game industry, as it exists today, is not a cartel but rather a cartel of sweatshops. A cartel exploits a market unfairly. A sweatshop exploits its workers. And granted, the examples cited here are likely not the norm, but there is a pattern, history, and universality of them that suggests it could be addressed if there were enough momentum or pressure.

That lack of pressure comes from a lack of clout being used within the game industry as a rising tide that makes public splashes: If the game industry wants to compare itself to the movie industry, why not consider the example of Robert Downey, Jr.? When approached to make a sequel to The Avengers, he refused to participate unless everyone else on the production got raises.

Actually, comics may be part of the way forward for videogames. David Gallaher, who has authored comics for DC Comics and Marvel, says his industry has all the same problems as the game industry — right down to the toxic audience problems — and also no unions.

“There are no channels for protest or retaliation,” says Gallaher. “If you’re a female freelancer and you get sexually harassed by your editor, what’s the retaliation process? Who’s gonna believe you?”

Nevertheless, Gallaher says, conversations between the two industries don’t happen even just to provide solidarity.

“I mean, I would love to have that conversation,” says Gallaher. “I have friends who do videogames, but I haven’t talked to them about that industry in a while. I always hear the stories because they’ll post them on Facebook saying, ‘Oh, we finished our game. Now everyone’s been laid off. Anybody know anyone looking for a programmer in San Francisco? Willing to move to Oakland!’ And I see that a lot. Probably once in two weeks.”

Fair Page Rates, an anonymous group in the comics industry compiling data to see what the actual page rates are for working cartoonists, says via email:

The question of unions in comics comes up at least annually or semi-annually and is almost as quickly dismissed. We don’t know yet what would work, but the main problem is that what’s also dismissed alongside the idea of unions is any possible organizing that could occur, and that could provide some response to exploitative labor practices. There is a lot of work that has to be done, that continues to be done, before and after a union is formed. A union isn’t formed and then magically all the problems disappear — the motivation to continue to work towards some agreed-upon ends is something that has to be cultivated constantly and appears to be at odds with many of this generation’s workers who consider themselves self-starters and independent artists — artists that have not had enough experience to learn that their work is labor nonetheless, and subject to the same patterns of abuse that are present in other industries. Ultimately, we have to first agree that something must be done, that something can be done, and that small steps towards getting it done are not pie-in-the-sky thinking but practical and necessary changes, no matter how small and incremental.

Whether comics and videogames could actually meaningfully band together is unclear. “From a practical union organizing standpoint, it would be difficult to create a ‘bargaining unit’ with the ‘commonality of interest’ that is required if it’s made up of game coders and comic creators — a penciller, an inker, a colorist, and a letterer,” 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. “That’s a major procedural stumbling block from a labor law standpoint. But, if one industry or workplace is successfully organized, it could serve as a model for the others to organize their workplace.”

“The short answer is, yes, the game industry would benefit greatly from unionization,” says Jake Barnes, a researcher at Cornell University’s Worker Institute. “It’s no secret within the community that videogame developers are subject to a number of abuses on the job… It takes myriad skillsets that require varied types and amounts of experience to make a game. This coupled with the high turnover in the industry leads me to believe that organizing by craft would make much more sense than by company; it would be unlikely that any company-specific effort would get off of the floor.”

The system is badly broken. People who rise to defend the current working conditions are either exempt from them themselves, romanticize or glorify struggle, or lack empathy. Ironically, a medium often thought of as being only violent can’t seek vengeance.

“The only way to confront this kind of problem is to give up caring about fitting in and care more about standing out,” says Margaret Heffernan, an author of business-analysis books like Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril. “Is that a risk? Yeah, of course it is. But actually, doing the same as everybody else is a risk, too. If you really don’t like what you see, you better fix it. This is your job. You can complain about it or you can change it.”

You only live once, and have to live with whatever you did or didn’t do either way.

Nobody is going to come and rescue a hurting labor group. Life is not a videogame.

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.