Commentary Corner - The Human Cost of Gaming

Commentary Corner - The Human Cost of Gaming

One of the things I often grapple with is that our society and our world is built on the backs of those less fortunate than ourselves. Those who are exploited, enslaved and otherwise mistreated for the benefit of those who are fortunate enough to live in the first world. It is one of humanity's dark truths, and it's never comfortable to think about.

But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be thought about at all. Today's topic is but a minor slice of that pie.

With the news coming out in recent weeks about a number of video game studios, including Rockstar, Ubisoft and Blizzard, and the horrid tales of their abuses, it's important to understand that we're not talking about Pong in 1972. Video gaming has grown and matured in that fifty year stretch - and in that time has become big business, attracting significant talent - but also unscrupulous corporate behaviours.

It's also important to understand that the business of gaming is not unique. The skills required for management of a video game publisher (or developer) and its staff can come from anywhere. And when they leave, they can go pretty much anywhere. Peter Moore, former Electronic Arts CEO, ended up as an executive at Liverpool Football Club. Take Two interactive's CEO, Strauss Zelnick, doesn't even play video games. Don't fool yourself about video game companies being a unique part of our world. The products might be, but the people aren't.

As video games and interactive entertainment is produced by a corporate entity, in comes public trading. Then comes need to make money and to grow, however unreasonably. As the pressure for growth increases, revenue targets get higher. Pressure from shareholders increases. The 'need' to keep your executives well paid to retain their services (however false that perception may be). It becomes a vicious cycle, perpetuated by the ever-increasing thirst for cash - your cash, my cash, whatever. Which leads us to a situation where the minority group of executives at the top make wild money and everyone below gets over-worked and underpaid. If you ever wondered why big 'triple-a' published games need microtransactions, season passes, gambling mechanics and a $60 asking price - well, congratulations. You just cracked the code.

It's also why amoral companies like Electronic Arts are prepared to testify in front of government organisations that they don't believe loot boxes are gambling:

But that's not the whole story. I could forgive corporate greed, maybe even buy one of these atrocious games if it meant that the staff who work for these organisations were treated reasonably and compensated appropriately for their time. If they weren't treated like cattle to be pushed through a slaughterhouse. But they're not. Instead the executives, who proportionally do the least work, are free to turn video game production into a death march.

For money, of course. What else?

Activision-Blizzard's CEO, Bobby Kotick, made forty million dollars last year in base salary. He's on the list of the most overpaid CEOs. Across the triple-A publisher space, you'll see similar figures. But Blizzard staff? Well if they're not laid off to make the company look good for the end of financial year statement, they're skipping meals to pay rent. Most have had their passion for video games and gaming abused in order to make the share price grow. And whilst more apathetic members of the audience would be prepared to accept this, we as a society should not. Then there are those who are prepared to give Activision-Blizzard (or similar organisations) a free pass, because the company makes video games they like. But wilful ignorance is worse. We should all rail at the injustices perpetrated against our fellow man in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

But it's not just undercompensation for industry staff. It's also industry standard to be worked to death. During the development of Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar proudly boasted of staff working one hundred hour weeks. Concepts like 'crunch', a standard industry term which basically means "working overtime to make ends meet", represent the worst of video gaming - but it's also shockingly normalised (some companies even consider crunch to have magical properties). There are very few permanent staff in the lower rungs of video game companies, by design. There are confirmed reports of certain roles - quality assurance testers, customer service representatives, even junior programmers and artists being sacked if they so much as take a sick day. Are you tired? Are you about to come apart at the seams? Doesn't matter. Strap yourself to that millstone, or join the unemployment line.

Welcome to modern wage slavery, folks - it's in your video games. It's also under-reported and way more common than you think.

But the rewards for these incredibly resilient individuals, who have survived 100-hour plus working weeks for months on end, are slim. Some particularly disgusting developers and publishers even have standardised industry terms for keeping track of staff burnout and mental breakdowns. What is the prize for surviving all that suffering to make a product filled with gambling mechanics, microtransactions and DLC in order to make a stock price go up? Well in most cases, your reward is to be sacked. It's a literal human meat grinder.

This story is not unique. They're all like this. Customers don't matter, employees don't matter. Shareholders and executives are what matter. The game industry wouldn't piss on you if you were on fire.

And all the above is if you're lucky. If your executives are just avaricious and aren't, say, actually literally evil.

In recent weeks, Ubisoft's executives - of course the executives, because no-one else is there long enough to develop such a reputation - have allegedly participated in physical abuse and sexual harrassment, then covered it up for years. As if it wasn't enough to treat your workforce like slaves. And yet most of these individuals, such as Ubisoft's Serge Hascoet and Rockstar's Jeronimo Barrera, will be permitted to resign and fade into the sunset. They'll attach themselves to the underbelly of another organisation like a limpet and the cycle will begin anew.

But it's not just Ubisoft. As mentioned above, Jeronmio Barrera of Rockstar, also allegedly participated in abuses, egged on by other executives in the environment. These incidents are never isolated - and no doubt there will be more stories as more corporations fail to cover up their dirty laundry. Even in their responses, these companies are never truly repentant - they're just mad they got caught. Or in some cases, they just don't give a damn. Ubisoft's Yves Guillemot pled ignorance - which is either dangerously incompetent for the CEO of a multinational publicly taded company, or an outright lie, as Serge was allegedly an old family friend of Yves - which is as transparent as it is weak.

This is not an acceptable state of play. And I am certain we are only scratching the surface of the horrendous abuses carried out by the games industry. There will be more. I'm not going to boycott particular organisations, or declare that I am holier than thou - I have bought Ubisoft games in the past and may again. But I would suggest that you consider the human cost of your video games. Consider who was burned out and destroyed to make that product. Keep the bastards honest. Don't give developers and publishers a millimetre. They don't deserve your loyalty - not when they'd slit your throat for a dollar.

For each review I publish from now on, I will make note of the human cost of production. We should not turn a blind eye to the abuses of the game industry or its executives. We should never give developers and publishers a free pass, no matter the quality of their product. And we should certainly never forget what these non-essential things have cost our fellow man - in sweat, tears and in some small cases, blood.

Catch you next time,
Vulkan

I would normally reserve the bottom of an article like this with a plug for my facebook page and a request to keep the conversation going there. But that feels in poor taste here.

Video game industry lives matter.

Rowan Naveau

About Rowan Naveau

I'm Rowan (Vulkan) - and this is my blog. Here you'll find a stream of consciousness about video games, wargaming and just about everything else.