Electron Dance
8Nov/188

Tears for John Marston

On the suggestion of Andy Durdin, I'm reposting this essay from last week's newsletter onto the site. We've already had a little chat about it on the newsletter discussion page.

Did Rockstar impose 100-hour weeks on its employees or not? I don’t know, especially since Rockstar told its staff to fill the airwaves with happy stories of their Utopian Workscape. On their own time, I assume. I'm pretty sure they won't have enough free time to read Jason Schreier’s 10,000-word Kotaku investigation which alleges Rockstar employees were certainly put through serious crunch.

But whether Rockstar whips employees into 100-hour weeks or not is besides the point. We already know long hours are endemic to the AAA industry. Crunch and burnout are staples of a career in big box games. We’ve been told the tales about Telltale, EA, Team Bondi... but has any of this naming and shaming made any difference? My dismissal of the latest AAA death march team story might be mistaken for apathy. It is not.

This is not the first time I’ve written about crunch; the August 2017 newsletter was on the distinction between corporate crunch and private crunch. Private crunch can still be toxic, of course. For example, go read about Matt Gilgenbach’s heart-breaking four-year struggle to make rhythm shooter Retro/Grade - which turned out to be a commercial flop. Or the merciless drive to make Brigador.

Although we recognise these two types of crunch, corporations have long engaged in a stealth war to smudge that slash in “work/life balance”. Those hours were my choice, spoke a generation of Stockholm Syndrome worker bees, I did it because I love my work. I did it for love.

Penny Arcade wrote an infamous job posting for a “Web / Software Developer & Sys Admin” in 2013 which said the candidate should not mind “having a really bad sense of work-life balance”. Well, at least they were honest. There was the usual internet backlash - everything has a backlash, even my cat, and I don’t even have a cat - and then the outgoing incumbent defended PA in a long forum post. This paragraph has always stuck in my mind:

There is this notion that work/life balance is some kind of sacred goal. I’m sorry, but it’s ludicrous. That’s like saying everyone would be fulfilled by getting married and having 2.5 kids. If you want to work 40 hours and never think about your job after 5pm, great! Find something that does that for you. If you want to work 80 or more hours at something you truly enjoy, in fact you don’t want to stop working ever because you love it so much, shouldn’t that be okay too? Shouldn’t we be so lucky as to have a job that we are so invested in?

I’ve always found software developers on the whole to be a more libertarian bunch, the idea of going it alone, being independent and making it yourself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with going independent - Electron Dance spends a great deal of its time raising awareness for tiny studios doing their own thing. But there is less interest in making corporations offer better work conditions because, you know, you’ll be your own king of the castle one day, a benevolent king who won’t need any silly regulations getting in the way of all that natural benevolence. I’ve worked in IT for twenty years. No one has ever seriously talked about unionisation or better regulation. Little side projects, becoming a contractor, starting a business, the one great idea that will go viral: yes. The right to go home on time: not so much.

You couldn’t plan this cultural feedback loop any better if you tried. Developers want to go it alone, but employers extract their pound of brain flesh through long working hours. Hey, make sure we can contact you when you’re at home. Hey, here’s how to remotely login to support on a weekend. It leaves many helpless to get something off the ground. Always tired. Maybe next month you’ll start that brilliant project. And eventually the dark shadow of burnout comes for us all.

Here’s the problem with the “not everyone wants 9-to-5 and kids” angle. All it takes is a significant minority working unhealthy hours; these people are like patient zero and soon the infection spreads. I have direct experience of this: I worked in a team where several were working into The Late Hours every day and, surprise, if you went home at a more reasonable hour and didn't get your milestone done... well, it wasn’t the manager who got it in the neck for mismanaging milestones. We were all working long hours in the end. Try saying “I’m sorry, but it’s ludicrous” to your manager who says the job gotta get done yesterday. It’s no choice, bro.

The curious religion that long hours are a choice undermines those who argue it isn’t. With these fifty-hour work weeks, Rockstar, you are really spoiling us. The story about Rockstar itself isn’t important, but as part of a larger canvas it is. Perhaps if we keep talking about long hours being a problem, eventually the charge will stick.

What are players to do? From Kotaku's piece:

Some fans have asked if they should avoid buying or playing Red Dead Redemption 2 to show support for those who had tough experiences making it, but many of Rockstar’s current and former employees—even those who had the worst things to say about the company—say they’re against the idea. For one, those who put long weeks into the game want people to see what they’ve done. Also, given that this year’s bonuses will be based on royalties, any sort of large-scale boycott may hurt Rockstar employees more than it helps, some current employees have said. What fans can instead do, those people say, is speak out about crunch and workplace issues like this, helping put public pressure on the company.

It’s good to offer moral support to developers but note that companies pay attention to the sound of wallets opening and closing and little else. I cannot imagine a company would do anything if concerned players were to, say, write a really rather scathing letter campaign instead of dropping their support for Rockstar games.

Despite these stories, blockbuster games still fly off the shelves like turbo-charged hot cakes because, frankly, the worst crime a game can commit is being crap. Crunch rarely features on a player’s list of gives-a-shits. And there’s an insidious suspicion that games are only “this good” because of people working themselves to the bone. I was surprised that Kotaku poisoned the final goddamn paragraph of their investigation with this suggestion, as if perhaps there was nothing to be done. If you can't get Red Dead Redemption II without breaking a few eggheads then maybe you shouldn’t rock the boat, kids?

Undeniably, there are working conditions around the world that are more concerning. Harvey Weinstein’s antics were not captured on celluloid, so the audience could ignore the rot behind the scenes. There’s no blood on that shiny new iGadget revealing all those suicides in the Chinese Foxconn industrial zone. I could go on for pages about the exploitation of workers. It is a struggle everywhere.

The point is I just don't see players - regardless of how many 10,000-word epics Kotaku print - as the saviours of developers. Some players have cried upon realising John Marston would never see his family again but I don’t think anyone shed a tear about the plight of the real humans and their families behind those same pixels.

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  1. There’s a reason socialists argue that the working class – not the nonexistent class of “consumers” – is the engine of change. For things to change in tech, it is tech workers themselves who have to organize.

    But to do that, a *lot* of issues have to be overcome, including a lot of ideological baggage, by which I don’t mean only that libertarian streak, but also that weird liberal tendency which treats games as somehow “special” (whether in a good way or a bad way doesn’t really matter). It would require seeing the production and selling of games as, well, something ordinary that happens within the confines of the capitalist system.

  2. Hi Jonas. I think the way this issue of bad working conditions is usually “dealt” with by a strictly capitalist outlook is that if you don’t like it, get another job. It’s a default response in these kind of conversations. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way in practice because the leverage of an employer over an employee can be quite substantial: reputation in industry, supply of fresh brains is higher than demand, those fresh brains are often are often willing to go that extra mile and undermine any solidarity, changing job can mean a change in life circumstances and let’s not go down to the terrible road of medical insurance in the US which makes things vastly more dangerous.

    I can’t speak to the idea of games being perceived as special. A lot of the recent banter has come across like games uniquely has this problem of long hours when it is not unique at all. It has to be talked about within the context of “this be a videogame site, so we’re taking videogame problems” but people in tech have been working stupid hours for a long time. Go back to the Mythical Man Month and the pressure has been present since dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Technology projects, by definition, are something never been created before, which means there will be unforeseen problems. The art in the videogame equation makes things worse because when you put it all together it may only be then you realise it doesn’t work.

    But it is true that some game developers do act like abused lovers. They do it for love even though they get their faces pounded to a pulp every day.

  3. That’s what I mean by “special” – looking at the games industry outside of context and perceiving it through a highly ideological lens, in which games are either uniquely bad (“The Games Industry Has A Problem”) or uniquely good (“anybody who tells you there’s an indiepocalypse is a nasty libertarian, go ahead and make games!”), whereas in economic terms, well, it’s just a job. And conditions in jobs get better when people organize. Which is quite difficult, especially in tech – but would get easier if it was done *in context*, i.e. as part of organizing workers in general, because that gives you solidarity, common resources, common strategies. But everyone treats the production of games as something that happens in a vacuum, even most of the people who are opposed to crunch.

  4. Stop making me feel bad for not making more progress with the book, Jonas. Bad Jonas. But I’m caught between a rock and a hard place with the indiepocalypse stuff, because it’s simultaneously “not news” and “quite bad”. As Ch.2 of the book lays out, indiepocalypse-type stuff is COMPLETELY EXPECTED in your digital marketplace, you cannot avoid it without going down the cartel route (impossible) or platforms enforcing control of prices or presence (gatekeeping). It’s nothing to do with evil, it’s the goddamn system, right? But at the same time, accepting that truth that does not nullify the harm it does to indies who have been making money on the scene for a decade.

    What kind of goals could you see for collective action from indie developers? The surface problems faced by AAA employees and go-it-alone developers are different, although have the same root.

  5. It’s tricky, because our work is particularly easy to outsource. And while I’m glad people are interested in organizing, the truth is that today’s unions are generally terrible and largely exist to suppress rather than support labour, so I’m very suspicious of those who see unions in this incredibly positive light.

    I don’t think that games-only collective action would be that easy to accomplish. To cause lasting change, tech workers would have to be part of a wider labour movement. That would give them real leverage. But it’s not like they have *no* leverage. A strike at the right moment could be quite powerful. Companies need that software to be finished and workers do have the option to say NO, you can’t have that until you agree to proper working conditions.

    It would be possible, I think, to start organizing, even in tech/games, with a wider movement in mind. But without that, in the current political context, the concessions that could be won would not be that significant.

    This all mainly applies to AAA/employees, mind you. Indies… well, in an important sense, indies are not working-class. They own, to a degree, their means of production (if not distribution). That puts them in a precarious position – when you don’t have a boss, there’s no-one to go on strike against. So apart from supporting others, being part of the general struggle, I’m not sure how much indies *can* actually do.

    That’s why it strikes me as funny that so many people used to present going indie as some kind of anti-capitalist thing. It’s not. It’s about as capitalist as it gets.

  6. Well, I don’t think I have anything to add to that.

  7. “in an important sense, indies are not working-class”

    I have no idea if this is true of the game industry, but in many other industries the smaller employers can be the worst at employee relations and maintaining reasonable conditions. At least in countries like Australia with at least some useful union presence – more than in the UK or US anyway.

  8. Kfix – I’ve definitely heard of shady indies not paying off their freelancers. And I’ve also read articles which advise you on depressing rates as hard as possible.


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