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What will be left of the people who make our games?

Our games are getting bigger, but the cost is way too high

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Buried deep in Harold Goldberg’s wide-ranging feature for Vulture about the making of Red Dead Redemption 2 is a reminder of why one of Rockstar’s founders, Dan Houser, rarely gives interviews: his stunning admission that “we were working 100-hour weeks” at multiple points in 2018.

In a report peppered with numerical superlatives (1,200 actors; 300,000 animations; 500,000 lines of dialogue; 2,000 pages of script; a budget in the millions), it’s that hundred-hour statistic that shocks the senses the hardest, and it raises a troubling question: If this is what’s required to make vast open-world games, then are those games worth it?

Sixty-hour workweeks are the mainstay of gaming’s crunch culture, which is destructive enough, but the idea of a hundred-hour week causes one’s eyes to water. Spread out over that week, that equates to seven 14-hour days, with no weekend break. There are only 168 hours in a week, after all.

It’s not at all hard to see why more and more game developers are calling to unionize the industry. It would hardly be without precedent. Those 1,200 actors that Rockstar employed? All are said to belong to the SAG-AFTRA trade union — a point highlighted in the Vulture piece. SAG-AFTRA contracts ensure fair working conditions for both voice actors and motion-capture actors, limiting the number of consecutive hours they can work and guaranteeing a fair wage for those hours. Rockstar’s bottom line somehow weathered that; why not allow the developers writing the code and designing the game to receive the same guarantees?

But we must also address the vise that’s pressing devs from both ends here: Our demands as players and the demands of studio heads alike are sated by the emotional labor of these professionals.

That, in the end, is what fills the void left by material want. In short, the knowledge that you’re, as Houser put it, “on a mission to entertain” is meant to be its own reward, offsetting the hours away from one’s family, the uncompensated overtime and, of course, the emotional performance of the perfectly compliant employee who loves every “customer” equally.

You’re making people happy, doing a dream job, bringing digital fantasies to life. And even when you’re not physically at the office for 60 or 100 hours a week, you’re there psychologically. Recent firings at ArenaNet and Riot Games make it abundantly clear that the studio owns your personality after hours on social media as well. Every developer is also expected to work as unpaid PR, providing a smiling, pliable face for the company in every interaction with the public.

How, exactly, did we get here?

When all work becomes PR

“Emotional labor” is, as so many concepts bandied about by activists on social media, a term that can be overused to the point of meaninglessness. Its origins in the sociology of labor have been all but forgotten.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, a groundbreaking sociologist who studied gender and labor, coined the concept of emotional labor in her 1983 study The Managed Heart, a work that never quite receives the credit it deserves for radically altering our understanding of what “work” entails. At the heart of the book is a study of flight attendants that reveals how they affect a certain personality to please customers, one entirely at odds with their true feelings.

It was the result of years of advertising that used the flight attendants themselves as a product — from the “Pan-Am smile” to National Airlines’ “Fly Me” ads, there was an unsubtle implication of compliance and servitude imbued in every part of the profession. Flight attendants were meant to be sexy maternal figures, who would smilingly wait on you hand and foot.

At your service!
Aviation Explorer

This shifted the very nature of “the product,” that essential unit in capitalism. In aviation, it was no longer the journey and the seat in which you took it, but also the personality of the flight attendants themselves. The consequences of this change remain with us to this day, even after decades of unionization and reforms.

Hochschild’s basic insight — that customer service jobs sell “service with a smile” — may seem obvious today, but it was quite radical in 1983. The other insight of her ethnographic work is less well-known but considerably more chilling: People become alienated from their own personalities the longer they perform this kind of work. In short, they lose some sense of their true selves as they lurch from one performance to another. The line between true self and the Pan-Am smile personality became blurry, at best.

Hochschild’s definition of emotional labor, then, was fairly strict and applied only to those cases where it was part of one’s job, exchanged under capitalist conditions. Per Wikipedia’s summary, such jobs:

  1. require face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact with the public;
  2. require the worker to produce an emotional state in another person;
  3. allow the employer, through training and supervision, to exercise a degree of control over the emotional activities of employees.

Three decades later, the trend Hochschild identified in its embryonic stages has entered a refined middle age, dominating every part of our economy. Personalities are commodities, and in gaming, it’s no different. Indeed, gaming was arguably built on the idea that the people who make our games should be thrilled at the opportunity to do so. Developers are artists who have the rarest of chances: the opportunity to do what you love for a living.

And yet devs are often told that there are a hundred people eager to take their place if they step out of line; a hundred people who love gaming with all their hearts, who would gladly take the job and eagerly work those 100 hours a week. If you complain, you clearly don’t love it enough.

What is this if not emotional labor? The performance of not only love, but love defined in a narrow, abusive way, specifically for public consumption?

Beyond that, developers are increasingly expected to conform to a certain personality type, both in and out of the office.

Riot Games has come under sustained fire recently, after searing investigative reports by Kotaku’s Cecilia d’Anastasio revealed a culture of sexism at the company. “Rioters,” those who worked at the company, were expected to conform to the narrow archetype of a “core gamer.” This was defined not only by competency in and passion for video games, but by a certain coarse personality that delights in abusive “humor.”

If one is coarse beyond those bounds, however — in speaking out against sexism, for instance — then one has offended the almighty customer and must be removed. Your personality is hewn into the shape of the lowest common denominator, supplicant to a toxic culture at both the office and online. Developers are expected to work unlimited hours at the office, and serve the customer with a smile and a servile attitude during every possible interaction. In this way, Hochschild’s typology is exceeded: You must perform for both the public and your fellow employees, in a way that alienates you from your true self.

The people who make your games, no matter how they’re treated at the office or on social media, are expected to act with the poise of flight attendants. As Hochschild defines it, such labor “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.”

The player is king, and you are there to serve

The bigger the product, the more that is asked of employees, and the deeper that common denominator sinks. Both ArenaNet and Riot, which create and curate vast online worlds, unambiguously allowed the worst of their communities to dictate staffing decisions. Rockstar’s Houser attempted to use crunch as a sort of implicit come-on to the player: Look at how willing my people are to kill themselves for your pleasure!

“Across the whole company, we have some senior people who work very hard purely because they’re passionate about a project, or their particular work, and we believe that passion shows in the games we release,” Houser said in a statement, trying to clarify his comments. “But that additional effort is a choice, and we don’t ask or expect anyone to work anything like this. Lots of other senior people work in an entirely different way and are just as productive — I’m just not one of them! No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard.”

In trying to walk back his comments, Houser can’t help but justify the practice by recourse to that oldest of all-purpose justifications for toxicity in the gaming industry — passion. There’s also an implicit threat: The people at the head of the company are willing to work hard for the customer; are you? Emotional labor is reinforced even when the industry tries to protect itself from claims of abusive practices. How can you be abused if you’re “passionate,” after all?

The demand for the emotional labor of employees, combined with a lack of union protection, leads to this culture of disposability. Whether it’s one person picked off at a time to win a moment’s reprieve from braying forums of entitled fans, or entire studios being shut down, the churn of developers in this industry is a truly nauseating thing to behold.

And the emotional demands are always made clear. Mass Effect: Andromeda’s goofy animations demanded a blood sacrifice, which the angriest of gamers found in a blameless woman and another developer whose only crime was being an outspoken man of color. They weren’t making players happy enough; therefore, they had to be destroyed.

Or take Telltale’s promise of an appropriately zombie-like Walking Dead title that, despite the studio closure and the desolation of hundreds of developers — all left without health benefits — would somehow be finished. The fans demand it, after all.

The form of failure

In the resonant words of former International Game Developers Association chair Kate Edwards, “Crunch is a form of failure.” But despite being widely quoted, the implications of her words are rarely seen through to their logical conclusion. It is, first and foremost, a moral claim. Even if your game is made and it sells well, if it required crunch (and, frankly, other abusive practices) to be developed, perhaps it shouldn’t exist.

Crunch exists, however, because the industry is ultimately fueled by emotional labor — the demand that one always be the kind of person willing to endure all of this with a smile, whether it’s having one’s scrotum tapped at Riot in the name of “bonding” or smilingly submitting to players who treat you like their personal servants.

That mentality is what creates someone willing to work for 60 hours a week or more, to work nights, holidays and weekends — and even if they may not clock those hours at the office, it produces the kind of person who may, functionally, be representing or promoting a product for their company, even during their nominal downtime on social media.

“Emotional labor” is, to pull it back into its proper definitional moorings, a form of work under conditions of capitalism, where one trades a product of one’s self in exchange for wages. In older, Marxist understandings of such relations, the product was physical: You were alienated from the widget you made in exchange for money.

Now, you’re alienated from a part of yourself. Gaming is hardly at the front lines of this reality — the next time you’re at McDonald’s or Starbucks, it may be worth evaluating what, precisely, you expect of the staff — but it is powered by the ongoing demand for emotional labor from developers.

There’s little reason to doubt that this sorry state of affairs will continue. We’ll get our games, and they’ll be ever larger, ever more numerous and ever more realistic. Those impressive stats will keep inflating, redefining what counts as impressive every year, to the point where yesterday’s blockbuster sales are tomorrow’s disappointing first week numbers. We’ll get bigger, better and faster; we’ll get the mythical open-world game to end all games.

But will there be anything left of the people who made it?

Update: We’ve clarified the language regarding the use of SAG-AFTRA actors in Red Dead Redemption 2 above. The “Fly Me” ads were released by National Airlines, not United. We regret the error in the original article.