How a protest game tangled with powerful interests.
They hadn't actually played the game. The union reps, the line managers, the HR goons. It didn't matter. They sat him down and fired him anyway, for creating a game that none of them bothered to play. For David S. Gallant, this is the single most egregious factor in his unhappy journey from the land of employment and stability to the rough country of uncertainty. In retrospect, a month after the event, he understands that writing a game about his crappy job as a call center "meat popsicle" might not have made him friends in high places at the Canadian Revenue Agency. He knows now that talking incautiously to the Toronto Star about why he made I Get This Call Every Day was an act of naiveté.
Looking back, he can regard the grinding political machine that generated an angry comment from the Canadian Minister of National Revenue, no less, and he can appreciate the inevitability of his own termination.
He knows that if he'd instead posted a song or a poem or a comedy routine on YouTube, the bosses would have watched that, and might have understood what he was trying to say to them. If he'd created something that told the same story through a more traditional form than a game, he'd probably still be in a job.
But he still wishes they'd at least taken the time to play his game.
A game that's not much fun
I Get This Call Every Day is a short and very, very simple point-and click adventure with not much pointing, minimal clicking and zero adventuring. You might argue that it's barely a game at all.
The player, a call center operator, answers a telephone and tries to help a member of the public change his home address on the computerized system. This is a call we've all had to make at some point. Most of us have never experienced being on the other end of the phone, the inanely polite clackety-clickety person who frustrates our desires to just get this tiresome chore done and over with.
What unfolds in the game is a dull conversation in which the player seeks to establish the caller's credentials through various legal criteria — government identity number, previous addresses, bank statements — the dreary inventory of real life.
Drama, of a sort, is established because the caller is not very bright. He lacks the necessary documents that will enable him to pass through the security questions. He is, in short, kind of a dumbass.
Playing the game through takes a few minutes. Replaying so as to explore other possible endings takes a few more minutes. I Get This Call Every Day uses a crude art style, minimal mechanics and homemade voice acting. It costs $2.
Also, it's wonderful, a clever piece that offers real insight into what it's like to work in a call center. It's a protest against the misery of dehumanization in modern workplaces, in which a human being is expected to be a not-human being; where common sense is confounded by brutal bureaucracy and normal conversations between real people are replaced by robotic binary interactions.
The player "wins" by persuading the caller of the necessity of offering up some proof of being who he says he is. The inference is that governments pass laws that are designed to protect individuals from malicious criminals and that these laws pass on certain obligations of self-identification to the individual.
The player loses by sassing the caller, or by waving his moronic responses to security questions through the system. The player must remain firmly polite while fulfilling legal obligations.
At every turn, the option you really wish to take is the one that gets you fired. Like reality, it's a game that seems to offer many options while really offering very few.
In the room of doom
Gallant released the game at the end of last year. To his surprise, his email campaign to grab a little publicity paid off: a few stories appeared on game sites like Kotaku. A reporter at the big local newspaper, the Toronto Star, heard of the game and called him for an interview. Unexpectedly, a big story appeared on the front page of the newspaper.
In the game, Gallant does not mention the CRA as his employer. But the newspaper article did. That's when he knew he was in trouble.
When he got into work on the day the story ran, his union reps came by his desk and advised him to stay off the phones. It was clear that he was going to be carpeted. He waited. "I was a bit of a wreck," he says. "Pretty distracted. I had a hard time focusing."
The time came for the confrontation: "I had two union reps with me. I walked into the meeting. We had the director and the assistant director. Then there was the building manager and someone from staffing. When someone from staffing is involved, that's when you know that things may be bad for you."
As a government employee, Gallant has signed certain confidentiality agreements. "I've been told that I can't talk about the details of the meeting. I'm not entirely sure why that is. The meeting was pretty much just them gathering information about what exactly it was that I'd done; whether I was aware of the rules that I had broken.
"They asked me, did I own davidsgallant.com? Yeah, that's my website. I run it. I have full control over what's posted over there. Then they started asking me about things posted on there that could be of a negative consequence. It took me a while to realize that they were asking about review quotes from people who had reviewed the game that were saying things like, 'I will never get a job in a soul-sucking call center.'
"That's a negative comment about call centers. I work in a call center. Therefore because I've posted that quote, someone else's words, I'm potentially in violation of rules.
"At one point I was asked to explain why the job was soul-sucking and why I was feeling like less of a human being. It's a little odd to try and explain that to someone who genuinely seems to not understand what is bad about working in a call center."
This part of the meeting lasted for about 30 minutes. Then the bosses asked if they could spend some time playing the game. Gallant found this encouraging.
"This is an ugly game"
Last September, Gallant attended a game jam. A conversation struck up about making a "not-game" and he used his own tedious job as an example of something that might work.
"I decided to make the art first. I'm a terrible artist," he says. "I had this hand-me-down drawing tablet. I sat down in a program called Gimp. Everything was essentially hand-drawn. Because I have such terrible lines, everything came out weird and twisted. For some reason I got this weird jaggy effect, so even the lines feel like the pixels are all over the place.
"I looked at it and I thought, 'Yeah. This is crap, this looks ugly. But I don't like my workplace. It makes me feel ugly. This now looks how my workplace makes me feel. Maybe this is a good starting point.'
"Then I started working on the script. That I got done mostly on my commutes to work, ironically enough. I used Twine. It's an interactive fiction tool. That was a good prototyping tool. You can visualize how conversations link together and where things branch.
"Finally, when I had everything together, I began the audio. That was a lot of work. My microphone is a Rock Band mic with a homemade pop filter made from pantyhose and a coat hanger.
"I'd say a bunch of lines for the agent and then I'd say a bunch of lines for the caller. I pitched my voice up two notes so that the caller sounded more nasally and young.
"I asked for some outside advice. A lot of it was about making it more of a game, but the more I made it a game, the less it was coming back to the whole point of it all. I Get This Call Every Day has a message. It's trying to tell you something. Adding more callers or allowing you to jump into different points of the conversation kind of takes away from that."
He did not like his job, but he needed it to pay his bills, he needed it so he could continue his passion for making games in his spare time. He did not want to get fired.
If these guys played the game, they would surely see that it was not really about the CRA, made no mention of his employer, did not violate anyone's privacy, did not mock the public. It's just a commentary on call center work, which everyone understands is a boring job.
"The decision was made to fire me and no one played the game"
He eagerly gave them a free link to download and play the game. He left the room. They kept him waiting outside the office, with the union reps who agreed that some action would be taken, possibly a written warning or a temporary suspension.
An hour and a half later, they walked him back in.
"They started reading me a letter they had prepared. It's a very long, two-page thing. Basically you have to turn it over to the second page. It's like that moment in a reality TV show when they're about to say who gets kicked off, and then they cut to commercial. The tension is there, but they turn over the page and of course the first line is, 'Termination of your employment as of blah blah blah.' It shocked me. I didn't expect that."
He returned home, told his wife what had happened. "They never got a chance to actually play it. That I found to be the most interesting thing. The decision was made and no one played the game in that process."
He adds, "The way they explained it to me was that it was a technical limitation that they didn't know how to get around. But if you're dealing with someone who made a video game, at least have someone who knows how to go to a URL and unzip a file.
"There were certain elements that I have to agree with. There are rules I agreed to when I took the job and those are rules that I broke with knowledge that I was breaking them. I didn't think that was termination-worthy. When I hear that they actually never experienced the game, it just makes me feel like they jumped to a conclusion and didn't take the time to fully understand what was going on."
How games sex up stories
For as long as there has been work, people have been protesting about their working lives through songs, stories, jokes. It seems probable that Gallant lost his job because the media took note of his work, and they took note of his work specifically because it's a video game.
If he had been seen in a comedy club riffing on life in a call center (without mentioning his employer), his act would not have made the front page of the Toronto Star. The Minister of Revenue would not have issued a statement saying she found Gallant to have behaved in a way that is "offensive and completely unacceptable." He would not have been marched into that office and fired.
Those things happened because the people who fired him, the Minister who castigated him, did not really understand what he had created. A comedy routine, a song, they could have processed. The fact that they did not play the game, that they found a way to fire him that did not require that they play the game, tells its own story.
It is unthinkable that they would have failed to experience any other protest form — a YouTube video of a song, say — before coming to their decision.
(Polygon reached out to the CRA for comment. Our call was not returned.)
He was not fired because he wrote a game about working in a call center. He was fired because a story about the misery of working in a call center, and dealing with members of the public, appeared on the front page of the Toronto Star.
As a piece of protest by a call center worker, the game achieved something a comedy routine, a blog post or a song could not have done. Its message reached a very large number of people. But somewhere along the way, the message was corrupted.
"I think maybe the fact that it's a game sexes it up for the media," Gallant says. "It's hip and trendy for all the kids and their interwebs. Maybe if I was a beat poet at a jazz club rocking it out for 10 or 15 people [snaps fingers], maybe it wouldn't have made the front page of the Toronto Star. In fact, maybe it wouldn't have been an issue at all.
"The argument's been made that if I had expressed it in any other medium, maybe they wouldn't have reacted so badly, and that's certainly a possibility."
Dealing with the press
In the past, most games that reached mass-media attention were created by large corporations, all of which have a deep understanding of dealing with reporters.
PR professionals are trained to minimize damage from controversies, and to teach their creative people not to say anything harmful.
Games like I Get This Call Every Day are made by individuals who have no experience with the media.
Gallant's story was picked up by a variety of media outlets, including television news stations, an experience he felt unprepared to handle. "I've never dealt with the traditional media," he says. "I don't know what that's like. I don't know how they have a tendency to spin a story towards something that's a bit more inflammatory.
"The story characterized the game as an angry rant against taxpayers, and there were people who responded to me and to the game as if that's exactly what I was doing.
"Some people felt I was right to lose my job because I was insulting people. But the game isn't there to insult people. It isn't calling any particular group of people stupid. That really disappointed me. It mischaracterized what the game was. I felt that was very unfair. It probably had a large hand in why CRA reacted the way that they did."
In reality, the Toronto Star used the fact of the computer game to run a piece that talked about how an employee of the CRA, and by extension the CRA itself, was mocking the public. It was headlined, "Tax department employee creates online game to vent his frustration with taxpayers."
This being tax season and readers being who they are, this was the angle that the journalist, Valerie Hauch, thought to be best. Her first sentence in the original story was, "The frustration and, yes, loathing many people feel for the taxman may be mutual." (That line was subsequently removed in online editions.)
She also thought it best to reveal in her story that Gallant worked for the CRA, something he had not revealed in his game, nor spoken of in his interview with her.
"If I had expressed it in any other medium, maybe they wouldn't have reacted so badly."
He accepts that this information was something that he knew that she had divined, and that he ought to have asked her to keep this information out of the story. But then it would not have been a story about the taxman.
Polygon requested comment from Hauch and received an emailed statement. "I was always straightforward with Mr. Gallant about all my questions and the possible ramifications of an interview, once it was published, as a result of him being an employee of CRA."
She says that, in an email exchange, he had responded positively to the article when it was first published, which he admits. "Looking back on it, that response really doesn't gel with how I felt about an hour later, when everything really settled in," he says.
Jim McGinley is a Toronto-based indie game developer and organizer of the Toronto Game Jam. He has kept a scathing blog about the Star's treatment of the story. He told Polygon, "I was shocked at the story. The Toronto Star caused this problem. They wanted to run a story about a game that mocks taxpayers. But the game is not about taxpayers. It's wrong.
"When you look at the quotes [from the spokesperson of the Minister of Revenue, Gail Shea] about how offended she is, it's clear to me that she didn't play the game, and I have big questions about how she was approached and what she thought she was responding to."
Minister Shea's outraged response
Tools for anyone to make games
In the last few years, tools have emerged that allow almost anyone to make a game. David Gallant admits to possessing low skill levels in game design and art. But he does know how to use basic game development tools, and he knows how to tell a story.
The emergence of these tools allows people who aren't game designers to experiment with the form, to tell stories that are not designed to be commercially successful, but are designed to reach players as carriers of emotional insight. A game appears about gender change or depression, being in the thick of a political riot or the pain of losing a child.
Games like these often ignore the sort of hooks and feedback loops that game designers know so well and that deliver that intangible quality of "fun." They can sometimes feel like hard work to play.
But they exist because games are a great way to create empathy between the creator and the audience. Reading a blog post about working in a call center is not as personally affecting as pretending to be a call center worker in a staged simulation. Hearing someone tell a funny tale of the shit that call center workers deal with is not as powerful as dealing with that same shit, even in pretend form, yourself.
This is why games have become the mode of choice for people with something to say. In terms of being wholly about something more than traversing a cartoon character across a screen or eliminating pop-up bogeymen with bang-bang shooting tools, this is new.
Games are not supposed to offer serious commentary on society, on life, on humanity. The media, the mass media anyway, do not yet understand this. For them, games are a mystery or perhaps a joke without a punchline, something for young people and social misfits.
Gallant says, "There are a lot of people who don't even see video games as an expressive medium. Maybe we're falling victim to the traditional media just understanding games as entertainment."
I Get This Call Every Day isn't just about call centers. David Gallant's story isn't just about how political machines punish those who inconvenience their senior operatives. It's about games as a medium for ordinary people to say extraordinary things about their unique lives in ways that we have never seen before.
The people who fired Gallant saw the game itself as an irrelevance. They took his job away from him, and probably the chance for him to get a similar job, because a newspaper story had made them look bad, had made their boss look bad.
From their actions, it does not seem to have occurred to them that the game might have something to say about the way they arrange their working practices, the effects they have on the people around them. Instead of the game leading to a conversation about their silly rules, it led to the termination of Gallant as an employee.
"I'm glad that I'm no longer working there," he says. "I've been informed that employees, fellow co-workers, not at the Toronto center but elsewhere in the Canada Revenue Agency, have actually written to the Minister requesting my reinstatement. As much as I admire that sentiment, I wouldn't want the job back for anything. But yeah, to have jumped on me like that, I don't think it was right."
He adds, "I would have hoped, maybe, that the game inspired someone, somewhere, to do something about the conditions that employees in call centers have to work with. Instead, they fire the guy who made the game."
Gallant has made around $10,000 from sales of the game, and says he will continue to make games. He is still looking for a job, and is hoping to land a low-level role at a game company. He believes that many potential employers outside gaming will Google his name, and will believe that he is a troublemaker who was fired by the government for making a game.