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

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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!

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.

The Red Dead issue

Red Dead, revisited 8
Red Dead Redemption 2 10
Rockstar 4
Best of the rest of the West 5

Comments

It’s time to unionize guys, seriously, just stop pushing this for later, get together and DO it.
You can’t be slaves to publisher expectations forever.

Just curious, what do you think will come from unionizing, higher pay, better hours, job security? There is a cost to be paid for each of these and it needs to be considered what the market is willing to bear.

So games come out later. Oh well!

That’s not the only thing that’s going to happen

Are you trying to debate, or write a pulpy horror novella? ’Cause presenting vaguely ominous statements without any form of evidence or corroboration is more suited for the latter than the former.

But Unions are baaaaaaad! Gah, why should I have to prop up my statements with actual clarity when we’re talking about Unions, which are baaaaaaad! Change is bad too! Why would two bad things like that ever be a solution to the current situation which doesn’t affect me at all except as an end customer? Remember, it’s bad!

In an ideal world, the cost is carried by management; they might actually have to get good at time management and scheduling, to figure out how to use their employee’s billable hours at their fullest. They might actually have to have a solid road map for what they want the game to be before it leaves the white board, and stick to it. No more executives coming down chomping a cigar saying, "boy it sure would be great if our first person shooter also had chocobo breeding".

Look at Mass Effect: Andromeda; they wasted years chasing an impossible dream of No Man’s Sky: The RPG. All of the work that gets thrown out because someone higher up decides the game has to have X feature, or ambitious, never-before-done Y feature ends up shockingly not working, because you’re trying to implement it with a mostly entry-level staff.

Which is the other reason these ambitious new features never end up working out: the murderous work schedule on your programmers is constantly driving out talent, meaning your most experienced game programmers are leaving for easier software development jobs. All of that experience and knowledge being hemorrhaged and replaced by entry-level talent that needs to re-learn all of the same lessons. That makes it almost impossible to develop more efficient workflows and increase the pace of iteration and innovation.

I don’t think there’s evidence that it’s your best people leaving for easier jobs. The lack of unionization makes it possible to treat your best people better (paying them better for example). And I suspect the very best folks aren’t there because it’s easy. They’re there because its rewarding, and it’s rewarding partially because it’s hard, and they get to feel good knowing that other folks >can’t< do what they just did.

Certainly there’s lots of churn, and certainly that makes it hard to create consistent workflows, but given the speed at which games (and tech) move it’s hard to say that’s a bad thing. Stability creates consistency, but not innovation. A lot of the "innovation" comes from the stroming not the performing part of the tuckman group development process. I mean, looking at technical organizations with low turnover you see groups like IT at most companies. And they on balance don’t produce a lot of innovation (or even competent products) most of the time.

I’ve worked in creative companies (advertising agencies) in the past, that were very much emotional jobs as described here, especially for creative professionals. The agencies that stay the best over a long time have figured out how to balance keeping the creative team in permanent storming mode, through a combination of burnout, and lack of internal promotion opportunities, while keeping production as stable as possible to ensure relatively consistent delivery.

So I do think the price will be paid by more than management, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something we shouldn’t be aspiring too anyway.

The agencies that stay the best over a long time have figured out how to balance keeping the creative team in permanent storming mode, through a combination of burnout, and lack of internal promotion opportunities, while keeping production as stable as possible to ensure relatively consistent delivery.

I have firsthand experience with this. Are you saying this is a good thing? Or am I totally misunderstanding the argument?

I think it’s effective, but I’ll refrain from value judgments. Honestly I’m no sure that the management of these companies know that they’re doing this. It’s probably not fair to assume it’s intentional. But it’s a clear pattern among agencies that are highly creative over a long period of time (I’ve been at 5 agencies, 3 of which were "big"). BTW this doesn’t apply to agencies doing good work, but who do good work over many many years.

Honestly there’s a reason I don’t work in that space anymore. It’s an exhausting awful space to be in, but if you ask me what projects I’m proudest of, they were almost all produced in that space instead of the corporate jobs I’ve held since.

I went from movie theatre management, to advertisement, to television. My most rewarding work has still been in customer service. And in my experience, they DEFINITELY know what they’re doing and why, and it’s 100 percent inhumane. I, personally, will not refrain from value judgments. Likewise, ignorance only excuses abuse to a small degree.

Frankly, it’s a little strange that you see the executives’ ability to keep creatives in "storming mode" as a savvy way to stay afloat, and not dire, ego-driven mismanagement. This storming mode is constantly affecting production as well, who basically work the creatives’ hours, plus a few extra hours tacked on at the beginning and end of the day. And production is going to burn out even faster than creative.

Oh, they’re definitely pushing them intentionally… so I guess you’re right in that sense. It’s intentional. What may not be intentional is the equilibrium that some of them hit that allows them to produce high quality work for a long period of time. So the question is if they’re regular evil or mustache twirling evil

While management evil it’s not like the people working there are doing it because they’re idiots, or otherwise unemployable. They’re getting something from the experience, and attaching value to the work they’re doing that goes beyond a paycheck… because if it was just a paycheck no one would even stay two years.

It was the best paycheck I ever had at the time and that kept me around for two years. The culture can really suck you in and devalue you, which makes it harder to leave because you’re looking for validation in your work in an unhealthy way. That plus like… being able to afford rent for the first time in my life made it terrifying to leave.

There is a sweet spot of knowing how far you can push people to get the best work from them. It’s a combination of pushing and flexing to ensure they don’t actually burn our to get broken by the workload.

I’ve heard it called finding the hot spots for a worker.

Nobody’s doing their best work in a 100-hour work week. We also keep using words like "burnout" but we need to remember that that isn’t just obliterated morale, it’s a burnout of the body just as much as the mind, and long term stress has long term physical consequences. It’s safe to assume people’s lifespans are being shortened working this way.

People are difficult to manage – I get that, I’ve been there. Treating them like anything other than people – like, say, rocks you’re trying to squeeze blood from – is wrong, even if it delivers "results." All of this business terminology like "hot spots" just serves to dehumanize workers further. It’s not a good thing, it shouldn’t happen.

But I think the problem is that it already has happened and not just in game development but in each and every type of corporate work. We’ve allowed ourselves to be dehumanized for so long that when we see it happening to others we don’t bat an eye because it isn’t that much different from how we are treated at our own jobs.

Which is why we need unionization and reform. I’m fighting for that within my industry, and it should happen in the games industry as well. Everybody should fight for it, even if they’re used to things being bad. Personally, I’m sick of being shocked at the state of things. I’m sick of feeling powerless against it, and I’m sick of being stepped on. So I’m fighting, and preparing for if things get worse. A lot of things go on for a long time before they get changed. That doesn’t make it OK.

You are 100% correct, the other problem though is that there are plenty of people that just don’t care. They’ll gladly jump over our corpses to get a job doing these things. Some of these people are the same ones voicing their dissatisfaction but given the opportunity to better themselves, they’ll stab their fellows in the back and say "Thank you sir, may I have some more" to their abusers.

Until the workforce stops allowing itself to be churned (and this means we can’t have people willing to step over us to get in line at the churn machine) then things can’t and won’t change.

yeah this 100%. It isn’t like this in other tech sectors. Developers, designers, and project managers are at an absolute premium at large companies. Most of which pay more, and are unwilling to lose folks due to crunch.
The problem is specifically that so many people want to make games that it’s created a buyers market for the game companies.
It’s telling that iphone game developers contract for about 50% of what iphone app developers contract for (last time i checked anyway). Especially since most of the game developers are doing harder, more specialized work.
Folks have to be willing to actually walk away from the work for there to be any chance of unionization.

I think this is true, and you’ve hit on a specific problem, but I also don’t think it’s unique to the game industry. It’s kind of a mantra in any creatively-oriented production-focused job that there’s always 12 hungry 20-year-olds who will work twice the hours for half your pay. It’s hard to overcome, and it’s overcome through dialogue, activism and understanding. I don’t think it’s a reason to give up, or an immovable wall.

Until we get rid of the 12 hungry 20 year olds it’s a wall. Or unless we can prove we’re massively better than 2 hungry 20 year old who will work twice as hard as us. Going to be honest, some folks can. It’s an industry w/ skill differentiation. The real rock stars, are more valuable that all 12 of those 20 year olds, and you better believe the management knows it. It’s everyone else who needs to look over their shoulders.

Exactly. It’s a mantra, but it’s also a fallacy. The fact that it’s generally employed as a threat by management speaks to that.

I don’t expect to see overnight changes, but the more we are having dialogues like this and fighting for our own freedoms in our respective stations, the more optimistic I am that things can change for the better. I’m not saying there won’t be roadblocks, but we can and will prevail.

The question isn’t are you doing your best work. It’s are you doing >more< work than if you worked 80… if the answer is yes there’s value in the company making you do it.

I never said they were doing their best work, nor did I ever endorse a 100-hour work week.

You seem to have fundamentally misunderstood the theory you’re referring to. Being in "permanent storming mode" would preclude any kind of real productivity, as development would be dominated by conflict and lack of organization and direction. You can’t just say "hey, we like this one part of the process, so let’s just stay there". These aren’t (wholly) conscious processes, and you can’t just say "let’s never agree on how to work together, ‘cause that’s more creative". People make norms, agree on things, and move on. That’s what the model describes.

You can of course implement norms that push people towards constructive quasi-conflict, but confusing that with being always "storming" is a complete misunderstanding. Norms are norms, no matter what, and the whole point of establishing (good, relevant, applicable) norms is to make possible effective and productive work. If norms for productivity aren’t established, this cannot happen. Ever.

What you’re describing isn’t what you say, it’s systematic mismanagement and employee abuse. That has nothing to do with group dynamics, and everything to do with management style and lack of unionization.

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