Monday, May 17, 2010

Do We Need Fair Trade Games?

Red Dead Redemption comes out this week and while I know I'm going to buy it, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat hesitant to do so. It seems the controversy is now mostly forgotten, but in January, the spouses of a number of Rockstar San Diego developers penned an open letter decrying the working conditions in the studio. Reminiscent of the then unnamed Erin Hoffman's EA Spouse letter, it details conditions that grossly overreach the usual game development crunch time. And of course, the response from Rockstar HQ and Take 2 was typical mealy-mouthed PR bullshit. While I'm sure plenty of other games I have enjoyed were made under similar conditions to Red Dead Redemption and simply didn't receive public outcry, a pall is still cast over RDR that it won't ever be able to fully shake, at least for me.

Hearing the alleged conditions in Rockstar San Diego were also unfortunately familiar; by several accounts, Bully was created at Rockstar Vancouver under very similar conditions. And even though I quite enjoyed Bully, I couldn't help but feel a little ... uncomfortable about it. It was that same twinge of discomfort you get seeing "Made in Bangladesh" on the tag of your shirt. I don't mean to pick on Rockstar, I'm sure this is a problem at many studios, but you know, they did pay out almost $3 million after a lawsuit was filed by employees about a year ago.

While I'm being facetious about the idea of "fair trade" certification for games, even if such a thing could exist, I'm not sure something like it would actually be desirable. The purpose of fair trade is to avoid purchasing goods produced in unfair conditions. But if I had slaved away on a game, seeing it sell poorly because consumers disagreed with the conditions it was made in would only be adding insult to injury.

And of course, I don't think it's very risky to say most of the potential audience really doesn't care. Most are simply unaware of such circumstances at all and of the small percentage that are, many seem to have the perverse and naive attitude that being a game developer is some invaluable gift. Once this legendary position has been obtained, all expectations of fair and decent working conditions evaporate.

A couple choice comments from the Shacknews post about this: "Come to NY and see who cries for you." "Oh please. These guys have the best jobs in the world and they love doing it. Have a problem with it? DON'T MARRY THEM." "This sucks, but god damn those screens look good."

Unfortunately, this attitude exists even in some new entrants to the industry. Willing to do virtually anything to "break in," their enthusiasm results in a seemingly unending supply for the digital salt mines. Eventually circumstances like the above burn them out and they leave for good, resulting in less than one third of developers making it to ten years in the industry.

And I have no idea what to do about it. It seems buying Red Dead Redemption is better than not doing so in protestation, but good sales likely aren't going to inspire change at Rockstar San Diego. More likely, a good swath of people will leave, replacements will be brought in and things will get as bad again the next time a project is well behind schedule. I do not think the solution is a union, as I'm very skeptical of a union ever being a good idea for knowledge workers. The great, bloated beasts SAG and the WGA have become certainly give me little hope.

The only thing I can do, personally, is refuse to ever work at a studio that operates under such conditions and strongly council others to do the same. If great, experienced developers will only operate at studios with respectful, fair working conditions, and they make this known, that might incentivize certain changes. The passion people have to making games is also a great weakness, because it can be exploited. Game developers will tolerate conditions I can't imagine someone making accounting software ever would. We cannot allow our passion to be taken advantage of.

I really hope Red Dead Redemption is a big success, both in terms of quality and sales. It's better condolence than the alternative. It sure sounds like its creators were asked to give far too much and there's a part of me that will feel a little guilty enjoying the game because of it. I long for the day when developers' passion will be respected rather than exploited, but honestly, I don't know how soon that day will come. Not soon enough, I think.

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Blogger Sara Pickell said...

"While I'm being facetious about the idea of "fair trade" certification for games, even if such a thing could exist, I'm not sure something like it would actually be desirable. The purpose of fair trade is to avoid purchasing goods produced in unfair conditions. But if I had slaved away on a game, seeing it sell poorly because consumers disagreed with the conditions it was made in would only be adding insult to injury."

Pure bullshit thinking. If you were exploited into slaving away making something and then people decided not to buy it because you were exploited then they were doing you a favor. Whether you like it or not, they made a stand that you were either unable or unwilling to. They are making things better for you in their own way. Exploitation like this keeps going until somebody makes it stop.

The fact that they are exploiting passion rather than desperation doesn't suddenly make it all okay. Passion is as much a form of desperation, it's a persons hopes and dreams and frankly I can't tolerate people fucking around with that. Ever.

May 17, 2010 at 1:03 PM  
Blogger Padraig said...

"Pure bullshit thinking. If you were exploited into slaving away making something and then people decided not to buy it because you were exploited then they were doing you a favor."

Given that game profits drive employee bonuses and make things like stock options more valuable, do you really think you are doing them a favour by making the game less profitable? I'm not saying that money makes it all better, but at the end of the day, having gone through all of that, a nice fat bonus check sure would help.

So no, I, for one, don't feel it's bullshit thinking.

May 17, 2010 at 1:29 PM  
Blogger Sara Pickell said...

"I'm not saying that money makes it all better, but at the end of the day, having gone through all of that, a nice fat bonus check sure would help."

So you can go on and they can do it to you all over again? Of course there isn't any guarantee that the game will actually sell, so it's not like every team that gets pushed this hard even gets a bonus. So that's an acceptable way of dealing with things, "hey we might get bonuses this time so it's all okay"?

Problems don't get better if you don't fix them. Getting paid to put up with them doesn't make anything better, it's just one more form of bullshit. So yes, it is bullshit thinking. Of course fixing things is always painful, that's why people get away with all the "this makes it tolerable" bullshit in the world.

May 17, 2010 at 3:04 PM  
Blogger Jorge Albor said...

In regards to the above comments:

It is always hard to watch someone pay for the mistakes of others. Which is why, understandably, people have a hard time approving of boycotting products good people were involved in. There are sweatshop workers all over the world, and those who own sweatshops, who would say boycotting hurts workers.

I am not so sure. If things are really bad, and yes, there are levels of "badness". Then Sara is right. Suffering the status quo because of the painful shift away from exploitation is silly.

That being said, it's not easy. The same argument came up in regards to Orson Scott Card and his affiliation with Shadow Complex.

Personally, one of the largest factors is media attention. Protests accomplish that. They call out Rockstar by name and taint their brand image. That is important. If not a 'Fair Trade' logo (Although that itself is a good idea in regards to labor practices over-seas for companies supplying parts, resources, and outsourced software), then at least an industry labor rating system would be nice. Boycotting may be a personal decision, but at least knowing how a company rates alongside their industry partners in labor practices is important.

May 17, 2010 at 3:51 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

For what it's worth: On Tribalwar, my local internet cesspool, a designer from Red Dead Redemption has been maintaining a lengthy post about RDR updated with any new articles and youtube videos.

When everyone mentioned the working conditions, he responded only saying "This is not true at all. That's all I will say about that letter."

And since we're hopping on the expletive train to Fuck City, I am going to play the shit out of this game.

May 17, 2010 at 8:20 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Sara Being completely honest, if I was at Rockstar San Diego, I'd vastly prefer RDR to do well than not. For me, the only thing worse that giving too much is giving too much and have it all be wasted effprt. And while the bonus/stock Padraig mentions is less of a motive for me, I can see it providing a nice cushion after one quits for a decent employer.

You're welcome to disagree, but "bullshit thinking" might a somewhat extreme stance.

Of course, this is all a thought experiment at best anyway. We've all seen how well game "boycotts" have worked in the past, and those were about something gamers got fired up about. I simply can't imagine QoL issues changing because of consumer behaviour.

If this is going to get better, it's going to need to come from the developer community. I have no idea where it goes from there, but greater transparency about conditions in various studios is a good start, I think.

May 17, 2010 at 11:23 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Jorge That was the terrible thing about Shadow Complex. I've met Don Mustard and some of the other guys at Chair and they're all great people. None of them are crazy homophobes like Card. Is it fair to deny them success because Card is a lunatic that was only distantly involved with the project? I honestly don't know.

@Brian Of course, it's all rumour and hearsay. Plus, aren't there several hundred people on RDR? It might be bad for some subteams but fine for others.

But I can tell you Bully was not made under pleasant conditions and even if things are okay at RS SD, there's somewhere else they're not. I think it is better than it was 4-5 years ago, but it's still definitely not good enough.

May 17, 2010 at 11:29 PM  
Blogger Ben Abraham said...

So I was all set to say "Dude, just unionise!" but you seem to think they don't work for knowledge workers? Well, why do we even think about game development as an industry full of knowledge workers cause it's really not anyway (with the exception of a few key positions, I admit).

That kind of thinking seems reminiscent of the "game development is a privilege so don't complain" mindset, which you were rightly calling out as rubbish. Just because games are made on computers, and by largely middle class white dudes doesn't really make them knowledge workers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but does Joe Cool in the QA department running through your map for the Nth-hundredth time really need all that much 'knowledge' to do his job?

Regarding the above discussion about buying it as a consolation to exploited developers, while I can see understand people might think that, I also strongly agree with Sara Pickell that it is Bullshit thinking. Just because you're the victim of exploitation doesn't mean your perspective is the best one for all involved (in fact it might be the worst: Cf. Stockholm syndrome!)

Alas, I want this kind of change to take place in the industry, but as I'm just one lowly consumer my relative power is very little. So I really do see unionising as the only answer.

May 19, 2010 at 5:37 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Ben Heh, I was having an offline conversation about exactly the same thing. Summary is, I'm way too pig-headed to ever be okay with conceding the amount of control necessary to have a union be useful. I'd just rather work at small places where if something's bullshit, you call it out and have the ability to fix it.

Coincidentally, I was talking to one of our QA guys at lunch yesterday who used to work in lighting for film. Lighting is heavily unionized, which means it's basically impossible to get work unless you're part of the union. But to join the union, you need years of experience. And even then, jobs are given based on seniority. A director/DP/whatever can't even hire specific lighting guys they like working with, they basically provide the union with requirements and they send people out.

I would never, ever be comfortable with someone else having that much control over how I work and who I work with. While one could say a game dev union wouldn't necessarily be like that, they all seem to trend in that direction.

My objection is personal, not categorical. Something union-esque might be the right approach when you've got 2000 people at a studio or something. But for me, working at smaller places where you can self-organize without the need for a union is optimal.

May 19, 2010 at 9:39 AM  
Blogger Adam Augusta said...

I think it's important to recognize that boycotting is only really effective as a collective strategy. Boycotting without the expectation that others will do so is little more than a token gesture. (Fair trade is a little different from boycotting, but it's more applicable to commodities.)

I recognize that this is a sensitive subject for some people on multiple levels. First and foremost, since it only works if one takes on faith that other people will boycott bad behavior, people who adopt that particular ethos are eager to proselytize. That's kind of a lost cause, though. Another reason is that it's another data point that tells garden-variety libertarians that their ideas don't work.

Getting telecoms to allow us to move our phone numbers to new carriers should not have required an act of Congress. Especially as people with some capacity as technocrats, we should keep an eye out for ways to promote collective consumer action. In addition to being effective and working around thorny game theory issues, you get the bonus of being able to wield the boycott like a big stick, nominally forcing industry compliance before workers have to suffer.

Empowering consumers to selectively limit their collective consumption could be a real game-changer in global economics. It's a bit of a pipe-dream, so I hate to bring it up, but I think it brings some meaningful context to questions of industry abuse, especially for people who (reasonably) hesitate to adopt government solutions.

May 19, 2010 at 11:55 AM  
Blogger Paul Bauman said...

"But if I had slaved away on a game, seeing it sell poorly because consumers disagreed with the conditions it was made in would only be adding insult to injury."

The thing is... the Fair Trade consumer ethic doesn't really come down to how it makes the production worker "feel". It's about systematic support, or informed avoidance thereof, of exploitative conditions. And when it comes down to it, the meaning of exploitation itself has very little to do with worker or job satisfaction. You can presumably be "satisfied" with your work and still be exploited (e.g. the game coding salt mines you described).

Look at it another way (from a longer view, I guess); if, via some sort of Fair Trade program, a studio garnered a reputation as exploitative and that rep somehow (in bizarro world) influenced its sales, would said studio be able to maintain a pool of qualified workers to sustain its projects over time? After a few years, wouldn't they have to come to a decision point about what product and market they were aiming for?

May 19, 2010 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Adam, Paul What I don't see happening is the kind of collective action from consumers that's required to make any kind of meaningful change.

However, being wholly pragmatic, it seems that fair and decent development conditions could be used promote games from smaller studios. I don't see Rockstar changing conditions because of outcry, but I can see someone like Twisted Pixel saying, "You should support our game, because we treat our developers like human beings." Gaining/losing 10,000 sales is a rounding error to 2K, but for an indie like TP, it's not insignificant.

If there's a way consumers can positively impact the conditions in which games are created, it seems like this might be the most viable.

May 20, 2010 at 8:18 AM  
Blogger Per Johnson said...

The slaving away and then failing to sell the product reminds me of Manveers blogpost:

Several people left during development which resulted in a worse game than it could have been.

Studios with high drop out ratios create worse games. The person who leave might easily be replaced. The person being replaced have valuable experience which is lost. If game studios keep replacing the staff they will keep making the same mistakes.

May 22, 2010 at 11:20 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Per Johnson Yeah, I definitely had Manveer's post in mind when writing.

That's definitely a nasty side-effect of QoL issues. Experienced and invaluable developers leave the industry, resulting in less than 15% of developers having a decade or more of experience. Over a third have two years or less. There's no question better games could be made if this kind of churn didn't exist.

May 23, 2010 at 6:28 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Extremely well written article, congrats on some great writing.

It's a tough issue, I sure would be willing to tolerate a lot to work in the game industry. I already do put up with crazy hours and such for a lesser industry currently...

May 25, 2010 at 4:11 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Jerry Thanks, that's appreciated. And I understand your position, but it's also sort of the problem too, right? If folks leave a studio because of the working conditions, this matters quite a bit less if there are other people will to take up the oars in the galley.

Working crazy hours isn't the problem either. I worked some crazy hours getting DeathSpank out the door too. But all that OT was consensual and a result of real problems that needed some hard work to be corrected. And it was for a reasonable amount of time. Insane crunch hits diminishing returns after 2-4 weeks, quickly reaching the point where you're further behind that if you had never crunch at all. Forcing people to work insane hours under those conditions in unacceptable

May 25, 2010 at 8:51 PM  

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