The ugly side of video game workplace culture

For the uninitiated and broader audiences, the culture surrounding video games was shrouded in mystery and misconceptions. It was normal, for gamers to believe that their favorite titles, were all being produced in beautiful offices full of joy, gaming rooms, laughter, and creative breaks. Those views were wrongfully attached to the start-up culture – that also deceives so many people – to the joyful and entertaining nature of the products being developed. Making general assumptions is always ignorant, and while there might be some companies that fit the fun and laughter description, various cases from big companies have made a case against it.

The gaming industry like any other industry has its ugly side, stories about power abuse, sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse becoming public aren’t uncommon. Mainly, because video games as a whole have been generating an enormous buzz, and delivering astonishing results year after year. Every single scandal that has now being exposed in Hollywood, has its counterpart in the gaming industry, and that just touches the surface of what reality truly is.

Sexism

It comes as no surprise that sexism is one of the most toxic traits that the industry possesses. For decades women’s contributions towards the industry have been understated, underrepresented, and toned down, this stems from a wildly retrograde delusion that gaming is “a thing for boys”. It never was and it never will be an exclusive boys club.

Anyone who has ever played any online multiplayer game knows exactly how toxic that environment is, and also has much worse it is for any person who identifies as a girl. Communication is almost impossible; they are almost exclusively objectified and disrespected. If the same toxic gamers grow up to develop your favorite games, do you think that behavior simply disappears? Of course, no.

Sexual harassment claims had their time to shine during the “Gamergate” event, which was a version of the #METOO movement that exposed the entertainment industry. Gaming, much like its movie counterpart, is a very attractive industry that attracts countless eager employees, who are easily replaceable. On top of that, overwhelming male disparity, extreme power discrepancies, young workers, and encouragement of alcohol consumption, were some of the things that made the industry so harsh for women.

Major companies such as Riot and Ubisoft were involved in scandals, and have promised an overhaul in their HR policies and more severe punishments, as well as corporate education on sexual harassment, naturally, multiple other companies followed the initiative. While progress has been noticed, the culture has not changed at all, and won’t change in the short term, the reason being is that men who join the industry reinforce the sexism learned through games, by building sexist environments, that translates to games so on, and so forth, turning into a vicious cycle.

The Infamous Crunch

Of all the bad things about working in game development companies – especially major ones – is the tremendous pressure exerted upon employees. There are countless stories of dream jobs turning into nightmares extremely quickly. Employees are often tasked with one hundred hours of work in a single week, sometimes without proper compensation, and sometimes with sudden lay-offs.

Mainstream cases like Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, illustrates clearly the downsides of this type of work environment. But there are many other companies that enforce the same kind of practices. A study from GameIndustry.biz estimates that roughly 85% of employees from the gaming industry have reported working over their contracted hours, with some game testers reporting 24-hour work journeys during crunch.

To elucidate exactly what is “Crunch”, it is simply the practice of compressing an enormous amount of work in very tight deadlines. The situation has become so dire that unions came into play to try to alleviate and intervene against such practices. Certainly, there has been progress – which always happens when an industry’s dirty laundry goes mainstream, but unionizing, and promising to be better is a palliative solution that doesn’t tackle the sources of the problem. Which is threefold: celebrating crunch, internet pressure, and result-centric leaderships.

In the book “Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone”, Sarah Jaffe explores the premise that work must be done out of passion, and not in search of financial return. Passion is one of the biggest reasons that attract people to the industry, and that same passion is what ultimately leads them to be unwillingly explored for results, that culture is instilled in new developers and creatives very early. Specialized institutions have a tendency to glorify long work hours and excruciating demands, which normalizes the practice further down the road.

The second reason relates to the power of the internet. As a practice “Crunch” is nothing exclusive but has become progressively worst as bigger titles, have expanded exponentially in the last decade, and such a huge part of unrealistic deadlines or the aversion of pushing dates forward comes from the disproportionate influence that internet backlash has been able to achieve. Frustrating the fans, even when necessary has become such a taboo that developers often will overwork, and underdeliver employees at the same time, instead of taking the proper amount of time to deliver pristine work. Examples such as Cyberpunk, Marvel’s Avengers, and other recent games are common, the fear of hurting the fanbase’s feeling has overshadowed pursuit of excellence in more than one case.

And finally, when companies start achieving enormous revenues, towards expansion there is a natural drift on hiring more “professional”, or “experienced” executives. Often those new leaders don’t care about games as an art form, and only see them as a line on a revenue spreadsheet. This type of cold approach breeds greedy titles, unfinished projects being pushed, repetitiveness, and unwillingness to take risks. When the creatives get squeezed out in lieu of marketing research and decisions made purely upon financial projections, the artistic part of games gets left out the door. When creativity is treated as a commodity that can be summoned on-demand, insane deadlines and pressure are enforced because there needs to be no passion, just results.

Overall, the industry is not as glamorous as one might imagine, and everything that has been mentioned has seen progress in recent years. Yet, there is so much to be analyzed and revisited if the actual change is to be made. Fear of losing shareholders, and facing the fury of the internet might create changes that are immediate, but not permanent. Finally, not all companies face the same problems, but if friends, family, studies and stories are any proof, the industry still has a lot to overcome.

Author: Editorial Team

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