When the first interview with high-level Rockstar staff dropped ahead of Red Dead Redemption 2 coming out, it seemed like there was a fairly united front of disgust at the way they so cravenly described absurd crunch hours as a feature, not a bug. From there, multiple outlets wrote about the criticisms Rockstar received, and investigated worker’s own stories of mandatory or “optional!” overtime. A picture emerged where, ok, maybe not all locations and roles were equally crunched, and the quoted “100-hour week” was, in practice, an unusual outlier (like most advertising claims), but generally, poor management and an unhealthy attitude towards demonstrating your loyalty or passion for the job made long periods of 6 day, 50 – 60 hours a week crunch so standard over years that it may start being described as a “norm.” Both the bad behaviour of the bosses, making such ridiculous claims in a high-profile interview and then passing the buck for any consequences to soliciting off-time affective labor from employees (“talk about -your- experiences, not what we said!”) and the emerging reality of creeping long-term crunch becoming AAA standard operating procedure, what is perceived as just What Has To Be Done to crank out another photorealistic open world game, were good points for the growing movement for the recognition of videogame industry labor issues and unionization to latch onto; these points take a super hyped, hyper-visible blockbuster product and turn it into a perfect illustration of their arguments and concerns.
In a case like this, it’s easy to see the bosses as exploiters, the workers pressured and exploited into an unhealthy work culture, and the process of labor organizing, speaking out, and unionization as ways to resist exploitation. But as the discussion went on it became apparent that there were also other characters onstage that didn’t necessarily have an easy place to fit: those who were eager to play the resulting videogame, and those who were expected to, as games press or critics.
Both were put in a sort of pickle, or at least they positioned themselves in the discussion like they were. Players who were aware of the labor issues seemed to have two options, declare a personal boycott of the game, or play it anyways, and the latter position seemed to demand some sort of justification if you had previously been piping up about labor issues specifically. I’m less concerned about this group because the one thing I do agree with some of them on is that “consumer choice” is not the full extent of support of activism people can offer, though isn’t it interesting that the material inefficacy of a boycott is brought up when a lot of people are saying they just personally feel better not playing the game, and that a boycott does not have to be solely economically motivated? There’s a sense of wanting to get ahead of being seen as doing the wrong thing (because doing something that feels more “right” is pointless) when just quietly playing the game as pre-ordered is also an option. The other argument is even more dubious to me, that if a few more people don’t buy copies of the game, the Rockstar employees will either feel bad or just not get as big of a holiday bonus because fewer people enjoyed it. I’m sure the 11 vegetation artists who just worked on foliage felt some validation from the extended digression about foliage in the Kotaku review, and many employees admittedly don't feel like buying the game is a direct endorsement of labor abuse. However, I hope they also don't see someone deciding that a peek at how the sausage was made put them off purchasing the game as a referendum on their ability to render very realistic plants, or whatever their role was. This example doesn’t even touch on the complicated relationship to the final product roles that are lower in the industry hierarchy, seen as less “creative” and more likely to be crunched may have, like QA or outsourced labor, or those whose names didn’t make it into the credits because they burned out before release (on an 8 year project!). And holiday bonuses based on sales as a carrot to the stick of crunch is yet another form of hype-cycle driven work environments framed as generosity. It shouldn't be a primary issue whether certain workers didn't crunch or certain workers were able to feel personal pride in the end result, nor should evaluation just be limited to which Rockstar branches and departments are "good" and "bad." The wide variety of stories show how important it is to organize broadly across studios to secure the base line of no crunch and proper credit for everyone.
People can play the game if they want, I just think it’s a bit corny to announce some dubious justification for it. “Consumer” is, deliberately, not a very complex role with few real options. Maybe you have a few more if you’re coming from an “influencer” position, like a journalist or critic, but over the past week or so it almost seems like they have less leeway. While some consumers decided to pull out and not play RDR2, the idea of not covering RDR2 or even approaching it differently seemed like a feat on the level of “imagining the end of capitalism.”
Are Games Writers Games Workers, And If So, Can They Unionize?
Mainstream game publications position themselves as different from videogame advertisements, though the distinction has been vague in the past. This tweet by Christa Lee is really funny, because there's an overlooked truth to it—even if videogame sites aren’t explicitly advertising, it seems redundant to ask someone visiting your site to see more ads when the entire front page of your site is currently devoted to the hype cycle of a single commercial product. A hype cycle is not simply the excitement leading up to a new videogame, but a carefully constructed series of events that draws the attention forward to keep the consumer regularly purchasing, rather than enjoying or thinking about anything for too long; James Newman aptly describes it in his book Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence, as the best game always being the one that’s not out yet. We may see ourselves as too smart now to see something like Nintendo Power as anything but a long-form ad delivery mechanism for upcoming Nintendo games, it’s just too obvious. But I feel like there’s a remnant of the naivete that my 13 year old self had to think that videogame companies aren’t also strategic in how they release information and how they drive coverage of their game by these non-affiliated sites. Not to say that the original comment that started this mess was a psyop to get us all talking about RDR2 even more than we would be, but that this regular trickle of previews, interviews, press releases, game releases, patches, new content, etc etc etc, deliberately ensures that the luxury AAA photorealistic open world game du jour dominates online discussions for weeks or months. It creates an environment where, even if you’re not specifically excited to be a cowboy, or Spider-man, or a robot detective, or a norse god, or whatever, you still feel like you’re missing out if you’re not playing and talking about this game.
Every few months we get the perfunctory take that there’s now too many small games, weird games, spam games, etc—but aren’t there really just too many of these all hands on deck type events that just take up all the air in the room? Didn’t we just get done with the last one? When do we get a break? Obviously never. Even if there were 30% fewer of these massive spectacle games the companies would likely just develop ways to make theirs take up 30% more airtime, a controversy here, a last-minute feature added there.
Some reviewers and feature writers have become aware of the ethical dimension of their work recently, likely due to the continued efforts of Game Workers Unite chapters making noise about industry working conditions. But how they enact this in writing seems limited to me. Mirroring the iconic dril tweet, Kirk Hamilton in the above-cited Kotaku review writes:
I sometimes struggled to enjoy Red Dead Redemption 2’s most impressive elements because I knew how challenging—and damaging—some of them must have been to make. Yet just as often, I found myself appreciating those things even more, knowing that so many talented people had poured their lives into crafting something this incredible.
This is how the typical disclaimer within reviews that mention labor issues that come to light running up to a game’s release are phrased. Hamilton does it several times in the article, pulling back from gushing about a detail or effect of the game to disclose a sense of unease at how it got there, what sacrifices “had to be made,” in the end to conclude that this is some sort of ambiguous bargain, that we can’t come down with full certainty on either side of it being “worth it” or not. We are led to imagine Michelangelo working for years on the Sistine Chapel and think: that must have been hard too, but some things have to be hard, and those things can only be done by people who devote their whole selves to it… shouldn’t we have the freedom to do that if we want? Maybe this comparison would be compelling if it applied to the reality of the situation at all. Hamilton should have more closely consulted the extensive write up on the very same site, where Rockstar employees often frame their experiences with crunch not as this idealized, individualist, raw artistic endeavour but often as just the result of poor management, last minute changes from above, allowing outside deadlines to dictate workloads, and a company culture that placed more value on sitting at your desk pretending to do work, or doing work you weren’t even hired for to prove your loyalty to the company over actual productive and healthy work schedules. There’s nothing about the complexity of the grass in RDR2, or any particularly complex task for that matter, which necessarily mandates crunch. Crunch is only deployed in the interest of a “bottom line,” getting something done before the holidays, finishing the new trailer for E3, and so on, hitting the right beats so the hype cycle goes on uninterrupted.
This kind of wishy-washy attempt to include broader concerns in a review, which is far more often in videogames just a technical assessment and endorsement or trashing of a commercial product, does not end up really having a critical function against exploitative labor practices. It leaves it up to the reader how to feel, morally, about the practice of crunch, but in making an hours-long photorealistic AAA open world game, the piece still argues that crunch “works,” and is even necessary. It is, in the end, an endorsement of the game as the product consumers were expecting. Over the next few weeks more pieces will come out, the type that (Vice-affiliate) Waypoint are mostly known for, but some in smaller publications as well, which will offer a more thematic, culturally situated critique of RDR2 (cowboys: problematic?) and yet, since the start of this year (I really think my tipping point was God of War), even these more “thoughtful,” more “critical” pieces still leave me feeling frustrated and exhausted. I think it’s a combination of trying to pull water from a stone in a lot of cases (commercial videogames are possibly the worst medium for ratio of meaningful content to monetary cost, time spent or effort required), but also that these extrapolations, unless thoroughly negative in their critique, are often another form of validation for the game, securing its place as the subject of discussion for another week (does God of War offer "alternative" masculinities or is it just emblematic of the increasing "dadification" of games? can I muster up the will to care?), until we hit another “too many small games!” piece, and so on, forever.
Maybe most of the people writing these pieces don’t even actually particularly want to be a cowboy for 60-some hours, which is the worst part of it. It’s really hard to be a writer in 2018, especially in games criticism or journalism, where cool tastemaker sites like the zombie brand Killscreen have completely devalued good, informed work by paying people on hope and maybe $20 to shore themselves up as some sort of indie game experts who get invited around to MoMA and shit. I don’t have experience as a salaried writer for any of the large sites, but as someone who has done freelance I know you often have to chase popular topics to get a high-paying piece, and for many people, that’s rent. I imagine both positions don’t offer much in the way of meaningful choice at the moment (a recurring theme in this essay!). The drive to keep up with the hype cycle, and have your reviews or hot takes up as soon as you can after release not only leads to a lot of writers working overtime for a flat rate/shit pay, it also limits the amount of time you can even think about what’s going on in this huge complicated spectacle that requires a whole TV, console, and 16-buttoned controller to even begin to use. Like, maybe we should slow down and think about this, actually!
Can we slow down? I think the only way to loosen the grip of these corporate hype cycles on how games writing is commissioned and written is to see both employees of game studios, and people who write about these games as workers the videogame industry relies on and often exploits to keep itself working in its current formation. Instead of simply drawing attention to labor issues, writers need to be more willing to see themselves as also working in and for the games industry. In Hamilton’s review, he takes the perspective of the consumer, seeing the people who may have suffered physical and emotional consequences from crunch as a group of unfortunates that he’s fundamentally separate from, but just as Rockstar felt it “needed” 11 people to work full time on rendering plants for its game, it also felt it “needed” Kotaku’s review, as evidenced from the review copy that was necessarily provided to have a pre-release review up on one of the major online gaming publications. This relationship may seem most apparent in the major release reviews which are likely the most popular articles on these sites, but every writer, down to the author of the most niche freelance articles is a part of the structure that gives these publications their value in the gaming industry.
The details of the sexual harassment lawsuit that was made against David Cage’s Quantic Dream studio shortly before Detroit: Become Human was set to release was the first time I felt uneasy enough that I considered the idea that games publications should not write about a game at all. As labor issues in more studios with major releases coming up became known, I started to consider this not as an idle fantasy or simplistic “fuck you” to whatever company was responsible by simply ignoring their fancy new thing, but as a way this could be productive action and coalition building between game workers and game writers, who are, often, also game workers. Conditions seem to be not great for many people in both lines of work, and a unifying reason for that is being rushed along by the technological hype and capitalist concern with “bottom line” that drives major game studios. Imagine if a unionized studio could be supported by a unionized publication, refusing to publish any previews or reviews of the next Rockstar game in concert with demands from workers to address their concerns beyond public statements and weak sentiments that not EVERY department or branch is being wrung dry. It would require major organizing and changes in how both game publications and game studios work, but isn’t the point that it would change everything?