Silicon Laggy: How Neoliberal Roots Hold Gaming Back
by Simon Saunders
21 March 2017
There’s a trope about Silicon Valley and the gaming industry being built on a foundation made from copies of Atlas Shrugged.
It’s an oversimplification of a recognisable core. IT and early gaming firms both grew to prominence in a post-Reagan, post-Thatcher environment and drew their early programmers, now often industry leaders, from the same circles. The nature of the gig attracted a clique of mostly young male nerds and as success grew, they felt encouraged to consider themselves the wave of the future.
It was fertile ground for an individualist free-market culture to develop and from its inception, the industry has been hostile territory for trade unions. At Atari, one of the first gaming firms to form in 1972, it wasn’t until 1983 that a union drive successfully forced a recognition vote, which was lost. Badly.
An InfoWorld report noted “specific conditions at high technology companies” while a triumphalist line from then American Electronic Association vice-president Chuck Elkin suggested worker self-organisation “isn’t the way of this industry.” Matters haven’t improved in the US and UK. There is still no bespoke trade union, only the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), which goes to great lengths to persuade its own members that it can’t become a union.
General unions are even further off the pace. I was offered a startling insight by a former console gaming feeder firm employee a while ago, who explained: “When I started work, I asked around to find out which union would be the best to join… GMB was suggested, but I wanted something a bit more active and went with Unite. They weren’t sure what to do with me, and eventually decided to put me in with the printers.”
It’s hard to imagine a starker example of how out of touch mainstream trade unionism is — after more than four decades, Britain’s largest union thinks the most relevant sector to this mobile, virtualised and office-based production sphere is print.
Reports are rife about how the rightist leanings of big industry names have impacted working norms. Take for example a presentation from Direct X co-creator Alex St. John. It’s worth reading in full, but highlights include a whole section saying “you’re not hiring engineers you’re hiring their wives,” another reckoning that bringing in young people and working them to burnout is great for avoiding a “wage slave mentality” and a subsection suggesting that coders with Asperger syndrome are ideal because they “don’t develop attitudes.”
This sort of baked-in brutal approach is an extreme of the objectivist worldview, coupled with a large dose of venomous misogyny. But it’s not that far off the real outcomes of employment policy within games development.
Demographics and the burnout cycle.
Gaming sees itself as future tech, but its hiring policies and attitudes remain distinctly retro. In the UK, for example, while there is no comprehensive industry breakdown of social class, surveys compiled by IGDA and Statista do offer some demographic insights. In the table below, I compare population percentages in the UK to demographics in game development:
Graduates: 38% 70%
Women: 42% 14%
BME: 13% 5%
Over 40: 49% 17%
The number of women does seem to have been growing recently. IGDA’s survey, taking place two years after Statista’s, reports 22% female participation – a marked uptick. However the standard remains starkly biased in favour of highly-educated white men, with the vast majority being in their mid-30s or younger, just as Alex St. John prefers.
Standard working practices have for many years tended to promote the “ideal worker” as being someone able to focus completely on gaming. The most infamous example of these norms is crunch time, where staff work the final few weeks, sometimes months, of a project until late every night, to the point of simply sleeping at the office. This is usually unpaid overtime, expected because gaming is a prestige industry.
That in and of itself is a barrier to say, a new mum returning to work. Or a young working class person caring for their disabled dad. It makes assumptions that militate against equality of opportunity and encourage intensely pressured norms involving very high job churn.
Tim Lozinski, who tried to organise a game developers’ union in 2013, offered me some details from his experiences: “Workers in big developers are too scared to organise and put off by legal coercion, while smaller developers simply pay less.
“Others don’t really know much about trade unions.
“A lot of people sniff at the idea because they say ‘oh we get a lot of money and don’t need one.’ But that’s really not the case, lots of people aren’t making much money at all.
“Just out of university you might get £100 a day freelance, £18k standard for salary, and this doesn’t offer an obvious scale to work up.
“Time after time there’s appeals to ‘it’s a great job, here’s some pizza!’ There’s not a lot of big paying jobs and we are talking £40k for roles which are analogous to say a banking job worth five times that.”
Lozinski argues that rather than encouraging workers to fight back, the industry’s ongoing problems are simply increasing turnover: “Even senior people who have worked on big titles have left and start up on their own. It’s not because they aren’t well paid, it’s because they burn out.”
Cultural norms which acclimatise rookie workers to short-form contract work, ingrained individualism, globally scattered working units and an attitude of ‘suck it up or get lost’ has discouraged collective moves to improve conditions and diversity, Lozinski believes.
“‘Go and start your own firm’ is the main solution,” he explains, “so it’s mostly young people who don’t know their own value and take eight years to realise ‘that’s not how it should be’.”
Contrary to Alex St. John’s suggestions, the industry itself is being damaged by these hyperactive norms. With such high burnout rates, firms work through a continuing stream of young people with few senior mentors, as so many move on quickly, losing the benefits of experience and long-term iteration of ideas.
The impact on how we play.
All of these factors – the upper crust individualism, stress, the exclusion of experienced, minority and women voices, sometimes reinforced by a minority of entitled ‘power gamers’ aiming to retain the status quo — help explain how the writing and production of games has remained, for the most part, a conservative bastion.
The big money continues to flow towards titles which focus on a power fix for white men, and reinforce tired tropes which would make blockbuster Hollywood film producers blush. Ranker.com counts just three black men in its crowd-generated list of ‘100 Most Badass Game Characters’ — the same as the number of anthropomorphised hedgehogs. Women do slightly better with 17.
Meanwhile Just Cause, Metal Gear Solid, Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted et al revolve around minor variations of steely eyes and a stubbled white square jaw. The broad thrust of AAA development is repetitive, unadventurous and unworthy.
To be sure, this situation isn’t necessarily because game developers (devs) are uncommonly sexist or racist as a group, though there are many stories, but it is certainly linked to the fact that the vast majority of the staff involved come from similar backgrounds. That they come up with samey protagonists and fantasies, following parallel threads of cultural assumption, is in no way surprising.
Reasons to be cheerful.
That said, progressive gamers have victories to celebrate. One noticeable change has been in the industry’s increasing willingness to engage with women devs and audiences. Characters such as Lara Croft have been updated and rounded out from their initial versions. New characters such as Ellie (The Last of Us), Clementine (The Walking Dead) and Maxine Caulfield (Life is Strange) have joined an expanded roster of multidimensional female roles.
Credit goes straightforwardly to the pressure placed on the industry by grassroots women’s movements which have been voluble and brave in demanding a place in gaming’s cultural output. Mentoring schemes and expanded courses are helping to drive up the number of women developers, while cultural criticism from women gamers and academics has given firepower to progressive industry figures pushing greater diversity in storytelling. There is every reason to think that, at least in terms of gender, such welcome changes can accelerate despite conservative resistance.
There are also hints that devs are running out of patience with dodgy working practices. In 2004, crunch time had affected 97.6% of devs in the previous two years. By the time of the 2016 IGDA survey that number had dropped to 65%, though with a caveat of a trend towards self-employment and contract work within the industry. IGDA’s 2014 survey found that 56% of respondents actively wanted a trade union.
Putting aside Silicon Valley bosses’ plastic-progressive rhetoric over Donald Trump’s attacks on minorities and women, the broad sweep of culture both in production and consumption of games tends to manifest a neoliberal and often socially conservative root. But with an audience that now incorporates a vast, diverse swathe of the general public, and a workforce which no longer considers avoiding collective organisation to be ‘the way of the industry’, it may not be able to afford stasis.