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#7 Games of Empire and Working the Phones

Games, Politics & Labor
What do working in call centers and video game production have in common? Harassment in the industry, and other work-related conflicts.

📞 My friends work in call-centers
Over the years, multiple of my friends started working in call-centers, picking up the phone when an angry customer will call about a problem with their television. A great part of them worked as sales agents, talking to Americans phoning in about internet problems. My friends would help them from across the world, and in the meantime, they would try to sell them a package: an antivirus, a VPN, a subscription service.
Working in call-centers is definitely a tedious job requiring the people doing it to have a smile always on their face, a certain intonation of the voice and to follow a very strict procedure. The level of surveillance at the workplace is more subtle, varying from supervisors walking across the room, looking at what you are doing, at the way you are sitting, to people listening in to the calls you are receiving.
Working in a call center is different from having an industrial job in which your task is to repeat a certain task over and over again. In the manufacture, you have the task to produce a good to be sold. In the call centers, you repeat the same script over and over again, maintain the correct posture, keep the right intonation, with the aim of giving the customers emotions, feelings, and convincing them that they need a certain product.
An industrial worker feels alienated from his work, feels like the hand he uses to hammer the bolts on the car rooftop is not his anymore. He does the task so many times, that he feels the hand moving robotically, leaving him without control. He feels himself only when outside of work, always dreaming of the shift to be done, so he could return home. For people working the phones, the situation is similar, but they feel their emotions, their facial expressions alienated from their bodies. They keep on the smile on their face, despite feeling like throwing up or fatigued from the conversations. They maintain the smile, because the supervisors push forward the believe that the customers can see whether or not they are smiling.
Working the Phones, a book written by Jamie Woodcock, represents a workers’ inquiry into the call-center industry. Jamies finds himself a job in the industry, and reports from the floor on the labor conditions, the social relations and the role that surveillance plays in the process. In doing that, he argues that the introduction of technology and the argument around making customers’ lives easier, is not a neutral process. We should rather look how technology aids capitalism in expanding itself and how does it contribute to the surveillance machine.
In his book, Jamie recalls the experiences of having to go through mandatory “Buzz Times”, during which the supervisors will make the workers play certain games or sing childish songs. Those moments were meant to uplift the mood, to make everyone feel more energetic, while in his case, it contributed to workers feeling ashamed of their actions. Those “Buzz Times” provided another layer of surveillance, targeting those who refused to partake in the activity or those who looked dissatisfied.
In working the phones, Jamie argues that the job is different from that of a worker in an industrial plant. The output is different, and also the process of globalization and outsourcing takes different shape. Call centers aren’t spread all over the world where the costs are minimum. They take into account also the linguistic abilities of the people residing there, as well as the links to the country from where the customers will dial in. The British might interact more often with someone working at a cell centre in India, the same as the Americans interacting with Romanian workers during one of their night shifts.
Despite the surveillance, workers exhibit acts of resistance, such as prolonging their breaks if possible, playing games during the calls or even trying to address the problems they are facing. In showing their resistance, they are not fighting directly with the CEO of the company, but rather with the team supervisor who internalizes the behavior of the CEO, and regards himself in control, ready to police any activity that is not desirable. The team leader is there to police, to tell the workers that they are not doing well enough, pushing them to sell more, and to make sure they do not leave early. Their ability to sell give the team leader a bonus, and the latter tries to make sure that they will get it every month, despite of circumstances.
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Jamie’s analysis is a necessary one in the current labor context, in which the typical jobs a 18-25 years old would pick up are different from that of our parents. While our parents would have gone into factories, we would join the ranks of customer service call centers, answering the phones over and over again. His method of work inquiry allows the workers’ voices to be taken into account, and grassroots experience to be the starting point of analysis. Following in the footsteps of the Italian workerists, such as Tronti and Hardt, he starts from class struggle, and goes to the capital.
In starting from class struggle, we are able to understand the social dynamics that working people engage in, both at their workplace and in the greater society. If we would have started with certain assumptions deriving from the analysis of capital, we might have been proven wrong after talking to workers about their own experience.
💰 The Capitalist Empire and Video Games
When thinking about video games, do we regard them as any other commodity that is produced inside the capitalist system? Are video games similar to microchips, to steel pipes or even to cars? Is the work of game creators work in itself or is it regarded as play?
With those questions looming over our heads, Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter take on the task of situating the production of video games within the capitalist system. This aspect doesn’t seem obvious at first, because those of us, infatuate with video games, and with the aspirations of working inside a studio one day might not even think of it as work in itself. Working on video games is fun, it is meant to give us a feeling of importance, of coolness and desire to continue on pushing for an indefinite amount of time. Working on a video game seems like a dream coming true, creating a project which will get played by millions of players, allowing us to put our name on it.
“If there is anything that is clear at EA,” Pausch observes, “it is that the rank and file employees are absolutely passionate about making video games. They have grown up playing games, and for many this is truly their dream job… . Most grown ups do not realize how emotionally strong the draw is to this career path” - p. 55
The emotional draw to video games can be anatomized into three components: creativity, cooperation and cool.
• Creativity → the hope of making something beautiful.
• Cooperation → the rush of being involved in a big project.
• Cool → flexible hours, lax dress code, free food, lavish parties, etc.
Many of the video game developers talk about the rebellious aspect of working inside the industry, of not falling victims to the 9-to-5 workplaces, and doing something they are deeply passionate about. In analyzing their “rebellion”, Dyer-Witherford and De Peuter, rely on the workerist theory, showing that control of technical and cultural workers require discipline. Discipline is not only achieved by surveying them in the workplace, by punishing them when not meeting targets. Discipline is internalized, like an inner compulsion indistinguishable from our own will. The police is not even necessary in that case, because we police ourselves, thinking that someone is always watching.
The video game industry’s work-as-play ethos and its bad-faith rebel image have been one small element in an overarching mythology that presents digitization as dissolving the contradictions and conflicts of capitalism. The shattering of this ethos is a step toward a more realistic assessment.
The practice of not consider work inside the video games industry as work is dating back to its really origins, to the first video games developed. While the first video game came out of an University lab, in which students were working on Pentagon-related projects during the cold war, some of the early US game companies, such as Atari internalized a culture of refusing the bureaucratic work-style. With a “work smart, not hard” philosophy, a legendary lack of bureaucracy, as well as the idea that “a corporation is just people banding together”, parties, Atari promised “play-as-work”
The phenomenon continued, but nowadays most of the big companies resemble typical corporate settings, in which work is very clearly divided, and people work on specific tasks. The lavish parties of the 80s, and the rockstar lifestyle are long gone, maybe with some exceptions. What survived over the years is the idea that working on video games is not work in itself, and that putting in more hours of development is not a problem, since you are passionate about the project
🤔 What else to read?
  • The Game Outcomes Project, Part 4: Crunch Makes Games Worse: Paul Tozour Working long-hours on the development of a video games is seen by the team members as a fair cost of participating in an amazing project. Not only the passion for video games motivates this practice, but also the desire of feeling part of a project that will be called great by the members of the geek culture. While some people attribute the long working-hours to the unpredictability of the field, it also arises from the failure of management of accounting for idle and more intense creative moment. Maybe if you give yourself 12 weeks to finish the game, why not put in 15?
  • You can Sleep Here All Night - Ian Williams The passion of the video game developers often translates into the willingness of turning away adequate compensation and a well-paced working-schedule, in order to try to make it. Due to the highly competitive nature, and the increased size of the reserve army of labor, developers embrace the practice of working long hours, in order not to disappoint or to lose their job. While those practices are widespread, there are solutions, such as unionization, better representation of workers who do not buy into the geek culture, as well as a fight against the for-profit colleges who have for-profit programs in the gaming field. There isn’t a need for someone to pay to go to college, and have to take a class which is in fact working at a game company for free. Oh, not for free, because you actually pay for it through the tuition.
  • The Messy, True Story behind the Making of Destiny - Jason Schreier While crunch and representation are problems that have often been discussed in the video games industry, last-minute changes and complete reboots of the games are often the causes of those problems. Destiny, a game developed by Bungie, is a very well-known example of working 3-4 years on a video game, and only in the last year of development put out most of the content. The producer wanted it to be restructured, to look different, thus completely changing the artistic direction. This move, while it can be understood as a way to perfect the game - truth to be told, it made Destiny feel storyless - prompts users to go into crunch-mode, and to make everything in their power to deliver the game.
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Radu Stochita
Radu Stochita

Newsletter following the research process for my Honors Thesis which aims to understand the labor relations inside the video games industry.
Writing once a week (at least) about working inside the video game industry, the politics of games and their relationship to society.

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