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Do you complain about developing video games? And other such questions. - Issue #4

Games, Politics & Labor
A little Q&A with some of the questions I have been getting from people curious about what working inside the video games industry looks like.

In the past week, I was asked at least fifteen times what I am doing for the summer and how does that bring bread on my table. Quite a fair question, if you consider the sharp rise in prices, here in Romania, where a loaf of bread is something I am looking twice at.
The answer to that question is typical: I am working for the trade union, and at the same time I am working on a summer research on the working conditions inside the video games industry. The answer doesn’t seem to satisfy the people asking, and they want to know more about what it looks like to work in the video games industry.
Given the fact that maybe not everyone reading this newsletter is aware of what work inside the industry looks like, I have decided to format it as a Q&A. Each answer is followed by a reading exemplifying even further what I was trying to cover, as well as a fragments from some conversations I have had with developers.
🤓 Is it all fun and play working on making games?
It depends what you can classify as fun, but if you are thinking that working on a video games means only playing it, then you are missing on the bigger part behind it. A game is just another capitalistic product, and in order to produce it, you need to make sure that you have the infrastructure on point, that you understand the desires of the markets and that you have the required funds to keep you going.
In creating a video game, people are working as developers, designers, music artist, environment artist, and the list could continue with the amount of roles present on a simple video game. Depending on the size of the studio developing the game, you might find more specialized people that do one task over and over again: for example, an artist specializing in creating the trees in a massive open-world game. If the company is smaller, you might have people acting as jacks of all trades, or there might be just a developer.
A lot of the outside world thinks that we are still doing things for fun. The people who are playing games, and some of them are now getting into game development. Sometimes, you find that it is just a job. We always tell the kids: You want to do QA (quality assurance, game testing), you do not just get to play games all day and test them. No, it is actually just playing the game over 60 or so times to find that one bug that does one thing, log it in so you help other people. When you do that thing 60 times, you are not trying to play the game, but actually break the game. - an aspiring game developer who is accustomed with the industry
Fun fact, Stardew Valley was made by one guy while his girlfriend was working jobs to support him. More than 1000 people worked on developing GTA 5. On Red Dead Redemption 2, 1200 voice actors worked to read over 500.000 lines of dialogue, amounting to over 2000 pages of script.
‘Stardew Valley’ Creator Eric Barone on the Game’s Lonely Origins and His Secretive Next Game
😒 How bad can it be? Come on, it is games…
While there isn’t one person who can speak on behalf of the entire games industry, there are enough journalistic investigations and academic research to suggest that there are serious cases of overtime work, of poor working conditions present all throughout the industry.
People refer to the phenomenon of working longer hours than usual, over a certain period of time, usually close to the release date of a product as crunch.
“It’s killing people. Something has to change. I can’t see how we can go on like this for another year… The workload is just endless.”. - an Epic Games developer speaking about extreme crunch at the studio that developed Fortnite.
Another widespread practice is relying on contract workers, without necessarily offering them a chance of progress or ascensions into the full-time ranks of the company. The contractors stay for as long as they are needed on the product, and then they go and contract for another game. The problem is that contract workers are paid slightly less, and some of them have slightly less benefits, or maybe no benefits at all. Additionally, they are seen as being a different part of the project development team, and in some cases, they might not even be considered as part of the team.
“Most contractors are paid on a day or hourly rate,” says Nate Gibson, an independent contractor compliance specialist and expert on employment misclassification. “They get no unemployment insurance, no workers’ comp. They’re basically told what to do and where to do it. They’re really treated like employees but are classified as independent contractors as a way for employers to save money.”
The game industry's disposable workers - Polygon
🔥 But why do they still go in there if they know about the working conditions?
All of us know that friend who is really into playing games and has the dream of becoming a developer one day. The gamer is always talking about how games are very fun, and he is passionate about it. PASSION, that is the thing. The video games industry is considered to be a passion industry, and I keep telling people that in order to get into it, you must have a certain degree of familiarity or even passion for video games.
There might be cases when a programmer without any passion for video games gets hired, but often people that start working in the field, come out of a tradition of playing games. Additionally, there are plenty of them waiting at the door, something that Marx and Engels will call The Reserve Army of Labour, referring to the unemployed or underemployed in a society. In the case of video games industry, I am using it to talk about the people who would love to work inside the industry, but haven’t gotten the possibility to do so yet.
There are many of them waiting to be let inside the industry, waiting to get a foot in the door. From my interviews conducted so far, all people are aware that the industry relies on a model which encourages its employees to work overtime or to put up with not-very-ideal conditions. Why? If they do not confirm, there are countless people waiting at the door, willing to do that. You do not even have to tell people that they are forced to crunch, because they already know that they are not the only ones looking for that job.
Of course it is not everywhere like that, but on a structural level, it is acknowledged that the Reserve Army of Labour actually benefits the companies and the higher-ups: the people with big money.
Playboring in the Tester Pit: The Convergence of Precarity and the Degradation of Fun in Video Game Testing - Ergin Bulut, 2015
About me
I am writing this minutes before Saturday, and I can say that I am running to watch the last 5 minutes of the EURO game between Italy and Belgium. Intense!
Spoilers: I will write something about gambling soon. Did you know that one of the top streamers on Twitch lost $400.000 gambling slots?
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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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