“The change can only come from within the industry” – PAIDIA in conversation with games labour
You can find the German translation of this interview here.
Paidia: In what positions have you worked in the game industry so far?
Lily: I have worked as QA (Quality Assurance), as a Game Designer and as a Character Designer. I also have some experience with Narrative Design
For how long have you been working in the industry?
For about 5 years.
Did your ideas about working in the games industry differ from the reality? In what way?
It is far colder, less creative and far more intensive that I imagined going into it.
Colder in what way?
Many businesses treat games as a product – whereas the people who work on them, or want to work on them, want to treat them as an art form, almost, the same way that many people working in, for example, film, treat their creative media. So a lot of the time creativity is stamped out, since the only thing that matters is not making a quality product, or something expressive, but a calculated product designed to extract as much money as possible from the people that interact with it. In that regard, it feels like a cold industry to work in, as when you're on the outside looking in, it feels like a deeply creative industry, which is far from the reality unless you are lucky enough to work in an indie studio or small team, or as a "director" (people like Hideo Kojima for example, but that is literally an insanely rare standard that most people will never get to experience). You are essentially a cog in a machine that makes highly monetised and predatory products in most situations.
What you describe sounds like the textbook definition of worker alienation but with the twist that most consumers have no idea what happens behind the scenes. Work in games seems to be especially invisible to most people. And that’s on purpose if you look at people like Dan Houser saying games are ‘magical’ like they are ‘made by elves’. Such statements must be particularly frustrating for people in the industry.
Yes, incredibly frustrating - and a lot of the time, it’s a myth/idea that absolutely helps to perpetuate worker abuse and obfuscate the realities of the industry.
How can the image of the games industry and its realities be so different? Isn’t it part of the training or education for jobs in the industry to give people a realistic idea?
Realistic training would put most people off of working in the industry. I have a masters in game design, and my experience was essentially as the head or lead in a small indie studio, so in that regard it was accurate. However, as I said before, most people won't get to do that. Most studios are mid-sized and focus mainly on mobile or spinoff products that are less about making games they think people will enjoy and more about making products to sell. The biggest issue here is that mismatch between the two types of game development, and that most people assume game studios are all groups of people working to make games like Halo, or Pokémon, or Final Fantasy etc., instead of the reality of most studios existing to churn out cheap mobile software or 3rd party adware games. So people do training, that prepares them to work in an indie team, or a highly creative position in a smaller team or studio, and then they go and work for numerous mid-size studios where the reality is very different.
What are your own labor conditions like? Is there a specific example you want to share?
When I worked as QA, I was essentially treated like a monkey with a keyboard. QA was the only department at that studio that was expected to do overtime so I ended up doing 80-hour weeks for about one and a half years until I quit.
Working in indie is by far and away superior to working at an actual studio, especially as someone on the autistic spectrum. Companies will do everything they can to restrict your behaviour and will happily benefit from certain aspects while denying working support in whatever form you might require.
QA seems to be one of the most precarious parts of the industry but also a starting or entrance point for a lot of people. Is it treated as a crucible one must go through to be part of the industry?
QA is in a weird purgatory, where its ‘common knowledge’ that most people start in QA, since it rarely ever requires previous experience. This makes it very appealing for would be designers, and artists, who don’t have the studio experience their desired role requires. They start in QA, and show off their other skills from that role and move up. The trouble is, is that studios also know that “most people start in QA” and use that to take advantage of people. This happened not only to me, but several other people in the QA team I worked in. I was hired as QA as a ‘run-up’ to a junior designer position that was going to open up about 6 months away. I was going to do the QA position to get experience in the studio and be moved to the junior designer position once it was available. However, that role never actually materialised, and I was essentially just told over and over “once you're the best QA in the team, we might consider you for design!” There were four different people in the QA team who had all been told the same thing, and we all put up with the shitty treatment because we believed that speaking up would kill our chances to be promoted to the jobs we wanted. We found out that QA in that team had a super high turnover, since they refused to give permanent contracts to QA, preferring instead to offer a rolling 3 month contract so that once you realised that you were never going to be anything other than QA, and that they treated QA like shit, they could just not offer you a contract extension and there would be nothing you could do about it. It was also well known in the studio that this was what they did, with there being about 3 people in the studios history that ever got to leave QA. One of them, a developer/programmer, told me that he saw so many people basically fall into the same trap, and that it wasn’t just that studio, almost every studio would lure people into QA positions that way.
He also said that once you were the “best QA in the team” they would just do everything they can to keep you in QA forever with that ‘carrot’ of a potential promotion since nobody actually wanted to be QA, mainly due to the absolutely miserable treatment you would receive (which was universal).
What kind of working support would workers need in your experience?
This doesn't apply to all studios, but a lot of studios require very extreme working conditions, such as long overtime and severe crunch. Once this overtime and crunch requirement is over, employees are basically left with no recovery time, or any kind of recuperation or even recognition for their hard work. This industry is rife with stories of people sleeping under their desks, going months without seeing their children due to their long hours, breaking down from exhaustion and stress and just otherwise being treated miserably during times of crunch (which only occurs due to upper management poorly budgeting time). This essentially means that employees are repeatedly asked to sacrifice their health and wellbeing for the sake of covering for managements mistakes, with no support afterwards or any concern towards their health. This is especially pertinent in places like the US and UK which have pretty appalling working conditions anyway.
It should be noted however that industry conditions in this regard are improving: the studio I work at now has a no overtime policy, and many studios are trying to adopt a no-crunch culture (but whether they actually achieve that varies wildly)
What are in your opinion the biggest problems in the games industry?
The biggest problems in the industry for workers is the concept of profit before employee health and wellbeing. Companies will work you to the bone, ask you to take part in unethical practices and will not hesitate to remind you that there is someone else who could do your job if you aren't happy with that. My experiences in the UK were obviously worse, but things still haven't been perfect in Germany either.
This sounds like a climate of terror. Being exploited, working 80 hours a week, and being told you are replaceable at the same time. This also does not sound far off from the labour conditions Marx describes in the 19th century. How can it be that the rights of workers are trampled on like that? Is it the same in the UK and Germany?
For the most part, in the UK, there’s a long history of abysmal workers’ rights and treatment. The UK literally invented the concept of a ‘zero hour contract’, where you are contractually hired to work 0 hours a week. This means your employer can give you as many or as few hours of work as they like, and you are technically counted as an employee, so you cannot claim benefits or income support, even if you go months without being given hours of work. This is the kind of work culture that exists in the UK - unstable, temporary positions, in which where you may need 2-6 jobs at once, all zero hour, to simply get enough work hours to survive, with the possibility of being fired for any to no reason at any time looming over you. Companies in the UK, especially games companies, heavily use/abuse contract work, and there are entire studios made up of temporary contract workers all working on one month or 3 month rolling contracts, some of whom have worked at that studio for years, but they are still considered temporary workers and have the lack of rights that comes with that. Many people in the UK have basically accepted or are even completely unaware that they would even have rights as workers. Mostly people think of labour unions as a concept from the 1900s that isn’t needed in a modern society. Most people just accept that if you don’t accept the shitty working conditions, someone else will, and you need to pay the bills somehow. Compare this to Germany, where labour unions are incredibly common, workers rights are massively and aggressively protected, where you are legally not allowed to work more than a certain number of hours a week and must be paid for overtime (which isn’t the case in the UK - you aren't required to be paid for overtime), and it becomes clear how working in Germany is a much more pleasant and stress free experience.
With poor labour conditions as ubiquitous as they are what hinders wide-spread labour organization or even unionization?
Unionisation is just not a concept in the UK. GWU has been trying to organise in the UK but because most people are relatively unaware of their rights, and how to stand up for them, and because they are used to being disposable, people who are aware are scared to stand up for them. Getting caught unionising would be a very easy way to lose your job, or even be blacklisted, since companies benefit greatly from the way things currently are.
So fear (of losing your job, being blacklisted etc.) is one of the biggest problems for unionization? Does the heightened competitiveness between workers also play a role?
I would say fear of losing your job is the biggest issue - the main way you get work is not simply with your CV, but with credits. Being in a shipped game’s credits is a massive accomplishment and one that is almost always a requirement. To have ‘shipped’ a game means being in the credits of a retail version, and if you are fired before the game was completed or leave before it ships, you almost certainly will have that taken away from you. So when you say, for example, “I worked at X studios on Y for 3 years”, but you're not in the credits because you were fired for trying to unionise, or get paid overtime or some other "disruption", that’s going to look really, really, really bad on you. In fact, it’s common for studios to remove people that they didn’t like for whatever reason from the credits if they quit. So typically people will endure whatever abuse until the game is shipped, and then either quit, or try to lobby for better treatment or a bonus for a successful product launch. The latter typically either never happens or is a complete pittance when compared to the huge amount of labour put into these things.
You said that conditions are improving in some parts of the industry. What causes these changes?
Mostly when workers take things into their own hands, either by forming working co-operatives, or making their own studios, or, as Ubisoft did recently, actively speaking out against systematic abuse and unionising and ousting their abusers. I would like to pointedly note that this often has nothing to do with outside pressure – the change can only come from within the industry.
So is this also where organisations like Game Workers Unite come into place which make people aware that they are not alone in these situations and give them a platform to organise?
Yes, that’s actually exactly why I joined GWU. I wanted to support my fellow games workers and help them understand they have a lot more power than companies let them think they have.
And what stands in the way of these changes? Competitive pressure?
For the most part, studios that engage in abusive worker practices simply never face any kind of consequences – in fact, they typically massively profit. If you're paying someone for 45 hours of work a week, and then get 60 free hours of overtime, that’s an absolutely incredible amount of money that they didn't have to pay, and they still get the labour out of it. Even if the employee quits, there’s a dozen other contractors who are blissfully unaware and will eagerly take their place.
As a relevant tangent here, oftentimes they may try to give ‘time off in lieu’ (i.e., if you do 5 hours of overtime, they give you 5 extra holiday hours) but even if they do, it will often be for a tiny fraction of the actual overtime you worked, using the excuse it “wasn’t approved overtime”. They get away with claiming the overtime was ‘unapproved’ by pressuring you into staying without outright asking. Then it’s seen as you ‘giving 110%’ which they'll praise you for but will not reimburse/pay you for, because they “didn't expressly ask you to stay for overtime work”. I had my credits almost entirely stripped from a game for asking to be paid for work done in "voluntary" overtime.
Studios that pay their workers properly, give them proper working hours and proper benefits and overtime pay often make games more slowly and with slightly smaller profit margins, which causes most stockholders to shriek in terror and desperately try to stop from happening. And I think therein lies the biggest issue – for the most part, studios are owned and controlled by their stockholders. The stockholders make ridiculous deadlines and the smallest possible budgets they can, and then pressure producers to crack the whip and force employees to crunch in unpaid overtime to get the games made in time with their absolutely unrealistic deadlines and budgets. Most of the time, studios work for the stockholders, who essentially dictate what they expect to see and start threatening to revoke their investments/future investments if they don't see it.
What can consumers, journalists, academics do to help to improve labour conditions in the games industry?
Amplify the voices of workers, don't purchase games from studios that are proven to engage in abusive practices or predatory practices, and shine a light on the people and systems perpetuating the abuse. To me, from my perspective, consumers are the biggest obstacle. Academics and journalists are usually fully aware of the abuse in the industry, but it seems that a company can be full of rapists, or give their employees PTSD (look into the team that worked on Mortal Kombat – they were forced to watch videos of actual human and animal executions to make art and animations for the game), or be fully abusive to their employees, and the only thing consumers care about is how much they have to pay to play a game. It seems no abuse is too horrific to stop them from throwing their money at a company.