Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tainted Love: How Game Companies Exploit Employees' Passion

Image courtesy of Jason Lee
It's a familiar homily to those looking at a satisfying career: "Do what you love, and work won't seem like work." It sounds all well and good, doesn't it? Imagine, a job that not only give you a paycheck to fill your wallet, but satisfaction to fill your soul. Creative industries abound where workers are not just happy to be there, they are passionate about the work they do, or want to find a place where they feel like they belong.

Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind the 300-pound gorilla of MMOs, World of Warcraft, looks to tap into that very feeling, that yearning for a sense of belonging. And in the company's latest recruitment video, they leap right past the Army's "It not just a job, it's an adventure" and goes straight into "We a family of people, just like you". Take a look:




In just six minutes, the video has tons of variation on passion, family, fulfillment and even love.he message is hammered home that this is not a job, it’s a new family. One part in particular that caught my ear was a  few employees emphasizing that all of the departments in Blizzard, even the purely creative ones, are considered part of the company's success. There is one part of the video that also confused me. One talking head says that the first thing you see when you start a Blizzard game is "... 'Designed by Blizzard'. And it's very true."

Um... I sure hope so. I mean, it seems obvious that a Blizzard game made in-house by Blizzard is designed by Blizzard. This statement seems like it was written by one of the Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As Ian Williams and Austin Walker outline in their anaylasis "Working For the Love of the Game: The Problem With Blizzard's Recruitment Video", peel back a layer and you see it reflects nearly everything wrong with video game companies as employers:

It is telling of the ideological and material conditions of the games industry that the simple act of giving a full group of workers credit on their production seems like an accomplishment. The irony, of course, is that those employees, beaming with pride, aren't themselves named or credited in the recruitment video.

But the video makes no mention of the concrete benefits that working at Blizzard provides. There’s no mention of benefits or wages; nothing about crunch time, that specter haunting the industry; nothing about the sort of material, tangible things that make a difference in how one is employed, rather than how one feels during employment. There are perfectly acceptable, subtle ways to talk about these things without veering into the gauche. Employees could talk about their own financial security, or about being able to plan for the future while simultaneously being fulfilled with their work today... But your recruitment will be based in love, not on wages. The mentions come rapid fire, culminating in the grand pronouncement from one employee: Blizzard employees are “just a bunch of geeks,” just like you. 

This is a window into how the industry as a whole views employment... this is [also] an industry with a layoff rate twice the national rate across all industries and a culture of crunch where 68% of respondents work more than 50 hours a week for months at a time in order to get a product out the door. It’s a bad tradeoff: In exchange for being quiet about wages, hours, benefits and the like, you’ll get to hang out with like-minded people you’ll love to be with. The Blizzard video is the distillation of this pitch in a very blunt form....Blizzard’s video is just one more artifact of a culture that preempts demands for fair remuneration with a prodding reminder that, after all, if you love what you do, then the pay shouldn’t matter. This is the same story told by Twitch executives who say that its streamers “aren’t interested” in being paid. It’s the same story that crops up any time someone wonders if modder labor is exploitative. It’s the same story that is so often leveraged to blur the line between fandom and promotional labor. It’s a story told so well and so often that it doubles in on itself: Exploited fans become exploited modders. Exploited modders become exploited developers. 

You might wonder, though, in a pitch that aims to capture a creative's sense of fulfillment, or a fan's love of playing games, what's wrong with focusing so much on passion?

All this talk of passion sets a very real paradigm, limiting the acceptable actions of those in poor labor conditions. Why is the industry so insistent that game development is “more than just a job?” Because if it’s just a job, just a 9 to 5 workday in a cubicle pounding out code or testing content, then the crunch time is something you can object to. In fact, you would (or should) be expected to object to a 60 hour week. If, instead, protesting crunch time means letting down a grand artistic vision (one which Blizzard reminds the viewer all employees contribute to) or, even worse, letting down your new family, that’s a very different proposition. None of us wants to let down our family and friends, but we can probably get away with letting down management. That social pressure is what keeps crunch time and other bad practices in place as a normal part of the industry. 

The mythology of crunch and a culture of layoffs have naturalized them, erasing their histories. Instead of being able to identify key shifts in industry labor practices, we’re told that we’ve always been at war with the 60 hour work week. There’s a sheepish air when people at leading companies bring up issues such as crunch, as if it’s unavoidable, like a downpour or an unbidden burp. This is nonsense. Crunch is certainly a disaster, but it is not an act of God. There is nothing that says that crunch and layoffs are unavoidable. The laws we write about how we work are products of men and women, not natural forces imposed upon us by an unseen hand.

And that's the heart of the issue, isn't it? The video seems directed at super fans but it really just hides the reality of  grueling work conditions and preys upon people's need to belong and sense of pride. Honestly, for all of the rah-rah about being a part of Blizzard, it all sort of comes off a little defensive.

Luckily, Paste Magazine bucks the comments section trend by both being not awful and having relevant and insightful commentary. Here what one former video game worker of 20 years had to say:

After over 20 years in the industry I finally had to pull back. They'd squeezed every last drop of passion out of me. Games haven't really been "design driven" for a long time anyway, and with F2P gaming gaining dominance the impact of the bottom line is only growing stronger Yes, they're beautiful, but all the innovation is happening in the back end. As for all the extracurricular stuff, that won't mean much when they hand you your walking papers, and you suddenly realize that for all the hours of your life they took may help you get your next job, but is meaningless for the job after that. Meals, games, entertainment are all about one thing... keeping you on campus for as many hours as possible.

So just because things have been this way, and are this way now doesn't mean they have to stay this way. But what will it take for that to happen?


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