Hidden labours: how capitalism shapes gaming culture

Paolo Ruffino looks beyond the myths of the video game industry to its contemporary neoliberal realities

April 29, 2020 · 9 min read
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The number of people working in the video games industry has been steadily increasing in the UK and globally. According to the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE), there were 2,261 game companies in the UK in 2018, and in 2016 the video game sector contributed over £2.87 billion to the national economy. But enthusiastic claims about the growth of the industry must be counterbalanced with a closer look at the dynamics of capitalistic exploitation in the workplace.

The illusion of independence

For decades, being male, white, 18-35 years old, with programming skills and a significant economic safety net, have been considered prerequisite for anyone wishing to attempt a career in game development. Meanwhile, invisible social barriers, such as not having a computer science degree, access to a strong professional network, and a number of years of self-financed training and experimentation, have made it harder for those who do not conform to these demographic or socio-economic expectations. Even today, neoliberal political economies reinforce themselves and their own work as a lonely and competitive adventure, in which everyone in the profession is responsible for their own success or failure.

A publication that perfectly elucidates this vision is David Kushner’s Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, published in 2003. The ‘two guys’ are John Carmack and John Romero, founders of id Software, the company behind the genre-defining first-person shooters Doom and Quake. The book reinforces the myth of the lonely computer geek, living frugally and making a fortune thanks to a simple, brilliant idea.

Ten years later, the documentary Indie Game: The Movie reproduced the same imaginary in relation to the emerging field of independent productions. The designers behind Braid, Fez and Super Meat Boy are represented as romantic heroes, capable of achieving great artistic results from the desks of their home offices and by putting everything (their family, loved ones, health and finances) at risk.

Most recently, the documentary From Bedrooms to Billions presents a history of the UK video game industry following similar tropes: the digital entertainment industry is born thanks to the creative genius of a group of lonely (male, white) individuals, capable of understanding the hidden potential of computers and, later, the internet.

The myth of the lonely auteur of video games has been reinforced by technological and economic changes in the video game industry. The figure of the independent developer, as exemplified by Bennet Foddy’s speech at IndieCade East, has been re-emerging in North America and beyond, and in part revamping the myths surrounding Carmack, Romero and others that often appear in historical accounts of the game industry.

The myth of the lonely auteur of video games has been reinforced by technological and economic changes in the video game industry

‘Independent’ has many meanings, but usually refers to game developers who distribute their own games, by-passing the traditional publishers and distributors. Technological and economic changes have incentivised this modality of labour. On the development side, freely available software tools such as Twine, GameMaker and, more recently, the Unreal Engine and Unity, have made it possible for small, self-funded companies and individuals to enter the market with relatively low costs.

Online distribution has been facilitated by Steam, a platform for the digital download of video games, though its monopoly has been challenged both by producers (Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo), which have opened their own platforms to lure independents, and by online markets such as itch.io, which offers fairer economic retributions for the developers. According to UKIE, it is now estimated that over 90 per cent of game developers are working, or have been working throughout their career, as independents or in self-funded micro-companies.

Contradictions and hurdles

While independence has been seen as a liberating concept by many who have embraced its promises in the past decade, it has not eliminated the exploitation that characterises labour in a major company. In fact, is has served to hide the contradictions and hurdles that the profession of game development implies, while exacerbating the negative material consequences of competitiveness and individualism.

It’s the ‘freaks, normal, amateurs, artists, dreamers, drop-outs, queers, housewives’ and others who are challenging the industry to move beyond the corporate business as usual and cultures of misogyny

The stress on the individual as the sole person responsible for the success of a digital product has put the presence of networks and intermediaries in the background. It is rare that a video game is made by a single person, without the support of those specialising in design, sound, art, programming, marketing and distribution provided by collaborators, sub-contractors and friends. Far from working in isolation, game developers rely on festivals and meet-ups to engage with potential collaborators and an audience of consumers.

As researchers from the Canadian group Indie Interfaces recently argued, the role of these events and their organisers is often underestimated when looking at the careers of game developers: ‘Intermediaries engage in a whole host of networking, brokerage, translation, care and support activities that impact all aspects of game production, distribution and reception.’

Academic incubator

Academia has also played a vital role as an incubator of new companies and network opportunities to aspiring developers, and in establishing contexts of visibility. IndieCade, one of the major festivals for indie producers, was co-founded and is currently chaired by Celia Pearce, associate professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Social and ethnographic research conducted by Jennifer R Whitson, Bart Simon and Felan Parker at Canadian universities emphasises how co-working spaces and offices at major companies are proliferating with informal human relations and knowledge exchanges that potentially translate into collective organising.

Those who do not belong to social groups that take part in such a hyper-competitive and self-exploiting regime of labour are usually marginalised within the industry. In Indie Game: The Movie, Danielle McMillen, wife of Super Meat Boy’s Edmund McMillen, is portrayed as talking sporadically while sitting on a sofa, knitting and waiting for her husband to finish his job. She also appears when Edmund proposes to her from the stage of a major video game conference.

Yet we know that the unpaid labour of caring for a family, house and relations often falls on the shoulders of those who are left at home ‘sitting on the sofa’, namely women. In 2004, the anonymous story of the ‘EA Spouse’ revealed that 60-100 hour ‘crunch periods’ at companies like Electronic Arts are only possible for those who have a family member who takes care of any other business full-time.

When women enter the game business they are often singled out and presented as exceptions and anomalies, while keeping a façade of inclusiveness. Laine Nooney has written about the story of Roberta Williams, one of the most influential game designers in the late 1980s and early ‘90s at Sierra On-Line. Williams was frequently interviewed and repeatedly presented as a woman ‘added on’ as Nooney argues, to an otherwise homogenous, male-dominated narrative. Her practice of making games from home, with no programming skills, could not fit in the shared vision that then, and still now, differentiates between the normal and the exceptional game worker.

Challenging the norm

According to indie game designer Anna Anthropy, it’s the ‘freaks, normal, amateurs, artists, dreamers, drop-outs, queers, housewives’ and others who are challenging the industry to move beyond the corporate business as usual and cultures of misogyny. Initiatives such as Women in Games, and a broader variety of game development practices, are exposing and challenging the social barriers that make the game industry less inclusive. Others, like Change the Game by Google Play, are attempting to capture this new interest and potential profit-making opportunity through initiatives that ‘celebrate and empower women as players and creators’.

On the labour front, we see more optimistic efforts responding to changes in contemporary capitalism, such as the establishment of Game Workers Unite, which in the UK has already been recognised as a union. This demonstrates that many game workers now perceive their jobs as a context in which rights, fair conditions of pay and social inclusivity should be at the forefront. The myth that surrounded game developers is revealing its contradictions and inequalities, and workers are responding by introducing collective strategies of resistance.

Dr Paolo Ruffino is a lecturer at the University of Liverpool and author of Future Gaming: Creative Interventions in Video Game Culture (MIT Press)

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