Amidst all the excitement of the two new consoles launching this month, there’s a very good chance that an important article detailing some of the more deplorable aspects of the videogame industry will be quickly forgotten. The piece, ‘You Can Sleep Here All Night’: Video Games and Labor by Ian Williams, highlights what many of us who read, write, or care about the medium likely already know, but often choose to put to the backs of our minds: most videogames, in their current state at least, might be awful for the people who create and play them.
Williams’ article is an excellent update on the grim realities of the videogame industry circa 2013, but his underlying concern for the well-being of developers isn’t exactly breaking news. Most of us have known for quite a while now that the way many videogame development studios are structured is enormously detrimental to the lives of those who actually create them. Stories regarding the creation of great games like Rockstar San Diego’s Red Dead Redemption detail family members concerned with the vampiric demands placed on loved ones working for the company. Metro 2033: Last Light developer 4A Games reportedly endured incredible hardship while making a title that, while problematic in many respects, is notable for bringing a distinctly Eastern European voice into the traditionally Western dominated first-person shooter market.
Almost every story that comes from the world of videogame development (when it isn’t produced by the company or publisher itself) urges those of us who love the medium to pay attention to the human cost inherent to their current production model. Just the same, after years of having this message repeated to us, nothing seems to have changed. All of it adds up to an extreme example of corporate failure and artistic exploitation, which is sure to chew up and spit out gifted people. Potential visionaries, chronically overworked and underpaid, may leave a brief sojourn into the industry with the sort of bitter taste in their mouths that makes them want to leave games behind for good. When we look, realistically, at how the medium has benefited from these kind of business practices it becomes even harder to consider engaging with mainstream games at all in the future. If this past console generation — one that has seen smaller teams making a much larger impact than the bloated, “AAA” studios — has proven anything, it’s that the sheer expense that goes into creating more impressive graphics doesn’t equal a more satisfying gameplay experience after all.
Aside from labour issues+, there’s also the tidal waves of violence and misogyny within the games themselves to contend with. There are plenty of excellent videogames that provoke thought, offer inoffensive fun, or otherwise provide audiences with a way to pass their time that isn’t an assault on their better judgement. There are also, of course, many more titles that play like the worst kind of summer blockbusters (but enjoy the added benefit of being released year round). Call of Duty, as naïve as its multiple developers appear to be, is jingoistic nonsense that has transitioned over the years from an interesting chronicle of millennial American insecurity to unthinking gun pornography. It, and the many games that chase after the money its model promises, dominate the free time of millions with never-ending, ever more realistic battlefields. Headshots spurt dopamine releasing experience points in place of blood; an overdriven guitar chugs as one virtual soldier (dressed in recognizable military outfit) murders another; a points leaderboard tells everyone how they did as a faux nuclear explosion decimates the world portrayed in the screen’s background. What is this? Why is this the prevailing icon of an emerging medium?
Couple that particular issue with games like Grand Theft Auto V — a release from Rockstar Games who previously created a number of legitimately progressive titles — that seem content to laugh at trans people or treat women as accessories rather than characters just as worthy of development as men. It can be easy to want to give up on the medium altogether. Are audiences passively absorbing far worse ideals and social outlooks from videogames than other forms of art/entertainment? The whole medium often seems toxic, filled with reprehensible worldviews that it would be better to avoid in favour of more fully formed, better democratized avenues of expression like visual art, literature, or film.++
But how much of a hypocrite does it make me to continue taking part in this medium as a critic and consumer? To be excited to play new videogames on a new console while aware of just how terrible so much of this industry is? These issues wouldn’t be nearly as exasperating if videogames weren’t filled with as much promise as they are. The fact of the matter is, many of us don’t want to turn away in disgust from everything that’s wrong. We want to engage with the better aspects of games even as we also want to forget all about them and their many, many problems.
On the balance, yes, it seems like videogames may be awful. They are made by crushing talented people and seem strangely fixated on some of humanity’s worst tendencies. But maybe, in their blending of corporate interest, technological fetishism, and artistic expression, videogames in their current form are just a potent reflection of a wider 21st century culture. It’s likely that the surfacing of labour abuse and the fictional reinforcement of dangerous social norms are going to stick around until a greater paradigm shift occurs, one that has far more to do with altering traditional business structures and cultural values than anything else. Maybe the only thing that those of us concerned with the state of games can do, then, is be as vocal as possible. If we choose not to opt out of videogames — and there are very good reasons to stick around and take part in the early years of such an interesting new medium — then we ought to at least be conscientious. We can be loud and dissatisfied about how games can be better, how the problems that they’re suffused with right now don’t have to be around forever.
+ Let’s not forget where the machines we use to play console games come from either. Foxconn, the company infamous for installing “suicide nets” around some of its plants in order to cut down on loss of life, has been tasked with producing a wide array of systems from Microsoft’s Xbox 360 to Sony’s PlayStation 4.
++ Here, at least, we can find a good reason to hope. Many modern game critics, journalists, and personalities have become quick to identify problematic depictions of sexuality, gender, and race. While positive change may be glacier (and popular commentary super disheartening) a shift in perspective does seem to be happening. Maybe I just read good articles and follow good people on Twitter, though? Let’s hope my viewpoint on this point isn’t overly optimistic.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor, and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist, and C&G Magazine. He is also editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.