The Expendables: How Game Development Standards are Inherently Harmful

In a way, you were the dream: someone who delivered high-quality work - or even perfection - without staying at the company long enough to get paid.

by Eira A. Ekre on March 18th, 2015

Many people in the game development industry are young, self taught, fresh out of college; people hoping to make a living on something they love. When full time employment is presented as a possible reward for hard work, many will push themselves too far, either to prove their worth as an employee, or simply because they desperately need a steady income.

Employers count on it.

In fact, the work structure of many game development companies is based on actively taking advantage of how passionate – and desperate – their employees are. It is common that companies don’t pay for overtime, claiming it discourages over-work. However, if an employee is dedicated to a project and often stays at the office until midnight, or works during the weekends, it is seen as an act of adorable loyalty – not something that’s harmful or should be discouraged.

The industry actively searches for “passionate” employees. People who are so happy to be working with games that they don’t make demands about payment or healthy work conditions. This kind of passion is usually found in juniors, interns or people who are new to the industry, and these kinds of employees are seen as expendable. A minimal effort might be spent on keeping them satisfied, but if they demand actual fair payment for their work, they’ll be replaced.

People not being able to handle the pressure, people breaking, is part of the plan. It is how cheap, high-quality content is created, and how they keep a steady flow of “new talent” coming to the company.

Just a Kingdom

The hallway and stairway of a castle, fallen into disrepair and dilapidated.

Photo CC-BY [AndreasS], filtered.

I hadn’t entered the gaming industry with the same kind of childlike wonder as many of my peers. Having already been through my “trial of fire” in the publishing industry at a young age, I knew that creative work wasn’t this magical, inclusive fairytale kingdom that I’d dreamed once upon a time. It is simply a kingdom; exploitative, patriarchal and archaic. Despite knowing this, I had gone into my current job hoping for a sense of security, but there was none to be found.

Management had made comments about full-time employment being a possibility for those dedicated enough. For a team consisting mostly of freelancers, juniors and interns, this vague promise became a trigger for a competitive and aggressive environment. Instead of people trusting in each other’s competence, every task was debated. With everyone struggling to show that they’re multi-disciplinary, or have the skills of a 10x engineer, people with little knowledge of a field still tried to take control of it, simply because they felt the need to show management that they were engaged in every part of the project. This arrangement was not about putting together a well-balanced team and encouraging them to work well together; it was about having a group of people and pitting them against each other, making sure that they’d have to fight, to stand out and be “extraordinary,” in order to get any kind of reward for their work.

With everyone struggling to win the favour of management, the team was incredibly dysfunctional, and I quickly learned that there is great disparity in how anger is seen in the workplace. At our office, male anger was seen as normal; a constructive, even creative force. We had one co-worker who wouldn’t hesitate to bring his teammates to tears. He would scream and hurl abuse at people until they agreed to implement his suggestions, and in a matter of months he was offered a Lead position on the project. To management there was little difference in people being afraid to question their Lead’s decisions, and a competent Lead uniting a team.

On the management level we had several men famous for their anger. One of the seniors could be compared to the stereotypical male genius in the Sherlock series; when he had a violent outburst at an intern – and subsequently sent them home – for accidentally using his coffee cup, it was written off as an eccentric quirk. No matter what he did to those “below” him, it was supposed to go unquestioned. The one time I saw someone call him out, the employee was quickly isolated, and quit their job soon afterwards. With standards like these, abusive behavior is rarely called out. It has been normalized to a point where it is basically unseen.

Meanwhile, anger or anxiety expressed by people of other genders never goes unnoticed; it is called out and often questioned, and more often than not management will get involved to ensure the person “doesn’t have another outburst”. If these people express anger, frustration or helplessness, it will be seen as an offense; a stigma that they can never rid themselves of. Firing people is nasty business, and so the company developed their own strategy of getting rid of people fast. More than once I watched them isolate a person, remove them from their specialty area, and ask them to produce content on the same level a senior would. If the employee questioned why it was happening to them, management would reference that one time they were angry, when they “proved they couldn’t work with others” (aka, that time they brought up how a co-worker had abused them).

People put in this situation always quit their job. I’ve never seen anyone actually being able to adapt. And that is the plan; to make someone so uncomfortable, and have them feel so mentally unwell, that they can’t possibly stay. It’s a way to keep people from advancing, and a long-term plan to make sure they leave the company.

Panicking Gracefully

A lone tower rising high against a stormy sky.

Photo CC-BY Brenda Clarke, cropped and filtered.

Sometimes we associate situations where people are put through abuse, aggression and threats with support. We think of people coming together and helping each other. But in this kind of situation, I’ve found quite the opposite to be true. Usually rewarding people with a couple of days off, or buying them alcohol, is seen as good compensation for putting them through “a rough patch”. It is seen as enough of a cure when someone is “feeling down”. With companies providing their employees with liquor, be it a well-stocked fridge at the office, or taking them to bars once a day of overtime is finished, it’s not surprising that many people in the industry find themselves with drinking problems.

If the person in fact needs much more than their boss buying them a beer to recover, they’re considered high-maintenance, and not worth the effort. If they cannot adapt to the hostile environment, they’ll simply have to leave their job.

I have a chronic illness that is triggered by stress. It takes the form of painful episodes that can last from anywhere between a day and several weeks. If it lasts long enough, I need to be hospitalized. Add to this the fact that I’m mentally ill, with severe depression and anxiety, and it’s not surprising that it’s taken me many years of effort to be able to work in the gaming industry.

At the beginning of 2014 I got a specific project employment. It wasn’t the full-time, full-benefits job that I’d been hoping for, but after a few years of underpaid freelancing it was close enough. Five months into the project was the first time I caught myself walking into an inner-city street without keeping an eye on the speeding cars. It wasn’t until a few weeks later – when I read an article about subconscious self-harm – that I was able to put my actions into context.

While there is a movement on social media where people can share their stories, it is rare for gaming companies to have any kind of internal discussion about policies and workload. Colleagues don’t talk with each other about what they’re going through. Because of this, you have no idea if you’re the only one thinking that your company is abusive towards a certain group of people, or if you’re the only one suffering. It’s easy to end up thinking that everyone else is handling the pressure just fine, and that you’re just weak. This isn’t the case – but when your colleagues don’t speak of the pressure, you don’t want to be the one person to open up about struggling.

As someone with anxiety I quickly learned how to panic “gracefully”. I found a bathroom on the top floor office that was rarely used, where I could curl up in a corner until the motion sensor lights went out and slowly find my way back to breathing normally. I learned how to handle being stuck in a meeting room with an abusive coworker for three hours straight, and only breaking down in the arms of my partner once I got home in the evening.

The Dragon in the Walls

A dragon rears against a full moon.

Photo CC-BY Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero, filtered.

There is so much untapped potential out there. People are driven out of the industry by unfair pay, a disregard for mental health, discrimination, abuse, or all of the above.

We need this to change. We need game developers to acknowledge the toxic and exploitative culture of the industry, and understand that taking care of employees – no matter if they’re full-time or interns, perfectly healthy or “high maintenance” ill people – is not only the right thing to do, but will lead to better results production-wise.

People who feel safe and comfortable at work will produce better content; people who aren’t put through mental abuse at work will produce better content. These things should be obvious, but for some reason, they need to be pointed out. For some reason we need to underline that putting people in a stressful environment in which they don’t feel safe will negatively affect their work.

This is why we need big companies to speak up about the treatment of employees in the game development industry, and we need them to spearhead initiatives – like how Brandon Beck urged the industry to invest more in its people during his speech at this year’s Dice Summit. These initiatives set a precedent for the rest of the industry, and shape the new generation of developers.

At this point in time, many game development companies pride themselves on their work for a diverse and equal work environment. They invest in all kinds of projects, and will give interviews in which they denounce harassment and abuse in the community. It’s a start. But it doesn’t cover the microaggressions that people suffer through on a daily basis. The big talks at conventions and summits aren’t followed by internal discussions with the employees. The anti-aggression, or even feminist, opinions expressed externally aren’t reinforced internally.

And more importantly; many companies are too attached to the archaic work structures that they have been using for decades to follow through with any major changes. Instead of adapting their organization to welcome a more diverse workforce, they’ll ask people to adapt to a hostile environment. This is actively harmful to any employee, and puts people with mental illness at great risk.

There’s a constant stream of workers either leaving game development, “taking a break” or trying to start a project of their own where they can distance themselves from the big companies. It is not uncommon for indie startups to aim for something different, not only in what kind of games they produce, but also in their work structure. However, if they lack funds, it is tempting for indie teams to incorporate the standards of the companies that they once wished to distance themselves from. After enough of financial struggle, many hire a couple expendables of their own.

In the end, there is no clear initiative in game development to genuinely take care of the people working in the industry. It’s still about the project, not the individuals of the team that created it. Employees still aren’t seen as assets – most of the time they’re anonymous contributors that can be replaced in the blink of an eye.

If you’re anxious; depressed; if you’re mentally or chronically ill, it’s expected of you to adapt to a harmful work environment. But if you don’t – if you break – you’re just another expendable talent who burned brightly and quickly. In a way, you were the dream; someone who delivered high-quality work – or even perfection – without staying at the company long enough to get paid.

In the kingdom of game development, the dragon isn’t an outside threat. It is the very foundation that the industry is built upon, and it requires a steady stream of sacrifices in the form of expendable employees. If this stream were to stop, the kingdom would crumble.

And for some reason we think this would be a bad thing.