Do We Need Fair Trade Games?

Red Dead Redemption came out last week and while I know I'm going to buy it, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat hesitant to do so. It seems the controversy is now mostly forgotten, but in January, the spouses of a number of Rockstar San Diego developers penned an open letter decrying the working conditions in the studio. Reminiscent of the then-unnamed Erin Hoffman's EA Spouse letter, it details conditions that grossly overreach the usual game development crunch time. And of course, the response from Rockstar HQ and Take 2 was typical mealy-mouthed PR bullshit. While I'm sure plenty of other games I have enjoyed were made under similar conditions to Red Dead Redemption and simply didn't receive public outcry, a pall is still cast over RDR that it won't ever be able to fully shake, at least for me.

Hearing the alleged conditions in Rockstar San Diego were also unfortunately familiar; by several accounts, Bully was created at Rockstar Vancouver under very similar conditions. And even though I quite enjoyed Bully, I couldn't help but feel a little ... uncomfortable about it. It was that same twinge of discomfort you get seeing "Made in Bangladesh" on the tag of your shirt. I don't mean to pick on Rockstar, I'm sure this is a problem at many studios, but you know, they did pay out almost $US3 million after a lawsuit was filed by employees about a year ago.

While I'm being facetious about the idea of "fair trade" certification for games, even if such a thing could exist, I'm not sure something like it would actually be desirable. The purpose of fair trade is to avoid purchasing goods produced in unfair conditions. But if I had slaved away on a game, seeing it sell poorly because consumers disagreed with the conditions it was made in would only be adding insult to injury.

And of course, I don't think it's very risky to say most of the potential audience really doesn't care. Most are simply unaware of such circumstances at all and of the small percentage that are, many seem to have the perverse and naive attitude that being a game developer is some invaluable gift. Once this legendary position has been obtained, all expectations of fair and decent working conditions evaporate.

A couple choice comments from the Shacknews post about this: "Come to NY and see who cries for you." "Oh please. These guys have the best jobs in the world and they love doing it. Have a problem with it? DON'T MARRY THEM." "This sucks, but god damn those screens look good."

Unfortunately, this attitude exists even in some new entrants to the industry. Willing to do virtually anything to "break in," their enthusiasm results in a seemingly unending supply for the digital salt mines. Eventually circumstances like the above burn them out and they leave for good, resulting in less than one third of developers making it to ten years in the industry.

And I have no idea what to do about it. It seems buying Red Dead Redemption is better than not doing so in protestation, but good sales likely aren't going to inspire change at Rockstar San Diego. More likely, a good swath of people will leave, replacements will be brought in and things will get as bad again the next time a project is well behind schedule. I do not think the solution is a union, as I'm very skeptical of a union ever being a good idea for knowledge workers. The great, bloated beasts SAG and the WGA have become certainly give me little hope.

The only thing I can do, personally, is refuse to ever work at a studio that operates under such conditions and strongly council others to do the same. If great, experienced developers will only operate at studios with respectful, fair working conditions, and they make this known, that might incentivize certain changes. The passion people have to making games is also a great weakness, because it can be exploited. Game developers will tolerate conditions I can't imagine someone making accounting software ever would. We cannot allow our passion to be taken advantage of.

I really hope Red Dead Redemption is a big success, both in terms of quality and sales. It's better condolence than the alternative. It sure sounds like its creators were asked to give far too much and there's a part of me that will feel a little guilty enjoying the game because of it. I long for the day when developers' passion will be respected rather than exploited, but honestly, I don't know how soon that day will come. Not soon enough, I think.

Republished with permission from Above 49.

Nels Anderson is a gameplay programmer at Hothead Games. He is probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design at Above 49.


    While gaming is popular and people are dying to get into the games industry, there's no reason for developers not to take advantage of that. How many eager graduates are lined up to take on any role that gets vacated at Rockstar? It doesn't even bear thinking about.

      So you're saying it's perfectly ok for an employer to treat an employee like crap, just because there'll be another person right around the corner to take their place?

      Glad you're not employing people...


    well if the msg that people were passing on the game grew large enough then it would be a perfectly legitimate protest

    its not the employees that reap the benefits of 10mil copies sold afterall

    to me they would be getting there highs from the fact that A) theve been paid and B) theyre getting rave reviews

    i would rather put my heart and soul into something be told its awesome and have it not sell so well than i would be whipped all the way to the finish and have my bosses reap the rewards but hey thats just me

    although i do wonder how many publications like zoo got the RDR is gonna be an awesome game please give it high marks

    People who are saying things like "at least they are not factory workers in China" are completely missing the point. These people are game developers, most if not all of them have considerable amounts of education/training. You cannot compare them to factory workers who typically require little to no talent/training.

    I do not see how anyone can justify these things by saying "they knew what they were getting into" or "why don't they just leave if they don't like it". Would you rather game developers had fair working conditions or that they all become jaded by the industry and leave?

    Harsh conditions may be the norm but that doesn't make it right and as workers in ANY industry we should ALWAYS be fighting for fairer conditions. The fact that people don't and that they write these conditions off as "normal" or somehow "necessary" is the reason they exist in the first place.

    Why should any person, anywhere, work for next to nothing, or for such long hours that they scarcely have time to sleep or even visit their own home?

    It's not good enough to say "go elswhere", we should be trying to make these industries viable for both the employer and the employee otherwise the model is not sustainable.

    I think that if you are not in this situation it's very easy to say "don't complain it could be worse" but it's not so easy when you've spent time and money on education and training only to be working 16 hour days for less money per hour than the pimply kid behind the counter at McDonalds.

    I believe that the situation at Infinity Ward only clearly shows that gaming has a lot of growing up to do. In the future I see less blockbuster games - less big productions but always quality ones. We'll continue to see Indie games and the like, and I believe we'll also see game developers getting better conditions. After all, isn't Bioware onen of the best employers in Canada or something? And don't they bring out heaps of great games?

    Crunch (noun)
    1. An act or sound of crunching.
    2. Poor project management.

    With the whole R* dealie back in January, I doubt many people who bought RDR would have even known about it, as the majority of game purchasers would not actively read gaming news sites.

    What I don't understand is why software places like Google and Microsoft seem like magical heavens of employment with free Pizza for lunch, visiting celebrities, artwork on the walls and cuddles whenever required.

    And game software companies seem to be these nightmare sweatshops where game developers bring their pillows and Yoshi sleeping bags to work in case they need to sleep there.

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