Labour exploitation rampant in video game industry
Blood, sweat, and binary
It’s probably not much of a statement to say the video game industry has become one of the largest and most profitable segments of the modern economy. Well, unfortunately, it’s also a capitalist hellscape filled with predatory management tactics, worker abuse, contractual exploitation, cut-throat competition, and powerless worker representation straight out of an Ayn Rand wet-dream. It is a sad fact of reality that behind nearly every masterful work of digital art there are surely dozens of tales full of the blood, sweat, and binary shed to bring the games we love to light. The horrid conditions of the industry were once again brought centre stage in late 2020 with the long-awaited release of the soon-to-be tragic comedy, Cyberpunk 2077.
Cyberpunk was set to be the next big IP developed by Polish game studio, CD Projekt Red, the same team responsible for the highly regarded Witcher franchise. After the successful release of the third Witcher game in 2015, CDPR became one of the most prestigious and valuable companies in Poland, and the studio’s value on the stock market saw an equally impressive rise. Today, the game studio is a “too-big-to-fail” staple of the Polish economy, and, until recently, its monetary value was matched only by it’s sterling reputation within the gaming community. Following a Microsoft showcase during the 2018 E3 conference, Projekt Red revealed Cyberpunk 2077 to the public for the first time with a cinematic teaser, followed the year after by a blowout game-play reveal presented by Hollywood actor and living meme, Keanu Reeves. The stage was set for one of the biggest video game releases ever, and come December 12, 2020, the game was revealed to be a complete disaster. While most were shocked by the game’s terribly unfinished state, the writing had been on the wall for those willing to look.
As 2019 rolled into 2020, stories slowly trickled out from the studio’s Warsaw HQ as the public at large remained fixed on the game’s upcoming release. Tales of developmental burnout, unpaid overtime, and a system of abuse towards employees by project managers all came to light over the course of the year. Developers laid out detail after terrible detail via anonymous interviews with major videogame-related publications, including Kotaku and Polygon, painting vivid scenes of isolation and overworked staffers. According to these interviews, staff have been placed into a state of “crunch,” an industry term for mandatory overtime, since July 2019, meaning an entire year-and-a-half of 16-hour, six-day work weeks sitting in dark offices typing walls of code without actual overtime pay (the company stated in June 2019, that it would not subject its workers to crunch-time development). As well, project leaders and company management continually showed a blatant disregard for the well-being of their employees and often made no attempt to communicate with their developers. According to one interview, staff only learned of the game’s initial six-month delay after reading an article headline on Twitter.
Unfortunately, none of this is news to those familiar with the industry, and when compared to other projects, such as Rockstar’s 2010 detective game L.A. Noire, the stories out of CDPR seem almost pedestrian. Crunch-time philosophy dominates almost every major studio, and developers working in these environments rarely have a healthy work/life balance. Due to a complete lack of strong industry regulations and a severely apathetic customer base, developers are often left at the whim of higher ups, and to date little has been done to introduce reform. Thanks in part to effective lobbying campaigns, workers have been blocked from unionizing or even striking by the industry elite, and lawmakers across the globe have done next to nothing to remedy the situation. The public is predominantly unaware of this phenomenon both due to a lack of interest on the part of consumers and the enormous profits the tech industry garners each year. For the sake of these workers, the public needs to treat video games with the seriousness they deserve and hold the industry accountable for the irreparable damage done to those who have given joy to so many.