Gamers, Rise Up
Reading Time: 4 minutes
We are poised to enter the golden era of video gaming: the size of the video game market surpassed those of sports and film combined, and the best games have achieved polish and narrative sophistication to rival highbrow art forms.
Yet expert reviews and customer ratings on newest games indicate that they fail to meet the standards set for them in previous years. Given the medium’s emerging preeminence, the latest raft of gaming flops appears mysterious. Cyberpunk 2077 has become just the latest symbol of large-scale gaming incompetence. CD Projekt Red, the development company responsible for Cyberpunk, had amassed a cult following the release of the Witcher series. Cyberpunk 2077, one of the most anticipated releases of all time, promised similar qualities but in a gritty sci-fi universe. However, players of the early versions complained of vast numbers of bugs and lack of compatibility with common gaming systems. Lawsuits and refund demands followed; CD Projekt Red’s brand was tarnished. Why would the major game studios risk their reputation on a half-baked game?
First, these studios decided to impose accelerated production schedules to take advantage of the market window offered by COVID-19. What better time to launch an immersive game than when consumers have more time on their hands than ever? In one year’s time, the unique opportunity could be gone. Unfortunately, by accelerating production, they risked their reputation for excellence, something hard to earn and easy to throw away.
In contrast, take Rockstar Games, a well-respected development house, which recently won multiple awards from the gaming platform Steam for its renowned Red Dead Redemption II. Now take a look at the employee reviews for Rockstar games, and you’ll notice almost all four and five stars. They frequently leave comments such as “managers seem to genuinely care about your wellbeing” and “great environment.” Game development is a time and labor-intensive process, and employees at Rockstar Games certainly work hard. The developers have to chase down bugs, ensuring that the architecture is stable across more platforms than ever and ensuring consistent quality. But as the reviews suggest, Rockstar Games has an environment of respect, and employees are well compensated. But most are not so lucky. The BBC reported that employees at CD Projekt Red were forced to work 100+ hour weeks at rates well under market during the sprints demanded to meet the rapid production schedule. This culture is not at all unusual in the gaming industry.
The difference comes down to integrity. A reason that certain software companies have gotten away with mistreating workers for this long is the Silicon Valley myth popularized by startups like Netflix and Google, which bring to mind jungle gyms in the office, unlimited vacation days, and kombucha on tap. While that image is sometimes connected to reality at top companies, there are multiple tiers of labor in tech, extending from the almost-royalty-like founders and executives at leading firms down to the computer engineers at development shops in Ukraine working for $5 per hour and the content moderators in Indonesia working 12-hour days for pennies for the unpleasant task of keeping Instagram free of obscenity. Even within the sunny, friendly state of California, there’s the phenomenon of H1-B Visa immigration bondage: foreign programmers are brought to work in American tech under a special program for skilled workers allowing them to stay in the country—as long as they stay at their host company. If they quit, they can be deported. Managers abuse the fact that these workers are basically stuck in indentured servitude.
For gamers and other consumers of technology, it’s becoming harder and harder to plead ignorance about how their favorite toys are being made. Like fashion, and food before it, “fast tech” is due for a reckoning. It’s up to those who open their wallets for these products and use them in their everyday lives to insist that they be produced in a just and equitable way. A frustrating bug in Cyberpunk 2077 is a symptom of deeper issues. While gamers might just vent on a message board and move on, these flaws are an opportunity to take a longer and harder look at what is going on. Slaughterhouses in the early 20th century had to change after journalists like Upton Sinclair shed light on the terrible practices they were maintaining. Student movements have sprung up in recent years against “fast fashion.” Similar actions now need to be pursued against “fast tech.”
The new administration should examine our broken immigration laws. The HB-1 system should be replaced with something that simply lets engineers with sufficient skill move freely into the country, fulfilling our demand for tech labor without serfdom to a particular company. That change would both reduce outsourcing and eliminate the corrupting visa bondage. There should additionally be a labor bill of rights, including an exchange-rate adjusted minimum wage and other basic conditions any company that wants to do business in the U.S. must adhere to, even if their production is located abroad.
This initiative and other reforms would help alleviate the widening inequality in our leading industry, which has been minting its big winners more billions than ever during COVID. But it requires tearing ourselves away from our screens (and consoles) long enough to advocate for change. Stuyvesant is full of gamers, enthusiasts of Super Smash Brothers and League of Legends, and they have the ability to demand that the companies that make their games treat workers fairly. (Riot Games, maker of League, has in particular been cited for gender discrimination and a culture of harassment.) Taking action could mean circulating petitions or even boycotting games that are produced unethically. These may seem like small actions in relation to the size of the industry—but as gamers are nothing if not networked together, a strong gesture could have the potential to reverberate through the community. Gaming isn’t a subculture where its bad behavior can be ignored anymore; it’s fully gone mainstream, and it needs to grow up and clean up its act. That’s the only way gaming will truly reach its “golden age.”