Illustration credit: Bryant Paul Johnson
Born of a handful of events and revelations in the games industry over the past few month as well as new directions in my research, this brief post about ethical gaming is a provocation for gamers and game studies scholars. It begins in the virtual frontier of Red Dead Redemption (RDR), a “sandbox” game set in the early 20th century American West from Grand Theft Auto (GTA) creators Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive. RDR was released on May 18 with the hype of a summer blockbuster movie, and reviews of the game are glowing, if not embarrassingly gushing. New York Times reviewer Seth Schiesel likens the game to a Sam Peckinpah film and calls RDR a “tour de force,” lauding Rockstar’s creation of a stunning geographical environment filled with compelling characters. With an estimated development budget of 80 to 100 million dollars, RDR reinforces the hit-driven trend of big games from established studios. As both a gamer and game studies scholar, I have been dithering for weeks over whether to purchase the game.
My hesitation to play RDR reflects, in part, my disinterest in open world action games and a general dislike of the Western genre. I’ve played through the entire GTA series, including the Liberty City episodes for GTA IV, and I am a bit bored with the format, and with more action roles for horses than women, stories about the Wild West have never held my attention. Taste preferences aside, my reluctance to play RDR is largely driven by what I know about the labor conditions at Rockstar San Diego, the key studio in RDR‘s development. In January of this year a group of spouses of Rockstar San Diego employees publicly denounced the company for prolonged, mandatory unpaid overtime, which resulted in the physical and emotional suffering of their partners, forcing a few to seek medical attention. (To read more about this, see an Antenna post by Sean Duncan and a piece I wrote for FLOW.)
Unpaid overtime, commonly called “crunch time,” is a frequent point of discussion and tension among game developers, particularly when high-profile companies are accused of excessive abuse, like the Rockstar incident and similar complaints in 2004 about Electronic Arts. The industry’s professional organization, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), has issued several white papers and best practices guidelines, recognizing that the long-term health and institutional history of the industry depends on the health and happiness of its workforce. Last month Game Developer Research released a 2010 salary report, which revealed that 71% of game developers have worked in the industry no more than 6 years, and only 13% have a decade or more of experience. The workforce is also young, with 37% of employees between the ages of 25 and 30. Widespread attrition in what is popularly regarded as a “cool job” is attributed to the incompatibility of crunch time with the responsibilities of family life and the desire for a reasonable work/life balance.
The Rockstar controversy prompted me to consider my relationship to the media products I consume, both as a player and as a scholar. If I am careful to avoid clothes made in sweatshops, why not apply the same labor concerns to the games I play? I am not suggesting that working conditions for North American or European-based game developers are the same as working conditions for exploited apparel manufacturers. I am suggesting, however, that if the conditions of production (including labor) of the material objects we consume influence our choices – whether they be local, organic, sustainable or fair trade – why not the same principles for the immaterial products we consume – movies, music, television programs, video and computer games? If IGDA issued a “fair trade” label for games, would it encourage better labor practices and, at least, allow consumers to exercise an informed choice? Following the call of Toby Miller and Richard Maxwell for scholars to pay attention to the “ecological context” of the technologies we study, I am also thinking about gaming hardware: the console systems, handhelds, Wii peripherals and RockBand guitars that fill my living room. Under what conditions was the Xbox 360 manufactured? If I ever part with my PS2, how should I ethically dispose of it? Lisa Parks’ contribution to the future of media studies issue of Television & New Media (January 2009), made me wonder how games studies should also intersect with environmental and labor studies. I have no answers, just lots of questions that I am eagerly investigating. I also welcome your thoughts.
Post-script: As I edited this piece, an apropos link to PBS’s MediaShift came across my Twitter stream, “The Mediavore’s Dilemma: Making Sustainable Media Choices”. While author Don Carli does not specifically mention gaming, the column is illustrated by the game over screen of Pac-Man.