Ethical Gaming

June 4, 2010
By | 9 Comments

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.


Tags: , , , ,

9 Responses to “ Ethical Gaming ”

  1. Sean C. Duncan on June 4, 2010 at 8:29 AM

    I’ll be honest, even though I raised a few ethical questions in my earlier post, during RDR’s development, I ended up pre-ordering the game anyway. Now, I haven’t had much time to play it yet, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve experienced so far, and find it one of the better open world games of recent years.

    I hadn’t felt guilty about that choice until this post, and I’m certain that wasn’t your intent, regardless. But, still, you raise some interesting points here — as a player and a fan, and one aware of the allegedly problematic workplace environment at Rockstar San Diego, I suspect there are media that I’ll shell out money for, regardless of ethical issues with their development. A Rockstar-designed, open world, Western-themed game is something I know I want to experience, and I have to admit, I’d be probably be buying this game no matter what…

    Another recent case to look at might be the controversy over Shadow Complex, released for XBLA last year. A superbly-designed Castlevania/Metroid style side-scroller, it was based on source material written by Orson Scott Card, whose outspoken opposition to homosexuality and same-sex marriage are repellant to many (myself included). There was a brief boycott of the game that turned into some very productive and interesting fan discussions about the game’s development — at what point a boycott of the game harmed people who had nothing to do with Card and his politics, how much compensation Card was receiving for the licensing of his world and thus how significant the boycott would actually be, and whether or not Peter David (the game’s author) was, in fact, attempting to subvert element’s of Card’s world (and implicit politics) through this game. Scratch the surface, and there were many other factors to consider.

    A very different case than that of RDR, but perhaps instructive in helping us get a handle on the complexity of the ethical dilemmas with these kinds of media products. I boycotted Shadow Complex for a while, but ended up buying it in the end, as well; my interest in the game ended up trumping any ethical issues I had with Card, disgusting politics aside. My purchasing of the game wouldn’t significantly help Card, and was, rather, a form of support for the devs at Chair, who had designed an excellent game.

    I don’t mean this in a haphazard or dismissive way, but these are *well-designed* games, and ethical issues with their development aside, I needed to experience them. Your post raises a great issue for me, personally: Will I only choose to boycott terrible games?

    • Sean C. Duncan on June 4, 2010 at 8:31 AM

      Er, typo: Peter David was the “writer” of Shadow Complex. This is the kind of blog where if I sloppily use the term “author,” someone’s going to jump all over me. 🙂

  2. Derek Kompare on June 4, 2010 at 8:58 AM

    Great, challenging post, Nina. Any of the media we consume and study (or rather, “study” as in this context a subset of “consume”) is fraught with these issues, and we’ve neglected them for far, far too long. As Sean points out, given the intricate, multi-staged, and collaborative nature of media production, there are many ways this issue slices. For example, I’m personally repulsed by the rapist Roman Polanski’s self-pity, but does that mean I no longer screen Chinatown when I teach? Similarly, do we boycott all of News Corp’s output (which would include the likes of Glee, The Simpsons, House, The X-Files, Family Guy, and every film released by 20th Century-Fox) for the sins of Fox News? Do we punish Apple for shortening tech generations, thus increasing e-waste?

    Clearly, everywhere we look and hear has similar issues. We don’t need to retreat to media paralysis, but we do need to better understand and foreground the relationships between media, labor, and the environment. Production studies has helped inject some much-needed critical life into this understanding, though much more still needs to be done.

  3. Lisa nakamura on June 4, 2010 at 2:27 PM

    Nina: what a great post. Studies of digital media have been preoccupied lately with issues of labor, both within virtual worlds (ie gold farmers, people who play games like world of warcraft for actual, sweated-labor style real money wages), using sites like Amazon as a platform (ie the Mechanical Turk, a labor market that exploits casual workers pretty heavily but is greatly loved by those looking for labor, including, apparently, professors and scholars who can replace their grad assistants without dealing with tuition waivers). Jonathan Zittrain has a nice video about this called “Minds for Sale” at

    But there’s less work on “virtual labor” or labor at a distance when we look at devices themselves. And it’s cool that you’re doing this. Jack Qiu’s book on cellphone manufacture in China really makes it clear the human cost of these devices–many many fingers are lost in these factories. It’s more glamorous to imagine digital media as producing different kind of virtuality and disembodiment–but working overtime all the time is not a disembodied way to live, and certainly not a way to raise a family.

    As for boycotting these devices for that reason, there are lots of reasons to say no to different aspects of digital media culture. Quit Facebook day is part of this movement.

    by the way, your cherry tomato is doing extremely well. I ate some yesterday.

  4. Nina Huntemann on June 4, 2010 at 7:55 PM

    Thank you all for the comments. I’m not usually inclined to boycott products, particular if the effect of doing so is so far removed from the damage (like your Orson Scott Card example, Sean. And no, didn’t mean to instill any guilt :-). Derek summed up what I’m looking for from game studies (and media studies in general): increased knowledge and foregrounding of these relationships, in all the ways it might slice. Production studies is definitely the direction I feel these questions are pulling me.

    Thanks for mentioning the gold farmers Lisa. I cut that bit out for the short post, but your recent work in this area has absolutely contributed to my thinking about immaterial/virtual labor in the games industry. And keep eating those cherry tomatoes! The more you harvest, the more will grow.

  5. Don Carli on June 4, 2010 at 9:09 PM

    Hi Nina:

    Thanks for the mention. In fact, my article does discuss gaming. Particularly some of the environmental and social impacts of games, and the potential for a serious game to help solve the dilemma that is the subject of the article.

    I’m interested in how environmental studies and gaming intersect, and would love to chat. My twitter handle is @dcarli

  6. […] Uncategorized Leave a Comment Tags: games, illustration An illustration that accompanied Nina Huntemann’s article about the ethics of immaterial consumption (specifically related to the allegations that the labor […]

  7. Nina Huntemann on July 16, 2010 at 12:18 PM

    Despite selling 1.5 million copies of Red Dead Redemption in its first month, RockStar Games did, indeed, layoff 40 people at the San Diego studio. This news is a sad postscript to the RockStar Wives controversy and highlights the precarious position of game developers, even in the wake of blockbuster success.

  8. Nina Huntemann on September 3, 2010 at 2:20 PM

    Post-script to the post-script above: RockStar parent company Take-Two Interactive reported “unexpected third-quarter profits” due to the sale of Red Dead Redemption. Share-holders win; laid-off developers, not so much.