The Plight of the Rockstar Wife

January 24, 2010
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Rockstar San Diego's Red Dead Redemption

In the past few weeks, a fresh controversy about the working conditions in the industry of game development has arisen, this time centered on Rockstar San Diego.

Rockstar are best known as the developers for the Grand Theft Auto series, with Rockstar San Diego’s current project the upcoming western-themed sandbox game, Red Dead Redemption. A sequel to 2004’s underrated Red Dead Revolver, and highly anticipated as one of the more interesting open world game settings in recent years (think “Grand Theft Horse“), the game’s multiple delays have had fans and industry folks a tad concerned.

In a Gamasutra blog post on January 7th, we see what might be a cause of these delays. A set of anonymous “Rockstar wives” have levied claims of mismanagement and unethical workplace conditions on Rockstar San Diego:

To whomever it may concern,

In response to the unfortunate circumstances, some wives of Rockstar San Diego employees have collected themselves to assert their concerns and announce a necessary rejoinder, in the form of an immediate action to ameliorate conditions of employees.

The turning for the worse came approximately in the month of March of 2009. Till present, the working conditions persists to deteriorate as employees are manipulated by certain hands that wield the reigns of power in Rockstar San Diego. Furthermore, the extent of degradation employees have suffered extends to their quality of life and their family members.

Conclusively, if these working conditions stay unchanged in the upcoming weeks, preparation will be made to take legal action against Rockstar San Diego. This is the course that naturally presents itself, as either these conditions were manufactured from unawareness and actions to improve conditions will prove such innocence. Or if no action is seen after this letter, it clear that other aspects are the cause of the deteriorated conditions of Rockstar San Diego employees and must be further addressed. Rest assure, all that is desired is compensation for health, mental, financial, and damages done to families of employees.

With all due respect,

Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees.

The “Rockstar wives” allege Rockstar San Diego’s management has instituted mandatory six day, 12+ hour work weeks, not provided appropriate pay for overtime, and created a culture in which stress is causing very real health problems for its employees (and their families). Rockstar has responded to these claims, and this is, of course, not the first time “industry wives” have been the ones to blow the whistle on allegedly damaging working conditions (the EA spouse scandal, started with a post on Livejournal in 2004, later revealed to be Erin Hoffman). EA’s case was resolved after a class action suit, and working conditions have apparently improved.

The underbelly of game development is one that rarely gets much discussion in public or academic discussions of games — assuming the “Rockstar wives” claims are accurate (and there’s some off-the-record indication there may be), these sort of claims arise periodically, then spur on “that’s just what we do in this industry” rejoinders until another class action suit is brought. It’s been six years since Erin Hoffman’s scandal, but these sorts of workplaces persist in the game development industry.

Assuming the “Rockstar wives” have something legitimate they’re on about, what needs to change about our reaction to this kind of industry scandal? How should news about unethical development conditions temper or shape what sense we make out of a media artifact?


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7 Responses to “ The Plight of the Rockstar Wife ”

  1. Annie Petersen on January 24, 2010 at 9:16 AM

    Not much to add other than to point readers to Nina Huntemann’s piece on the Rockstar Wives (and their precedents) over at Flow, published on Friday — (Also to point out that part of what makes both Antenna and Flow so necessary in our field is their ability to publish on this type of phenomenon while it’s happening, as opposed to a year after it’s finished).

  2. Myles McNutt on January 24, 2010 at 9:29 AM

    I hadn’t heard this news (haven’t been following the game, and the story missed my radar otherwise), but I immediately went to find the reaction to the news on NeoGAF (which, for those unaware, is simultaneously the site of very literate and very illiterate video game discussion), and the response was what I expected: while some expressed pity for the developers, most were concerned with how this affected the quality of the game, and some read right past the working conditions to attack the Wives for claiming the game isn’t good (which they took as a subjective analysis of the game as opposed to an objective observation about why the hours had been instituted).

    One thing I find interesting is how some gamers are more connected than ever with the people who make games: when Harmonix recently went through a round of layoffs, fans found out first when employees started tweeting on the subject. Now, Harmonix is apparently a great working environment, and the people doing the firing were praising the laid-off employees on their own twitter accounts, so that isn’t a glimpse into difficult working conditions, but Twitter does have the potential to serve as a conduit for these kinds of observations in situations similar to Rockstar SD.

    • Sean Duncan on January 24, 2010 at 9:35 AM

      Yeah, I’ve been appalled by some of the reactions by gamers, which I’d originally considered making the focus of this post. In partciular, here’s one comment thread that I found interesting:

      Good complain housewives! So Rockstar will move the studio and your husbands will be left jobless. Capitalism people, it is what it is. Don’t be surprised if in the future you start seeing more Rockstar Shanghai or Rockstar New Delhi.

      As a games and learning guy, I’m interested in these kinds of exchanges for two reasons — (1) the way that the original poster seems to have internalized a naive competitive notion of capitalism that I see gamers trot out quite often; and (2) the ways that subsequent posters critique and challenge the OP’s simplistic statement.

      IMHO, these events are important in the games industry not just for what they tell us about games and game development, but for shining a light on how fans/players make sense of that industry…

  3. Jonathan Gray on January 24, 2010 at 12:58 PM

    While at first I’m inclined to point out the irony of this being posted and commented upon by folk who are likely working similar hours 😉 ,if I move beyond that, there’s still an issue here of how we as academics (if indeed, that is the “we,” and perhaps I shouldn’t assume it is) analyze labor conditions through the lens of our own internalized norms. Maybe reading Marc Bousquet might move us all a little closer to answering such questions?

    • Kyra Glass on January 24, 2010 at 2:15 PM

      Your point about irony, however humorously intended, goes entirely to the point of how “labor” is conceived of in creative and intellectual fields, as does the yet unremarked upon fact that complaints are framed as the providence of the wives of the employees rather than the employees themselves. The gender issues here aside, amongst gamers (or at least the gamers I know) such jobs are so fetishized that the “labor” involved can be minimized and framed as a privilege. If you watch ads for game design or production educational programs for example they focus entirely on the “fun” of working on video games systematically minimizing the often tedious realities of programming. I’m curious why these discourses about labor conditions are displaced onto the wives (the EA spouse scandal, Rockstar Wives) and the way it mirrors other discourses in gaming (WOW widows).

      • Sean Duncan on January 24, 2010 at 3:18 PM

        Great point about about the displacement onto the “wives” (though, to be fair, the EA case was pretty overtly cast as “spouse” initially, but everyone knew the demographics of EA game developers, and assumed a female spouse).

        So, I suspect there’s a pretty easy answer here — games have been and are currently developed primarily by men, presumably mainly heterosexual men. Men who are fearful of losing their jobs and/or are too busy trying to keep above water to post complaints about their jobs. The spouses are simply the ones making the blog posts… or at least the ones that get noticed. But, that’s an empirical question; I honestly have no idea if there’s a whole hidden culture of online game developer gripes out there.

      • Erin Copple Smith on January 25, 2010 at 10:14 AM

        I had a similar thought, Kyra. Putting aside the gendered nature of the accusations (which, obviously, is extremely important to address)–the fact that the labor involved is considered “privileged” and even fetishized, in some way, makes the displacement of the complaining make a bit more sense. You can see how fans, not understanding the (I assume) tedious work of video game creation, would develop some sort of “Hey, man, if you don’t want to work 80+ hours per week, I’m happy to do it!” backlash.

        I, of course, know next to nothing about any of this, but it’s fascinating. How have fans reacted, Sean, beyond the “Dumb wives. Capitalism!” stuff you mentioned above?