As I mentioned in my last post video games hold a unique position compared to other art forms as they are interactive and often come with additional scrutiny. And, as one of the newer art forms they became the “next target” when the other art forms were around too long for most folks to believe the myths that books, music, etc. were evil.
In this post I wanted to share three things that show different sides of how video games and video game development are viewed and why I think they are important to bring up here:
That Dragon, Cancer
There’s been a lot of news about the emotional game “That Dragon, Cancer” lately and the NY Times recently came out with a piece on the game1 as well. What’s different about this article is that it also makes reference to other memoir/autobiographical type games like Rod Humble’s The Marriage2, Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation3, and Anna Anthrophy’s dys4ia4.
I think what this piece does is show a) that video games have the ability to let the creators express their real life stories in a new, interactive way and b) games aren’t just mindless toys. Games can be as moving as books and TV and film. For many developers, creating these personal games can help provide an outlet for their stories and struggles they might not otherwise know how to express.
It is articles like this, and the games mentioned within, that the industry, orgs and developers alike, need to promote and share to combat the general myth that games are “fun” and not “meaningful”, they are “frivolous” and not “important”. Instead, we can talk about how games can touch people’s lives, they can heal in times of sorrow, they can open up worlds of real life experiences that help others understand what’s going on.
“The Relationship Between Video Game Play and the Acquired Capability for Suicide: An Examination of Differences by Category of Video Game and Gender”
An article recently came out5 on phys.org about this study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking that claims that “students who play many hours of action video games in particular may be more capable of acting on suicidal thoughts.” You should do your due dilgence on the study beofre speaking up, but for my part I always take a skeptical view of most studies until it’s been thoroughly checked, repeated, given the thumbs up by researchers I trust, etc.
When looking at the main info of the study you can see the sample size is small; there is not much diversity; and there was, for me, an interesting percentage of folks who were reported to have had a “previous psychiatric diagnosis”. The last bit there is something that would make me pause to consider how that affects the validity of the study.
I’m not going to stake a claim either way on their results and it’s still too new for other studies to have been done but I will definitely give props where it’s due that they at least looked at how the genre/type of game affected the numbers leading to the conclusion they “found no significant association between overall hours of video game play and acquired capability for suicide (ACS)” when genre/type of game was not factored into the overall equation.
However, even if this is all brand new it’s definitely another example of something the industry needs to be aware of what is going on. If the study and the results are flawed we need to speak up against the studies and then point to counter-studies (impartial ones of course) that are done properly. And if it appears there’s any merit too it we need to look at that too and see if anything needs to be done.
The Elephant In The Room: Labor Conditions
Giant Bomb recently published a guest column titled “It’s Time to Talk About Labor in the Games Industry13” which, like many other articles over the years, focused on the often poor work cultures, environments, and practices in the video game industry.
The studies, books, blog posts, postmortems, and the like show sustained crunch is bad, that happy employees are more productive and loyal, that proper management can help reduce volatility, that changes companies made made created better games and more profit without working their employees to death.
However, that doesn’t seem to stop a significant percentage of companies and developers from pushing themselves to the point of burnout, destroying companies unnecessarily, or giving the industry a bad rap whether crunch is something they feel they need to do or the higher ups say they have to do.
This Is Not A New Problem
As far back as 2005 this topic was getting major attention across the industryincluding a full day Quality of Life summit at GDC14, with a keynote from Steve McConnell15 – author of Code Complete – on improving production practices16. Since then, unfortunately, except for a couple standout situations nothing concrete has really been done.
Disclosure: I, myself, had a small part in making that summit a reality due to my participation in the now defunct IGDA Quality of Life committee and I also gave a talk for my local IGDA chapter on Quality of Life.
The game industry is diverse, distributed, and ever changing. Every so often folks rise up to rally around the idea of starting unions or trying to be ‘more like Hollywood’ with another set of folks pointing out why the “Hollywood way” isn’t much better, other software devs don’t have unions, or how significantly the structure of the industry would have to change in order for unions to even be implementable. There was even union related sessions in the 2005 Summit!
Things Can Be Better
It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
The game industry once had its own version of Glassdoor17 with Gamewatch18, which then became a Wiki, where the policies, practices, and work cultures of game companies were discussed. This has now been largely replaced or defaulted back to other groups and forums who provide similar avenues for researching potential employers.
Great folks like Keith Fuller19 of Fuller Game Production20 and Scott Crabtree21 of Happy Brain Science22 often provide trainings, talks, and tips on ways to better your company’s processes and create happier employees.
But Where Are The “Big Guys”?
In most areas I often say developers need to step up to help create change. With this issue, however, I believe it is up to the “major players” to take the lead as most developers can’t afford to risk speaking up as individuals without fear of reprisals that could affect their livelihoods and long-term careers.
For something that has been an issue for over a decade (some items have been a problem from the start) more needs to happen. It is my hope that all the recent articles that have come out will embolden companies to try and fix their cultures and galvanize the trade orgs to find tangible ways to support developers and move the needle.
Actions, Not Words
We need organizations willing to take risks and put themselves out there for their developers, their members, their industry. Developers don’t need to see organizations say that issues like uncompensated crunch or bad employment contracts are important to them and make lofty promises of things to come on their blogs, with op-eds, or in interviews. Actions speak louder than words, words are meaningless here.
No More Excuses
I’m sure there are plenty of large publishers, studios, trade bodes, professional associations, etc. who have been fearful of trying to change, of making enemies, worried about how it will affect the bottom line, believe it’s “too hard” or “it’ll never work”, etc.
(I know this to be true, because, I’ve watched as one awesome project after another got killed because of those reasons and I sat there frustrated because I couldn’t do anything about it.)
To those orgs who just make statements or sit silently hoping someone else will do something I’d kindly like to point you to Intel and their diversity initiatives23. They have stood on a stage at a prominent event and made commitments, put their money where their mouth is, and are making changes.
They presented specific goals, they are working towards them, and they are getting results. The groups they are working with who are also showing results continue to get their support.
This issue is no different and companies like Intel are proving that standing up, speaking out, and making changes is not only possible but profitable for them and the entire tech industry. The only question now is:
Next time you see an issue consider speaking out – when it’s safe to do so – as well as asking your local chapters/dev groups, online SIGs or communities, and national/global organizations to join the fight too. Spread the word about what good the industry and its products can do and dispel the myths that constantly float around.
For those developers, companies, etc. who are members of relevant trade bodies I call on you to not stop pushing after they speak up, and the same goes for your employers and clients who also “talk big”, make sure they follow-through and keep their promises.
Every time we don’t hold our advocates accountable it not only means nothing gets done – and they feel they can get away without just talking the talk and not walking the walk – but it tells everyone else that this issue doesn’t really matter or it reinforces the notion that it’s “hopeless” to try and fix the issue.
We all have to work together to make sure this industry stays healthy and sustainable. We can do this!