Joshua Jackson is a third-year PhD student in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media at the University of North Carolina. His dissertation is examining cruel optimism and neoliberalism in videogame production.
I want to be very careful about how I approach this subject. I do not claim to speak for videogame production writ large, nor do I want to. I am concerned with forming a body of knowledge around certain exploitative practices which occur in much of the videogame industry – an industry to which unfortunately few game scholars have ready access. Like the historical development of television, radio, and film, videogame production is experiencing growing pains that need to be addressed if the conditions are ever going to change. This article utilizes the analogy of the ‘shack’ as developed by Bachelard (1964) and Robertson (2011) to understand one of the struggles that prospective and early-career videogame developers often experience: being recruited for their passion (Kerr and Kelleher, 2015; Bulut, 2014 and 2015; Johnson, 2013a, 2013b, 2019), then having that passion used against them. In other words, appealing to the ‘passion’ of employees allows for exploitative working conditions and work culture, all under the auspices of someday “making it” in videogames (O’Donnell, 2014, 153).
Robertson (2011), in Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture, examines the architectural concept of a ‘shack’, or an origination point that represents both physical and aspirational progress and growth. She also discusses the concept of the shack as being ultimately unsustainable, but an important starting point for working through new conceptualizations of space that improve on previous versions (for example, shack to hovel, hovel to house, house to mansion, so on). Robertson frames the shack as where “[one] sojourns, or starts out, rather than settles […] Domestic duration, like childhood, is transient, serial. A shack is always timely. Typically, an account of the history of architecture will begin with a shack” (150). Robertson’s understanding of the importance of a shack for discussing architecture can be read as a useful comparison for understanding videogame production.
Johnson (2013a, 2013b), Bulut (2014, 2015), Fisher and Harvey (2013), Kerr and Kelleher (2015), O’Donnell (2013), D’Anastasio (2018), and Pettica-Harris, Westar, and McKenna (2015) all discuss passion as being both a recruitment tactic within videogame production and a rather insidious retention tactic. Though they each discuss different facets of how passion is used to entice and retain potential workers, one commonality is apparent in all of their work: videogame production seeks to exploit workers’ passion for both playing videogames and being part of a community. Within that exploitation, videogame studios seek to employ youthful people who want to ‘move up’ through the ranks of production to hopefully spearhead their own intellectual property (IP) or start their own company and make games that they are passionate about.
The overlap between passion as a recruitment tool and the metaphor of the shack that Robertson develops becomes clear when examining hopeful videogame production workers. Robertson explains that the shack is a place where people venture from, and that modern accounts of architecture begin with shacks. To Robertson, the shack represents the fledgling stages of exploration and identity creation. The shack is a place where a person or a plan starts, complete with the minimal ideological trappings and understandings that a shack provides: specifically, though there is not much to work with materially or ideologically, this lack can be supplemented with ingenuity and imagination. Bachelard (1964), in The Poetics of Space, provides a fuller explanation of what the shack is and how it functions. His explanation is directly applicable to potential and hopeful videogame production workers, particularly when he states that “[the shack] possesses the felicity of intense poverty; indeed, it is one of the glories of poverty; as destitution increases it gives us access to absolute refuge” (52). The rhetorics of material scarcity and poverty that Robertson and Bachelard connect to the shack transfer to videogame production in less aggrandizing ways. Instead of the material scarcity, or material poverty, that is supposed to jumpstart creativity and ingenuity, developers face temporal and support-system poverty. Indeed, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter (2006), O’Donnell (2014), Bulut (2014 and 2015), and Kerr and Kelleher (2015) identify the extreme overworking conditions that developers are expected to endure, which strip them of free time, family time, recuperation time, and time to be away from videogames. As Kerr and Kelleher note, almost none of those extreme expectations come up in job recruitment material, interviews, or professionalization in academic programs. A few examples of these working conditions include: 80-120 hour work weeks during months-long periods of crunch; providing lunch and dinner for employees so that they stay in the building, attached to projects, working for longer; the misdirection of frustration at all of this away from management and onto the product itself (for example: “The project requires x of you” [Read, 2003, 128]); and workplace architecture that is designed to keep workers at work (and moreover, keep them comfortable with being at work) by providing leisure activities and amenities not found in more traditional workplaces, such as bean bag chairs, ping pong tables, gaming setups in heavily trafficked areas, nap rooms, fridges, and kitchens full of free beverages and snacks. Once a person engages with this work culture and becomes vital to the success of a project, the personal ‘building’ that takes place becomes a time-economy of building healthy routines and fostering a work-life balance that accommodates and enables the expectations of overwork. Professionalization programs often do little to help new videogame production workers establish these skills, or figure out how best to budget their time; rather, they are often simply encouraged to dive head-first into their work. This plays off of habits developed in college or self-taught coding, where overwork is a show of passion and commitment.
The Shack Economy
Understanding the economics of the shack as an attempt to cobble together something out of nothing, or starting from scratch with little professional guidance, is especially important when considering the veil of secrecy around the working practices of videogame production. Kerr and Kelleher (2015) note that, of their sample of 75 videogame production-related job ads, only four of those ads mentioned anything about remuneration, and only three of those mentioned the possibility of having to work weekends, nights, and holidays (184). This seemingly willful ignorance by recruiters of the working conditions that they are recruiting for, along with the emphasis on workers who also identify as ‘passionate gamers’ (Kerr and Kelleher, 2015, 185; D’Anastasio, 2018) signals a conflation of work and play that is simply another control mechanism of capitalism (Kuchlich, 2005; Bulut, 2014 and 2015; Johnson, 2013a and 2013b; Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2006; Sotamaa, 2007; Llerena, Burger-Helmchen, and Cohendet, 2009; Schrier, 2017; Lauteria, 2012; Parker, Witson, and Simon, 2017; Phillips et al, 2016 among others). Blurring the lines between work and play can also be traced back to the ‘absolute refuge’ that Bachelard characterizes as a positive thing. To build a new dwelling out of the shack, something substantial out of detritus, the illusion of playful, ingenious, imaginative work needs to be inherent and pressing. Namely, workers must be encouraged to perform extreme labour in the name of what they love and to solve seemingly-impossible problems in inventive ways to develop a product consumers will cherish. Companies foster this behavior in order to sustain workers’ commitment to the “hard”, and often immediately unrewarding work that goes into development (Pettica-Harris, Westar, Legault, 2015, 579). Tokumitsu (2014) talks at length about how the concept of ‘Do[-ing] What You Love’ is not as uplifting as it may appear. Instead of encouraging passionate exploration and maintaining healthy work/life balances, it is instead a quick way for neoliberal capitalism to devalue work, and the worker, which then allows for the exploitation and commodification of immaterial labour, unremunerated/community material, and the material that is created by workers outside of working hours. Tokumitsu observes that:
In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labour that it fuels, [Do What You Love] is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism. It shunts aside the labour of others and disguises our own labour to ourselves. It hides the fact that if we acknowledge all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time. (para. 31)
By blurring the line between work and play, videogame production is asking for new workers to engage in a never-ending cycle of “doing what they love” in the hopes of building a new dwelling from the shack in which they are ensconced.
Much like Robertson and Bachelard’s understanding of the importance of the shack as a place where the language of detritus operates and creates new labourers to be capitalized upon, the economic understanding that Robertson and Bachelard skirt but never directly address is inherent in the structuring of labour that early-career videogame production workers endure. The necessity for bodies that are always working, always conditioned to work harder and longer, and always willing to sacrifice in order to advance, creates a work culture that sees the majority of ‘new’ videogame production workers as 20-30-year-old males (IGDA DSS 2017 Survey). Pettica-Harris, Wester, and McKenna (2015) discuss the search in videogame production for youthful bodies that are amenable to overwork, stating that: “work intensity has been associated with negative consequences such as physical exhaustion and mental stress […] [Young video game] workers in particular face issues of unlimited and unpaid overtime, poor work-life balance, musculoskeletal disorders, burnout, noncompete and nondisclosure agreements, and limited or unsupported training opportunities” (572). The need for a young, disposable labour force is echoed in Bulut’s (2014) work concerning quality-assurance (QA) testers in videogame production (254): for videogame production to work at any level, there must be a ready supply of young, amenable bodies to plug into places where burnout is likely to occur (usually in entry-level or QA jobs). Without that expendable workforce, production grinds to a halt as low-level assets such as background art go unfinished and segments of games don’t get play-tested. Pettica-Harris, Wester, and McKenna (2015) sum up why the necessity for young, amenable bodies is so important in allowing what they term “capital’s control circuit” (578) to continue operating:
Post-project catharsis and the feeling of having survived and solved all the creative puzzles is also a powerful influence in the overall control mechanism of project-based work, particularly when the project is a success […] In the face of project completion and success, the cycle of exploitation continues; the investment of time and resources acts as a form of manufactured consent […] While workers derive satisfaction from what they do, they are caught in the bind of having to continue to do it under pressurized and exploitative conditions because their advancement and recognition depend on their exploitation – this is ‘capital’s control circuit’. (578)
Bulut (2015) discusses how workers are also encouraged to stay once a project is completed by offering vested stock options and rewards for good reviewer scores that are doled out to workers over years. This approach keeps workers on the hook by requiring that they stay employed at that company for a variable number of years after the project completes, or risk losing those benefits. This is much the same for an architect finishing a project: there is an immense sense of relief at being done, but the pressing concern remains that there is always more work to be done, more projects to be built, and that remuneration is not a static affair – as public use or occupancy increases, more money will come their way (Presier, Hardy, and Wilhelm, 2018). However, unlike videogame production workers, architects are not subject to quarterly lay-offs and immediate rehires (Bulut, 2014, 241), overnight studio closures due to mismanaged funds (see also Hyman, 2008 regarding studios who have mismanaged funds and shuttered overnight), or acquisition and shuttering.
Shack to Shack and Back Again
Robertson’s and Bachelard’s concept of the ‘shack’ provides an analogy through which we can start to understand the exploitative nature of videogame production. By locating the ‘shack’ as a genesis point for architecture, characterized as something that people start in and move away from, we can see that videogame production occupies a similar starting point as the shack, but does not allow the unmitigated freedom that the shack does. Passion is used as a recruitment tool for videogame production wherein workers have their passion for playing games turned into a seemingly-open invitation to play while they work, in the hopes of working their way to a position where they can finally make the games that they are passionate about. Unfortunately, this rarely happens due to the exploitative nature of (over)work, remuneration, and meritocracy that favors certain races, genders, and cultural fits for promotion over those who may genuinely deserve it (D’Anastasio, 2018; Johnson, 2013; Bulut, 2015).
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