The 2010s Radicalized Video Games—and the People Who Make Them

The 2010s Radicalized Video Games—and the People Who Make Them

The 2010s Radicalized Video Games—and the People Who Make Them

As an increasing number of games began to critique 21st century capitalism, their designers in the US battled for unionization.


On March 1, 2017, David Kanaga stepped onto the Independent Games Festival (IGF) stage in San Francisco to collect his Nuovo award for Oiκοςpiel, Book I, a game in which the player traverses a series of surreal environments in a bid to help dogs form a labor union (it’s as strange as it sounds).

“Fuck Trump, fuck Pence, this country’s built on immigrants,” chanted the Bay Area video game maker before tabling another idea to his audience. Kanaga implored those sitting before him (and the thousands of others following remotely behind computer screens) to pool 5 percent of their income into creating a video game union. “I just want you to think about it,” he said. “There’s a lot of people struggling to make ends meet.”

In the week leading up to the IGF, Kanaga approached other industry workers at its week-long parent event, the Game Developers Conference (GDC), including game maker Emma Kinema. The following year, with high-profile mass layoffs at major companies such as Tell Tale casting a shadow over the industry, Kinema and Liz Ryerson (a previous collaborator with Kanaga) cofounded the grassroots organization Game Workers Unite. Their long-term aim was the unionization of the video game industry, although the group is not a union itself.

Beginning as a small Facebook group before expanding into Discord, the duo and 20 other activists organized a whirlwind week of demonstrations and events at the GDC, as well as distributing a zine, fliers, pins, and badges to its attendees. The atmosphere, Kinema recalls, was “pure electric”; support swelled, international branches of the organization followed, and the prospect of US video game unionization edged closer.

Kanaga, a long-haired Bay Area resident, began working in games as a composer on experimental music titles such as 2013’s Proteus and 2015’s Panoramical. But Oiκοςpiel, Book I was his first solo project. In interviews and talks about the game, he detailed complex academic theory one minute before referencing pop culture the next. As for his own labor politics, Kanaga’s outlook was shaped by the simple microeconomic reality of life as a freelance composer alongside his annual dips into the GDC’s “ocean of capital,” first as a volunteer and then as a professional. “You talk to someone who’s totally poor and then you talk to someone scoring a multimillion-dollar deal,” he said over a video call, highlighting the industry’s often profoundly unequal wealth distribution.

In the broader universe of independent video games, these politics grew more prominent over the course of the past decade. It all began during 2008’s “indie boom,” a spate of commercial successes that coincided with–and might have even profited from—the most severe financial crash since the Great Depression. Small teams or solo game makers began to digitally distribute their games through online stores for the first time. Braid, a 2D platformer like Mario written and designed by Jonathan Blow, became the scene’s first mega-hit—though it was riskier and more personal than its traditional counterparts. The game was released for the Xbox 360 console during during what Microsoft described as its Summer of Arcade: a marketing initiative designed to amplify such independent titles.

That year, any given console owner with an Internet connection was likely to have played Blow’s games. It didn’t hurt that 3.6 million people were newly out of a job thanks to the recession; indeed, a 2009 study found gaming reached an all time high during the economic crisis.

Games that revolved around work in particular took off during this period of economic hardship. Some assumed the form of job-like systems such as Cart Life’s gray-scale, pixelated “retail simulation,” in which the player must sustain a fledgling business while juggling commitments at home. At the decade’s end, the rideshare-inspired Neo Cab and Amazontinged Wilmot’s Warehouse depicted new forms of precarious employment.

Other independent games from the time incorporated economic disenfranchisement into their narratives. Kentucky Route Zero (2013) focused on the plight of blue-collar workers, while The Stanley Parable tasked players with escaping white-collar drudgery. Four years later, the sci-fi drama Tacoma imagined an Orbital Workers Union, while Night in the Woods presented a postindustrial American town through the eyes of a teenager struggling with depression. Amid these diffuse developments, Italian video game collective Molleindustria kept up its habit of critiquing 21st century capitalism. Phone Story was an unflinching look at the networks of global exploitation an iPhone sustains; To Build a Better Mousetrap took aim at immiserating management practices. On a more hopeful note, David Cribb’s Post/Capitalism enabled players to create their own utopian future.

In traditional video games, labor and capitalism have been depicted in near-frictionless harmony. Take SimCity and Civilization’s dogmatic views of economic progress popular during the booming real-life ’90s or even Mario’s insatiable accumulation of gold coins. But in the mid-’00s, the goods and services exchanged on these platforms began to assume real-world value. A virtual sword, for example, might be sold to another player for actual cash. In a bleak, albeit perhaps predictable development, gamers in China were employed to “farm”—a video game term for harvesting in-game commodities—gold for wealthy, international clients. As American players slept, these workers gamed around the clock in sweatshop-like conditions.

Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life satirized the work-like skills required to excel at such games—split-second reactions, the ability to follow tasks, and mastery of systems—by asking players to literally engage in repetitive, menial labor. Created between 2009 and 2012, he drew from what he describes as his own “bunch of bad jobs” including dessert chef, snow shoveler, and roofer. In Cart Life, players assume the role of a vendor either selling newspapers, bagels, or coffee in a post-crash American town. The town is planned like a real one: low-income workers and factories in the east, more affluent residents in the west. There’s a superstore in the outskirts, and its inner-city is marked by boarded-up stores, potholes, and graffiti. Video games had never been this banal.

As in an industrialized capitalist society, time never stops in Cart Life: Every second of the game is ripe for optimization. One of its characters, a recently divorced Ukrainian immigrant named Andrus, lives with his cat in a dreary hotel. Each day you direct him across town by either cab or bus, weighing the trade-off between time and money. Arriving at work, you follow a series of text prompts to unpack, fold, and stack newspapers. Mistype, and the stock gets damaged. Then, once customers start arriving, a clock representing their patience begins a countdown. Fail to deliver the newspaper and correct change promptly, and they walk off.

Exhausted from the day’s work, you point Andrus toward a food vendor, supermarket, or restaurant before finally arriving back at the hotel. Just before bed, you brush his teeth and shower, Hofmeier depicting the body in all its weary humanity. Your entire existence is summarized by a systematic breakdown of numbers, the gap between income and expenditure staring back at you through the screen. Andrus hits the hay only to start the whole process again in the morning.

Cart Life’s grim, low-wage labor might not seem like it shares many similarities with the real-life, often highly salaried world of video game development—but what it offers is a stark warning on the debilitating effects of overwork. Long hours, often resulting in the breakdown of families and friendships, and worsening mental health, has long plagued an industry with mercilessly few tools of legal defense.

This led designers to convey the reality of their and their colleagues’ experiences in their creative work. In the late 2000s, a designer named Steve Gaynor worked at 2K Marin on the 2010 dystopian shooter Bioshock 2. The Oregon-based game maker experienced grueling working hours often stretching into the weekend, what he describes as “traditional institutional crunch.”

Even so, while still working at the company, Gaynor channeled the realities of the modern workplace into Minerva’s Den, the spin-off he helmed as lead designer, telling the story of a mathematician hired to work with Alan Turing on early computation during World War II. While laboring over the burgeoning technology, his wife is killed during the bombing of London. “The story came from my own anxiety working on the main game,” explained Gaynor over Skype from the Portland game studio. “I spent so many hours working until 10 pm. It was about the anxiety of missing out on the human stuff you don’t get back in exchange for the work that’s going to get done one way or another.”

In 2012, he left 2K Marin to start Fullbright, an independent video game studio whose 2017 sci-fi exploration game Tacoma resonated with such workplace fears. The game is set in 2088 aboard a space station owned by the fictional megacorp Venturis, whose crew carries out orbital gig work thousands of miles from their loved ones. In this world, economic inequality is off the charts, so the station itself is an outpost designed to facilitate space-set leisure time for the super-rich; the crew is employed through an app that’s clearly aping Uber’s. Stable, fairly remunerated pay doesn’t exist for Tacoma’s fictional crew—and neither is it guaranteed for actual flesh-and-bone video game workers in the real world.

“It’s a question of how does the individual survive and thrive within that system,” said Gaynor. “There’s so many things in favor of corporations’ not hiring real employees and not providing the security of traditional employment.”

Gaynor was ultimately paid for his overtime on Bioshock 2, but he says it was only possible thanks to an unlikely series of events that took place almost five years earlier. In 2004, a woman named Erin Hoffman anonymously published an account of her own husband’s punishing work conditions—an 85-hour week, with overtime going unpaid—at Electronic Arts, one of the world’s biggest video game studios and publishers. Following industry-wide outrage, a number of successful class-action lawsuits cost the company $14.9 million in payouts for unpaid overtime; as a result, other companies began paying their staff for overtime too.

Still, as the economy picked up, working conditions for many worsened. A 2014 survey by the IGDA found that 81 percent of polled game developers had “crunched”—industry parlance for working unethically long hours—at some point in the prior two years. Last year, Kotaku reported on the severe working hours some Rockstar Games employees experienced during the making of the open-world western Red Dead Redemption 2 (echoing similar claims made against the company by the wives of employees working on its predecessor, 2010’s Red Dead Redemption). In 2008, Mike Capps, then president of Epic Games, stated that workweek of 60 or more hours was standard practice at the studio during an industry conference. As recently as this year, Polygon revealed the crunch conditions in the production of Fortnite Battle Royale (also made by Epic Games), while Netherealm’s toxic studio culture was widely reported on after former employees made public allegations.

Game Workers Unite’s emergence in 2018 was the outcome of these long-standing grievances. The politics of titles such as such as Cart Life and Tacoma played their part, too, bridging the gap between on-screen alienation and real-life labor while the media wised up to industry exploitation. In 2015, a GDC panel headed by Western University’s Johanna Weststar and Marie-Jose Legault detailed increasing support for workplace unions and even an industry-wide video game union. Kinema, the organization’s cofounder, keenly remembers watching Kanaga’s 2017 IGF union speech. “I don’t think there’s one singular moment, but it played a role for a lot of people in keeping that thought of agitation and organization alive,” she recalled over Skype from California. “Just like with Cart Life, it sparked imagination for people. Enough little instances came together over many years in a large enough amount of people so that when Game Workers Unite came online in 2018, people were ready to get on board.”

One of the “little instances” Kinema referenced occurred at Lost Levels 2013, an “unconference” picnic during GDC. Hofmeier, the maker of Cart Life, watched a lone speaker pose a simple question to a handful of onlookers: “Unions: How do we do it?”

Kinema, Ryerson, and a group of committed activists would begin offering answers at GDC’s main event in 2018. “I felt convinced we were on to something,” she said. “That we could catch a spark we could fan into a flame.”

Since then, Game Workers Unite has been transformed into a robust, international presence, largely through in-person training and education. “Only through education do people find the right path towards struggle,” she said. Over the past nine months, efforts have also been made to improve the organization’s structure, accountability, and processes in light of its growing prominence.

What’s up for debate, at least in the United States, is the shape video game unionization might take. Will something develop similar to Games Workers Unite UK—a legal trade union in its own right? The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has met with chapters and workers within Game Workers Unite, while Communication Workers of America recently posted two job openings for East and West Coast campaign organizers for the video game and tech industries.

Kinema is in favor of a single union, but it’s unclear whether such an organization would be feasible for a video game industry incorporating many different disciplines and organization types. “It’s the most safe and indivisible bet if all the workers are organized in one union because employers who have multi-union industries will often try to pit those unions against one another,” she said. “Regardless of what manifestations labor takes, we need to have that connective tissue of Game Workers Unite to unify us.”

Clearer is the shared DNA between video game unionization efforts, broader blue-collar activism, and the revival of leftist politics over the last five years. And for the game makers sensitive to today’s economic, social, and political realities, the solution is to produce work questioning and amplifying awareness of capitalism’s most extreme contradictions. Newer activists, meanwhile, are engineering their own opportunities to resolve the material conditions of employees, just as Kanaga imagined his class-conscious canines doing in Oiκοςpiel, Book I.

What strange, revolutionary shapes video games might take with newly collective-minded workers driving their creation is anyone’s guess. At the very least, their makers will take home a fairer buck.

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