The Moral Dilemma of Supporting Toxic Game Studios

img_6198This week in an interview with online publication Vulture, Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser stated that during the final stretch of development of their upcoming game Red Dead Redemption 2, parts of the team have been working 100-hour weeks to get the game completed by their October 26th release date. That number works out to be roughly 14 hour days, seven days a week. This is a disturbing number to hear, no matter how “passionate” you are about the job that you do. This wouldn’t be acceptable or healthy for a young, single person, and I cannot imagine the strain it would place on somebody with a spouse and children at home. These types of labor practices should be completely unacceptable but unfortunately it’s a story we’ve heard over and over, and this isn’t the first time that Rockstar has been in the spotlight for allegations of excessive “crunch” time.

Back in 2010, a letter was published from a group of “Rockstar wives” detailing the toll that “crunch” was taking on the families of Rockstar San Diego employees during the development of the original Red Dead Redemption. The studio dismissed the allegations as “opinions of a few anonymous posters” but other similar stories have floated around the internet over the years about the secretive studio and now this interview seems to make it clear that this type of thing does in fact happen at Rockstar.

They aren’t the only developer to come under fire recently for worrisome work environments. Detroit: Become Human developer Quantic Dream made headlines earlier this year when allegations surfaced of a toxic workplace which included sexist and racist remarks from senior staff (Quantic Dream sued the french newspaper who published the story), and other accusations have been made about studios like Naughty Dog and CD Projekt Red. Theses are big name game developers and the creators of some of the most beloved games of recent years. So what do we, as consumers, when one of our favorite game developers behaves in a way that we find troublesome? And what does it say about us if we just look the other way and buy their games anyway? Sadly there’s no real easy answer.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Since the interview with Houser came out, many people online have stated that they intend to boycott Red Dead 2 in protest, but the problem with that strategy is that not only would some sort of organized protest most likely not have a huge impact on what is sure to be a huge selling game, but if it did impact sales, that’s likely to have a negative impact on the very people who have been slaving away at the studio. Lost bonuses and even layoffs are always a possibility when a game underperforms. So if you don’t buy the game because of the behavior you may hurt the very people who have been taken advantage of, and if you do buy the game you’re enabling the bad behavior and showing the studio heads that you don’t care. So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

There has to be something that can be done though, right? I think the obvious first step that has to be made is for game developers to unionize. I’ve been a part of a union for 17 years, and while many people have some issues with unions (myself included) I think it’s something that is overdue and inevitable in the games industry. This would not only help to address issues like overtime pay and healthy working conditions, but it would also hopefully prevent situations like the recent closure of Telltale Games which screwed over hundreds of employees and left them suddenly out of a job with no severance pay or health insurance.

Detroit: Become Human

Some would argue that unionization would make it harder for studios to make the type of AAA games that we love, and maybe there’s some truth to that, but I don’t think that it’s impossible to make big, ambitious games in a healthy environment and I for one would be more than willing to see games takes a while longer if it means that the people making them get to spend more time with their families. I’m totally okay with not having realistic horse testicle physics if it means that somebody gets to go to their kid’s soccer game or tuck them in at night.

Another important thing to do is to just be more aware of what goes on in the industry, and if you’re a journalist, ask the tough questions when you have an opportunity. I know a lot of people will say that all they want to read or hear about are the bullet points (how long is the game, how are the graphics, etc) but I think it’s up to the gaming press to dig deeper. I used to be the kind of person who only cared about review scores and strategies, but I’m older and (hopefully) more mature now. I understand that games aren’t made my studios, they’re made by individuals. If people continue to turn a blind eye to the issues plaguing game development then studio heads will have no incentive to change.

So should you still buy Red Dead Redemption 2? That’s totally up to you. You’re not a bad person if you do and it’s totally fine if you don’t, but I think we all need to start opening our eyes a bit more and caring about what goes into making the games we love and the price that’s being paid by developers and their families. If we start holding studios more accountable and taking care of those around us, we’ll all win out in the end.

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