Do We Need Fair Trade Games?

Red Dead Redemption came out last week and while I know I'm going to buy it, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat hesitant to do so.

It seems the controversy is now mostly forgotten, but in January, the spouses of a number of Rockstar San Diego developers penned an open letter decrying the working conditions in the studio. Reminiscent of the then unnamed Erin Hoffman's EA Spouse letter, it details conditions that grossly overreach the usual game development crunch time. And of course, the response from Rockstar HQ and Take 2 was typical mealy-mouthed PR bullshit. While I'm sure plenty of other games I have enjoyed were made under similar conditions to Red Dead Redemption and simply didn't receive public outcry, a pall is still cast over RDR that it won't ever be able to fully shake, at least for me.

Hearing the alleged conditions in Rockstar San Diego were also unfortunately familiar; by several accounts, Bully was created at Rockstar Vancouver under very similar conditions. And even though I quite enjoyed Bully, I couldn't help but feel a little ... uncomfortable about it. It was that same twinge of discomfort you get seeing "Made in Bangladesh" on the tag of your shirt. I don't mean to pick on Rockstar, I'm sure this is a problem at many studios, but you know, they did pay out almost $3 million after a lawsuit was filed by employees about a year ago.

While I'm being facetious about the idea of "fair trade" certification for games, even if such a thing could exist, I'm not sure something like it would actually be desirable. The purpose of fair trade is to avoid purchasing goods produced in unfair conditions. But if I had slaved away on a game, seeing it sell poorly because consumers disagreed with the conditions it was made in would only be adding insult to injury.

And of course, I don't think it's very risky to say most of the potential audience really doesn't care. Most are simply unaware of such circumstances at all and of the small percentage that are, many seem to have the perverse and naive attitude that being a game developer is some invaluable gift. Once this legendary position has been obtained, all expectations of fair and decent working conditions evaporate.

A couple choice comments from the Shacknews post about this: "Come to NY and see who cries for you." "Oh please. These guys have the best jobs in the world and they love doing it. Have a problem with it? DON'T MARRY THEM." "This sucks, but god damn those screens look good."

Unfortunately, this attitude exists even in some new entrants to the industry. Willing to do virtually anything to "break in," their enthusiasm results in a seemingly unending supply for the digital salt mines. Eventually circumstances like the above burn them out and they leave for good, resulting in less than one third of developers making it to ten years in the industry.

And I have no idea what to do about it. It seems buying Red Dead Redemption is better than not doing so in protestation, but good sales likely aren't going to inspire change at Rockstar San Diego. More likely, a good swath of people will leave, replacements will be brought in and things will get as bad again the next time a project is well behind schedule. I do not think the solution is a union, as I'm very skeptical of a union ever being a good idea for knowledge workers. The great, bloated beasts SAG and the WGA have become certainly give me little hope.

The only thing I can do, personally, is refuse to ever work at a studio that operates under such conditions and strongly council others to do the same. If great, experienced developers will only operate at studios with respectful, fair working conditions, and they make this known, that might incentivize certain changes. The passion people have to making games is also a great weakness, because it can be exploited. Game developers will tolerate conditions I can't imagine someone making accounting software ever would. We cannot allow our passion to be taken advantage of.

I really hope Red Dead Redemption is a big success, both in terms of quality and sales. It's better condolence than the alternative. It sure sounds like its creators were asked to give far too much and there's a part of me that will feel a little guilty enjoying the game because of it. I long for the day when developers' passion will be respected rather than exploited, but honestly, I don't know how soon that day will come. Not soon enough, I think.

Republished with permission from Above 49.

Nels Anderson is a gameplay programmer at Hothead Games. He is probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design at Above 49.