Video games are an expensive hobby, often demanding a great deal of trust whenever you buy a new one. Buying a game winds up being a number of things. A purchase is a gamble. It’s an encouragement. It’s a participation in exploitation. And it’s a conversation with the many people who brought you the game.
Purchases have power. We understand the phrase “the customer is always right” because we understand that whenever we toss down $60 or more for a game, we’re also spending more than paper money. We’re spending the time we spent working for it, and we’re spending the associated physical and emotional labor. But the intersection of work and labor at play when we buy games also means that there’s a lot more going on. Being a responsible game player requires understanding the dynamics at play.
Whenever you buy something, you are—to one extent or another—taking a gamble. If you buy a hamburger, there’s an assumption that it will be properly cooked but there’s never a guarantee. You might end up with something undercooked or it might have too many onions. Within these gambles are a tangled webs of explicit or understood customer rights. If you get the bad burger, for instance, you can ask for the kitchen to fix it. It doesn’t stop your purchase being a gamble, but it does minimize risk.
Buying a game is also a gamble, but one ultimately more complex than buying the hamburger. The sheer number of variables determining a game’s quality are massive and, unlike the burger, which is either cooked how you ordered or not, you don’t have a much of a say. The game is already made, and the gamble is on the relative quality. That’s trickier to pin down and we’ll use a specific example to examine how it all works.
When Mass Effect 3 released, many players objected to what they saw as an unsatisfactory end to the trilogy. Some voiced their complaints and disappointment. Others demanded change. Negative response and massive fan campaigns exerted pressure on BioWare until they eventually released free DLC that expanded the endings and added new content. I believe fans who made the purchase took a gamble and regrettably lost. But unlike the chef—who is crafting things to your specific order—BioWare was selling a completed good. When customers bought Mass Effect 3, they bought what was on the disc or in the download file. We can discuss the quality of the game and whether or not it did what we wanted—I found it underwhelming but still serviceable—but BioWare isn’t necessarily required to remake the game to satisfy players who disliked it. They may choose to. They hopefully turn out to be a studio that invites feedback and solicits changes. But a studio isn’t automatically required to change a game just because the people who bought it asked for it. The dynamics are different than buying a hamburger, and this applies broadly to nearly every game you purchase.
Purchases are complex and subject to numerous variables that alter the relation between buyer and creator. I’m not arguing that BioWare shouldn’t have fixed Mass Effect 3 but understanding how the dynamics surrounding the purchase of commercial art differ from other goods becomes crucial for understanding your rights as a customer. Some purchases are made with need in mind: to have food, to have batteries that work. The needs with art are less quantifiable: to have fun, to laugh or cry. Those are highly specific and subjective things. You can rightly argue that the goal wasn’t met, and sometimes refund your purchase or forgo buying another game from those creators, but there can be a fundamental labor misunderstanding that leads individuals to conflate the right to feedback with a power to make demands and the obligation of the workers behind the product to then do more work to change things. It’s the difference between saying something disappointed you while explaining why and expecting a developer to, without question, expand or rewrite their art until you are satisfied.
Purchases are transactions. They exist in the moment and end once the good and money are exchanged. You pay for the thing, you get the thing. If the thing is bad, it goes in reverse and you get your money back, but the process ends. This is different than investments, which are allocations of money for future returns, with risk attached. They establish a relationship between parties with certain expectations. There’s an agreement at play between investor and investee. For instance, Kickstarter backers invest money in a project with the understanding that something will be made. They also do so knowing the risks; for instance, that the quality is not completely assured. Larger investments and stakes in projects grants more voice in the direction it takes. Should the project stall or be mismanaged, they can attempt to take action.
While a purchase does grant the right to feedback, it doesn’t grant ongoing say in the day to day affairs of a company in the same way as an investment. More importantly, it doesn’t grant us rights to police the behavior of workers even if the money we spend on games indirectly supports their livelihood. A healthy relationship with developers and workers means knowing where the boundaries are. We’re not their bosses, even if we spent extra on the deluxe edition.
Buying a game is less about proving that “the customer is always right,” and more about being aware of the practices we support. That’s because purchases are also a form of encouragement. Capitalism is a massive system, and purchases speak in a variety of ways. Purchases tacitly condone the labor practices that created the product and speak to employers more than feedback itself.
Whenever we give someone money, we incentivize them to continue the process by which it was possible. Like it or not, that means buying a game encourages employers to continue things like crunch. That turns your purchase into an encouragement of behavior and, more importantly, into a moral decision.
Let’s say I’m a idiot and decide to open a pizza shop tomorrow. Kotaku’s not cutting it and I have all this extra tomato sauce that I really want to use. I hire a handful of hapless line chefs, servers, and a host to get this enterprise off the ground only to find out that the demand for pizza is really high right now. In fact, it’s so high that I need to ask my crew to work on extra hours—let’s say eighteen hours a day of slinging pies and bussing tables. That’s a lot, even by cook standards. They come in on holidays and work late into the night. In order to make these pizzas, they’re missing times with their family and sacrificing personal health. One of them misses their daughter’s piano recital, another can’t make it to their uncle’s funeral. Hopefully, a reasonable person would look at that and say that the situation is bullshit.
But no one’s really speaking up. Folks keep coming in and buying my pizza. Sometimes, we have a special pizza and people preorder it. Hell, in order to feed all of you pizza-hounds, I need my guys to work even longer hours near the end of the process. Yeah, it’s a bum wrap for my workers, but I’m making stupid amounts of money. Maybe you’re not thinking about all this when you buy my pizza, but I definitely am. Every dollar you pay me is an encouragement to keep things as they are.
This means that purchases are also political and moral acts just as much as they are gambles or economic exchanges. When examining capitalism’s effects, it’s important to recognize the tension between where labor rests and capital rests. In general, one class congregates a higher percentage of the capital relative to the labor they perform. These are managers, owners, venture capitalists, and other individuals. In the case of a company like Activision or Electronic Arts, while designers perform most of the labor, the capital sits with executives. Last year, Activision-Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick made $28,698,375, per SEC filings. That’s 306 times more than the average employee. Outgoing Electronic Arts executive Patrick Söderlund made $48.3 million last year.
In his letter ‘Employer and Employed,’ the democratic Socialist Eugene V. Debs notes that “when rightly considered, the interests of employer and employed are identical.” Both make a living off the same enterprise and seek similar goals; it is the imbalance between the distribution of capital and labor that causes interests to slip out of alignment. The imbalance between labor and capital persists in part because customers support the practices perpetuating this imbalance with their purchases. In order to help employer and employed be aligned, customers need to adopt a more ethical outlook towards their purchases.
Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing to buy a game you want. Instead, it is crucial to understand how your purchase plays into a larger labor ecosystem. If you want to buy Cyberpunk 2077, go for it. But if we accept the premise that purchases play a role in the distribution of capital and labor, that means accepting that our purchases have ethical ramifications. After all, even CD Projekt Red had to release a statement addressing poor morale at their studio.
But what does that even mean, if purchases themselves exist within the predatory ecosystem of capitalism? For starters, it means being more well-informed about the studios and companies we support. When rightly considered, the interests of customer and creator are identical. Both want the created work to be of a certain standard of quality. Both want to see creative enterprises continue. And both believe in the power of the medium. The best way to for quality work to thrive is for customers to leverage their support into creating more equitable working conditions. This means supporting systems and companies that benefit workers.
Consider the difference between buying a game on Steam or buying it on itch.io. Valve takes a 30 percent share of sales revenue on their platform. Yes, some of that goes to maintaining their storefront but that affects the distribution of labor and capital whenever someone makes a purchase. Specifically, it shifts capital away from the laborer. Meanwhile, ichi.io allows developers to determine the percentage of sales that go to the platform. This theoretically ensures a more equitable distribution of capital across all parties. A conscientious customer might decide to purchase games on that storefront, to better support creators.
The moral nature of purchasing also means sometimes deciding when not to buy something as well. In the case of allegations of workplace misconduct it is incumbent upon video game players to determine if they are comfortable giving money to a studio facing such allegations. Last year, members of the Screen Actors Guild went on strike to protest working conditions for video game voice actors. Among the games affect was Life Is Strange: Before The Storm, whose main protagonist Chloe Price was voiced by Rhianna DeVries instead of her original, SAG membership holding actress Ashly Burch. Although Burch consulted as a writer on the game, it does not change the fact it was produced with strike breakers. Players looking to stand in solidarity with workers might seek alternative methods for experiencing a game made by studios caught up in labor controversies. That can mean borrowing the game from a friend or, in a less dire case, waiting to buy it used from a third party. In some cases, it might mean watching your favorite streamer play the game instead.
We already talk about boycotts and purchasing power in the case of practices exploitative to customers, such as loot boxes. Broadening the scope of those decisions to encompass worker rights disrupts the status quo even further. Whether you’re purchasing an extra copy of Dead Cells in support of Motion Twin’s collective salary structure or telling EA to fuck off with Star Wars Battlefront II’s microtransactions, the principle is the same. Workers can seek equitable conditions and push back against shady design practices through the slow but valuable process of unionization. Players can push back against companies and stand in solidarity with workers through informed purchasing decisions.
While practices like crunch have been met with scrutiny over the last few years, with major industry figures opening up about the practice, it still persists as an accepted necessary evil. As initiatives like Game Workers Unite organize to end the practice and implement worker protection throughout the industry, players will be thrust into the conflict as well.
You never just buy a game. Purchases are gambles with risks and moral decisions with sweeping ramifications. It’s a lot more than shuffling down to GameStop, and tossing down some bills. Much like Debs says that the interests of employer and employed are identical, so are the interests of developers and players. Our purchases are an instrumental tool in ensure workers are treated right, and a powerful means of pushing the medium forward. Understanding what it means to buy a game and wiedling our purchases responsibly is crucial if we want to see the industry—and the medium—last.