Immediately after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, President Donald Trump blamed “gruesome video games that are now commonplace,” leading a chorus of political opprobrium. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told Fox News he worried for “video games that dehumanize individuals,” while on “Fox & Friends” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick fingered “a video game industry that teaches young people to kill.” All of this was baseless, of course, a cheap smokescreen to elide meaningful discussion of firearms. And yet the feint worked: After 22 people were shot to death at a Walmart in El Paso, the retailer will remove some game advertising from its stores, while continuing to sell guns.
Video game fans have, over the years, reflexively defended the industry almost without question, to ward off the Joe Liebermans of the world who have been attacking games for four decades. But video games really can damage people, quite grievously. Except the people being hurt are the people who make video games, not the people who play them.
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In the past year, American game developers—a group that includes programmers, composers, writers, designers, visual artists, animators, quality assurance testers, the works—have been raising hell about their workplaces. At the Netflix show “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” we talked to several for a recent episode.
Game developers work lawyer hours for bartender salaries. They often get booted off the credits of games because they leave at some point on a multi-year project. Many work on long freelance contracts when they should, by law, be receiving benefits. They work in a $40 billion industry that issues routine layoffs that number in the thousands each year. Unlike screenwriters, game developers typically earn no residuals on their work even when a single title like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V grosses $6 billion and counting. They say they get blackballed if they speak out about these workplace issues.
If a member of Congress really wanted to help people who are being wounded by video game studios and publishers, they would hold hearings to pry into the workplace abuses that, again and again, game developers point to when anyone bothers to look under the hood of the latest blockbuster. In the case of Riot Games, in California, the people who make the hit game League of Legends were so tired of living in a toxic culture that a few of them sued for sexual harassment and wage discrimination. This spring, when the company compelled one of those suits into arbitration, more than a hundred workers walked out en masse to protest. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is now investigating Riot, a testament to the power of serious labor journalism and of direct action.
Websites like Kotaku and Polygon have, over the years, put together a solid body of reporting that depicts an industry in need of serious overhaul. The work of game development requires long hours. It’s broadly creative and yet finicky down to individual keystrokes of code. The attention and the passion that people bring to it makes for a volatile environment: final products that, like movies, require millions of hours of human effort to complete on deadline — but which remain so personal to the creators that during long stretches of “crunch” they’ll put up with 80-hour weeks (on 40-hour pay) and lousy job security just to remain in a career making what they love.
Games are multi-layered tech projects that require constant innovation, but they’re also non-essential goods enjoyed largely by young people who don’t have a great deal of political say. Developers likewise skew young. They joke darkly (and worker surveys suggest) that the industry spits them out after an average career of just five or six years, roughly what an NFL starter can expect in pro football. They throw themselves into burnout machines that the world at large ignores.
In the past year and a half, many game developers have talked openly about unionizing, a move overdue for American game and tech companies. Since 2018, a grassroots group called Game Workers Unite has connected developers around the world. And game studios have already been intimately exposed to a major strike. The longest SAG-AFTRA strike in that union’s history was over voice actors’ compensation and working conditions on games. The tech sector that looks most like Hollywood may be the first to cross-pollinate with the heavily unionized film industry. At least one Democratic presidential candidate has noticed: Bernie Sanders tweeted in June that game developers “deserve to collectively bargain as part of a union.”
One of the game developers we talked to told us, almost as an afterthought, about one of the strangest incidents at her former company. During periods of intense crunch, she said, employees used to quietly camp out at the office (no point in going home, they figured, when you’re working 16-hour days) and sneak a shower before everyone arrived in the morning. One day a company-wide email went out. Apparently someone had deposited an alarming amount of blood in the men’s shower. Either coughed it up, or threw it up, or, well, your guess is as good as anyone’s.
The email asked whether somebody needed to go to a hospital. But no one spoke up to claim the mess. That reaction should sound familiar by now. When politicians invoke video games after mass shootings, don’t let them lull you into ignoring the cause of the real blood on the floors.