Which is the industry we want?

Cover by crysanthema.

At the inaugural panel of last year’s Meet the Devs a lot of panelists agreed that the videogame industry is composed not only by companies, but also by indies, hobbyists, academic institutions, and the specialized press and critique. This statement, that I still hear nowadays, worries me, because it presents several issues from a moral standpoint, and because stacking several different things together as if they were part of a whole makes for poor analysis and clumsy critical thinking..

The moral objections can be summarized by the fact that saying that the specialized press is part of the videogame industry naturalizes the notion that the press shares and answers to the interests of said industry and it leads to it being dishonest with their readers. That is to say that the press and critique are presented as marketing tools instead of being presented as disciplines that exist to analyze their object of study in an honest and transparent way and to try to be as fair and objective as possible.

When an article that harshly criticized private videogame schools came out in Página/12, the reactions from many of my colleagues were deplorable. They treated the author and the publisher badly and I fear that this reaction was due to them being used to the press speaking of the industry in positive terms.

The objections about grouping all national production under the label of industry happen because the national scene is very diverse and it feels unfair to pretend it’s all the same.

We have AAA success stories such as the new Master of Orion, indies who made a hit like the guys from Coffee Powered Machine that made Okhlos, and Daniel Benmergui, indies who made it to the GDC thanks to popular vote like Laura Palavecino and Martín Sebastián Wain, art games that get featured in Game On!, people who make protest games like the guys from Shitty Games, people who make games that tour the world like the guys from VIDEOGAMO, a newly founded community of interactive fiction to which ¾ of Matajuegos belongs to. We also have all the colleagues that didn’t make the cut due to lack of room, besides the unglamourous success stories such as Trivia Crack from Etermax and Mundo Gaturro.

This is why Mundo Gaturro isn’t glamorous. 

Due to game development variety, each sector has specific issues with specific solutions and those issues remain hidden when we speak of the industry as an homogeneous whole. I understand why the national scene wants a videogame industry to exist. An industry guarantees jobs and the capacity to create super productions like our favorite games from our childhood and the favorite games of many in the present. I also understand that grouping everyone from the scene under the same label aims to use strength in numbers to succeed.

Nevertheless, that eagerness towards unity leads us to assume that everyone benefits equally from the industry growth and erases the inequity and vulnerabilities suffered by certain groups. A publisher or a development company get more benefits and greater economic prowess than an indie or an employee. Failing to analyze the industry with a critical eye perpetuates these and other inequalities, that lead to working in the industry being unsustainable in the long term. Most of the developers leave the industry after having worked in a couple of projects.

We understand the industry as an activity that aims to obtain economic revenue and has a system in place to do so in the most efficient way possible. The local videogame industry tends to mimic the foreign videogame industry, which in turn mimics Hollywood’s production models, but no one seems to think the consequences through.

We know that the AAA videogame industry mimics Hollywood doing super productions with traditional values in which several teams work on the same project in different places around the world and each team member has a specialized role. Unlike Hollywood, it doesn’t have unions and their workers don’t receive royalties for their work.

We also know that social, mobile and arcade games that “borrow” mechanics and ideas from other games, are not so different from slot machines and are dishonest with their rivals.

In both cases creative freedom ranges from little to none, the work is pretty alienating and the overtime is greater than that of other creative endeavors. I have seen local developers post in social media that they stayed up until 3 in the morning or the whole weekend working at the office, but instead of complaining about working conditions, they rejoice because they received pizza for their troubles and other colleagues cheer them on because they’re fulfilling their dream of making videogames.

 No, nobody knows if that pee from Blow is real.

The narrative that favors workplace exploitation is backed by the fact that game development isn’t unionized and national and international videogame associations focus on industry growth, but not on industry regulation. The worst is that when a country gets workplace regulations, the companies move to countries without them. There are also videogame schools in the United States that promote workplace exploitation as part of their curricula.

Another issue of working in the industry is that companies open and close business quickly, projects get cancelled after tons of resources are poured in, and companies that begin an expansion process undergo huge personal cuts once said process is done. Not only there’s workplace instability, but the salaries are also low in comparison to similar jobs in other industries and there’s no workplace mobility, that is to say, being QA is not the stepping stone towards other jobs inside the industry such as producer or level designer.

To this issue we can add the fact that getting a videogame education is really expensive, the curricula isn’t standardized and there are little public alternatives. On the other hand, the less structured ways of receiving an education, such as events and conferences are greatly beneficial for organizers in the economic and social capital sense (publicity), but they present little to no benefits to the speakers and it’s almost impossible to cover the cost for the most renowned ones, such as GDC. Luckily for us, we have the internet.

Hopefully, not everything is lost. Every developer that says shitty things in defense of workplace exploitation is refuted by another colleague, there are indie studios that manage to work in an ethical, professional and creative way. Besides, in October 2016 the union for voice actors entered a strike. It’s one of the few branches that is unionized because it works for other fields unrelated to videogames and if their protest succeeds, it will leave a precedent for developers to get royalties for the games they’ve worked in.

It’s left to ourselves to decide if we’re working for the ethical and responsible growth of the industry or if we will keep mimicking decaying development models.