Gamers and managers vs workers: the impossible (and gendered) standards imposed on game developers

Last week, videogame studio ArenaNet fired two of its employees in what has become a far too common occurrence in the videogame industry. After a mild Twitter altercation in which narrative designer Jessica Price called out someone for mansplaining her job back to her, a hateful mob of misogynistic gamers mobilised through websites such as Reddit to complain to her employers about her ‘abusive’ behaviour and to bombard her personal Twitter account with hateful messages. Writer Peter Fries, who had been at ArenaNet for over twelve years, came to Price’s defence on social media. ArenaNet fired both of them for failing ‘to uphold our standards of communicating’ with the game’s players. It’s worth stressing that while in a follow-up tweet, Price complained about ‘rando asshats’ mansplaining to her generally, she never once called the original respondent any names; she simply used their tweet as an example of what female game developers constantly have to deal with on social media.

This is not an isolated occurrence. Ever since the misogynistic denizens of gamer culture began to mobilise through websites such as Reddit and 4chan, in what would eventually solidify under the banner of ‘Gamergate’ in mid-2014, every outspoken and publicly visible minority game developer has had a crosshair on their forehead. The mobs circle for years, waiting for the slightest political utterance or act that they can exaggerate and blow up into a news story that the developer’s employer would rather not have to deal with. The exact same strategy was used to get Alison Rapp fired from Nintendo in 2016 and Randi Harper fired from Kixeye in 2015, and was used to push out Comcept’s Community Manager in 2014. In each of these cases, and numerous others, corporate managers decided to fire, rather than support, an employee who was the victim of a sustained and ongoing harassment campaign.

The fact that this keeps happening shows a clear disconnect between the managers in charge of these companies and the actual workers whose creative labour produces the videogames that the companies benefit from. For all the hopeful talk about videogame development becoming more open and more diverse (and indeed it has), many companies are still stuck in their conservative and craven ways, more concerned with placating the boisterous gamer mobs – that the industry itself cultivated as a stable consumer base throughout the 1990s – than with supporting the wellbeing and safety of their workers. The workers are stuck in a bind, flanked by a managerial class on one side that sees them as disposable and a consumer class on the other that sees them as slaves.

There are two interconnected aspects of this bind that traps game workers (especially minority game workers) that are worth exploring in more detail to unpack this point: the conflicting expectations of game developers on social media, and the historic configuration of the videogame industry that has long placed the workers themselves as subservient to both managers and gamers.

Game developers and social media

Twitter is the main home of public game development discourse online. A large number of amateur and professional developers from a range of disciplines regularly share their knowledge and engage through vibrant conversation with their peers and audiences. Through Twitter, the actual creative labourers of the videogame industry are more visible than ever before, and the positive outcomes of this have been numerous.

In many cases, developers are actively encouraged to have an active presence on Twitter and other social media. It looks good for a studio to be the one employing this famous narrative designer or that famous AI programmer. For a creative industry, that cultural capital of individual creators is priceless for the companies who hire them. Even beyond any formal pressure to be a public presence, though, actively engaging with a community of peers on Twitter is a crucial safety net for many developers. In a notoriously precarious boom-or-bust industry where even a successful title doesn’t immunise a studio from sudden lay-offs, it’s vital for those in many game development disciplines to have an active and healthy professional network to call upon when that hammer falls. Being vocal and visible on Twitter isn’t merely a choice for many game developers; it’s a career necessity.

There are, of course, risks involved with such a public presence on social media for all professionals. No shortage of people of all genders across the political spectrum have found themselves in hot water with their employers over things they have said on social media in either a professional or personal capacity. But the risks of using social media professionally (or indeed at all) are much greater for visible minorities – be that women, queer folk, or non-white folk. Whether its doxxing, death threats, unsolicited sexual messages, or verbal abuse, minorities are much more likely to have a negative experience on social media.

These more explicit violences are the most obvious issues, but there’s also the much more pervasive issue of persistent mansplaining. Anyone with more than a few thousand followers or a viral tweet can attest to the mental exhaustion of having your mentions fill up with countless iterations of the same lukewarm, introductory disagreement to your attempt to boil down to a single tweet a complex area in which you’re an expert. The broadcast and bluntness of the Twitter platform almost encourages this sort of infuriating engagement. No shortage of times I’ve simply had to mute all replies to a tweet of mine and walk away from my computer, not because I was getting abuse necessarily, but simply because the amount of utterly basic and incorrect disagreements that ignored my own expertise on the matter was truly exhausting and upsetting.

At first glance this might sound like complaining about being ‘too popular’, but it’s worth remembering that those with thousands of Twitter followers are not necessarily rich and famous and, really, are probably investing vast amounts of physical and emotional labour in dealing with these ‘professional’ conversations in their own time outside of work hours, even as their employers directly benefit from the cultural capital of employing a ‘known’ person.

It’s almost needless to point out that this issue is magnified ten-fold for women who already have to deal with their areas of expertise being explained to them by less-experienced men in all aspects of their life. When Price wrote her incriminating tweet, this was exactly the issue she was dealing with. Yes, the person she took issue with was being polite to her. Yes, perhaps complaining about ‘rando asshats’ is not the most ‘professional’ thing to do. But the idea that a woman on Twitter simply being mildly fed up with having her area of expertise explained back to her for the umpteenth time could get her fired is patently absurd.

ArenaNet, like many large videogame companies, is more than happy to profit from the cultural capital that comes with Price tweeting about her work as a narrative designer (Price told The Verge that in her job interview at ArenaNet she was told they admired her loudness on social media), but abandons her the moment she struggles for even a second with the physical and emotional labour that Twitter demands of professional women.

And, of course, that’s the greatest risk minority professionals and their allies face for using social media: crossing paths with a primed-and-ready online hate mob just waiting for them to step out of line so as to get them fired and to reclaim their boys club. Without social media, finding future employment will be more difficult; with social media, your current employment could be held hostage at a moment’s notice. It’s just another dot in the endless list of ways that women and other minorities are disadvantaged in the videogame industry.

Game developers and managers

While the gamer hate mobs on Reddit and other forums deliberately weaponise minor missteps to get anyone they dislike (generally minority developers with progressive political beliefs) fired, it’s crucial to remember that they are only able to do this because of the willing cooperation of the managerial class of game development companies. Speaking to The Verge, Price notes that ArenaNet co-founder Mike O’Brien fired her personally, and that at no point prior to being fired had she received any warning about her social media presence. Speaking to the studio’s community on their forums, O’Brien reassures the studio’s players that, ‘[Price and Fries’] attacks on the community were unacceptable… We value your input. We make this game for you.’

The outrage among the broader development community at the firings largely come down to this shocking lack of support from those who run videogame companies for their own staff. Instead of standing by his team and supporting the creators that work under him and who regularly have to deal with abusive gamers online, O’Brien immediately adopts the narrative that the player community was somehow ‘attacked’ by Price’s mild tweets. O’Brien here hasn’t simply been duped by the mob into thinking Price and Fries committed some heinous act – which itself would be unacceptable for any games company this side of GamerGate – rather, he is willingly throwing his own staff under the bus to placate the angry hate mob and make the problem go away.

There’s something here that often confuses outsiders. Why is it that fans, those most-passionate consumers of a product and who identify with the product on some deeply personal level, are often the ones who are most hateful and spiteful towards those individuals who create the thing they love? Often this gets explained away as an overly zealous and protective passion, but the answer is both more insidious and more straightforward: fans are not loyal to workers; fans are loyal to brands. This is especially true of gamers, that young and predominantly male demographic explicitly and deliberately cultivated by videogame publishers throughout the 90s to identify strongly enough with a range of brands, to constantly invest money in new titles and hardware. The gamer’s allegiance is to ArenaNet, not the workers at ArenaNet who do the creative labour. Gamers are allies to corporations.

At the same time, the managerial class of the games industry has long seen the creative workers that actually produce games as disposable and easily replaceable. ‘A passion for games’ is held up as a primary requirement for working in the videogame industry, and those who have been brought up through the gamer identity are offered low wages and demanded to do unpaid overtime in return for so generously being given the opportunity to work in the industry. Despite videogames existing for over half a century at this point, they are still often called a ‘young’ medium. In large part, this is because the poor and precarious working conditions of many large studios mean many developers leave the games industry for other sectors once they enter their thirties. While alternative development models in recent years have disrupted this greatly, the blockbuster videogame industry persists as a cycle of passionate and predominantly male adolescents being cultivated into twenty-somethings who are crunched and burnt in order to make products for the next generation of passionate and predominantly male adolescents.

The workers themselves are on the bottom rung, their labour obfuscated by the secrecy of the larger videogame companies, so that we talk about the new game by ‘Ubisoft’ or ‘EA’ or ‘Rockstar’ while rarely comprehending just how many hundreds of people invested time and effort into these games. Companies are celebrated for their great games while developers are mocked for being ‘lazy devs’ or using ‘flipped assets’. They can’t even go to their own audiences for support, as those audiences have pledged their allegiances to the brand, and thus, the corporate bosses, and they will happily dob in any worker who dares step out of line. ‘We’re literally running the company now,’ one Reddit user celebrated after the ArenaNet firings. ‘The moment a dev steps out of line or try to talk back [sic] to a player, guess what, they’ll know we got their hands on their throat [sic] and we can squeeze any time we like.’

There are some reasons to be optimistic. While indie developers are even more precariously employed than their counterparts in the big studios, the smaller studio size can often allow for less disconnection between bosses and workers. Over the past weekend, a number of managers of smaller and independent studios explicitly denounced ArenaNet’s move on social media. But of course workers in any sized company are just as capable of being exploited if they aren’t unionised. Many developers are increasingly finding more private means of sustaining their professional networks, through Discord and Slack channels that are more inoculated against the hate groups always circling on Twitter. More promising still, while videogame workers have long rumbled about unionising with very little traction, earlier this year Game Workers Unite was established with a number of chapters around the world. While there’s still a long way to go, this is the most significant step towards videogame workers one day unionising.

Videogame workers are becoming increasingly loud and visible about their own labour practices and experiences, and the impossible and gendered standards expected of the industry are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. For now, though, the workers – especially those who are women, queer, or not white – remain largely in the pincers between corporate managers who view them as replaceable and online hate mobs who are very aware of how much power they wield.


Image: Guild Wars 2 / flickr

Brendan Keogh

Brendan Keogh is a senior lecturer in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology. He is the author of A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames and co-author of The Unity Game Engine and the Circuits of Cultural Software.

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