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The global gaming industry was valued at $155 billion in 2020. That’s more than the combined value of the TV, film and music industries. It’s definitely an achievement but has it been worth it to get to the top of the entertainment mountain? For as many strides as gaming makes in its endless forward march many have mistaken for progress it leaves many people – developers, gamers, pro players – burnt out in its wake. This year has been unprecedented, full of fire and plague and tyranny with some truly great games along the way but those games came at a cost and I don’t mean the ever increasing financial toll they take on our wallets.
“I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I’m not kidding,” Twitter user Jordan_Mallory tweeted in June. Everything about this tweet is antithetical to the way games are made these days especially in the mainstream, AAA sphere but maybe he’s more than right. Maybe this is the only way to save video games aesthetically and culturally. In order to justify a game costing €70 it has to be a 100 hour long RPG or have a robust multiplayer mode and community. Graphics in games are obsessed with fidelity and the way humans, animals and the world realistically interact each other but in doing this they strip away a certain amount of escapism game graphics used to offer. The last point is the most important. Crunch culture is endemic in the games industry and it will kill it if it is not addressed properly.
Crunch is the act of working long hours often over weeks and months in order to finish a game. Most blockbuster studios like Rockstar, Bungie, Ubisoft, Naughty Dog and CD Project Red have used or still use crunch to push their games over the line. Some have endeavored to improve their workplace culture after massive media investigations into the nature of how these companies operate revealed the extent to which it was affecting their employees. Game developers are not an infinite resource, they’re not a resource period. They’re human beings and you should not have to place any value, no matter how high, on a human life. Unfortunately the nature of game development means that change in culture and practice can take years.
Labour, alongside accessibility and representation, is one of the three biggest issues in the games industry at the moment. Although Nintendo has always lead the charge by encouraging healthy workplace culture and practices but the positives enacted by one of the big three and several smaller studios like SuperGiant Games pale in comparison to the gross abuses perpetuated by companies worth billions of dollars in some cases. More than any other art form big games are a collaborative medium. The artists, designers, developers and writers must all work in tandem to create something like The Last of Us Part II or Cyberpunk 2077. Crunch is a hindrance to the stunning work a lot of these people do.
In the short term crunch will guarantee that a game will be finished quickly. In the long term the effects on physical and psychological health can be devastating. Burn out is a real thing and drives many people out of game development which, if these issues are not addressed properly, will leave gaping holes in the current generation of developers. Stories of people literally living in the office are not uncommon and although reports on crunch are more common it takes real action like unionization to actually change attitudes and practices. As more and more unions form the culture will change but it needs to be a sea change to eradicate crunch in its entirety. Remember Cyberpunk 2077 arrived in its original, broken form because of crunch. A healthy workplace culture and practice might have seen CD Project Red’s supposedly game changing sci-fi RPG further delayed but it would have saved them a great deal of grief in the long run.
Still, it’s fair to say that CD Project Red have been dealing with grief for a long time. In their attempts to portray the dystopian nature of the future year 2077 they’ve managed to upset a whole mess of folks. In-game artwork of a trans woman with a visible penis was used as an in-game ad. The problem is that this image simply exists in the game and no one ever really talks about it. For everything that the cyberpunk genre has said about fluidity in gender this feels regressive. The image isn’t impactful just by being there, it would be impactful if it was discussed and criticised by in-game trans characters but it’s not so it just sits there. Representation no longer equals equality. We need to match the complexity of the changing dynamics of our world with equally complex dynamics in in-game worlds.
The same can be said of the racial dynamics that exist within games. I don’t mean to keep using Cyberpunk 2077 as an example but for a game that’s been in development for a decade we should have high expectations. I’ll keep it brief. It’s important to remember that ethnicity is not identity. Just because a character is white, black, Asian or Irish doesn’t mean that their whole personality should be based around their respective ethnicity. The Voodoo Boys are a Haitian gang in Cyberpunk 2077 and fair enough that this group of hackers are defined by their identity as ruthless gangsters that use voodoo iconography to inspire respect and fear. The problem is that there are no other Haitian characters in the world of Night City, none I’ve encountered yet anyway, so the Haitian characters are solely defined by their gang ties and voodoo aesthetic. The same goes for the employees of the Japanese company Arasaka. It was something I was worried about once we were introduced to protagonist V’s best friend Jackie who seemed to be solely defined by his Hispanic heritage.
Now, let’s get gay. As with ethnicity sexuality is not identity. Ellie in The Last of Us Part II might be a lesbian but it’s not what solely defines her character even if it is a big part of who she is. What defines Ellie is a shoddily written desire for vengeance and it’s this, combined with her partner Dina’s almost angelic maternal instincts, that flatten the characters and their relationship. Still, it’s very rare you see this kind of representation at this high a level of entertainment but that doesn’t mean we can’t expect more from a studio with hundreds of workers and millions of dollars at their disposal. It’s all fun and games to play as strong women like Ellie until you hit hour 12 and you’re only halfway through what has become a grueling, numbing, joyless slog of a game. For every big thing The Last of Us Part II gets wrong it gets something else very right.
Accessibility in games has been a growing issue for years. It’s not about making games easier it’s about making them accessible. Celeste was one of the games I first noticed high quality accessibility in. The ability to give myself unlimited dashes, invincibility or slow down the game was literally game changing. I’d been stuck on one part for days and just giving myself invincibility allowed me to clear that nasty shit of a jump and, a few minutes later, the rest of the game. Like everything in the games industry change takes place at a glacial pace and it almost always happens from the top down. 2020 despite all its issues has been a good year for accessibility in games.
The Last of Us Part II won the Innovation in Accessibility award at this year’s Game Awards. It’s accessibility options are endlessly customizable and give players of every stripe a fighting chance with reaction time, enemy aggression and damage dealt being all taken into account. Although Naughty Dog have the resources to put this much effort in it doesn’t mean smaller studios can’t make the effort as seen in Hyperdot and Grounded’s nominations in the same category. If this inspires the likes of FromSoftware to add accessibility options to Elden Ring (whenever it comes out) it might finally shut all the naysayers up.
I love video games and if you’re reading this you probably do too. I love them but part of loving something is wanting it to do and be better which is probably why this article reads like a vicious takedown of all your favourite and most anticipated games of 2020. It’s not. I just want to see the gaming industry be better at treating its workers and its consumers better. We have come a long way and we have further to go still.
Our work is not yet done.