Corporations exploit their workers and it’s no secret.
Rockstar Games and its co-founder Dan Houser should be facing backlash over a Vulture interview in anticipation of their newest game’s release, Red Dead Redemption 2. In the interview, Houser bragged that his team worked 100-hour weeks to meet the deadline. If you’re not familiar it, Red Dead Redemption 2, brought to you by the company who created Grand Theft Auto, is a story about a gang of outlaws on the run during Wild West late 19th century America.
With 300,000 animations, 500,000 lines of dialogue, 200 animal species, and 192 unique musical scores, it’s little wonder that game creators would feel some pressure. After critiques from the press and gaming industry in response to his revelation, Houser backpedaled, saying, “additional effort is a choice, and we don’t ask or expect anyone to work [100 hour weeks] … no one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work that hard.” Several Rockstar employees spoke out to publically back him.
Whether or not employees are indeed expected to work 100 plus hour weeks, this controversy ties into a much larger issue within the game industry, as well as many other industries, like the art world – this idea of working so hard to perfect your craft without much thought for your own wellbeing. In the gaming industry, it’s known as “crunch”. It’s a well-known concept. Those who love their work are willing to starve, struggle, and sometimes even suffer for it. In the same way, those who love video games – the developers, artists, voice recorders, and the many other employees who help bring these games to life – may not be forced to work to the breaking point, but it’s strongly expected, all for the love of the craft.
This calls into question the commercialization of art and entertainment. Though the United States is known for placing science and business as more valuable over art, the perspective or at least the awareness of this perspective seems to be shifting. Artists are discovering new mediums, finding new ways for people to support their craft, and calling people out on taking their talent for granted. But what happens when we urge them to do more, work harder and put their art above all else? We are living in a time when people want to do work that is meaningful, making their life becomes about the craft, leaving little room for much else. It’s important to remember that just because you may find your career meaningful doesn’t make it easier. Creative people still need breaks and time away from their work to recharge, reflect, and relax.
While games like Red Dead Redemption 2 can be seen as a magnificent achievement, no project is worth your employees reaching their mental breakpoint. More to the point, because Rockstar Games is so successful, what stopped executives from hiring more employees to help take off some the pressure? During its first three days, the game made $725 million in retail sell-through, according to Rockstar. Clearly, money is not a problem, so this reveals another issue and that is taking advantage of people’s passions.
If people love their work enough, companies like Rockstar feels they can use and exploit them for whatever means necessary even if it tests their mental health. People used to follow creative projects because it sparked joy and inspiration in their lives, as well as the lives of others. Now that we live in a world of global consumerism, it has become so much more about the business of selling art, instead of the art itself. While players may enjoy the game, they are not getting the full picture of what it took to get here.
What is also not being discussed with further scrutiny is the workers that go unmentioned while people like Houser sing about the game. There are many animators and designers who sacrificed their time to get to the end zone. What has Houser sacrificed other than a slight dent in his company’s integrity? Not much as far as its employees are concerned. The more you dig, the worse the situation seems. Nearly all big-budget videos outsource work to “asset farms” which are companies that turn concept art into three-dimensional models. One of these companies, Virtuos is located in Shanghai, China and created a lot of the animation assets for Horizon Zero Dawn, one of the largest and best-selling games of 2017.
Virtuos succeeds so well because it’s able to provide skilled labor at a low cost. For example, an entry-level animator will make $11,000 a year whereas, in the US, they would make $50,000. This preying on people’s skills is simply a way to cut costs and exploit people for their talents. Gaming has become an important community for many people. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying Red Dead Redemption 2, players should remember the cost it took for them to enjoy their game.
More people should demand better standards for workers in the video game industry. That’s a situation where everyone wins.