To call a first-world gaming company like Epic Games an industry sweatshop may seem dramatic.
But how else can you describe a workplace where employees are hustling to cover hundred-hour shift weeks? What else is there to say when guilt prevents them from being able to make use of their supposed “unlimited time off”? And how about those multiple stories of tears or illness in order to keep up with the crunch?
Creatives like those employed at the creator of “Fortnite” may appear, from the outside, to be sitting pretty. After all, their employer readily tosses around buzzwords like “competitive pay” and “generous profit sharing program.”
The implication, if you dig deep enough, can be summed up in two sentences: “You’re a creative. Feel lucky you’re being paid.”
This is a big reason these industry sweatshop set-ups to go unnoticed for so long. It is the nature of working in a field where employers take your craft for granted and denigrate it. You may be spending your entire life at the office, but at least you’re part of a game that has a cult following. At least your work is part of something bigger and has validity attached to it – even if you haven’t gotten to go home in days and are on the verge of a breakdown.
That sense of something bigger helps to keep up the veneer of respectability. People respect you, you’re part of the team, so if you’re truly grateful, you’ll keep up the good work. You’ll give as much as you can and even more to continue that cycle of validity – and since you are still there, putting in the hours and passing up the days off, you’re confirming the company’s outside appearance.
Creatives deserve better than manipulation and intimidation.
The rise of exposes into industries such as gaming, or publishing, definitely helps to draw back the curtain. The system can only keep going as long as it looks like a system that gives results. Creatives are often relieved when hired at companies that respect them and do not browbeat their choice of graphic design over medical school. The roots of this reaction stem from the ways industries represent and value creatives.
With that socialization comes another toxic level of acceptance. Suffering and struggling are only what you can expect for such an uncertain industry or career track. Thus, you need to stay in the machine and accept the feeling of burning out. If you cannot take the heat, it is not an indication that the kitchen is too hot. Rather, you may find yourself assuming that you are the problem and have forgotten what field you work in.
I have struggled with this in particular as a working creative in the educational field. For months, I was overworked, stressed out and worn thin. However, rather than question the issues that brought me here, I concluded that I was the problem.
If I was more grateful, I would have less of a problem swallowing the toxic elements of my position. If I could be a better creative and focus on the big picture, I would be able to keep up appropriately.
Being able to apply your imagination doesn’t mean exploitation, obscenely low pay, and rarely getting a day off are okay. This is particularly true in the publishing industry, where creatives are not even able to receive base health insurance.
When these discussions do happen, predecessors in the field often rear their heads to discuss and protest.
“No one was ever concerned when I was working under these conditions, so I don’t see why you have to care now.”
Just because someone suffered in the past, and managed to make good art, does not mean that creatives nowadays have to do the same. If anything, the story of Epic Games’ internally crumbling system and BioWare’s recent and similar failure demonstrates that suffering does nothing but produce poor art from overworked employees.
This is not only a video game industry issue. It is an issue in every field where young artists, scriptwriters or creators of all walks of life burn themselves out. And it is an issue that needs to be called out and challenged for the toxic system it is. You shouldn’t have to settle for working in a sweatshop to find a place in your field.