Of Geeks, Heroes and Overwork in the Digital Game Industry

Curator's Note

Since its emergence in the late twentieth century, the digital game industry has proliferated both in regards to the games it offers and the consumers it attracts. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of players is 30 and women now make up 45% of players. Similarly, according to a 2005 report by the International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA), the average age of the game workers surveyed was 31, with women comprising only 11.5% of the workforce.

Geek hasn’t always enjoyed the cool reputation it has currently, and while many people these days might sink a few hours into Angry Birds, the stereotypical image of someone who makes gaming a hobby or obsession remains one of a white, male, socially under-skilled geek.

For geeks struggling with ‘uncoolness’ - whether or not they fit the stereotype - games offer an opportunity to play hero, as players masterfully manipulate their avatars to fight foes, beat levels and win the day. Geeks fortunate enough to land a job in game development can be a kind of hero in their daily lives as well, applying their determination and (ideally) creativity to bend code to their will in order to create compelling game worlds for others to enjoy.

As cool as game work might seem, overwork is rampant in the industry, with work weeks frequently consisting of 65 to 80 hours to meet production deadlines.  Open letters from EA Spouse and Rockstar Spouse have criticized this culture of overwork for harming the health and well-being of workers and their families. Lizzie Haines’s 2004 IGDA report and the work of a number of media scholars have further demonstrated that overwork functions as a barrier to those bearing care-giving responsibilities, particularly women. Game designer and former IGDA board member Erin Hoffman (formerly EA Spouse) has argued that the legacy of uncool geekiness may discourage workers from discussing quality of life issues out of guilt or fear of appearing uncool once again.

The heroes that pervade action movies and many games are self-made, autonomous figures who suffer in silence and get the job done. Perhaps it’s time for us all, game workers or not, to heed Hoffman’s call and rework our notions of heroism to attend to the ways in which our (in)actions are inextricable from a wider social system and confront the gendered, age-based politics of overwork.

Comments

Jordan Gowanlock's picture

Autonomous Figures

I like the way you pointed to the theme of autonomy. I suspect working conditions can be equally restrictive on the level of indie games. Geek values seem to push people towards entrepreneurship, but this exposes workers to additional risk and can make it more difficult to access to things like insurance and benefits.

Matthew french's picture

White Collar Tech Jobs

I really enjoy your perspective on geek culture within the industry of game work. I have a few thoughts on the overall culture. First, I wonder how much influence media representation has had on the cool factor for such work? I think of Grandma’s Boy (2000) specifically. But more than just re-framing game work I think many of the white collar tech jobs of today are framed around this idea of being an innovator like the late Steve Jobs. Thus, those who work in these industries should put in the hours because it is more play/being cool than work.

entrepreneurship & media representations

Thanks for the comments!

I agree that entrepreneurship is crucial part of the picture. Even at big companies, workers are encouraged to approach their work with an entrepreneurial attitude. And of course workers can find themselves traveling frequently between mainstream game production and indie production, due to the high rate of bigger companies buying out or squeezing out smaller ones. Another part of the picture is the the power game publishers to set production deadlines; payments are triggered upon reaching these milestones. This impacts not only mainstream game work, but also indie game companies, who have to struggle to compete with the rate at which larger studios can push out titles and new content. And game publishers sometimes outsource the production of various aspects of games to indie studios, another factor that puts indies under similar pressure.

I haven’t seen Grandma’s Boy, I’ll have to check it out! I do agree that media representations of creative & new media work in particular contribute to the cool factor, as well as how companies represent themselves as cool workplaces and even construct physical environments to support that image (facilities with a lot of amenities, cool interior decorating, etc.).

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