Teaching Ethics in a Difficult World: Free Range and Battery Games

(Note, this is not a post about the existing game company, Free Range Games, although their stuff looks cool!)

I enjoy treating ethics or, to be more precise, getting the students to realise the ethical framework that they all live within. I’ve blogged before about this and how easy it is to find examples of unethical behaviour but, as we hear more stories about certain ‘game-related’ industries and the way that they teach testers, it becomes more and more apparent that we are reaching a point where the ethical burden of a piece of software may end up becoming something that we have to consider.

We’re already aware of the use of child labour in some products and people can make a decision not to shop at certain stores or buy certain products – but this requires awareness and tying the act to the brand.

In the areas I live in, it’s very hard to find a non-free range chicken, even in a chicken take-away shop (for various definitions of ‘free range’ but we pretty much do mean ‘neither battery nor force fed’) and eggs are clearly labelled. Does this matter to you? If so, you can make an informed decision. Doesn’t matter to you? Buy the cheapest or the tastiest or whichever other metric you’re using.

Free Range Tasmanian Devils. Don’t eat the eggs!

But what about games? You don’t have to look far (ea_spouse and the many other accounts available) to see that the Quality Assurance roles, vital to good games, are seeing a resurgence in the type of labour management that is rapidly approaching the Upton Sinclair Asymptote. Sinclair wrote a famous turn-of-the 20th Century novelisation of the conditions in the meat packing industry, “The Jungle”, that, apart from a rather dour appeal to socialism at the end, is an amazing read. It changed conditions and workers’ rights because it made these invisible people visible. Once again, as well apparently fall in love with the ‘wealth creators’  (an Australian term that is rapidly become synonymous with ‘robber baron’) all over again, we are approaching this despite knowing what the conditions are.

What I mean by this is that it is well known that large numbers of staff in the QA area in games tolerate terrible conditions – no job security, poor working conditions, malicious and incompetent management – and for what? To bring you a game. It’s not as if they are fighting to maintain democracy (or attack democracy, depending on what you consider to be more important) or staying up for days on end trying to bring the zombie infection under control. No, the people who are being forced into sweatboxes, occasionally made to work until they wet themselves, who are unceremoniously fired at ‘celebration’ events, are working to make sure that the people who wrote your game didn’t leave any unexplained holes in the map. Or that, when you hit a troll with an axe, it inflicts damage rather than spontaneously causing the NyanCat video to play on your phone.

This discussion of ethics completely ignores the ethics of computer games that demean or objectify women, glorify violence or any of the ongoing issues. Search for ethics of video games and it is violence and sexism that dominates the results. It’s only when you start searching for “employee abuse video game” that you start to get hits. Here are some quotes from one of them.

It seems as though the developers of L. A. Noire might have been under more pressure themselves than any of the interrogated criminals in their highly praised crime drama. Reports have surfaced about employees being forced to work excruciating hours, in some cases reaching 120 hour weeks and 22 hour days. In addition, a list has been generated of some 130 members of the Australian-based Team Bondi, the creators of L. A. Noire, whose names have been omitted from the game’s own credits.

On the subject of the unprecedented scope of the project for Australian developers, McNamara replied, “The expectation is slightly weird here, that you can do this stuff without killing yourself; well, you can’t, whether it’s in London or New York or wherever; you’re competing against the best people in the world at what they do, and you just have to be prepared to do what you have to do to compete against those people. The expectation is slightly different.”

The saddest thing, to me, is that everyone knows this. The same people who complain on my FB feed back how overworked they are and how little they see their family then go out and buy games that have been produced in electronic sweatshops. You didn’t buy L. A. Noire? Rockstar San Diego are on the “overworking staff” list for “Red Dead Redemption” and the “not crediting everyone” for “Manhunt 2”. (That last one might not be so bad!)

Everyone talks about the crunch as if it’s unavoidable. Well, yes , it is, if you intend to work people to the crunch. We’ve seen similar argument for feedlot meat production, battery animals and, let’s not forget, that there have always been “excellent” reasons for slavery in economic and social terms.

This is one of the hardest things to talk about to my students because they’re not dumb. They read, often more widely than I do in these areas. They know that for all my discussions of time management and ethics, if they get a certain kind of job they will work 7 days a week, 10-14 hours a day, in terrible conditions and maybe, just maybe, if they sell their soul enough they can get a full-time job, rather than being laid off indiscriminately. They know that the message coming down from these companies is “maximum profit, minimum spend” and, of course, most of these game companies aren’t profitable so that’s less about being mercenary and more about survival.

But, given that these products are not exactly… essential (forgive me, Deus Ex!), one has to wonder whether terms like ‘survival’ have any place in this discussion. Is it worth nearly killing people, destroying their social lives and so one, to bring a game to market? People often say “Well, they have a choice” and, in some ways, I suppose they do – but in an economic market where any job is better than job, and people can make decisions at 15 that lead to outcomes they didn’t expect at 25, this seems both ungenerous and thoughtless.

Perhaps we need the equivalent of a ‘Free Range/Organic’ movement for games: All programmers and QA people were officially certified to have had at least 8 hours sleep a night, with a minimum break of 50 hours every  6 days and were kept at a maximum density of 2 programmers per 15 square metres, in a temperature and humidity controlled environment that meets recognised comfort standards.

(Yeah, I didn’t include management. I think they’re probably mostly looking after themselves on that one. 🙂 )


Then you can choose. If it matters to you, buy 21st century Labour Force Games – Ethically and sustainably produced. If it doesn’t matter, ignore it and game on.


2 Comments on “Teaching Ethics in a Difficult World: Free Range and Battery Games”

  1. Dalmeny says:

    Where are the labour laws against these kinds of predatory practice?


    • nickfalkner says:

      Interesting that you raise this – in most cases the work is either contractually stipulated as one form and people are ‘encouraged but not required’ to undertake the work. However, given that you can be terminated for any reason at any time under a number of these contracts, and the legal fees in challenging this are sufficiently high that if you could afford to do that you wouldn’t need the job, you either work or they ‘find someone who really wants to work’.

      THis assumes that you have a contract! There are people on casual payment schemes who will know, from day-to-day, if they are still employed.

      Remembering that, for all of these people, they are not full-time employees and, in the US, this generally means that they have no health care provided by the company either. (Or a range of other benefits.) Their only way to make money is to keep doing the terrible job for awful hours. (There are salaried employees who have to work to the crunch outside of QA. They do get benefits but this is more of a trap as you can work a salaried employee as many hours as you like and still pay them for 40. Hey, nice health care plan, pity if anything should happen to it.)

      It is The Jungle all over again. You just have to starve the population enough to find people who are willing to work under the most awful of conditions.

      The French actually have rules like this built in for some jobs – minimum weekend span, maximum working hours, maximum overtime hours. I believe that this is regarded as dangerously socialist in some countries.


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