May Day may have come and gone, but it’s always a good time to talk about labor and worker’s rights. Both in and out of games (and the games industry), we’re seeing a growing consciousness of how exploitative labor practices shape our society. From increased pushes for unionization to games explicitly about striking or exploitation in the workplace, these ideas are also part of ongoing conversations within the gaming industry. That’s what we’re discussing this month—labor and work within the games industry, both representationally and behind the screen.
What games have done a good, or at least interesting, job of portraying ideas about labor, worker’s rights, or similar concepts?
Melissa Brinks: It’s been ages since I played it, but the game that came immediately to mind was Tacoma. The follow-up to Gone Home, the game makes use of the same mounting dread, only this time it’s about the fate of the crew of a space ship in the path of an asteroid collision. As you explore the ship and its audio-visual conversation logs from the crew, you begin to see that their fate is not so much a horrible accident as (incoming spoilers!) a corporate orchestration intended to sway public opinion. As the story builds, so does your dread. You can see a mile away that the Venturis Corporation has little to no regard for the people we come to love through their leftover logs. Like Gone Home, the ending plays with our expectations. The tension builds, and builds, and builds, based not necessarily on the world of the game itself, but on our perception of the world—of course we assume the worst because our world is terrible and because, as Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, we assume that science fiction is an extrapolation of our world rather than a direct and deliberate examination of its current state. The fear we feel while playing is not the game’s fear about how workers are collateral damage in a corporation’s insatiable quest for money, but our own.
Kamie Wootan: Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is an adorable, quirky hack-and-slash game. After ripping up his tax bill, Turnip Boy gets his greenhouse taken away and is forced to complete quests to pay it back.
The game’s cute aesthetic masks a dark undercurrent as you travel through the game ripping apart every paper you can get your turnipy hands on. You start to piece together the past and realize it’s not all cute fruits and veggies. This is a thing that the game does well. I love the charming character models and the seeming innocence. It doesn’t detract from the bigger picture but makes it accessible and even more thought-provoking.
Spoiler Alert: The evil Mayor Onion promises to return the greenhouse to Turnip Boy once his taxes are paid off, but being a government official, we can assume that his motives are not pure. After Mayor Onion learns about the Hoomans, he betrays his former gang buddies. He discovers that he could become a government official and rip people off with them full-well knowing about it: a truly brilliant scheme. I found this to be a clever way to highlight the corruption of our society’s current way of life, our relationship with work, and our acceptance of being screwed over. The many pungent, oniony layers of this game bring tears to your eyes as you see the parallels between Turnip’s world and our own—the most acrid being the existential terror of working our lives away for the man.
Kathryn Hemmann: Along the lines of Tacoma, I appreciate the perspective of Citizen Sleeper, a tabletop-inspired RPG about an escaped robotic worker trying to survive “in the ruins of interplanetary capitalism.” The game’s setting is grimly dystopian, and many NPCs initially treat your character with a dehumanizing type of open disdain that will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in the service industry. Still, as you painstakingly make your way from day to day, you’re able to form bonds with other people oppressed by the absurdities of neoliberal capitalism and thereby lift each other into the light of other possibilities. Even if the dice-dependent gameplay of Citizen Sleeper isn’t for you, its OST (on Basecamp here) is fantastic lo-fi ambient music to chill and imagine a better world to. (My favorite track is “Prismatic Lens.”)
I also want to second Kamie’s recommendation of Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion. It’s one of the best Zelda-style games I’ve played, and it features accessibility options that allow players to focus on the cleverness of the writing, which is brilliant and gleefully anti-corporate. Be green, do crime!
Cress: Somewhat in the ballpark, I’m reminded of Papers, Please. You play a border agent for a fictional country, checking passports of everyone who tries to enter. Any mistakes will result in a deduction of pay or you may be pressured by your superiors or soldiers to “catch” individuals for extra money. The game doesn’t make it easy for you to always do the right thing since your family back home is depending on your paycheque for food and adequate shelter. I think it’s an excellent example of how people can get caught in terrible systems of labor. If you and your family are just surviving, paycheque to paycheque, it can be terrifying to risk that livelihood for the morally right choice.
Emily Durham: I nominate Spiritfarer! The game isn’t exactly about labor and workers’ rights, but it’s chock full of side plots and easter eggs having to do with labor movements. The main one that comes to mind is Astrid’s “Unite!” storyline, in which Stella confronts a cowardly Bottom Line Corp. CEO who’s hiding from the striking picket line, but my favorite easter egg is when one of the workers ends up singing lyrics from classic union ballad, Pete Seeger’s “Which Side Are You On?” The entire game takes a pro-labor stance, from Uncle Atul’s prior career as a union leader to the tongue-in-cheek Raccoon Inc. Theodores poking fun at Tom Nook’s many capitalistic ventures.
Are there any examples of games that pay lip-service to worker’s rights or similar themes but don’t stick the landing?
Melissa: There are lots of examples here, but I feel like I have to talk more about Tacoma! Because while I can go on and on about how effective it is in talking about labor exploitation, the truth is that, while the game is excellent, Fullbright’s founder, Steve Gaynor, was accused by numerous employees (most of them women) of creating a hostile work environment. The company experienced a high turnover rate as women were drawn to the studio for producing games like Gone Home only to experience what Gaynor described in an apology letter as his “hurtful” leadership style, leaving the company afterward. This is a labor issue, too. Employee exploitation isn’t exclusive to big companies—it happens at indies, too, and we need to recognize that despite wanting our indie companies to be inherently better than AAAs. How many people have we lost throughout the industry due to mistreatment and mismanagement at small companies like Fullbright?
Emily: As much as I love how many pro-union easter eggs are in Spiritfarer, I still feel like the developers could have taken it a step further and incorporated it more fully into the narrative. For a game that’s largely about how burnout and poor working conditions can follow you even into the afterlife, I wish that, for instance, Stella’s main plotline addressed her own exploitation as the sole worker providing comfort, transport, and basically every need to all of her passengers on their way to the Everdoor. I appreciate the glee you get when talking to the little ghostly fellows you interact with throughout the game and discovering each pro-union subtextual tidbit in their dialogues, but the developers stopped short at actually making a statement.
Does how a game is produced impact your desire to play it? For example, are you more likely to play a game by a studio that publicly states they don’t crunch?
Melissa: It wouldn’t be accurate to say that knowing about a company’s labor practices has no impact on whether or not I play a game, but it’s usually not the deciding factor. Instead, I try to keep aware of what studios are talking about with regard to unionization, co-operative ownership, and similar topics, and pay closer attention to the games they’re working on than I do studios who have been in the spotlight for exploitation in the past. The fact is that I don’t have as much time to play games as I would like, so I try to be selective and only play things I think I’m actually going to like. But knowing that studios like The Glory Society (which uses a co-op model), KO-OP, and similar alternative models of workplace structure exist encourages me to pay attention to what they’re working on, even if the games they come out with aren’t to my taste. And for AAA studios like Rockstar who’ve had accusations of crunch in the past… to be honest, I’m usually so late to playing anything new that I can just as easily find a used copy if I really want to play something by them. I’m not much into Grand Theft Auto and who knows if we’ll ever see another Red Dead Redemption again (my hopes for another L.A. Noire or Bully are pretty much dead), so it’s actually pretty easy to ignore new releases altogether.
Kathryn: There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, of course, but I’ve gradually stopped playing AAA games from studios with reputations for poor workplace conditions. As Melissa put it, this is partially because I have less time and my tastes have changed, but Jason Schreier’s 2017 exposé Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made has also been a major influence on the way I think about how and why games are created. It’s always good to quote the tweet of all time: I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I’m not kidding.
i want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and i'm not kidding
— shop jordstrom.net (@Jordan_Mallory) June 29, 2020
Cress: It does, and while I’m not always up to date, I try to go and support the healthy indie spaces when I can. I think it’s good to have that moment before buying something to think about how it was made. I even checked if Nintendo phased out conflict minerals (armed groups use forced labor to mine and fund their activities) before purchasing Tears of the Kingdom. Nintendo has phased them out, though not in the most ideal way.
Emily: Yes, absolutely. Like Cress, I try in earnest to do my research before purchasing games, especially into the working conditions in which the game was developed. I have definitely also once or twice bought games I wasn’t even sure I’d like, just because I’d heard good things about the studio’s labor practices, and I want to support studios who treat their workers fairly.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.