by Dan Ahern, QA lead at Radical Forge
Over two decades ago, I sat down to play my first video game, Ocarina of Time. My uncle had acquired a questionably cheap PlayStation 1 from his mate down the pub, and he decided that he would pass down his battered N64 to me, games included. That, paired with the CRT TV my grandad had found in the neighbouring alleyway a few weeks back, set me on a path that has undoubtedly spiralled into my career today.
For many kids, videogames are just fun distractions from boring things like numbers and the alphabet. For me, it inadvertently ended up as a coping mechanism. Being a child growing up in a low-income, working class household, you get exposed to things your brain doesn’t fully understand at the time. Loud bangs on the door from bailiffs, for me, became a game of hiding from the ReDeads skulking around Hyrule’s Castle Town. My grandmother having to choose between paying our electric bill that week or buying food that wasn’t tinned or in powder form didn’t phase me, since I’d managed to get a Gameboy Color from a car boot sale just the week before (which ran on batteries, no wall socket needed!). I was fortunate enough to be shielded from the reality of financial strain growing up, and my situation felt normal. Shared baths and butter sandwiches were just something everyone experienced, right?
The nature of this struggle became clearer as I got older, and when I became homeless at 17, it really put into perspective just how much my grandparents shielded me from. Several combinations of couch surfing, working stressful jobs, and signing up to degrees just to have some funding and housing behind me, I was fortunate enough to be able to tune into E3 and The Game Awards, dreaming that one day I’d get to work on something shown there.
It was however difficult not to look at all the decorated industry professionals at these expensive events, wearing their best clothes and celebrating the work they did, and not feel some form of bitter jealousy. Maybe if I’d been born into another situation, I too could be working in video games. Who knew?
Thankfully, in 2021 I lucked into my first games industry job, a QA technician role at a local studio. I applied on a whim, crammed QA knowledge half an hour before and absolutely waffled my way through it with a level of confidence I wish I could tap into again. For some reason, they hired me! It paid minimum wage and didn’t alleviate the struggle, but I was working a job I actually WANTED to work, and for a time, I felt like I belonged. Moving between studios and networking, I became a passive observer to discussions on things like mortgages, investing, fancy trips to conventions abroad and people discussing “money saving tips” that really began to paint a divide. I started to feel like the aforementioned butter sandwiches, the shared baths, and the 8am bailiff visits and eviction notices weren’t a shared experience.
Turns out, these experiences aren’t unique. Conversations with peers have highlighted that yes, there is a prominent low income and working class voice in the games industry, but it’s being overshadowed and brushed off by a wealth-driven, shiny public face that paints a rather luxurious view of the life of game developers. The face that strives to push our medium to have prestige parity with the film and television industries, is the same one that avoids the gaze of the developer worrying how their next rent payment will be made. The obsession with glamour and legitimacy for our craft to be seen as equal to those other industries, has systematically been built to discount the lived experience of those from a lower income background.
Developers worry about paying their rent and feeding their kids, while the industry elite jet off to events and drench themselves in accolades. When concerns are raised, discussing money is treated as taboo and unprofessional – a myth manufactured by those who earn more than you could ever hope to, and have never struggled a day in their lives. (I remember being frogmarched into a private meeting room to be told to stop discussing my pay – that moment sticks with me, and will always be a driving factor to encourage more pay transparency.)
For all its splendour, our industry continuously feels like a concentrated emblem of an aggressively middle class workforce. Built to fuel an expensive hobby, its inner mechanisms and workings are designed to revolve around expensive opportunities and sacrificing personal freedoms to secure employment, without the offer of a fair pay to soften the blow.
It’s no surprise then, that the games industry is continuing to fail its working class members.
We have expensive award shows and conventions all year round, where highly paid execs from billion-pound generating studios get up on stage to give thanks for their latest shiny game being given the financial opportunity to create the amazing technology, art, and stories that ultimately net them awards to bolster their already strong industry presence. Companies that, despite this financial success, still think it’s acceptable to pay their junior staff minimum wage and lay them off at every opportunity – the very same people that struggle to pay bills, are the ones building the products that give these studios the finance and fame to stand up at these glamorous events, and give a hollow speech thanking the people they can’t be bothered to pay a fair wage.
When a small underdog developer occasionally makes the breakthrough to get recognition in these events, it’s romanticised and shown as something to strive for as an indie, instead of being identified as being a key indicator that the rareness of these occurrences means that the industry needs to do more to support its underfunded studios. This lack of financial support, is what routinely prices low-income people out of joining the industry, or starting their own studios. After all, would you rather make no money to put together something that will take five times as long as it would for a funded studio and worry about paying rent, or would it be easier to work a 40 hour week, minimum wage retail job to pay bills where you can add a line of code or two when you’re not exhausted from trying to survive?
I remember leaving college in 2015, wanting to land my first role in the games industry – there’s so many games being made and studios out there, that there must be lots of readily available junior positions right? Sadly, almost a decade on, the answer is still no.
Right now in the UK, there is a significant drought of fairly paid, entry level roles in the industry. The ones that do exist, either sit at minimum wage or close by, and offer little flexibility to their applicants. Companies will mandate either full-time in-office work or hybrid, claiming they don’t have the resources to allow certain professions to work from home if they need to. Enforced in-office work is a direct attack on the wellbeing of low income and marginalised people. Working class people who hope to find their footing in the industry are given little opportunity to remain in their communities and undertake their work, despite the Covid-19 pandemic proving that games can be and ARE developed from anywhere in the world. For many, they’ll need to uproot their lives, their sense of safety, and begin to adjust to a largely middle class, privileged set of peers.
Companies will give every excuse they can to justify forcing all of their employees to return to office, never once considering to let it be the employees choice. They knowingly set up their offices in major cities where extortionate rent prices and congested, inaccessible travel options will immediately price out anyone they’re subsequently not prepared to pay the necessary wage to support this environment. The truth is, while many roles truthfully DO need on-site work due to physical requirements, many do not. If smaller studios can allow people to work from wherever they want, why can’t the top dogs? Is it resource and security issues, or is it ego inflation for the old guard that needs to be able to look out over an office of underpaid workers to feel successful, and can’t adapt to the changing face of the workplace? If the latter, maybe the games industry just isn’t for them anymore.
It’s no surprise then, that the people who can accept these roles, are usually those who are privileged enough to have never needed to worry about whether today’s letter in the post was another unpayable bill, or an eviction notice. Sometimes, people will still be in that position and have no choice – working in an industry you love is still a better alternative than working elsewhere, even if it doesn’t love you back.
Either companies don’t know this, or they do, yet continue to provide abhorrent remuneration and work conditions despite the massive bonuses and salaries their top staff enjoy. In either case, they’re directly responsible for limiting the growth of our industry, harming the wellbeing of our colleagues, and restricting low income and marginalised talent from adding their worth to the art. It’s easy for excessively compensated CEOs or bonus-laden execs to take to LinkedIn about their ‘passion’ for DEI – but until they put their money where their mouth is, their ‘passion’ is just lip service.
Once someone manages to join the industry, it’s only right to think they might be interested in career progression. It’s no secret that a large part of this is directly tied to networking, and a level of self-marketing to make yourself a more attractive prospect for any future employers. The most notable place to do this is at one of the several industry events held throughout the year. It’s also not a secret that these events are financially inaccessible, and until fixed, directly prevent low income and marginalised developers from enjoying their benefits.
In braggadocious attempts to bolster the seriousness of the industry, major networking events are held in cities with outrageous costs of living. Travel costs are as extortionate as ever, hotel prices eye-watering, and that’s before you even get to the ticket prices of the events themselves. If you’re not lucky enough to have a role where your company foots the bill, your options are either to scrimp and save where possible, or just not go. These are rarely raised as problems by the more vocal, privileged parts of the industry. When you’ve managed to get to the point where you either earn so much the costs are nothing, or your company pays for you, why would you have any perspective on just how expensive these things are?
The claim that privilege is behind career achievement may cause a few heads to shake, and it would be unfair to claim that everyone who’s done great things in the industry comes from a well off background – indeed, there are many notable cases of marginalised game developers who have struggled from the ground up, fighting against systems built against them to make massive waves in this predominantly white male industry. But these people are sadly the exception and not the norm, and more people deserve to be empowered to strive in their careers not only for their benefit, but for the benefit of the industry we all devote ourselves to being a part of.
COST OF GAMING CRISIS
Six-year-old Dan sitting at home, hiding under the covers to get just five more minutes in Hyrule, never would have thought that he’d get to be making games today. Sitting here writing this, it’s difficult to not be pensive about the journey I’ve taken. To ignore the privilege I have as a white cis male that has alleviated some of the struggle would be wrong, but acknowledging that a large part of landing where I have was also through luck feels important too.
We’re in the midst of a cost of living crisis, one that’s causing those with less money to be even more economically challenged than ever before. Kids like the younger me (and maybe like the younger you), are gradually being priced out of affording tomorrow’s pivotal games through a combination of rising access costs, and an increasingly dire financial environment for their loved ones. People that could grow into wonderful, talented, diverse game developers may never get that spark of inspiration, as the retail face of our industry scales up its costs without passing those rewards back to the average game developer.
We’ve failed the low income, working class voice on the consumer side – something has to be done to stop us from failing those people on our development side, too. If the industry can afford to pad itself in expensive prestige, glamour and pomp, but when the time comes to fairly compensate the people driving that opportunity, the elites turn their back and say “not now, we can’t afford it”? That paints a dim picture of how well the industry and its owners see us as a means to an end, and it’s only a matter of time before people band together to demand their worth is rewarded. If not, then maybe our industry is doomed after all.