Factual reporting has shone a spotlight on a number of industry workplace issues, but there are shadows still to be illuminated. Richie Shoemaker spoke to the authors of Who Hunts the Whale to see if a healthy dose of fiction might better reflect the workaday reality of making games.
It feels like – and therefore is probably the case – that more unpleasant stories about the games industry have come to light over the last couple of years than that at any point in its history. There’s no need to go over the charge sheet here, but it’s worth mentioning that even though we haven’t seen too many reports recently of enforced unpaid overtime or blatant sexism in the workplace, it doesn’t mean these things aren’t going on. Sure, most would recognise that the situation is getting better (and it coming to light that things were much worse is part of that process, of course), but relative calm does not mean a storm isn’t about to blow in from somewhere. We all know it’s just a question of when, not if.
While we wait for the inevitable toxicity headlines to supplant the more recent spate of redundancy ones, how about a fictitious account of recent events in the form of Who Hunts The Whale? Co-authored by Laura Kate Dale and Jane Aerith Magnet, the novel recounts the diary entities of Paige Avery, a young university graduate who secures something of a dream job as a PA at a triple-A games publisher in New York. Her job takes her from the boardroom where the decisions are made, to the darkest corners of the building where the effects are most keenly felt. It is, as you might imagine, a damning and darkly funny indictment of executive decision making, but also reflective of the kinds of intense rank-and-file friendships and personal rivalries that are fostered through adversity.
While the company at the heart of the book, Supremacy Software, is made-up, the way it goes about its business championing its popular micro-transaction driven FPS franchise is very much based in reality.
“It’s a company that tries to churn out a new game every year, with tons of low effort DLC coming out all the time,” says Magnet, before describing Supremacy’s horror show hiring practises: “They will basically get anyone who isn’t the type of person to make too much fuss. They don’t pay their interns. They don’t really have a QA team. Eventually [there is] massive, massive crunch to almost parody-like levels.”
“Without giving too much away,” adds Dale, “the book definitely does skew towards the human cost of those kinds of practices and very specifically toward the kinds of stories that have become depressingly commonplace in the videogame industry over the last couple of years. Definitely as the book progresses, it does take a more serious look at the kind of abuses of power imbalance that come when you’ve got people desperately trying to stay employed underneath people who are making huge bonuses and have the power to decide whether you keep a job or not.”
JUST THE FACTS
While the book’s authors may lack direct game development experience, as well as being gamers and writers, they’d followed and reported on the headlines exhaustively, predominantly through their podcast, Queer and Pleasant Strangers:
“We had a fairly light hearted ongoing skit that we’d done that was a parody of executive capitalist excess in the videogame industry,” which, says Dale, “had always been a bit of an outlet for a lot of bad stuff that happens in this industry that we need to not feel quite so grim about.” The problem was that by the summer of 2021, around the time reports were circulating about the ‘frat boy culture’ at Activision Blizzard, the volume of bad stuff was deafening.
“I got into talking about video games because I love games as art, but more and more of my job became having to give weekly updates about the terrible harms being done to people just trying to make art. I needed an outlet to address the fact that all of these stories were just mounting and mounting and, worryingly, few people seemed to care about the harm being done.”
Why write a piece of fiction, though, when the facts were so presentable? “For me, it’s two-fold,” says Dale. “I think there are wonderful people out there who are doing very good investigative work that I very much look up to and who have the connections to do some of that work better than I perhaps could. But part of it as well is that there is a certain kind of person who plays video games, who does not want to engage directly with the depressing reality of how the things they play are created. I think there is a market for using humour and satire to get someone emotionally engaged in the real issues that are happening.”
There are also those who play video games that don’t engage with any kind of press, or that avoid fan communities completely, adds Magnet: “They don’t get involved. They don’t hear it because that’s not their interest. I know a lot of women gamers in their forties and fifties who play modern FPSs, but that would not feel comfortable or are even necessarily that interested in being involved with gamers as a community – hopefully we’ll reach some of them.”
One of the great benefits of fiction, of course, is that it brings to light a simple but undeniable fact that often gets conveniently ignored in factual reporting, which is that decisions are made by people rather than some vague corporate collective. When you can put a name and reasoning to a decision, even if it’s entirely fabricated, you can discern a route to accountability – however unlikely any kind of reckoning might be. Rarely is there such luxury in your typical press statement, or from a nameless representative who is duty-bound to refer to themselves and the organisation in plural first person.
“It’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot,” says Dale. “There has been a wide range of layoffs across the videogame industry and across the tech sector in general, and no one is asking any of the executives at any of the companies ‘What are you going to do about the fact that your decisions at the top led to this many people losing their jobs?’” Whether it’s crunch due to management not allocating enough development resources, or layoffs because sales targets aren’t met, “None of that ever seems to stick to individuals, or doesn’t seem to impact the individuals who are actually making the big overarching decisions that lead to those impacts. It’s all written off as ‘overall industry trends’, or ‘the company’ has done this. There are very well paid human beings who are making these decisions, and they are largely shielded from the consequences when those decisions go poorly.”
As serious a reflection of the games business as the book is, Who Hunts the Whale is intended to incite a few chuckles and to that end it’s clear the authors enjoyed themselves when it came to coming up with some of the companies and game titles. We’ll leave to your imagination as what popular franchise the book’s Prophecy of Zepto might be riffing on, and there are countless others that will cause the reader to pause to see if they can make out any links between the studios in the book and those in our reality, although for obvious reason the authors have had to be careful in covering their tracks.
“We just had a lot of fun coming up with parody names for various video games,” says Magnet. “It was a lot of fun just coming up with random ideas. A lot of those just came as we were writing; ‘Okay, we need a name that fits this genre of game. It’s a bit like Silent Hill and Resident Evil. …Okay, it’s called this now. Cool, let’s go.’”
For a lot of those more jokey elements,” adds Dale, “we would sit down and throw ideas back and forth until we found things that stuck and were memorable between ourselves – those were the ones that moved forward.” Aside from achieving some unspecified level of critical and commercial success, what are the hopes for the book, especially in terms of who might read it and the questions they might raise about the gaming industry in 2023?
“My hope is that people who don’t know a huge amount about the realities of big budget game development will read it and perhaps go and start doing research and asking questions,” says Dale. “I hope that their takeaway from that is ‘Okay, this is parody, but it’s really not as much of a parody as I might have thought.’ If this book can lead to some people realising there is more harm [being done] to people making games than they are aware of, then I think the book will have done its job.”
Magnet agrees and hopes to see more people question their assumptions about what working in games is like. “Our development editor came back to us a couple of times and said, ‘You’ve made this company cartoonishly evil, nobody’s going to believe this.’ So we just sent her several articles of things that turned out to be much worse than the things we’d written. Actually, maybe we didn’t go far enough.”
“The number of things that have come to light since [publication], I think, speaks to the state this industry is in,” adds Dale, recounting the time the book’s editor questioned a fictional talk about monetisation being given at the book’s equivalent of GDC. When the authors linked them to an actual talk that was given, she was shocked. “Being able to point out that a lot of what’s in that talk is based on a real talk someone gave about predatory monetisation in their own game is being able to start those conversations about some of the things that really are happening.”
Despite the issues the book raises and the reports that continue to appear, more likely these days around the latest round of redundancies, the authors of Who Hunts the Whale are hopeful that change is coming, regardless of how influential the book might be in steering the conversation.
“People within the industry are realising that they don’t have to be alone,” says Magnet. “They don’t have to have these fights on their own. There is power in solidarity,” and that collective action can “become an unstoppable force against an industry that has just treated people awfully for years.”
Dale is heartened by those that have banded together to successfully form or join unions. “We’re seeing greater degrees of strike action, we are seeing workers publicly stating what they want from the executive leadership within game development studios and not backing down from those demands of what they need to see for workers to be respected in their workplace. I think it’s an uphill battle, but I think that we are in a very promising time for change.”