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Not A Game: Industry Labour Practices May Be Headed For a Big Change

Marijam Didzgalvyte investigates the human impact of gaming tech

Liu and Helen both work 12 - 14 hours a day. Their commute to work in crowded trains is long and miserable. They come back home anxious and cannot easily connect with their loved ones. Both are hoping that things will get better after that next deadline. Helen is a programmer on a six-figure salary at a well-known games company in London, UK. Liu is a manufacturing technician putting together PlayStation consoles in the Foxconn plant in Longhua region of China, for $1.50 an hour. Crucially, only one of them is being recognised as part of the games industry.

It's no secret that big portions of the games industry are not exactly happy places: impossible deadlines, under-staffing, market instability and job insecurity all work towards a pretty anxiety-inducing environment. To those lucky enough to have secured work at big companies, generous monetary rewards make it worth it, but that is, unfortunately, a minority of the games workforce.

Although this has been the status quo for many years now, the volatile situation in the Global South may rapidly change our relationship to the manufacturing industry and the hardware it produces - a result that will ultimately affect both game creators and consumers. China's seemingly endless supply of cheap labour is currently being threatened by various factors. First, the rise of the middle classes is boosting wages, making China less attractive for outsourcing hardware assembly. The Communist Party must find new ways to try to appease a population far more vocal and more individualistic than previous generations.

Another reason for this slowdown is an increase of wildcat strikes - (rightly so) ferociously demanding for better work conditions, but grossly under-reported abroad. Strikes and protests in China during the first half of 2016 rose almost 20% compared to a year earlier. What all this equates to is a climate in which games companies haven't got long to adapt to the new economic realities affecting the creation of the tools necessary for the industry to exist.

"Strikes and protests in China during the first half of 2016 rose almost 20% compared to a year earlier. What all this equates to is a climate in which games companies haven't got long to adapt to the new economic realities"

The logic behind why workplace organisation at the Foxconn and Riteng plants is reaching an all time high is clear: employees of these giant factories are more than aware that their work can be soon taken over by full automation, leaving millions jobless. It is vital that they acquire as much bargaining power as possible as soon as possible. With the ever-increasing power of computing and network technology, the future has the potential to be dominated with reduction in hardware and the development of cloud-based technology: in effect having a net reduction on workforce. To this end, Cisco just laid off over 14,000 of its employees, focusing efforts on automation instead.

That is precisely what is worrying - often, getting rid of the labour market, and the appalling practices that come with it, is being seen as the progressive route, rather than improving conditions for workers. The workers making PlayStations and Xboxes, HP laptops and iPhones, are being utilised, squeezed and let go as soon as it is convenient. Make no mistake - if such practices are dominant for the lowest paid employees, the disparaging views towards labour force often continue into the higher echelons of the company and are often adopted by other big game developers that seek to please them.

In order to imagine a new kind of politics in our video games, a push must be made towards those politics being established in our workplaces. Diversification of the development workforce creates better, more divers games, after all. The same kind of values could then be applied towards the creation of tools that we use to play games. So in the event that it was possible to align all of these interests, what could the future of games creation and distribution look like?

Reduction in employment momentarily aside, downsizing on the volumes of hardware produced must be seen as a welcome step in other regards. Not only does it result in less waste, it also shrinks the amount of minerals used in these devices, potentially lowering the political tensions caused by the high value of these minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"In order to imagine a new kind of politics in our video games, a push must be made towards those politics being established in our workplaces"

The upcoming Nintendo NX is set to be released in 2017 and will be a hand-held device which one can plug into a base station at home, making it possible to play games on TV sets. Controllers can be connected to the console when it's fixed to the dock. Again, one of the attempted aims here is to reduce the bulk of hardware produced and combine many gadgets into one, harnessing the power of the Cloud. Nintendo has recently been granted the patent for a 'Supplemental Computing Device'. To summarise the core concept, it allows for an extra device to provide extra resources to a gaming system through two means  -  through on-board hardware and through utilising resources in the Cloud. In theory, such devices could be made available to boost a system as it ages, for example, to give it extra power rather than replace a console outright. Whether this is part of the prospective NX is debatable, of course, but as a concept it could certainly be part of the future.

The upcoming Xbox Scorpio is another clear signal of the industry's willingness to embrace modularity. A few months after announcing that a lot of Windows 10 game titles will work on Xbox One, Microsoft is continuing this theme of creating a standard. This high-end new system is not hitting the shelves for another year, but is already making a lot of noise in the games media. Not only will the console be compatible with some of the older generation's accessories, it is boldly marketing itself as 'Beyond Generations'. Microsoft's head of Xbox games Aaron Greenberg takes inspiration from PC and mobile game market: 'We think that the ability to build a library, a community, to be able to iterate with the hardware...We're basically saying, 'This isn't a new generation; everything you have continues forward and it works.'" The time of storing old hardware in the garage or reselling it to fund new equipment may be passing, although the components themselves will still have to end up somewhere. Simplicity is key: unless upgrading is as easy as sticking a new piece of lego into the existing device, modular designs are unlikely to catch on. Hardcore PC gamers, for instance, are no strangers to performing customisation of their devices and knowing all the optimal specifications. This has always been to the benefit of the console market, which offers decent, unified specs, with which developers are well familiar, all in one box. Creators cannot afford to lose this smooth clarity.

"The Fairphone concept is important as it firmly proves that devices created under fair(-er) modes of production do not have to be priced extortionately"

Moving back to labour practices, we've discussed how a reduction in hardware production also automatically results in mass-unemployment, so how could we create a system where Liu still feels indispensable and cherished? In the short-term, it would be fascinating to see gaming companies adopt the ideals of Fairphone and Fairphone 2. This Dutch company is currently working on its third model of ethically produced smart phone, using materials from conflict-free zones, assembled in Netherlands by well-paid professionals. At €520, the Fairphone is not cheap, but due to its modular design, all of the parts can be upgraded so the phone can have an unusually long lifespan.

The Fairphone concept is important as it firmly proves that devices created under fair(-er) modes of production do not have to be priced extortionately, meaning employment in the regions where the economies are already so deeply entrenched with the manufacturing industries can grow according to demand. It means that Liu gets to keep his job, but is more respected for it. It is crucial not to be idealistic - some of the technologies listed above have, for all intent and purposes, failed, But the Fairphone is thriving and preparing for a third model and the upcoming Xbox Scorpio is potentially ushering in a new industry standard - less wasteful, cheaper and more convenient for the customer. It would be fascinating to see Microsoft being vocal about the environmental and economic impact this new system may bring, and to see whether this brings more customers. These words, however, could only hold true, and not be seen as opportunistic PR, if rooted in deep commitment towards its existing workforce.

We get enough judgement from our mates for playing games instead of going out already, I look forward to a day where I wouldn't have to be embarrassed about gaming on the grounds of ethics, too.

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Latest comments (1)

Marijam Did Content Creation & PR 5 years ago
Hey thanks for reading my first piece for gamesindustry!
If you wish to read any of my previous work, you can find me twitter.com/marijamdid and medium.com/@marijamdid

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Marijam Did on 6th October 2016 4:04pm

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