The heavy cost of toxic work culture

Regardless of the truth of the allegations of harassment and toxicity at Quantic Dream, many in the industry will have found the claims all too familiar

I have absolutely no insight into whether the allegations of harassment and workplace toxicity currently faced by Quantic Dream and its founder David Cage are true or not, and have zero desire to join in the dogpile on Cage for his poorly judged response to the claims. What I do have is a sense of déjà vu - one shared rather widely, I suspect, by those who have worked in or around the games business for any length of time.

As grotesque as some of the allegations regarding Quantic Dream's working conditions are, the reaction of many people in the industry has likely been a sigh of resignation rather than wide-eyed shock; because we've heard it all before. Through personal experience or that of friends and colleagues working across the industry, few people reading this will have found anything truly novel in the laundry list of unpleasant behaviours of which Quantic Dream stands accused.

"The reaction of many people in the industry has likely been a sigh of resignation rather than wide-eyed shock"

This is not to say that the allegations around the studio aren't bad; a toxic workplace and a culture of harassment is like a death from a thousand papercuts, the overall environment being far more than the sum of its parts. Few studios in the industry are as bad as the picture painted by Quantic Dream's accusers (and again, for the avoidance of doubt - I have no idea whether those accusers are telling the truth or not). In fact, it's worth noting that game studios in general are far better workplaces than many people might assume, and some studios are outright superb in terms of their inclusiveness and their treatment of staff.

On the whole, we've come a long way since the good old bad old days; while some studios remain rooted in the past in their workplace and hiring practices, the industry as a whole has come to a widespread recognition of the requirement to retain talent long-term and to attract a diverse range of staff. However, even those staff working in generally good workplaces might have winced in sympathetic recognition of some of the examples given by Quantic Dream's accusers - because the reality is that even as games industry workplaces try to improve their environments in a host of ways, they often remain blind to, and hence indulgent of, behaviour that skirts dangerously close to harassment.

"It's almost impossible to avoid a culture of harassment at studios that do crunch time on a regular basis"

There are two underlying causes for this. The first is the fact that many studios were very much "boys' treehouses" until quite recently has created a culture of carelessness where humour that owes far too much to the edgelord culture of internet cesspits like 4chan is treated indulgently. The second is that it's almost impossible to avoid a culture of harassment at studios that do crunch time on a regular basis; hiring more diverse staff is good for a host of reasons, commercial and cultural, but branching out beyond white guys in their twenties and thirties means having more staff for whom working crunch hours is either impossible or unpalatable, and that rapidly becomes a source of tension and harassment from those who view crunch with masochistic pride and insist that it's "development culture" (as distinct from, say, grossly incompetent management).

That notion of "development culture" is a tricky one to shake. Creative environments must, by the very nature of the work involved, be a little more free and relaxed than the average workplace; and yes, employees at such companies must be a little more flexible to accommodate the challenges of this kind of work. There is absolutely such a thing as a healthy, creative development culture, and it does absolutely involve a degree of freedom (like the freedom to joke and have fun in the workplace, to bounce off your colleagues in ways that might spark creative ideas and collaborations) matched against a degree of flexibility (like the willingness to knuckle down on something that unavoidably needs extra work to meet an important deadline).

"The reality is that workplace professionalism is not the enemy of creativity, of fun or of enjoying your work"

The problem is one of degree, and of good judgement. Workplace freedom can turn into harassment and schoolyard-like bullying very quickly when people fail to judge what is appropriate and when managers fail to intervene to set boundaries; there's a special circle of hell reserved for anyone who has ever responded to a colleague's genuine hurt, upset or humiliation with a refrain of "can't you take a joke?" Flexibility, meanwhile, is all too easily abused, and can draw bitter lines between those who don't object to endless pizza-fuelled nights in the office, and those whose lives feature other responsibilities, like caring for children, which must take precedence over covering for someone else's sloppy project management.

Sometimes, these things are easy to spot and take action on; but often an environment where women, minorities or older staff feel unwelcome and uncomfortable isn't down to outright and blatant abuse or harassment, but simply to that death by a thousand papercuts. The de facto acceptance of thoughtless behaviour in countless small ways can be hugely damaging to workplace culture; and even workplaces which are genuinely and honestly striving to be better and more inclusive are often dismissive of being proactive about those issues, snorting derisively about the value of diversity or inclusiveness training.

Underneath it all lies a sense more commonly held than many of us would like to admit; that a little harassment, some persistently off-colour humour, is all just the "rough and tumble" of game studio culture, and perhaps even a sense that women and minorities who object to or feel set upon by those things are trying to destroy the fun and creativity of that culture. Of course, this is an old familiar argument, debunked countless times; in its most recent public outing it found form in the chorus of wailing from fools or frauds who insist that women challenging sexual harassment are trying to "ban flirting", but our special industry-specific version of the same argument is those who grouse that having to be considerate of others before repeating a 4chan punchline or Photoshopping your colleagues' pictures is tantamount to "banning fun".

The reality is that workplace professionalism is not the enemy of creativity, of fun or of enjoying your work; if anything, it's simply designed to ensure that everyone in the workplace is able to experience the same degree of creativity, fun and enjoyment. For those studios who haven't really tackled the toxic aspects of their culture - and again, it's important to highlight that improvements have been widespread and many studios are now excellent workplaces - this is a challenge they need to commit themselves to tackling.

It's not just the obvious ethical aspect of wanting to be a workplace that's welcoming to as many people as possible; the commercial importance of having a diverse workforce is immense. The more narrow the range of backgrounds from which a studio draws its staff, the less effective it will be at solving problems, innovating in creative work and reaching out to new audiences and markets; and for all the fear that workplace professionalism and detoxification of studio culture will "kill creativity", it's those studios who really make the effort that generally leave their competition in the dust.

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Latest comments (6)

Nick Ferguson Head of EMEA Business Development, Amazon Games 2 years ago
I was certainly guilty in my 20s and early 30s of being quite disdainful of people who worked standard working hours and were reluctant to dedicate evenings and weekends to making the games we were working on as good as they can be. 10+ years, one (thankfully intact) marriage and 2 kids later, I can see that I was a self-righteous jackass.

Having said all that, I still look back on those as "the good old days" - nostalgic fool that I am - and I suspect I'm not alone. Late nights working with people I considered more as friends than work colleagues were mostly enjoyable, and the adrenaline rush of working on good games that might actually be successful was hugely motivating after several years early in the industry of working on stinkers (many of which were cancelled).

I definitely see a sharp divide between the PC/console world and the mobile world when it comes to development culture. A common theme I see in mobile studios - often in studios led by people with experience working on PC/console games - is a genuine focus on diversity and managing work/life balance.

At the end of the day, the cliche is true: great games are made by great (i.e. motivated, happy, empowered, long-lasting) teams.

(I do also think those things are more easily achieved outside the AAA model of development that we have today, but that is a topic for another thread!)
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Daniel Trezub QA Analyst, Ludia2 years ago
Great points here, but it seems the author considers crunch time as an exclusive result of poor project management. Although I agree this can often be the case, it's far from being the only reason for crunch time.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Daniel Trezub on 19th January 2018 6:26pm

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Tudor Nita Lead Programmer, Gameloft Romania2 years ago
@Daniel Trezub: I'm quite interested in what other reasons you've seen. So far, that's all I could reasonably name as a culprit. Even in my personal projects.

Exploiting the individual's naivety to cover said failures also falls in the same category, as far as I'm concerned.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Tudor Nita on 22nd January 2018 12:11pm

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@Tudor Nita: If a game is a known quantity it's easier to stick to a process & timescale. Where development is of a new idea and some R&D / exploration is required, things can get pretty messy pretty quickly. Further, even if you stick to a process all through development you can still realise at the end that something isn't working and great edits & additions need to be made. Ultimately it's often marketing wanting control and/or the blind sticking to release dates that dictates crunch as much as bad management or duff developers.
None of this is to justify crunch, just to point out that there are many factors that can derail a work/life balance. Reducing it all to bad management doesn't tally with my experience.
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Tudor Nita Lead Programmer, Gameloft Romania2 years ago
@Barry Meade: While what you've said is entirely correct, absolutely none of your points depend on anything else other than management. Be it central and easy to identify management or split on departments, shareholders, etc. I'm pretty sure I have my share of the blame. But I'm also part of the management, even if much lower on the decision board.

"Management" decides the shipping date, R&D budgets, when to green-light a project or kill it. It also decides when to take a risky approach to side-launching with a piece of hardware/ IP. Except the risk is mostly passed on to those that will benefit least from it.

If an exploratory phase of a game goes over budget, maybe it's time to cut it instead of crying over your sunken costs. In my experience, the latter generally happens and the results are never stellar anyway.

There are indeed multiple reasons but at the end of the day, the breadcrumbs generally end up there, from my POV. I believe it's ultimately a choice between taking a financial hit or abusing your teams.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tudor Nita on 23rd January 2018 7:27pm

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Yep I think we're in agreement here, I just didn't want it to seem like it's all down to producers being bad at time management. Where development goes wrong & schedules get blown apart I think it's as much or more at the executive level that management dooms the developers take the pain.
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