When talking videogames, and upon approaching anything remotely related to morality, one must tread carefully — there be landmines everywhere, but in the quicksands.
I order to to keep the odds of making it through in one piece ever so slightly in the positive range, here's a short list of what I will emphatically not discuss today :
• Morality within videogames : or how morality issues are portrayed and tackled in videogames.
• Moral teachings of videogames : what are the implicit or explicit moral teachings (if any) that can be channeled through design and gameplay, and what should we make of that.
• Morality of videogames : somewhat connected to the two questions above is the (less interesting) one of whether videogames should(n't) touch on some topics/settings that may be morally objectionable to some, and why.*
Sticking to the Fair Game angle, my primary focus will be instead on current gamebiz mores, on the morality issues at hand in gamemaking as a trade and craft, how it relates to the morale and morals of gamedevs and players alike, and why it should be a defining aspect of a Fair Game studio's corporate policies, practice and culture.
There's no business like show business…
Few industries are fluffy bunny happy places, certainly ; in most people's mind suckiness is even sort of a defining element of what makes a job — or you wouldn't get paid for it.
There are exceptions of course : some people land jobs they'd be willing to do regardless of compensation as long as they can manage, because that's the very thing they love to do (think artists, athletes, many other trades that result from a hobby or spawn one), and sometimes, simply landing the job is its own reward and the chance to achieve otherwise unrealistic ambitions (think astronauts, Formula 1 pilots, key players in large goal-oriented teams).
Although these may be the exception rather than the norm (why it is so reaches beyond the scope of this article), the outlier cases of the jobs (some) people really want regardless of pay help us outline what makes a job worth doing, and why it even exists in the first place : desirability.
The odds of a job's existence are proportional to how badly everybody or somebody want it to happen, relative to its resources requirements. Whatever else comes attached to a job, be it profitability and monetary rewards, or prestige and reputation, or power — all are simply mitigating or accelerating factors in balancing that equation.
In the beginning, it all starts with somebody who badly wants to do something, or somebody who badly wants it done — and sometimes both.
Like most commercial arts, videogames are built on a foundation of people with a strong desire to do something, namely play and also make games, to a point where it's often impossible to disentangle both motivations at the individual level. Most composers and songwriters start as musicians, and eventually come around to write the music and lyrics they crave to play, much like most writers begin as avid readers, and moviemakers are movie buffs themselves more often than not.
Past the first generation in their art, creators typically grow up as fans (which can be a mixed blessing, artistically speaking, but that's another issue), and those who decide to make a career and a living from it do so out of love for the medium, and — especially in hybrid arts — count themselves lucky just to get there and be a part of it.
Were the entire game industry populated with avid gamers who make the kind of games they love for kin-spirited players, all would arguably be for the best… in fantasyland.
Despite the bad rap I've given until now to publishers in this series (and I'm not quite through yet), the fact we have an industry at all should largely go to the credit of early publishers who sometimes acted as enlightened patrons of the arts, true believers and enthusiasts, yet with enough of an eye on the bottom line to keep things rolling and snowballing. It's they who enabled gamemaking to graduate from garage industry to heavy iron, to take on projects that would have remained out of reach without the resources and scope enabled by a broader market reach, and who led to an economy where videogames and electronic entertainment are now the largest driving force for innovation and development both of hardware and software at large.
Granted, most among those key early publishers were often gamers themselves, and cared just as much about making great games for their own sake than about balancing the books, which isn't necessarily true anymore. Still, what they did back then is exactly what a Fair Game self-publishing studio should be about, accounting for two significant changes : games are now a trillion dollar, no-longer-cottage, industry, and studios are no longer first-gen'ers on uncharted waters — as such, they should heed the lessons of history so as to prevent it from stammering too badly.
Breeding love slaves.
The past twenty years have been about games getting bigger, more expensive, and on the whole more profitable for all but gamedevs themselves. Although a handful of studio-founders gamedevs got seriously rich, the average salaries and benefits for skilled labor and talent have notoriously failed to get on par with other media and mass entertainment industries, while people in marketing, business and legal positions have reaped the largest monetary rewards.
Although things seem to slightly improve lately with people in development and production across the board seeing raises, and some rebalancing of salaries in favor of new recruits, the publisher-driven part of the industry (which is still the largest employment pool) remains primarily focused on making shareholders and executives rich, and regards concessions made to rewarding work, skill and talent in development and production as the regrettably inevitable costs of doing bussiness.
Comparisons abound in the commercial arts and hobby industries to show how consumer markets built on activities people are willing to undertake out of passion rather than strict utility, profitability or convenience make for great exploitative opportunities for the less morally constrained entrepreneurs : workers practically beg to get shafted.
There are more people with an actual paying job in the business of catering to the needs of aspiring professional musicians or actors (agents, publicists, coaches, publishers and music/AV prosumer gear) than people who make a living from acting or playing music alone. And that's not factoring the larger entertainment industries' free or underpaid workforce of volunteers, interns, assistants or on-trial "juniors", who essentially pay for the privilege of doing the most crappy jobs less motivated temps wouldn't accept (for the price).
In effect, mass-market hobby industries have enabled the democratization of old practices previously only known to businesses that catered exclusively to the rich and bored, like sailing for fun or breeding race horses : a rich man's hobby, and a poor man's job.
While the games business never quite got there in terms of abusing aspiring gamemakers by selling them coaching and middlemen services**, it's proven quick on the uptake when it comes to making the most of its workforce eagerness to join the party. Un-or-barely-paid internships abound, as do volunteer programms, and while lack of job security is accepted as par for the course in a boom'n'bust project-centric business model (which is that of most studios), less-than-stellar workplace environment and sometimes downright abusive labor conditions are also frequently tolerated by employees who see it as the normal of the industry, perpetuated by many veterans who "got through it, too" and see it as paying one's dues.
Do unto others…
Behind the conservative business common sense argument that working your employees to death for shit pay may not be the smartest course of action in an increasingly competitive environment where loyalty of both customers and employees rises in value, and slow and steady may prove to be the best policy for indie studios, there is an obvious moral one.
Fortunately, and for once, morals aren't necessarily at odds with business interests : not only is treating employees poorly morally dubious, it creates a vicious feedback loop where people who don't feel valued are less likely to value their own work, the product, the company, and ultimately the customer, which — thanks to some cognitive bias I don't know the name for — they come to regard as both a sucker (for eating up the crap shoveled their way) and the enemy (because customers are indicted as the ultimate cause of gamedevs' predicament).
Obviously, bitter devs could just as easily hate on the suits instead, and they do, yet one can only focus on that for so long before figuring gamedevs are the sheeple being sheared, while blaming the customer here is enough of a non sequitur that it's less likely to be questioned : you can't argue with crazy.
So here we are, with an industry that is as good at chewing the naive and spitting bitter, broken shells of burned out talent as if it had been designed to do just that, from middle to top and bottom. Executives are comforted in their certainty that suckers are meant to be shafted by their ever-increasing salaries and bonuses, while gamedevs have long learned the lesson that loud beats imaginative every time and is easier to replicate. As for gamers, they're trained from infancy to love quantity (in explosions, polycount, play length, content and players) rather than quality (of challenge, gameplay, mechanics, story, people), with the result of their ever more fleeting commitment to a given title or brand, never sated hunger for something more (which they can't even see really means something better), and ever growing frustration and impatience with the HFCS-infused gruel they can't stop themselves from gulping, even though it stopped being pleasurable sometimes around last century.
That's how we got from thinking good games were a good enough reason to do it, to making bad games for no good reason, and how we segue from the issue of morals to that of morale.
As hinted above, harnessing enthusiasm into churning doo-doo by the truckload under slave labor conditions works only until depletion of the existing reserves of enthusiasm, since there is little to feed back positively towards the slaves and resplenish their giddy glands. So far, the industry has managed to make do and thrive nonetheless, terminating in droves those that start to shoot mostly bile and replacing them with freshly hatched noobs.
Nowhere is it more true than in the MMO side of the industry, where it applies equally well to players and gamedevs, and is also where we can observe the comparatively long term impact of this way of running business.
[For the next few paragraphs, I'll speak with MMO gamedevs and players in mind, because of the remarkable similarity of their conditions and experiences with the business of making or playing games, both in terms of initial enthusiasm and commitment, disenfranchisement and disenchantment, burn out and eventual recovery or termination as gamers and gamemakers.]
As more and more people people — players and gamedev alike — individually go through a transformation from bright-eyed n00b to jaded bittervet at increasingly fast rates, they also develop immunities to entire genres and companies, looking for the traps before drooling for the bacon, and as they pass that sad wisdom on to their younger peers, and help each other getting out***, they slowly inoculate a growing portion of the herd against the attraction of exploitative gaming practices.
What becomes of these gamers and gamedevs, seemingly lost to the industry ?
Some certainly are burned out beyond return, and the mere idea of sitting in front of a computer game triggers PTSD-like flashes of angst and codependant stress in their crippled minds, ensuring they'll never go near anything remotely social in gaming (if not at large) again, and they'll keep their gaming to pointedly casual genres, if any.
Some, probably most, eventually come to the point they make peace with the "not worth it" aspect of the whole thing, and while they keep a vested interest in the medium, they know full well why they don't want to return for seconds, at least until something changes radically to bring the offer closer to what they could deem tolerable.
Finally, a fraction of players and gamedev have simply learned a different lesson, which is that the stuff they so badly want simply isn't to be found on the shelves of big boxes retailers, brick'n'mortar or online, and that it's up to them to go out and either find it, or make it happen.
Because these people, as a group, are self-selecting to be both experienced and discerning gamers and gamedevs, they're in a better position than most to recognize and value all the same qualities big name publishing is lacking, and when they find each other, to realize there's enough of them around to make it worth building games that cater to that otherwise forgone playerbase.
If anyone asks, that's where the "indie" craze comes from : the higher morale that comes from having morals.
As the industry matures, and the public for videogames has long reached beyond the proverbial teenage pimpled male to go after the juicy targets of… well pretty much everyone, the question of moral obligation, or at least accountability becomes harder and harder to dodge. People grow up with videogames like they grew up with TV a generation ago, and likewise are expected to keep playing through their adult life, while they raise their kids to be the third generation of videogamers.
As gamers and gamedevs both are increasingly aware, gaming has become a major part of our global culture, and the games we pick and play not only tell something about us, but contribute to inform our thoughts, sensibilities and outlooks, just like books, movies and TV do, only more efficiently, as they engage directly, and more and more frequently ask us to physically commit to the experience (think new game peripherals and ARG just for the most obvious), thus helping the messages they convey to sink faster and deeper into our minds.
It is only right that we've come to question the morality of the amoralist stance which used to be the party line among gamedevs on the grounds that it's only games, and don't leave that question to the bigots, Luddites and opportunists anymore. Gamers don't turn into reactionary idiots just because they have kids, they simply lose the privilege to evade serious questions the industry has for too long feared to confront, and which we should, gamers and gamedevs alike be eager to explore, as it leads to a better understanding of our medium of choice.
Opening this post, I promised I wouldn't go near morality in games, and I'm steering dangerously close now, by touching on the moral responsibility that comes with handling powerful machinery around trusting people… That's as far as I go today, and only to mention how, as a group, the gamedevs and gamers that are going out of their way to find and make different games are increasingly self-aware and thoughtful in their practices.
Anyone who's being a cynic when going after that market better be as smart as they think they are, or they're in for a surprise : unless they target objectivist useful idiots, they may be oustmarted by their marks before getting around to scam a penny in funding from that crowd.
…which reminds me : next installment will focus on Fair Game monies, where to find them, how to use then, and why you don't want to waste precious doubloons on booth babes, these days.
* [Quick answer to that one, because it's easy : I believe everything is fair game, in principle. What is OK or not in practical terms is a matter of good or poor taste and falls under artistic discretion, to be weighed against how it can affect the business end of things — for better or worse.]
**[Although gamebiz-oriented schools and classes are sprouting left and right, many of those are actually teaching no-less valuable skills than what you'd learn by mastering in fine arts to the end of becoming a game artist, so why not.]
***[Informal therapy groups of in-game/work friends who collectively help each other to move out and on from their shared grounds of sorrow are both heartwarming and rather depressing things to witness]