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No industry for old men (or women)

Ageism, fatigue, frustration and hope: what is it like to grow old in the video game industry?

Simon Parkin, Contributor

May 30, 2017

12 Min Read

The futurologist Rohit Talwar has predicted that many of today's ten and eleven-year-olds will live to be 120, and that many of them may still be employed at 100.

Even if Talwar's prediction is off, or if robots put us out of work long before most of us reach retirement, the latest government statistics show a steady rise in the average working age. By 2022 there will be 700,000 fewer people aged 16 to 49 in the UK, but 3.7 million more people aged between 50 and state pension age.

These changes are not, however, reflected in the games industry, which is stubbornly dominated by the young. In 2016 an IGDA survey [PDF] revealed that two thirds of employees in the games industry are between the ages of 20 and 34. By stark contrast, only three and a half percent are in their fifties or over (note that the Urban Institute predicts that, by 2019, workers aged 50 or above will make up 35% of the general labor force.)

"A career in video games requires an interest in video games in general, and an ability to keep up with rapidly changing technical and artistic trends," the IGDA survey's authors wrote. "It is therefore associated with a youthful work force." 

In March 2015 David Mullich, a game developer who, at the time, had credits on more than sixty games, including The Prisoner, Heroes of Might and Magic 3 and Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, and who has been active in the industry for thirty-eight years, spoke at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco of his struggles to find employment in the games industry in his fifties.

On the day that an article was published that cited a game that Mullich worked on as being one of the top fifty titles of its generation, he recalled receiving the latest in "perhaps a hundred rejections" that he'd received for game producer positions during the previous five years. During his talk, Mullich pinned these rebuffs on ageism, saying that he was told that he was either "too arrogant" or, if he played down his experience, "burned out."

"Someone who's 50 likely knows what a salary is supposed to be. Twenty-somethings work for pennies in the game industry."

Mullich's experience is not isolated. Mature proficiency is rarely rewarded with opportunity. Another IGDA survey, conducted in 2014, found that ageism is considered the second most prevalent form of discrimination in the video game industry, second only to sexism.

Jill Miller, an HR consultant who was the seventeenth employee at Electronic Arts, argues that the careers of people over the age of fifty who work in the games industry are being "torpedoed," "first, by outright discrimination, but also by biased marginalization," whereby those hiring make arbitrary judgments about someone's ability based on the person's age and appearance.

Nevertheless, ageism rarely features in conversations about diversity in video games. Ageism did not feature, for example, in Intel's recent $300 million diversity initiative.

Some claim the difficulty that older game-makers such as Mullich encounter in finding employment is not a case of discrimination, but of economics. As one commenter in a thread on ageism in game development put it in 2012, "in some environments youth and overenthusiasm  -- also known as ‘exploitablility' -- will certainly be favored." Another anonymous commenter in a separate thread on Hacker News agreed: "Hiring some one who is 50 sort of a problem. They likely know what a salary is supposed to be. 20-somethings work for pennies in the game industry." 

For Raph Koster, a 45-year-old game designer and and the author of the foundational text on game design, "A Theory of Fun," it's not just a case of bald economics. "It's easy for long-term game-makers working at studios to become lost," he says.

"The medium turns over really fast, so if you aren't lucky enough to get titles out at a regular clip, you get forgotten. It's not like you can be an aging movie star whose work is still shown on cable TV. The games stop being playable – especially the online ones. Even with emulation and the like, you basically rely on player memory, which is pretty short."

Raph Koster (image by Lane Hartwell)

Koster first started selling his games in Ziploc baggies to classmates at the age of fourteen. In 1995, he joined Origin at the age of 24 to work on the game that would become Ultima Online. He then joined Sony Online Entertainment as CCO. Koster never thought that he'd stay in the games industry for as long as he has, but he did perceive the issue facing nameless, faceless game-makers early into his career, and worked hard to create a public image for himself to counteract the anonymizing effects of working at a major studio.

"The nature of games is that most of the time developers are invisible. Most of the gaming public doesn't know who I am. "

"I made a point of getting press," he says. "I made a point of speaking publicly. I made a point of making connections with players. That was all a conscious effort, something that I figured out I needed to do for my career around when I was 27."

Even then, though, Koster pounts out that these efforts end up mostly reaching colleagues, not the public. "Most of the gaming public doesn't know who I am," he says. "The nature of games is that most of the time developers are invisible. So it fades quickly… if you haven't been in the public eye, there's still a nostalgia factor you can rely on, but it gets more fickle and fades the longer you go with no new game on the shelf."

There can be a downward spiral for a game-maker who hasn't shipped any games recently, according to Koster. "Speaking at a conference like GDC gets a lot more likely if you've released a hit lately," he says. "Getting your resume looked at if you have gaps in it can be tough. I know a lot of lead designers who worked on famous titles who can't find jobs. Another huge challenge is seniority. There's a perception that young folks who will do more hours are more valuable for the dollar." 

There just aren't that many creative director-level people in the entire industry. This means job openings for them are few and far between. This issue can be exacerbated when someone jumps between specialties. Koster zigzagged from MMOs to social worlds and then to Facebook games and then to consulting.

"This means it can be hard to go back because of how fast everything moves," he says. "If you've been a director on a major endeavor, going back to just doing dialogue under someone else's direction isn't a direction you want to move in. But if you move to indie, you often find that you have a much smaller canvas than you are used to."

Laralyn McWilliams, a 52-year-old game designer whose credits include Full Spectrum Warrior and Free Realms, started playing adventure games in high school in the early 1980s. "We often don't do a great job of valuing experience in game development, to the detriment of our teams, companies and games," she says. "You see that across the board, from teams taking on a whole new game genre, yet not hiring anyone with genre expertise, all the way to the difficulties some folks my age have in landing a new job."

Laralyn McWilliams

She says that companies tend to lay off senior employees in favor of cheaper, more junior employees without evaluating the loss in knowledge that goes with that decision. "Similarly, a lot of companies won't even interview older candidates," she notes, "because they're perceived as ‘too expensive' or ‘out of the loop' or, even worse, simply because ‘it would be weird to have someone my dad's age reporting to me.' The only solution for that is to start placing real value on earned experience and expertise, but that's going to take work and time to accomplish."

"We need to put in the work to stay relevant, to stay knowledgeable about a wide variety of games, to stay current on tools and techniques."

Some of the responsibility, McWilliams admits, rests with the older employees. "We need to put in the work to stay relevant, to stay knowledgeable about a wide variety of games, to stay current on tools and techniques," she says.

"This is an industry largely geared toward people who build things, not people who talk about building things. If you find yourself becoming more of a talk-er than a do-er as you age, you're also going to find yourself struggling to land a job."  

Aside from the difficulty of finding a job in your fifties and beyond, there are numerous other challenges facing game-makers who want to maintain a long-term career in an industry notorious for causing burn out. "Letting go is always a challenge," Williams says.

"That can mean shipping a project, killing an idea that won't work or is beyond the scope you can support, losing an argument gracefully, moving on after a project is canceled or you're laid off. These things erode your sense of creative empowerment and can be draining, especially on top of a busy work schedule that doesn't give much room for down time or reflection."

Going independent doesn't automatically solve these issues, McWilliams says. "Being your own boss only multiplies the stress and challenge. It's easy for all of this to really weigh you down, to burn you out."

It's taken years for McWilliams to learn and implement techniques to ensure mental and physical health across arduous, sometimes precarious projects. "Focus on making a great game within the time and budget you're given, and let go of how much of that game needs to come from you personally, and just focus on making it great."

She also recommends finding a hobby outside of games. "When your project is frustrating, go home and work on that: no one can tell you it's wrong or force you to make changes. Having a side project where you can express your creativity in whatever way you want makes it easier to let go when challenges occur at work." 

While Koster claims that he has developed a certain degree of cynicism, he believes that he has managed to keep from becoming disillusioned. "I feel lucky that I had some big titles early, lucky that I twigged to building a professional reputation early, lucky that I've had a diverse enough career that I can remain a marketable commodity people are willing to pay whilst moving across industries. I was damn lucky, and a lot of folks weren't."

The games industry is, Koster says, disrespectful to those who do not share his "luck", as he puts it. The quick industrialization of game making, and the way that major companies have designed contracts that funnel the majority of the rewards to their pockets has created a systemic injustice, especially toward those pioneers who are now entering late middle age.

"They don't get residuals or royalties," says Koster. "The man who invented virtual worlds is a college professor. The woman who designed Centipede is too. Brian Moriarty, one of the key adventure game designers from back in the Infocom and then LucasArts days, is too. People who have blazed a trail across tabletop, digital gaming, and game design theory, like Greg Costikyan, are not exactly rolling in dough."

Koster's unconventional viewpoint is that the older creatives still making games – "the ones who end up sticking around way past their marketable date" are "in a lot of ways the actual industry." Executives come and go, he says. "The ones who are here because of the actual passion, they'll stick. The industry feeds a lot of opportunists, but they usually either flunk out or make their money and leave. What's left behind is the sorority and fraternity of those who actually give a damn about the medium."

"It has to make financial sense to continue in the industry. Royalties or residuals would be one way to help that, but it's an unlikely one."

"In the end though, it's an entertainment industry that is mostly ‘pop'… you have to pay dues, you have to stay relevant, you have to get in the public eye, and the market just isn't very merciful on either end – the public end or the hiring end. There have been a fair number of folks who simply find something else to do."

"I do see the older folks who now have power have a much greater awareness of the value of veterans than random execs do… they understand the value of having a twenty-year veteran on the team. But it will take a while for the industry to break the conditioning of hiring, using, and then burning out twenty-somethings, which has been the normal pattern for a long time."

To counteract this ageism, Koster suggests a major overhaul of the way in which remuneration in the industry works. "One of the biggest things has got to be financial, structural," he says. "It has to make financial sense to continue in the industry. Royalties or residuals would be one way to help that, but it's an unlikely one. I think it's to be expected that there will always be less jobs for directors than lower level jobs, so companies need to think intelligently about career paths for people as they become more senior."

Additionally, Koster believes that game companies should be more willing to allow their employees to become celebrated names, a benefit currently only conferred to a tiny minority of superstar game-makers. "Companies hate it, and in fact so do many developers because game development is a team sport, but celebritization of developers really does make a difference precisely because it confers market value," he says. "It needn't only be the director types either. There's room for guitar heroes and people who still worship the drummer in Rush, so there should be room for kickass graphics programmers and artists too."

"A lot of it boils down to respect, I guess," Koster concludes. "Respect for those whose shoulders we stand on. Whether that's in the form of reputation, finances, or creative freedom."

About the Author(s)

Simon Parkin


Simon Parkin is a freelance writer and journalist from England. He primarily writes about video games, the people who make them and the weird stories that happen in and around them for a variety of specialist and mainstream outlets including The Guardian and the New Yorker.

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