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Rebecca Phoa, Blogger

June 28, 2011

7 Min Read

It used to be that people said ‘Hollywood or Bust,’ as if the film industry was the only work environment worth pursuing if you were a creative. Now it seems that the game industry is not only the place to be, but the only one worth mentioned that can fill a stomach filled with idealism and not much else.

But hold on a second, is it really true? Certainly for me it is. I have spent too many long nights dreaming what it would be like—writing stories, creating characters, weaving dreams in some make believe place in some make believe world. I have also spent too many long nights wondering when my time would come. As I frown at my demo reel for the tenth time, I find myself insecure—doubting that it will never match the quality that countless game developers expect, no matter how long I work on it.

I worship at the altars of videogame greats such as Warren Spector, Peter Molyneux, Chris Avellone; to name a few. I dream of being as good as them, not better of course—that would defeat the purpose of their godlike presences in the industry. 

Taking a break from my demo reel, I must have read at least three articles these past few weeks alone talking about work, and what work means to people.


Am I a spoiled Canadian?

Heather Mallick of the Toronto Star writes:


“‘Yufeng is a force of nature in the factory,’ writes American journalist Peter Hessler, who met her when he explored China in his remarkable 2010 travelogue, Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip. The kind of woman the Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky captures in this hair-raising photo of a Chinese chicken-processing plant, she typifies the young peasants who abandon their borderline-starvation village lives and work ferociously to lift themselves up by their deft digits.”

According to Mallick, Yufeng is a 15 year girl who lives in a backwater village. She earns 80 cents an hour in a factory making bras. She does this work quietly, and without complaint. As her boss says, ‘I want somebody who can eat bitterness.’

There are others Mallick talks about; a hardworking cashier in France who graduated in Literature. She toils as a customer mocks her, telling her daughter that if you don’t get an education, she will end up like her. Mallick shows a great disdain for a woman who refuses to work in the mall stockroom for $11 an hour. Mallick quotes her as saying ‘there was no way I was going to climb up there like a monkey, risking life and limb, for $11 an hour.’

There is no question that little girl in China is being exploited, despite her grace. The lady in France couldn’t help but work in a grocery store, and Mallick thinks that crabby woman is just waxing anxiety about her diminishing social status because she was ‘forced’ to work a mall job.

Mallick theorizes that Canadians in particular don’t want to do an honest day’s work. We should be more like Yufeng. For westerners such as Mallick and Hessler; we can’t imagine doing this work ourselves; not when we come home to mainstream TV and microwave dinners. So we champion the resilience of a young poor girl, and label ourselves spoiled.  

I can’t imagine myself being like the crabby mall worker, or at least I don’t want to think about that too much. I was told to work hard by parents who instilled in me a proletariat way of thinking. I’d like to think I can take my lumps.  

I think about all the girls like Yufeng and all those homeless people on the street; who are grateful for small handouts and hard jobs. I have no justification to act privileged because I really have been that lucky.


I need a job!

Kathy English, Public Editor of the Toronto Star asks the question:


Would you work for free in order to get your “foot in the door” toward a job you love? English broaches the subject of the unpaid internship.

English goes on to say that the Toronto Star always pays their interns, and that at least one paper is doing its moral duty. She admitted though, her own experience in trying to become a bonafide journalist was fortunate as she got paid; whereas now so many interns are not. 

English quotes Ross Perlin, writer of the book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. http://www.amazon.com/Intern-Nation-Nothing-Little-Economy/dp/1844676862. (It is a book I should read.)

‘The internship has emerged victorious as the unrivalled gateway to white-collar work.’

According to the Amazon website, Perlin is a self described serial intern; who worked for Disney carrying out menial labour. He wrote the book to highlight how internships were being used by large corporations to bypass employment laws. 

He notes that while unpaid internships can be very exploitive and even illegal; he sympathizes with people who still pursue these things as a gateway to a real job. Perlin also said,

'When you are competing for jobs during a recession, the only thing worse than being exploited can be not being exploited.'

How can one argue with this, especially when you're desperate?

Certainly, I was an unpaid intern just so that I could graduate from my education program, so I am no stranger to this very divisive issue. But at the same time, I realize that I was very fortunate to have been in the employ of a great taskmaster.

So when I hear cases of this:

Why did L.A. Noire take seven years to make?

Well it's no fairytale; more troubling than what anyone thought possible. What is equally troubling is that we only heard about this because people were willing to come out and share their stories. What if they didn’t because they were too afraid?

Personally, stories like this hit me in the gut painfully, like that shot in the foot I gave to Conrad Verner in Mass Effect 2. It was fun at first, until you realize how miserable it all really was.

You would think that after the EA Spouse fiasco, the industry could have learned something. But as I noted above, the game industry is not alone in using and abusing its willing workers. If the House of Mouse can do it, why not other companies in other industries?


Is this going to continue?

Reports such these continue to raise red flags for me. As I work to increase my tiny amount of meaningful industry contacts, I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing the right thing.

I have some experience working in a tough environment. I also had a long period of working in a really great environment. The differences between the two were stark; and I am feeling ambivalent about what the game industry will be like.

It is not that I don’t want to do the job, but guilt happens. When you love games as much as I do, well the choice between possible exploitation and being called a whiner is clear. I cling onto the theory that paying my dues means enduring pain at any cost.

I always hear the same stories. The game industry is tough, making games is hard; the people who are still in the game industry today are the survivors. Every game, even the good ones are production train wrecks.

In a demanding, profit, and hit driven industry, a company is only as good as its last game. Customers won’t care if you have the Steven Spielberg of video game design; people will not hang around because your game keeps crashing every 5 minutes. You can think twice if people going to pre-order your game because it doesn’t have this and this and this.  

There is a Buddhist saying, ‘All Life is Suffering.’ You would think that the Great Buddha was talking about working in games.  


Is the dream dead?

I still have no doubt that people who work in the game industry love games to the point that games are all they think about, all they breathe about, and all they dream about. That is what is so riveting about this industry. The best people in the world are here; these are the men and women who have said no to easy, and chose the hard.

But we must still remember they are still human; still fragile and easily broken. The industry now must work for them because they have long worked for this industry to be tops.

What will be the final solution for unhappy video game employees?

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