On Rockstar and 100-Hour Workweeks

by Christopher David Lawton

Fuck ’em.

Oh, you wanted more? I’m sorry. Let me elaborate, then. Now, before I get into this, I should probably start with a bit of a disclaimer: As a gamer, I have no dog in this race. I’m not intending to buy Red Dead Redemption 2. For starters, I’m not buying games right now. Even if I was, though, I’ve never found myself super interested in Rockstar games. I tried to play the original Red Dead Redemption, and I just could not get into it. I know I’m in the minority in that, and that’s okay. I say this only in the interest of full disclosure. I’m only approaching this topic from the perspective of an outside observer.

An outside observer who’s pissed, of course. Because while I may not care about RDR2, I do care immensely about the working environment that all game developers find themselves in. If you follow me on Twitter, you won’t be surprised to find out that by and large, worker abuse at the hands of management is an issue I’m very passionate about. And the video game industry runs rampant with it. We’ve all heard about crunch time and 80-hour-weeks and all of that, and all of that stuff makes me extremely angry. It would make me angry in any industry, but it especially makes me angry in video game development, because video game developers romanticize working in the industry itself. Video game development is creating magic and fun, so anyone who works in this field should feel lucky to just have a position in this amazing industry.

Barf.

I’m not going to go into how messed up this ideology is, because it’s really a matter for another post. Today, I want to set my sights specifically on Rockstar and the upcoming Red Dead Revolver 2. During an interview with Vulture, Rockstar Co-Founder Dan Houser disclosed that the team worked “100-hour weeks” leading up to the game’s release. My initial reaction to this is one of repulsion as Houser’s statement is one of pride. This is how good the game is, this is how dedicated the team was.

Have I mentioned barf, yet?

Now, I have no problem with Houser working 100-hour weeks. If he wants to destroy his personal life and health, more power to him. I have a problem when the boss working 100-hour weeks creates a culture within the company that gently nudges the entire team to feel that 100-hour weeks are an expectation. While the initial interview may not indicate that this culture exists within Rockstar, a later statement by Houser all but confirmed it, and here’s where the barfing becomes full-send, projectile, clean the bathroom afterwards vomiting.

After the backlash to his interview, Houser released the following statement:

There seems to be some confusion arising from my interview with Harold Goldberg [in New York Magazine]. After working on the game for seven years, the senior writing team, which consists of four people, Mike Unsworth, Rupert Humphries, Lazlow and myself, had, as we always do, three weeks of intense work when we wrapped everything up. Three weeks, not years. We have all worked together for at least 12 years now, and feel we need this to get everything finished. After so many years of getting things organized and ready on this project, we needed this to check and finalize everything.

More importantly, we obviously don’t expect anyone else to work this way. Across the whole company, we have some senior people who work very hard purely because they’re passionate about a project, or their particular work, and we believe that passion shows in the games we release. But that additional effort is a choice, and we don’t ask or expect anyone to work anything like this. Lots of other senior people work in an entirely different way and are just as productive – I’m just not one of them! No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard. I believe we go to great lengths to run a business that cares about its people, and to make the company a great place for them to work.

https://www.polygon.com/2018/10/15/17979818/red-dead-redemption-2-crunch-dan-houser-interview

There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’m going to do my best to not bunny trail into a bunch of stuff no one cares about, but rather, I’m going to try to keep my thoughts focused on the rhetoric of this statement. Because, boy howdy, there’s some rhetoric here.

When unpacking corporate-speak, it’s important to look for the unspoken assumptions or statements in what they write. Corporate statements are carefully crafted to avoid blatant land mines in language, and this statement is no different. It’s very even-handed and attempts to frame the blowback as a mere misunderstanding. It’s when he gets into the second paragraph, though, that the truth is revealed, once again in the underlying message.

Houser describes the people who work like him as “passionate” and says they “work hard.” He uses loaded words like “purely” to indicate the motives of working so hard. When you look at what’s not said in this paragraph, you start to get a real glimpse into the corporate expectations at Rockstar. People who don’t work 100-hour weeks aren’t passionate about the project, and they don’t work hard. People who only see this as a job, not a passion, aren’t pure in their motives. 

Barf.

Barf. Barf. Barf. Barf.

The worst offending line in the whole statement is the following:

No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard.

I don’t even have the words to express how incredibly shitty this statement is. The number of hours a person works is not indicative of how hard they work, and to imply otherwise furthers the exploitation of the employees who are hired to help you put out a video game. You may not “force” them to work your 100-hour weeks, but you sure as hell make sure they know what kind of employee they’re considered if they don’t. This is all rooted in the capitalist ideology of labor as a commodity, and the better value your commodity, the better you are as an employee, and even to a degree, a human being. Again, there’s so much wrong with this view, and I don’t really want to get into it here. It’s not the intended focus, and the post is already long enough. But, I feel comfortable in offering the following brief critique on this ideology: barf.

Something has to change. This exploitation runs rampant throughout the video game industry, and it leads to burnout and health problems for the employees that endure it. If you’re one of these employees, get out of the industry. No job — even one working on video games — is worth your mental or physical health. Maybe if enough programmers leave the industry en masse, these corporations will realize that they have to start creating better working environments.

At the very least, unionize. Make sure you have someone fighting for you and navigating negotiations with your employers. They have human resources departments and legal departments to help them push you just far enough to stay within the boundaries of labor laws, it’s only fitting that you have someone or something working for you to push back.

And for us, the consumers, those who don’t work in the industry? Stop supporting these companies. Being rooted firmly within capitalism, the only language they understand is profit, and until their profit is impacted, they’ll never change. They have no reason to.

In closing, barf.