There are things which must be stated up front any time Blizzard is a topic of conversation. The company is a financially stable island in what is, these days, an industry wracked by layoffs, bankruptcies and incompetence. World of Warcraft, its flagship game, is the most financially successful videogame in history. It’s not at all an exaggeration to say that they can pick and choose anyone in the industry they want for employment; people are clamoring to get in, even from outside the industry, because of Blizzard’s stability and quality of product.
All of which is why their recent recruitment video is an oddity. It might seem a bit indulgent to spill ink deconstructing a promotional video, but the six minute clip left us wondering what role Blizzard actually plays in the industry. Does their stability allow them the freedom to be trendsetters, or are they just as beholden to industry forces and ideology as any other developer?
The clip in question has everything one would expect from a small studio’s recruitment video: appeals to creativity; glimpses of an idyllic nerd-chic workday; the promise of “small company” “focus and commitment”; nineteen permutations of “passion”, “friendship”, “family” and “love” squeezed into just six minutes. The message is hammered home that this is not a job, it’s a new family.
A minute and 45 seconds in, a series of employees tell us that even non-developers can contribute to Blizzard’s games. He says that “creative people can really thrive” there and that “all of the departments inside of Blizzard aid in game development.” Another adds, glowing, that “You’ll see in the credits for all of our games, it says ‘Designed by Blizzard Entertainment’ [as] the very first thing. And it really is true.” This is tautology rendered into achievement. Of course it’s true that the whole studio contributes to the final product. Of course Blizzard’s games are “Designed by Blizzard Entertainment.” It is telling of the ideological and material conditions of the games industry that the simple act of giving a full group of workers credit on their production seems like an accomplishment. The irony, of course, is that those employees, beaming with pride, aren’t themselves named or credited in the recruitment video.
The only major difference between Blizzard’s video and the sort of messaging you’d find from a smaller, less successful studio is the clip’s glossy production values, which recall a movie trailer rather than the low budget cheese of such videos from yesteryear. And that’s a problem. Given Blizzard’s success and market strength, one might expect Blizzard to be able to go further than this industry-standard rhetoric. But the video makes no mention of the concrete benefits that working at Blizzard provides. There’s no mention of benefits or wages; nothing about crunch time, that specter haunting the industry; nothing about the sort of material, tangible things that make a difference in how one is employed, rather than how one feels during employment. There are perfectly acceptable, subtle ways to talk about these things without veering into the gauche. Employees could talk about their own financial security, or about being able to plan for the future while simultaneously being fulfilled with their work today. Other industries do this, why can’t we?
But your recruitment will be based in love, not on wages. The mentions come rapid fire, culminating in the grand pronouncement from one employee: Blizzard employees are “just a bunch of geeks,” just like you. This is a window into how the industry as a whole views employment. As one of us has written about before, this is an industry with a layoff rate twice the national rate[PDF] across all industries and a culture of crunch where 68% of respondents work more than 50 hours a week for months at a time in order to get a product out the door. It’s a bad tradeoff: In exchange for being quiet about wages, hours, benefits and the like, you’ll get to hang out with like-minded people you’ll love to be with. The Blizzard video is the distillation of this pitch in a very blunt form.
Trendsetter or Adherent
The odd thing, however, is that Blizzard doesn’t need to make this pitch. It’s an angle meant for new blood hoping for their first industry jobs, workers who aren’t burned out yet, and people for whom the word “passion” doesn’t elicit a visceral recoiling. In fact, if you visit their job openings you’ll see very few entry level positions. Most postings demand prior experience in the videogame industry or, at least, in a field which can translate. And that’s even if we assume that Blizzard needs to make any pitch at all; as one of the crown jewels in the industry, a place that (and this must be repeated for a full picture) seems to be a legitimately better place to work than just about anywhere else in the industry, they most assuredly have experienced people wanting to come in for even low level jobs.
You cannot separate any company from the broader culture of the industry within which they operate. Blizzard, for all of their power and clout, is still part of an industry where blurring the line between the personal and the occupational is the standard operating procedure. And this is why the video was made. The retort will be that other industries make passion videos, and this is true, but we are not interested in those, at least not as anything other than as an indictment of capital’s relationship to labor as a whole. They are not wholly applicable to this video in this industry. And this industry, as a place where a livable wage is earned for sane working hours, is crumbling from the foundation up. All for the love of the game.
This ideology is not constrained to the development studio. Blizzard’s video is just one more artifact of a culture that preempts demands for fair remuneration with a prodding reminder that, after all, if you love what you do, then the pay shouldn’t matter. This is the same story told by Twitch executives who say that its streamers “aren’t interested” in being paid. It’s the same story that crops up any time someone wonders if modder labor is exploitative. It’s the same story that is so often leveraged to blur the line between fandom and promotional labor. It’s a story told so well and so often that it doubles in on itself: Exploited fans become exploited modders. Exploited modders become exploited developers.
All this talk of passion sets a very real paradigm, limiting the acceptable actions of those in poor labor conditions. Why is the industry so insistent that game development is “more than just a job?” Because if it’s just a job, just a 9 to 5 workday in a cubicle pounding out code or testing content, then the crunch time is something you can object to. In fact, you would (or should) be expected to object to a 60 hour week.
If, instead, protesting crunch time means letting down a grand artistic vision (one which Blizzard reminds the viewer all employees contribute to) or, even worse, letting down your new family, that’s a very different proposition. None of us wants to let down our family and friends, but we can probably get away with letting down management. That social pressure is what keeps crunch time and other bad practices in place as a normal part of the industry.
The mythology of crunch and a culture of layoffs have naturalized them, erasing their histories. Instead of being able to identify key shifts in industry labor practices, we’re told that we’ve always been at war with the 60 hour work week. There’s a sheepish air when people at leading companies bring up issues such as crunch, as if it’s unavoidable, like a downpour or an unbidden burp. This is nonsense. Crunch is certainly a disaster, but it is not an act of God. There is nothing that says that crunch and layoffs are unavoidable. The laws we write about how we work are products of men and women, not natural forces imposed upon us by an unseen hand.
We’ve no idea what Blizzard’s internal stance is on hot button matters of industry labor exploitation, other than that they do have crunch. A quick perusal of Blizzard’s Glassdoor profile or following the Twitter accounts of Blizzard employees reveals this fact. That they do is just one more indication of how beholden even the most successful companies are to the ideology which the industry espouses.
But there is certainly nothing that requires a company like Blizzard, with all of its industry muscle, to create a by-now quotidian appeal to nebulous notions of love and passion. We say nebulous because even love and passion are coded and restricted. After all, if Blizzard’s employees were to translate their passion for games into organization against the notion of expected crunch time, we doubt that their new family would be quite so welcoming at the company retreats.
Which is, in the end, why the video elicited comment. It was a big version of something any industry watcher has seen dozens of times over. And it was, finally, immensely disappointing. Disappointing because the industry is hurtling toward a bad place, even if Blizzard isn’t. A bad place populated by workers with no expectation of job security and a collective voice neutered by a perversion of the language of solidarity and friendship. Singling out Blizzard for pointed critique on a standard practice might be unfair, but we expect more of Blizzard because they claim to offer it and because of the clout they’ve earned within the industry.
The gaming industry must change how it deals with labor, and one of the best places to begin is to stamp out the appeals to passion as a substitute for the stability of other industries. The average career length in the games industry is well shy of a decade, which drastically reduces the variety of creative voices on offer. From older content creators, to parents, to those needing steadier medical benefits than the revolving door of the industry can offer, their experience is going to a different industry. And this says nothing of the under-representation of women and people of color in the industry; people who love making games, but find few faces like their own in leadership positions.
If Blizzard wants to truly be an industry leader, as they claim in their video, they can start here. Rather than leaning on platitudes of work-as-family, which are all too familiar from a thousand other companies, they should brag proudly about what their financial stability lets them offer their employees. Tell us about medical plans and 401ks. Tell us about child-care and vacation time. Those industry vets you’re looking to recruit? They’ll respond. And if the industry hopes to be sustainable, so will your competitors.
Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.
Austin Walker is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labor and culture. He writes about games at @austin_walker and at Clockwork Worlds.