The world watched in consternation as the pandemic stopped the wheels of capitalism in its tracks. Not only did the international stock markets tank this past month, but we saw unemployment numbers skyrocket, 16 million people out of work in the US alone. We’re now facing the most severe recession in recorded history, as the year-on-year world GDP drop is expected to exceed 10%. The scent of 1930’s Weimar Republic is in the air, tinged with revolutionary fervor, and many fear that economic turmoil will translate into political strife. This is a cataclysmic event to rival and even surpass the Great Recession, the perfect economic storm that hits once a century, shakes the very foundations of civilization and introduces a new world order.
As people around the world retreat into quarantine, and governments pour trillions into their paralyzed economies to stave off the worst effects of collapse, it’s hard not to question the basic assumptions of modern societies, starting with the value of money. The digital printing presses of national banks are whirring, and we can start to see the abstraction underlying it all. Money is only a symbolic compact we make between ourselves in order to exchange goods and services. Some may wonder, is the vain pursuit of money worth the injury most of us make to ourselves, our families and communities?
Capitalism is the worst form of economic organization, except for all others — if we were to adapt Churchill’s famous aphorism about democracy. It does a tremendous job of mobilizing the labor force, with each able and willing individual becoming a tiny cog in the monumental machinery of capital. It built the world we live in, but it’s not perfect. In fact, from up close it starts to look very much like monkey business. It needs to self-correct every 8–10 years via a cyclical recession, only marginally contained by social-democratic policies, such as social security and economic oversight. It tends to exacerbate inequality over time, disproportionally amassing benefits to the elites. The poor and marginalized are crushed by the march of capitalism, a system that maximizes productivity, but falls short on compassion.
“Nothing should go back to normal. Normal wasn’t working. If we go back to the way things were, we would’ve lost the lesson. May we rise up and do better.”
I found this statement yesterday on one of my friends’ social feed and it gave me pause. The pandemic might only be a dress rehearsal for the “elephant in the room”, climate change, a disruption of massively larger scale, which will permanently alter our lives and economies, without any fast resolutions in sight. The pandemic might only be the first chapter of a story that will invariably force us to imagine a new way forward. It should open a season of deep reflection over what’s important, and how to focus our energies to create a more sustainable, equitable and positive future.
The change can start with us, as individuals, and it should extend out to the communities around us. The games industry as a whole generally prides itself on being politically liberal, socially tolerant, cosmopolitan and globalized. On average, game developers are young, highly educated and affluent. As an industry we’re heavily male-skewed in composition but making fair efforts at self-correcting. We’re the epitome of the technology elite in every corner of the world. We make games that are universalist in nature: they’re enjoyed by people of every age, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and economic status. At their best, games are humanist in nature, they can probe and illuminate the most intimate aspects of the human condition.
And yet our industry can be a tough place to thrive. There’s ample evidence of churn, as those idealistic young game-makers find safe haven in other realms of the economy, driven away by a host of rapacious labor practices, the most egregious of them being the permanent crunch which often accompanies the drive to release product at a fixed date. Game companies unsurprisingly have an overarching profit motive behind all their actions. They are run by leaders who were educated in the mantra of “maximizing shareholder value”, they are owned by entities who are exclusively focused on financial results, sometimes to the detriment of everything else — people, art and community.
Can we imagine the industry as a better place than it is today? The answer is a resounding yes. We can see a future where the primary concern of the industry leaders will be for the people — to develop their careers, to protect them in recessions, to bridge their employment after the completion of a product and before the start of another, to generally make a long-term compact for the mutual benefit of all parties. This could take the form of supporting the formation of labor unions in the games space and allowing unions a place on company boards, to ensure the interests of employees are carefully considered in the context of any strategic decisions. The leaders of the large companies in the space could ensure fair labor conditions are a norm across their network of collaborators, as no studio or vendor would be allowed to abuse their staff due to lax local labor laws.
We can see a future where the large companies are supporting the game dev community beyond their company. This can take the form of directing some of their income towards supporting local incubators dedicated to local game developers. Such organizations are notorious for “losing money”, since the probability of those games becoming commercial hits is low, and yet they encourage studio formation, which in turn creates a vital space for creative experimentation, making the industry a safer place for artists. Additionally, the industry can play a more engaged role in supporting educational programs in the regions where it operates, by encouraging senior professionals to teach classes for students interested in pursuing a game development career. We could see a role for large companies to establish and finance academic programs in the cities where they operate.
We could see game developers turning the considerable influence of their trade organizations to influence better government policies for the entire games space, in the manner shown by Canada and Singapore. We can take this opportunity to create a better business environment in the industry, through the emergence of a code of conduct to guide how large companies interact with small ones, and how publishers deal with indie studios. Poisoned contract terms such as the lack of commercial protections in the event of project termination must disappear from the industry, since these are known to have unfairly driven many indie studios out of business. A general sense that we can only win together, rather than a zero-sum mentality, should pervade all contract negotiations and the resulting environment will benefit all.
With a sense of accomplishment having made our industry a safer and kinder place, one that sustainably maximizes the human potential of its talent, we can push further out again. We can take these best practices and seed other creative industries with a worthy model to follow. By the very nature of our creative output and our ability to reach a mass audience, we can spread these fundamental values further beyond the economic sphere, into culture and government. If we can imagine it, we will inspire others, and we will thus create the change we want to see in the world.
Author: Mihai Pohontu, CEO
Originally published in Pocket Gamer.biz on April 24th, 2020.