(Self) Employment Practices in Games.

My favourite metaphor for creative work is that of crop rotation. I basically know nothing about crop rotation except that some years you won’t plant anything in a field. You’ll just let it sit there, doing whatever it wants, growing weeds and hanging out with worms and replenishing nitrate levels or whatever. Fallow. It’s also called ‘resting’ the soil.

Fallow is fucking important.

Rest is hard, it’s easy as a freelancer to overcompensate for what looks like a low work time and end up with too much; it’s hard to make space in your home to rest when it’s also your work place; you enjoy what you make and do, it’s enjoyable, you care about it, you’re lucky – so lucky – to be able to do it, so it becomes hard to ever ever stop.

a run I went for by the sea

I went to the North York Moors with my dad and brother last weekend. It was great. And hella cheap because Yorkshire in February.

But that space, that time, that sitting staring at the same page of a book while your mind drifts, or walking instead of the bus, or the night with friends, the new haircut, Netflix binge, cinema trip, long bike ride, amazing meal it took 4 hours to cook – these things are fundamentally part of how you make work. Work is something you grow as a human from human things like thoughts and smiles, memories and keystrokes. You need to be all of a human when you make work, including the bits where you don’t.

Yesterday I read a post by a totally rad story-game maker – she’s stepping back from games, she’s exhausted, and she listed the kind of commitments and schedules that will seem familiar to DIY or indie game folk most places. I completely respect her decision, and the strength of making it. If it felt right to her, it was right. But I see a lot of people struggling and folding under the weight of creative work in games and I basically don’t hear anyone saying the thing that needs to be said:

Stop working so hard.

Seriously, stop it.

There’s a funny cross over between games and rampant 80s neoliberalist capitalism. It comes out of its flourishing as a mainstream form via the marketing industry of the same era. DIY and indie efforts on early BBC/ZX Spectrum consoles and PCs swiftly became subsumed by a blockbuster studio culture that now is recognisably AAA. The art of digital games has struggled back out from that, but is still infused with the dreams of capital; that you must Sacrifice All; family life [easier because you’re probably a man and therefore not expected to have an equal share of it], friends not also in the business, sleep, healthy eating habits, other hobbies, interest in things outside of games; in order to Make It Big. Indie Game The Movie, basically: out of immense financial personal and psychological sacrifice, comes fame, fortune, loved ones, being loved.

There is so much wrong with this. For the first thing, this version of Making It sustains maybe only 20-50 people in the world. 100 tops. The dream of the rockstar is what fills a hundred thousand dirty pub back rooms tonight with teenagers picking out the beginning chords to Stairway. A thousand dusty telecasters that might have been played longer and more soul-fully if it hadn’t been only about one means of success.

Some homemade bread and stew

You could make some bread. Even if it looks rubbish it’ll probably still be tasty.

And you know what, I know internationally touring bands. The bit of post-rock, math rock and emo that I review means I have mates in a few bands that tour to the US, Japan, Europe, and sell out every show they play. I know that they don’t earn enough to pay themselves for the time. They break even on whether or not you buy the merch basically. Games doesn’t have the van hire and diesel costs, it’s effortlessly international, so it looks a little bit more like ‘making it’ is genuinely that, but again, only for the stars. This ‘star’ story is a parody of capitalism – people at the top with everything, and the poison of the American Dream stopping everyone at the bottom wondering if there’s a better way, in case they’re the next one to Make It.

Fold into that the fan-side of the Making It narrative. That in an area driven by such heady identity politics the designer/fan relationship becomes very public and very punishing. When fans feel games change them they can become more intimately a part of them than a lot of real life, they weave their stories of self with games and assume ownership over a creator or game’s life and work. Still fur-toothed with the aftertaste of capital, they see their fandom as investment, themselves as stakeholders, demanding sequels or sophomore releases; further content. Giving money for a product is not the same as buying a stake in a person or a work, but can feel like it within late capitalism identity politics. Donating to a kickstarter becomes a gift economy confused with an investment one.

It’s time to stop. The masterstroke of 21st century capitalist freelancing culture is that it’s devised a means by which we exploit ourselves. Creativity has become an industry with the same problems as the rest of work. It’s there in all the mechanics; the tax breaks for AAA but lack of grants for new game artists and design ideas; the game jams or hacks that fetishise gruelling hours, junk food, free labour and ‘winners’; the 18 hour days; the practices that mean only very few can begin to make at all – those with time to exploit, few caring responsibilities, intellectual arrogance [a useful tool you get most easily from being e.g. a white man – who these narratives are about – or at a pinch, university educated], financially supported by parents or middle class upbringings.

Stop exploiting yourselves.

It’s not just destroying you, it’s destroying your capacity to make good work, without the space to be a human, you will burn out, you will make mistakes and never have the time to forgive yourself, you will exhaust ideas, you will never replenish the nutrients you need to make fucking great things.

It’s making people leave making work at all, and it’s stopping a million voices who don’t have the money, time, or narrative framework to access making games. It’s making games worse.

A picture of a pub in New Cross with a red neon sign that reads 'take courage'

Let’s all pretend this isn’t a brand, and rather’s it’s a message from a kind neon wielding stranger.

So, take a break. Take a week off. Go for a walk. Doodle something on the back of an important document. And forgive yourself, because the nagging cop-in-your-head who tells you that it’s not good enough will be loud in your ears. It’s not a break unless you forgive yourself for it. Until we’re congratulating ourselves and our friends not for how busy we are, but for rearranging work we can’t countenance without crying, for setting aside a week to just sit and read, for going for a walk or a drink with a friend. Until we’re having this conversation openly and earnestly with the people who support us via Kickstarter, Patreon, Twitter. Until we’re enjoying rest. Until actually maybe we enjoy it more than working. Because a lot of things are better than work.

A live art duo called Action Hero wrote this:

13. Work hard (but know what work is)

You need to be a bad-ass maniac to make a living from your art. The task will consume you. It is a fucking mountain of graft. But don’t perform your hard work for other peoples benefit. don’t feel like you have to prove yourself by working too hard. Learn what work can look like if you’re an artist. Emailing is not the only kind of work. Conversation can be work, going for a walk can be work, sitting down and thinking can be work. There are some assumptions about what constitutes work that as an artist you can be responsible for changing (see point 2). Its also important to know that you are not a worse artist if you aren’t working. Taking 3 months off to go to Asia, or taking the day off to watch the whole of Friday Night Lights on DVD could be the best thing you ever do for your art.

 Don’t perform you productivity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post script:

There’s little to no seed funding in the UK/US games. EU funding, Nordic, and sometimes Australian public funding is a little better on this. But in the UK pretty much all government support for games comes in the form of tax breaks. There’s no grants for the arts sub £15k support you can apply for just to make a thing you think will be good. There’s pots of money and shuffling of language you can do to fit into things like The Space, or The Wellcome Trust, or Channel 4, but it’s always hamstrung and requires a level of creative maturity that you have to have developed ahead of them. UKIE have done a good job of lobbying for AAA, but there’s a dire need for funding to support the first creative stumblings out of university or college. There are things like Kickstarter which are good for those already with fanbases, and leave you very open to a raw and yet-unnegotiated relationship to your backers (investors? Not really. Patrons? Not quite. What do you owe them? Is this a gift exchange or a financial one?) – basically there’s another post in here about how games need to fucking unionise.

Post post script:

There are battles to be fought in other areas of production, and in some ways this is one of the least. It’s important because it breaks people, but a lot of other working practices are breaking people – the inequality of pay in general, zero hour contracts, the globalisation of the market without workers’ rights, the erosion of leisure time and the demonisation and punishment of those unable to work. Look up DPAC, support the living wage in your country, buy ethically produced goods, boycott those with damaging employment practices, and support those campaigning globally for workers’ rights.

 

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10 Responses to “(Self) Employment Practices in Games.”

  1. david March 5, 2015 at 12:45 am #

    I identify with some things here and I don’t really know how to feel about some other ones. Sometimes I feel like I’m a shitty person who does shitty things for no good reason (both of which are somewhat true), and certain things in this article made me feel that more. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, though. I have nothing against your article, it’s well written and has some very good points, just some things in it just made me feel very weird and self-conscious. Please ignore me, and write things even if they make people have negative reactions, because strong negative reactions are better than no reactions at all.

  2. hannah nicklin March 8, 2015 at 1:33 pm #

    Hi David, I’m sorry you feel like a shitty person sometimes. Most people are mostly always trying to do their best in conflicting circumstances. It’s good to look at how you can be better, but that includes being better to yourself. If you’re struggling really badly with self confidence (and are in the UK) maybe speak to your GP about finding someone to chat to about what you’re struggling with. Be kind to yourself as well as tough.

    Hannah

  3. Luggy March 9, 2015 at 10:33 am #

    “early BBC/ZX Spectrum consoles”

    The BBC and ZX Spectrum were not consoles , they were computers .

  4. Hannah Nicklin March 9, 2015 at 11:21 am #

    Hello Luggy

    Did this contribution – correcting me on a piece of linguistic shorthand – feel like a very important contribution to make to a discussion on freelance work and self exploitation? Could you not bear the inaccuracy to the degree you were compelled to comment? Did you hug yourself at the thought of having an opportunity to correct a woman on technical specificities? Because gosh wouldn’t it be horrible if that opportunity went unchecked.

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  6. Tom Higham January 22, 2016 at 11:28 am #

    Agree wholeheartedly Hannah, and it’s not just the games end of the ‘creative sector’ (bleurgh), as I know you know.

    Reminds me very much of my favourite ever newspaper article, the Busy Trap: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/?_r=0

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