Behind the Controller: toxic videogame workplaces

Ever since its release back in late February, gamers and critics across the video game community have wondered how “Anthem” spectacularly failed to meet even the most moderate of expectations. This failure is especially jarring given that the game was produced by one of the most seasoned game developers in the industry, BioWare, who were responsible for some of my most memorable experiences in gaming. Thankfully, Jason Schreier, news editor of Kotaku, did a full-on investigation into what exactly went wrong inside BioWare that caused “Anthem” to be the absolute mess that it became. It is worth noting before I jump into it that BioWare sent out a studio-wide email ordering its staff to not “ talk to the press” just after the article was published.

Schreier’s article, “How BioWare’s Anthem Went Wrong,” brings to light unnerving news. To begin with, “Anthem”  had been in development for over seven years, but the actual progress in the development of the title had merely started 18 months prior to its release date. Upon reading that, one might blurt out loud, “How is that even possible?” There are multiple reasons for this delay, as laid out by Schreier such as “big narrative reboots, major design overhauls and a leadership team said to be unable to provide a consistent vision and unwilling to listen to feedback.” Not only that, but the two studios working on the development of “Anthem,” BioWare Edmonton and BioWare Austin, had large issues with each other that resulted in a hostile relationship with each other, and the very game engine they were working with, Frostbite, wasn’t suited to the game they were trying to make.

As bad as all of that sounds, it’s only one half of the larger problem at BioWare. From all accounts, it seems that BioWare was practically the poster-child of what a hostile work environment looks like. According to Schreier’s article, things at BioWare have been nothing short of horrid — staff forced to work long crunch periods, depression and anxiety a norm around the office (even among senior staff, developers looking for empty rooms just so they can break down sobbing), people forced to take “stress leave” for months on doctor’s orders and worst of all, a staggering amount of “stress casualties” from people working on “Anthem” who suffered mental breakdowns and left for months —  some of which didn’t even come back to work. As terrible as these work conditions are, they didn’t seem to phase the higher-ups at BioWare. Instead, the higher-ups wrote these incidents  off as the “BioWare magic” as a term thrown around the office where no matter how bad things are with a game’s development, everything will all end up coming together in the end.

If there is one thing that really needs to be restated about what Schreier is saying, it’s that this idea of the “BioWare magic” was never viable in the first place. This absence of magic is  precisely because of how bad working environments are at studios like BioWare and that game industry workers are making serious efforts to unionize. Being frustrated at work is one thing, but when industry executives take a look at what is happening to developers, like with BioWare, and simply say something like, “that’s just the cost of doing business in this industry,” that is another thing entirely. You cannot force anyone to work under these terrible conditions and then expect a quality product as well as loyalty in return.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what companies in the AAA industry expect from workers. The executives of some of the biggest names in the video game industry such as Electronic Arts, Activision-Blizzard and Rockstar Games, all expect their workers to put in so much time under such awful conditions, just so they can meet the demands of the shareholders.

In the end, all we can do now is mourn what could have been with “Anthem.” What was once the great idea for a quality game that had been tossed around and worked on for months was scrapped.

Executives who don’t know the first thing about making games focused on chasing the latest industry fads like “Fortnite” or “Destiny.” With such a negative prevailing attitude amongst the industry higher-ups, and hopelessness among gamers, one must ask the question: “Can we ever hope to get out of this rut the industry is in?”

Kelly Baker is a fourth-year student majoring in English with minors in journalism and film criticism. KB819687@wcupa.edu

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