Friday, October 11, 2019

Everything Is Political

It's been a few years since the last time I plugged a Kickstarter campaign on this blog. And... it may not happen again.

One of the more surprising and encouraging trends of the last couple of years has been a resurgence in labor organizing in media companies. Numerous newsrooms have unionized, and those labor protections have proven to be the best (perhaps only?) defense against the pillage-and-burn corporate raiders who have decimated local new sources across the country. Billionaires will buy newspapers, sell off their assets, load them up with debt, lay off experienced senior reporters, back-fill their jobs with temps and freelancers, and eventually declare bankruptcy after they have extracted all value from these once-prestigious organizations. For all this country's problems, we do still have some good labor laws on the books, and having a unionized newsroom halts that process in its tracks, as new owners cannot capriciously fire their employees, making those media companies less enticing acquisitions in the first place and limiting the damage they can do even if purchased. A century ago we relied on the benevolence of plutocrats to fund "independent" news as a matter of prestige and influence; these days, a mistaken belief that all institutions must be solely oriented towards maximizing profits will degrade and destroy news, and it's up to the workers at the bottom rather than the owners at the top to stop that slide.

What I actually want to write about, though, is video games! There's been an increasing drumbeat for organizing within these companies too. Such a move is long overdue: major AAA publishers are notorious sweatshops, and we've been reading horror stories for decades about how employees at companies like Electronic Arts are expected to work hundred-hour weeks while being paid for forty, enduring crippling psychological stress and damage to their physical health and family relationships. The underlying problem of broadly classifying white-collar workers in an "exempt" category initially intended for managers is not unique to the video game industry, but that industry is particularly egregious in abusing the system and its employees. This does seem like a textbook example of necessary industrial organizing, as the market cannot solve it on its own: there's a surplus of people who want to work in the industry, leaving little financial incentive for companies to treat their workers right. None of these pushes for unionizing have actually been successful yet, but more and more attention is being paid to them at developer conferences, in politics, in the media and on social platforms, and I'm optimistic that some changes may happen in the coming years.

The latest labor story in the games world isn't about a game developer, though: it's about Kickstarter, which has played a vital role in indie-game and small-studio development over the past decade. A month ago Kickstarter fired employees who had organized a (not-yet-recognized) union in a pretty blatant act of retaliation. Like a lot of stuff in the news lately, the story started out bad, and became drastically worse when management doubled down on it, speaking out harshly on the firings and attempting to intimidate their remaining staff.

The world today is a lot more fraught than it was in 2016, but one silver lining is that folks are more politically aware and engaged these days. I can imagine a story like this just being ignored and fading away years ago, but in today's more activism-oriented environment, it has swiftly caught fire. There were widespread calls to boycott Kickstarter; interestingly, the union specifically requested people to not boycott, as they still hope to come to terms with management and keep Kickstarter healthy and more ethical in the future.

I know that I personally am finding it difficult to make pledges on Kickstarter when I know the company will take a cut of my pledge, and those profits will ultimately reward union-busters. But, the world is complicated! Those pledge cuts also fund the salaries of the brave workers who are still fighting for their union. Unlike some other organizations out there, I definitely don't want to see Kickstarter destroyed, I want to see them redeemed.

Creators are in an even trickier position. Kickstarter is by far the most popular go-to funding site; but everything is political, and by launching a new project on Kickstarter today, creators are making a statement that they're OK with the anti-labor practices there.

Fortunately, there are other choices out there! We've seen a variety of alternative crowd-funding platforms spring up in recent years, as well as alternative funding models, and some mid-sized organizations with established fanbases have started doing their crowd-funding in-house.

This is all stuff that I've been following with interest over the last month or so, but I'm specifically thinking of it now because of a very recent announcement. David Gaider is one of my all-time favorite people in the video game industry, right up there with Sid Meier, Warren Spector and Richard Garriott. He's written extensively for many of my all-time favorite games, including Baldur's Gate 2 and the Dragon Age franchise; and like my other heroes, he's also written and spoken extensively about his experiences creating games and his evolving philosophy about making them.

Anyways, he's jumped around a little in recent years: he left the Dragon Age team to become the lead writer on Anthem in its earliest stages, then left BioWare altogether to work on a yet-to-be-announced project at Beamdog (who have most famously created the Enhanced Editions of the classic BioWare Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter games). He's been working in Australia recently, and at PAX Australia he announced the first game from the new studio he founded.

Yep, that's right: a video-game musical! Chorus is checking every single one of my boxes: narrative focus, characters bursting into song at dramatic moments, and, yes, references to romance.

From following Gaider and Summerfall's Twitter in recent weeks, I'd overheard (over-read?) their angst about funding: they had been planning to run the campaign on Kickstarter, but felt they couldn't morally support it at this time, which I appreciate the heck out of. That wasn't an easy decision to make! They already had marketing plans all lined up, with specific dates in mind to make the announcement for maximum impact, and it must have been really stressful to scramble and find an alternative. Again, fortunately, there are alternatives out there, and Fig looks like a great fit. Unlike many other crowdfunding sites, this one was specifically designed for games, and was founded by veterans of the first wave of Kickstarted games like Double Fine and inXile.

That rising consciousness about ethical behavior in gaming has really exploded in the last week thanks to the catastrophic events at Blizzard's Hearthstone tournament. For those who haven't already heard: Wai Chung Ng (aka "blitzchung") is a professional Hearthstone player from Hong Kong who reached Grandmaster rank and won thousands of dollars at the recent championships tournament. In a post-game interview, he concluded by donning a gas mask (worn by protesters in Hong Kong) and saying "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time!". Blizzard, who created Hearthstone and runs the official tournaments, immediately banned him, fired the people interviewing him, took back all of his prize money, and put out a statement excoriating him.

Well. People, uh, noticed!

There was an immediate outcry, which has only intensified as the week went on. Players throughout the gaming community have blasted Blizzard's actions and called for widespread boycotts of their games. In recent days, more and more professionals are voluntarily cutting off their ties with Blizzard in protest of the action. The incident has spread significantly beyond the community, though, probably because it occurred during a time when people were already paying attention to American companies censoring speech to appease the mainland Chinese government. In the week before the blitzchung incident, the NBA came under fire after it punished the general manager of the Houston Rockets for speaking in support of the Hong Kong protesters; the NBA reversed course, and those basketball games are now banned in China. A recent South Park episode similarly drew the ire of China, resulting in all mentions of the show being banned within the country.

All of this attention has led to a curiously bipartisan alignment pitting corporations against the American public and citizenry. Both the liberal Democratic Oregon senator Ron Wyden and the conservative Republican Florida senator Marco Rubio publicly criticized Blizzard's actions, rightfully asking why an American company is kowtowing to an autocratic regime and censoring the free speech of its customers. I'm shocked to be in agreement with Marco Rubio!

The most baffling thing to me has been Blizzard's silence on the matter. At first I assumed that they were scrambling to come up with a response to defuse the situation without angering China. I now think that they're waiting for it to blow over, but that seems like a mistake. Players are following through with their threats to cancel subscriptions to World of Warcraft, to uninstall Hearthstone, to fully delete their Blizzard and accounts. Other innovative strategies have emerged, such as EU customers to issue GDPR requests en masse.

I have a ton of respect for everyone who is taking these actions. It's incredibly hard to delete an account that represents many years and thousands of hours of investment in building a character, and in many cases turning away from the friends you've made on that service. Many Hearthstone players have spent hundreds of dollars or more in creating decks that will now be lost forever. There's a real sacrifice of money and time that players are making to express their protest, and I think that's every bit as impactful as an earlier generation's boycotts of businesses or marches in the street. I've been very heartened to learn that friends of mine have followed through on these promises, voting with their wallets in support of human rights. And I'm also extremely encouraged to see that current Blizzard employees are internally airing their own dissent, with organized walk-outs and direct action to express their dismay at their employer's cowardice and greed.

As for me, I find myself in the same position I so often find myself when, say, the New York Times does something idiotic: "I wish I had a subscription to cancel!" Blizzard is a bit of an oddity for me as it as a company that I have profoundly respected while never really buying any of their games. I've admired their "we'll ship it when it's ready" ethos, the opposite of Electronic Arts and other finance-driven companies that idolize release frequency over quality, their internal high bar for quality that leads them to outright cancel games that don't meet standards rather than release disappointments, and their social awareness and community responsiveness that led to Overwatch being a spectacularly diverse and inclusive game. But, my sole experience with playing Blizzard games consisted of the Shareware demo for Warcraft II, a couple of weeks playing a dwarven rogue in the original release of World of Warcraft (after being gifted the game by a coworker), and a few weeks and no money playing the initial release of Hearthstone. So, yeah, I've paid Blizzard a total of $0 over the 20 years I've played their games. I wish now that I had invested more in them back when they were a good company!

It'll be interesting to see where they go from here. It's very likely that Blizzard is just calculating that the 1+ billion potential customers in mainland China far outweigh their fanbase in the rest of the world, and they're willing to accept even widespread desertion to retain access to that market. But, they can't continue making games if their employees refuse to do it. Once again, workers ultimately have power over the means of production, and those internal debates we can't hear may be what ultimately determines what morals the company chooses to hold.

Edit: Heh, this post got results! This is why I shouldn't try and be topical on this blog, the news just moves Too Darn Fast these days. I'm still processing the latest update; apparently Blizzard has returned the seized prize money, and reduced the ban from one year to six months. My immediate reaction is to wonder why they couldn't have done this back on Tuesday. It's definitely encouraging to see that a people-driven protest movement can affect change in a multinational corporation. I also think there's still a ways to go.

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