Feature image by Aleksandra Konoplia via Getty Images
Remember the number five as we begin. Here are two statistics in perfect tension.
Writers in the video games industry spend an average of five years in tenuous freelancing contracts before landing the security and benefits of an in-studio job.
The average game developer burns out and leaves the industry after five years.
Is five a goal or an expiration date?
Everyone asks what you will do upon graduation. It’s well known that most writers do not make a living by writing. You tell them about your plan to break into video games, a medium for narrative you’ve always loved. As when presented with your queer fantasy stories, your workshop professors are mystified. You can’t remember if they ever wished you good luck.
You graduate into a pandemic and protests. Twitter explodes with calls for inclusion. Where are the Black people in the industry? every industry asks. Opportunities for Black folks receive retweets numbering hundreds or thousands. It all seems loud and impossible. One barely paid or extremely short-term position with thousands of likes? For lasting change? The biggest companies that could do the most seem not to do anything. Smaller studios that don’t have the finances or infrastructure offer the most opportunities. You know this narrative. You hate to complain, but you do, mostly to your housemate. Every day as a job seeker, you evaluate companies, exhaustingly sorting performance from true opportunities along with every other Black person in your position. Two truths: You are traumatized by witnessing anti-Black violence, and you need a job. One outcome: no rest.
Strange opportunities arise. A small indie studio run by two white men both named Matt asks for Black writers to help them craft a DLC for their pixel art shooter. When you inquire, they claim to want to give Black people the “power fantasywp_postswhite men so often have. The idea is so bafflingly offensive and off-base, an imagination of reparations only two cishet white gamer bros named Matt could dream of. You consider telling them why you’re turning down their offer, but you haven’t been hired for a sensitivity read.
Because white people are suddenly paying attention to you, you land two opportunities that wouldn’t have existed in any other year in any other time, one mentorship and one traineeship. The people you work with are wonderful and empathetic. They genuinely want things to be better. You feel safe with them. They value you. The traineeship pays well, and you learn things.
You are hopeful and disturbed: A man had to be brutally murdered on camera for the white world to look around and see who wasn’t in the room with them. You think, I have opportunities because a man was murdered. In your town, a beautiful mural of Floyd’s likeness is repeatedly vandalized in the night, white paint erasing his Black face.
A few months after the traineeship, an email arrives. A white man in Sweden read your work in a Black speculative fiction magazine. He offers you a half-time contract for $40/hour writing a progressive and inclusive fantasy game. A dream project has fallen into your lap. You’ve never seen a rate like this. After some mishaps with international payment, you receive your first check, and it’s the most money you’ve ever held at once. You’re safe, you think. You made it. You did the impossible thing and are making a living from your writing. For the first time in your life, you have not just a job but a career. You’re proud when people ask what you do for work. Your team is lovely and supportive: the lead producer is a lesbian (!!); the lead game designer is an anarchist trans woman (!!). You’re safe here. What could go wrong?
You create a world for them — for the company, for a venture that is ultimately capitalist and therefore violent (foreshadowing: remember this). You create characters and arcs born of your experience (Black, queer). You write scripts. You’re told your work is lovely and exceptional and impactful, and a carrot is dangled. There could be full time work once the game moves into production. You, a first-gen college kid from Alabama, could relocate to Stockholm — live in a recognizable city! You say you’d love to.
But you are in the real world, not one of your favorite novels, and happily ever afters can’t be guaranteed. One seemingly innocuous meeting signals the turning point. Like many meetings, it is long and meandering and no conclusions are reached, but at some point a white man — a head at the company, a man with decision-making power — says something creatively terrifying you will never forget. He says it boldly and confidently, as if it is fact and not at all something anyone might find objectionable: “Artists these days aren’t happy with exposure. They want to be paid.wp_postsIt’s so cartoonishly evil. It feels like a meme come to life before your eyes. The anarchist game designer tries to shut this down immediately by putting her job on the line: “I’m not working on a game that doesn’t pay people,wp_postsshe says. The room goes quiet. The video feed is grainy. You wish you could see her facial expression. Across an ocean, your body vibrates with nerves. The white man who hired you tries to diplomatically ferry the meeting past this bump. The studio head remains oblivious to the tension he’s caused, adding breezily, “Working with us is the height of these artists’ careers.”
You want to break something over this insult. You DM your cowriter during the meeting, panicked. Is this what he thinks of us too? you type. Most definitely, she replies. After, you can’t focus on work. You’ve just finished a tie-in novel (to be serialized as part of the game’s announcement) that you love dearly. You put your heart into it because you don’t know any other way to create. You put your heart into everything, and that’s how you save yourself. Your team thinks it’s beautiful. It’s work you’re proud of and eager to share.
But, apparently, this is the height of your career. Here, at 27. You hadn’t realized. Logic follows that after this, it’s either plateau or downhill. The head of books messages you shortly after the meeting, though he was silent throughout. Despite his lack of interjection or protest in the moment, apparently his colleague’s comment rang his alarm bells too. He assures you the studio believes in paying artists fairly and invites you to come to him with any concerns. He says he’s excited to bring your story to the world.
You want to believe him — the studio has published books before! — but you have a sinking feeling you’ve been tricked. You need something to grab hold of to stay above water, a life raft you command, something the company doesn’t own. In feverish desperation, you begin crafting what you think is the most unsellable novel, something the company would never want to associate with. As stories always have, it saves you.
But the job gets worse. Your work is directionless, constantly shifting around you. Is the project in discovery stage? Pre-production? Moving to production? No one knows. Everyone uses different terms. The game goes from an open world MMORPG to maybe limited multiplayer to a smaller single player experience. Winter break looms, and you and your cowriter, also a contractor, are forgotten in the shuffle. As contractors, you don’t get paid leave (or health insurance or other benefits, for that matter — but you do pay 30% in US income tax!). However, you both thought you’d be able to work on independent tasks during the break as you’d done during previous company breaks. (Swedish employees enjoy a month-long summer sabbatical.) You’re told, no, actually, you can’t. Merry Christmas. You’re forced to take two weeks without pay. You’re both too angry and wounded to work. Your cowriter is stronger than you, having weathered years of industry abuse culminating in a writer strike. She sends the firm email about how unacceptably this was handled. Stress has taken your words. You reply-all in concise support.
Upon returning from the break, you learn the team’s lead producer is leaving. The studio will not attempt to replace her.
Discontented murmurings start. You wake to check Slack and find two programmers swiping at each other. Meetings turn uneasy. You recall the fandom backlash against the studio from last year, teen girls on YouTube holding the men at the top of the company to account. Teens (not the company board!) were concerned for employees’ welfare, citing worker grievances in Glassdoor reviews. Negative outlook. CEO disapproval. High turnover. Unaddressed tech debt. Toxic positivity. In meetings, the sole woman on the engineering team looks constantly on the verge of tears. She is transferred off the project and to another team. The man who hired you departs the studio but not before securing you and your cowriter a raise. Your narrative lead also plans to depart, advising you and your cowriter to also start looking elsewhere.
As a contractor six hours and an ocean away, you can’t see inside. You can’t see why everything is suddenly crumbling, and no one tells you. You start to dread work, a feeling you struggle to understand. This is your dream job. You love writing. Your kind narrative lead suggests taking this time as practice with writing something you’re emotionally unattached to, a necessity in the games industry where projects are regularly canceled, where corporate interests reign. It’s an odd request you can’t fulfill — not out of any sense of artistic integrity; you’re desperate to carve a place for yourself in games. It just doesn’t compute. The work would be soulless. You’d know it. Readers would.
Layoffs begin. Of course your role is on the chopping block.
Look back at this truth: You were the last person of color on the team. The other five — artists, a junior game designer, and a community manager — were also only ever contractors, their roles cut long before yours. You — BIPOC — are held in precarity, hired lowest in the hierarchy, often paid the least, and fired first. You see it in every industry. You knew it. Now you feel it.
So, you’re going to be let go. The game designer, the other most marginalized person on your team, is also being laid off. She uprooted her life to relocate to Stockholm. She just found an apartment. After months of delays and institutional transphobia, she’d finally secured a Swedish ID. The company men say they want to “scale back the teamwp_posts(perhaps the cruelest term for leaving over a dozen people out in the cold) to “discover what the game iswp_postsas if you haven’t been building it for a year and a half, as if you haven’t repeatedly told them what the game is. They want to discover what the game is — without any dreamy artists or a radical game designer in the way. They want the practical, business-minded men to talk.
The team members who remain fight for you and the game designer. There’d be no world without Tamara, they say. “Tamara has done half the worldbuilding.”
Grief settles before you can name it. You — all of you — built them a nonviolent queer feminist world governed by Indigenous knowledge, a world they asked for and are suddenly unhappy with. You imagined a new world and the white men at the top wanted to throw it away.
A programmer, upon having his role cut, describes one of the tools he was designing and building for the game as his baby. He is sad in that professional way you must be. Your mind catches on the word baby. You’ve been wrong, you realize, caught up in a narrow definition of creativity. You’d describe your novel as your baby. You fear for its fate. The anxiety keeps you awake. You and others on the team complain of insomnia.
You don’t own your labor, your creations. This is yet another thing you knew going in, but now you feel the violence of it. We labor for our babies. When they are taken away, the only thing to do is smile and say, Thank you for the opportunity. People, whether leaving or forced to leave, frantically share their socials as if evacuating a looming storm. Thank you, and the call goes dark, and you stare numbly into the abyss of your screen, colleagues you never shared a room with suddenly gone.
I could Tony Stark this shit and build the game in a cave, someone says. No, don’t do that, cautions another, as if merely expressing the deep spiritual need to keep our creations safe and with us, the desire to ferry them out into the world whole, will bring down litigation.
The morning after a surgery, you wake to a flurry of Slack messages. The project has been canceled entirely. The company will not release permission to the artists to use their work in their private portfolios — the only use of which would be to demonstrate their skills to secure new jobs. It is a bizarre cruelty. Your novel will be archived. Though the story stands alone without reference to any of the company’s material, the rights will not be released to you. You chastise your younger self — the starry-eyed, trusting, just-so-grateful-to-be-here self — for not thinking of a rights reversion clause in your contract, for never thinking to revisit the terms when you were asked for work beyond the scope of what you signed on for.
At the end, you learn one last thing that twists the knife: the company attempted several other games in its long history. All were canceled in various stages of production.
Fate was never on your side. At the end, even the most corporate men leave the studio. No one you know remains there now.
I am just a hollow shell of a woman, the game designer writes to you after.
Going in, you knew it would be competitive. A career coach in the industry tells you it usually takes writers five years before they land their first in-house job and climb out of the contracting trenches. Numerous articles have also told you that the average game dev burns out by year five.
Five hangs over your head, simultaneously a goal and a guillotine. If you can just reach five, everything will be better. You will be respected and secure. So many artists jockey for a handful of positions. Everyone is “just thankful to be here,wp_postsallowing the industry to continue its churn. We are all grateful to be here. We won’t ask for too much. We won’t be too loud.
You witness the new sexual harassment lawsuits against Activision Blizzard in numb despair. Nothing that horrible has happened to you. The pandemic has assured you’ve always been safe and alone (isolated, detached) in your room. You should be grateful.
As a femme Black person, you have always been worried about being seen as the Angry Black Woman. You worry that expressing your needs or even your pain will be viewed as aggressive. To cope, to protect yourself from the world, you have learned to smile in moments of distress. The reflex is unconscious and automatic, and you hate it. You know when other Black people do it. The tension around the eyes is the tell. The too-flat grin. In the meeting where they threatened your job, you smiled. You’ll smile again.
“That’s not what nepotism is,wp_postsshe says.
The team is chaotic when you join. They’re months from launch. You understand. They’re impressed the first event you draft captures the tone of the game so well. You draft more events and are told your writing has brought more humanity and consequence to the game. You step beyond writing into narrative design work.
A carrot is dangled. What do you think about being in-house? It would mean relocation to Canada.
I WOULD MOVE THERE SO FAST, you type, a US citizen dreaming of better healthcare. A secure job in a fun city.
The dream opens again.
It’s really a matter of when, not if, you’re told at one point.
Weeks go by, communication on the issue flags, and you begin to erect a fortress around your heart. This is how it went before. You’re not naïve anymore. Even people with the best intentions can hurt you.
In a meeting, people celebrate another team member, an intern fresh out of college who started the exact same day as you. You ask what’s happening and are told he’s been hired full time. You congratulate him too, genuinely happy. It’s not a competition, and everyone deserves fulfilling work. It must not be long before you get the same news, before you must start plotting the logistics of moving internationally with a particularly anxious Siamese.
Your news doesn’t come. Trying to be active in your life and take control of the situation, you book a session with a career coach who tells you all your application materials look good. She asks if you get callbacks, and you say no. She sends you free resources to use in revising your resume. You don’t open them. Your anxiety becomes so bad you can’t take a full breath while seated at your desk. You leave early from work to lay on a yoga mat and struggle to relax your muscles. Your anxiety escalates to panic attacks. Nothing soothes you. You cry at odd moments over “nothing,wp_postsbut you are in fact crying over everything.
You pick up a novel, and it makes your heart ache, the thought that you can hold a physical manifestation of someone’s dream in your hands. You want that. You want it so badly. You want a dream to come true. You take anti-anxiety medication midday and fall into restless sleep.
Within the week, the news comes officially: your contract is up in a month. You smile through the meeting and say you understand. The lead writer apologizes for overpromising and underdelivering. They are frustrated and at the edge of burnout themself. Alone, later, you cry and feel like a fool for crying. You knew it was coming, but you hadn’t healed from the last job and the novel you lost.
When you tell your housemate the news, she says it’s probably for the best. She repeats your own grievances back to you. The team is obviously stressed and overworked. One of the programmers, up until recently, was responding to your collaborative requests with one-word Slack messages. No, full stop. Scared that you’d done something wrong, that you didn’t deserve to have your workflow unblocked like everyone else, you started avoiding him. Would you have really wanted to work at a place with a culture like that?
Part of you is angry. Screams, yes! You just want security.
You are angry because you know, deep down, she is telling the truth, and you want it not to be true.
Your two-year anniversary in the industry arrives, and you meet it with defeat. Five years. Someone through LinkedIn invites you to speak on a panel discussing Black people’s experiences in the industry. (How did they even find you? You’re no one.) You’re sad and intimidated. The other panelists are real game devs, both men old enough to be fathers. You think you have little to say. How can you encourage the others banging down the industry’s door? You did it, and look what you found. Insomnia, depression, anxiety. The theft of your creative spirit. Burnout.
You tell your story when they ask and try not to sound frustrated, ungrateful. You don’t explain that you’re here and losing your job at the same time. One of the men tells a story that decides everything for you. He talks about how he was nearly blacklisted from a well-known studio, how he and other BIPOC were put on teams for projects the studio clearly wanted to cancel. At one point, he mentions having young children, how they’ve grown old enough to be curious about his work. His first instinct, he said, was to tell them not to worry about what their dad did. He wanted to shield them from an industry that had hurt him.
Recording is active. You don’t want to cry on the video! You hold back tears as you process what’s between the lines.
He didn’t think the industry would become healthy enough by the time his children are old enough to have jobs.
The industry isn’t good enough to deserve his children.
He did not want his children to sell themselves to the industry.
When the recording is stopped, the man says that if you’re ever in his city, you’re welcome at his place. Your chest is heavy. You try to smile, but you already know the truth. You’re not as strong as others. For your health, you have to leave.
A tweet that is true and upsetting: there’s so much talent at the entry-level of the industry. So many marginalized folks with the phrase looking for work in their bios. The question: Where do we all go? Why don’t we advance? Why don’t we see leads like us? Abuse. Burnout.
Burnout is not simple tiredness. It is malaise and unexplained pain. It is a theft of spirit and the creative body. It is fear for your livelihood. It is being backed into a corner. It is despair.
Ensuring marginalized people’s — and everyone’s — safety is more than avoiding crunch and paying fairly. Work-life balance and a living wage is the bare minimum. Cultivating a space where people can flourish means seeing and respecting the entire person, their physical and mental and creative body. It is empathy. It’s truly hearing marginalized people’s ideas and experiences rather than applying our presence as a bandage to fundamentally problematic systems, worlds, or ways of being. It means trusting and investing in us, not asking us to grind until there’s nothing left. It is not an attitude of I-had-to-struggle-so-you-will-too. It is not that’s-how-it-is. (Which begs the question why? Why is this how it is? How can it be better — for everyone?)
You will never forget your sole Indigenous team member, a junior dev whose contract wasn’t renewed when it became financially easier to let her go. Yet the company was happy to take the knowledge she’d provided and claim it wanted to build a game based on Indigenous ways of knowing. This is an old violence you feel deep in your spirit. It is the same oppressive systems operating as they always have, an ancient playbook: Take BIPOC labor and land to build up white, western institutions and discard the people.
You think of stolen land and stolen bodies.
In meetings, you witnessed your few remaining team members define kyriarchy to men who knew nothing about the project. One of the game’s pillars: resist kyriarchy. The cruel jokes continued to multiply. Define kyriarchy as you all sit in the still-smoldering aftermath of it.
In grad school, you were excited to take a video games rhetoric course from a Black woman professor. It was the first time you’d had a Black woman professor. You overhear some computer science students talking before or after class. They are exactly who you picture the typical gamer to be. Cishet white guys.
“I love games, but I’d never try to break into the industry,wp_postsone says. “Too much crunch.”
Another agrees, citing burnout and concerns about work-life balance. Maybe these students are 20 years old, but they know.
Maybe you should’ve listened to them, but then you wouldn’t have grown the way you did. Painfully.
When you leave a studio, the proper thing to say is, Thank you. I leaned so much here. Thank you for the opportunity.
So — thanks. I learned so much here.
People always point to the indie version of an artistic industry as a sign that everything is okay actually. But do those people have material and community support for their art? How hard are they hustling? Can they rest? Do they feel secure?
Making art under a capitalist system is dangerous by design. Corporate art-making comes with both security and risk — financial security if you’re lucky, emotional risk always. You will never own your output, and sometimes, you don’t know if you can weather that blow until it comes.
One last story.
As her term was expiring, a narrative intern at the Swedish studio said, It’s so hard to move on. I just want to give my heart to the project. Her voice was pure hope and passion. It was her first experience in the games industry.
Never give your heart to a company, the narrative lead warned.
They will never deserve our hearts.
Experience accumulates as a weight in your body. Like an ominous word cloud, it gathers, denser by the day.
Baby, sell yourself, thank you.