Making Bad – Worker Abuses in the Video Game Industry

It all seemed too good to be true.

At E3 2013 back in June, the entire convention was electric with people talking about Sony’s strategy for the upcoming PS4. Specifically, fans and press alike praised them for their customer-friendly approach to used games, offline options, and pricing. This was apparently the company and console that didn’t treat you badly. Well, it appears that the system you have pre-ordered may well have been constructed by someone being used by a company, unpaid, and given few options.

According to reports from Games In Asia, manufacturing company Foxconn is using what it calls ‘interns’ to assemble PS4s in its Yantai, China factory. Ostensibly, the workforce is so scarce there that they have resorted to this practice in order to get this product out in time. While many post-secondary programs offer some sort of practicum within one’s profession of study, none of the students in this situation were studying to get their Bachelor of Assembling Video Game Boxes. Additionally, these individuals were having their education held hostage because completing this unpaid work was the only way for them to achieve the final six credits to graduate. The article doesn’t mention whether Sony is directly complicit in these practices, but the fact that they are in business with a company like this in the first place suggests that, at the very least, they don’t care. It will be interesting to see how they respond to this (if at all) in the next couple of days.

...but the people who build them? Meh

…but the people who build them? Meh

While the inevitability of the Sony fans saying others are worse is as likely as others piling on and acting as though this company is the only offender, let’s get something clear. This kind of practice, exploiting workers and cutting corners, is not unique to this industry, and it’s sure as hell not unique to Sony. Foxconn makes products for Sony, Nintendo, Apple, Microsoft, and a number of other corporations. None of them seem to have much of a problem with the fact that Foxconn’s employees have threatened to commit mass suicide in protest over working conditions, with over a dozen actually following through on it in 2010.

Hardware creation isn’t the only aspect of the video game industry where the workforce is abused. You can’t swing a stick without hearing about a developer who forces its staff to work long hours for months at a time (sometimes without even paying them for it), and then lays them off once the game ships. It’s so pervasive it’s actually shocking to hear about companies like Insomniac who treat their staff like actual human beings.

The process of making this game destroyed marriages.

The process of making this game destroyed marriages.

We can all agree that there is enough bad behavior to go around in this industry. The real question is what do we do about it? Some people will cry “BOYCOTT,” but we all know that’s a waste of time. As video game enthusiasts, we talk the talk but we also know that once a highly anticipated game or system comes out, people will fold and fall in line. You’ve done it, I’ve done it…let’s face it, we love our hobby too much to REALLY speak with our wallets, and unfortunately, that’s the only power we really have as consumers.

There is a great section in the book No Logo by Naomi Klein in which she is speaking to high school students about sweatshops that use children to make the designer clothes many of them are wearing. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially the discussion turned into a Q & A in which students grilled her about which company was the ‘good’ one that didn’t cut corners and exploit its workforce.

The point she was trying to get across, which they clearly missed, was that it’s not about one being any better than the other. Instead, what we as consumers need to do is educate ourselves. We need to be investigative and we need to hold these companies to a higher standard. Look, these companies can create consoles in an ethical and responsible way. The reason they’re not doing it is because nobody is calling them on it, and if you are a dedicated fan why not put some pressure on. Who knows, they might even listen to you.

Or not...

Or not…

Now I recognize that some (many? most?) of you couldn’t care less about this issue. After all, it’s happening to other people, it’s likely getting your console into your hands faster than a more ethical process would, and as consumers, we are conditioned to not think about how the products we use are made. It’s certainly your right to be ignorant, but this kind of model can’t last forever due to the stress it places on the shoulders of those who are making our toys. As it is right now, the princess isn’t in another castle; she’s in a factory right now wrapping twist-ties around the HDMI cables for your new PS4 and Mario is too busy playing GTA V to do anything about it.

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