Emotional labour, and the games industry
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
When you give aggressive feedback to a developer behind a game series that you claim to love, do you pay much attention to how you frame that feedback? Don't you think that the more hostility with which you try to hurl your point, the more you hamper the chances of your requirements ever being met? Aren't you essentially just compounding your frustrations?
Aggression and hostility are overheads that developers have to process, because they're people. Nominating to bring such needless costs into the mix is surely self-defeating, isn't it? If you'd like to make nourishing impact with your feedback, rather than just scarring and an increased desire to quit, then you need to start taking emotional labour into consideration.
Let me offer an example from my own background. I quit games journalism back in 2008. Up until that point, I'd been writing exclusively for print publications. Back then, gaming forums featured some hostility toward the specialist games media: I could reliably click on a thread discussing a new issue of a magazine I’d contributed to and find comments that called my very existence into question, with varying degrees of acidity, because I’d given the ‘wrong’ review score to a game that the person was yet to play themselves.
Reading such sentiment did rankle a little, of course. But these were only slight prickles, and it wasn’t difficult to keep perspective on what was valuable feedback, and what was someone indulging in a rant. Fast-forward until today and it feels as if the extent of aggression toward games journalists has grown vastly. Any errors, misunderstandings, or minor differences of opinion can now be grounds for a variety of threats, or even attempts to have a person’s livelihood dismantled.
Consumer vigilance is necessary for everyone’s health in the marketplace, and journalists/critics lay no claim to intellectual comfort, of course. But this doesn’t permit open season on an individual’s well-being. It makes me wonder – if I hadn’t left games journalism behind all those years ago, would I have struggled to maintain my mental health, under such a spiralling sense of exposure? The emotional labour required - the extent of expectation surrounding how a person has to manage their feelings, in order to perform within a given job – could be staggering, potentially.
No Man's Sky was probably the worst of a bad bunch of examples from recent years, where the conversational mode between industry and consumers came unstuck around launch, and began to include a line of unacceptable abuse towards the game's creators, and others
I’m not here to try to address why there’s so much combative response out there, or tactics for minimising it. Instead, I think there’s another important facet of the conversation that needs to be addressed: if the weight of such emotional labour begins to adversely affect someone in the games industry, what provisions do we have for dealing with it? Having to experience a continuum of toxic noise can easily cause someone to cramp up on the inside, over time. And then what happens? If they get into such trouble, does it mean that they’re bad at their job? Dealing with this stuff doesn’t ever seem to be in the official job descriptions. It just seems to be assumed that it's something you'll cope with.
We also see emotional-labour questions arising in the way that smaller developers are now expected to conduct their own PR, say, with little grounding in how to cope if their efforts backfire. Or in the way that YouTubers sometimes air their disagreements in public - and get tutted at for doing so - but what other recourse for resolution do they feel that they have to hand? Which institution in that particular chain should be taking responsibility for education/provision on such a matter, if at all? The YouTuber? Their primary sponsors? The multi-channel network that's quietly running the show? YouTube itself?
The classical idea of employment, that brings with it all manner of guarantees regarding health, safety, illness, fairness and non-retaliation, is fading, to an extent. No longer having such facilities to hand could introduces a potentially tremendous new channel of stress that you have to learn to manage yourself, whether you’ve established a sufficient support network or not.
This pressure can result in what’s known as a ‘placeless anxiety’ (phrase courtesy of Ivor Southwood's great 2011 book, Non-Stop Inertia) a constant sense of coming under attack that has no discernible source for you to tackle. And when the pressure is very real but we feel that we’re not allowed to acknowledge it – well, this is the ideal recipe for a breakdown, isn't it? So let's get better at acknowledging it.
(This is based on a blog piece I wrote around a year ago. The mental-health conversation feels to me like it's made progress during that time. Please, tell me if you agree or not, in the comments!)