Kate Edwards: Passion Must Stop Being Used As Code Word For Exploitation

The Geogrify CEO and former executive director of the International Game Developers Association advocates for inclusivity, unions and explains how one person with 'righteous rage' can make a difference. (Image: The Seattle Times)

Kate Edwards wants everyone to become an advocate. The former IGDA executive director previously took up the mantle for advocacy in a fiery keynote address at Game Connect Asia Pacific (GCAP) last year. A year in, Edwards has shown no signs of slowing down in her efforts to inspire all game creators to make change happen.

GameDaily caught up with her during Melbourne International Games Week to get her take on how the industry is progressing on a wide range of issues — diversity, crunch, worker rights, sexism, ageism, and more — and what she thinks developers and fans alike can do to advocate for a better industry.

"We have to overcome our own personal challenges," Edwards said.

Many game developers are introverted or have impostor syndrome or some other issue that holds them back, "Like, 'Well I can hardly even do my job, let alone go out and advocate and be a person who tries to change things,'" she continued. But with enough of what she calls "righteous rage," anyone can become an advocate. The key thing, she explained, is to channel that rage — that anger about injustice — into a course of action (as opposed to mere venting on social media).

For Edwards, that manifested in building a game advocacy website that covers the issues she personally cares most about and then in taking specific actions — like making a 50 over 50 list to combat ageism — in the interests of improving those issues.

"If you think about every major, huge movement in history — religious, political, whatever it might be — it's usually initiated by one person," she noted. "They were the catalyst that got it off the ground and then others drew to them because they were basically that person who got so fed up that they decided to do something." 

We now have several of these people in games. Edwards points specifically to Laila Shabir, who founded Girls Make Games to address the gender gap in game development; Mark Barlet, who started AbleGamers to champion the cause that people with disabilities should be able to play the same games as everyone else; and Russ Pitts, who teamed up with clinical psychologist Mark Kline to co-found Take This to help improve mental health in the games industry.

"These are all just one person latching onto that 'righteous rage' they had about an issue and then took action," Edwards says. 

Edwards thinks we're at a boiling point now for advocacy related to the working conditions of the games industry. "We've had all these disasters, from ArenaNet's behavior, Telltale closing, Riot Games' sexist culture, Rockstar talking about all these ridiculous crunch hours on Red Dead Redemption 2," she says. "All these stories. And these have all been just knockout blows in succession from July until just a couple of days ago."

Normally, Edwards noted, we'd see one or two stories like this in a year and there'd be a fomenting anger for a while that would subside before anything much changes. "But when we see it in such rapid succession, just boom, boom, boom, I sense — well…that's caused a lot of people to wake up."

"It's very analogous to what happened with the MeToo movement in Hollywood," she adds, later in our conversation. "I mean, it started with one person willing to break that silence and then suddenly you had all these other people showing up and coming forward who are willing to also break the silence in solidarity."

Most developers used to be reticent to speak out against worker issues, more than a decade on from EA spouse, for fear of career stonewalling. "Whereas I think now, my sense, especially among talking to so many developers, is that the sense of anger and rage about this, and basically being fed up, has gotten to hopefully I think a critical mass where people are now like, 'Screw it, I'm going to speak out because I just can't take this anymore.'"

Indeed, a running theme of GCAP this year was developers speaking out against bad work culture practices like crunch and attempting to shift the conversation toward productive improvements. A series of morning lightning talks especially called for game developers to do good, with their words and their actions and their skills, to make games that improve the world and don't just fill a company's coffers, and also to stop using "passion" as an excuse for allowing people to overwork.

Edwards echoed these same sentiments in my interview with her. "A lot of huge triple-A companies still employ crunch tactics as a way to make their game," she said, "and I think a lot of them know it's wrong, but they do it anyway. Some of them justify it as being part of their company culture. 'That's just the way things are done here.' And yeah, that kind of attitude needs to go away."

There's concrete evidence that crunch is counterproductive, Edwards explains. During her tenure at the helm of the IGDA, they partnered with Take This (a group she's since joined as a board member) to create a white paper called Crunch Hurts. "It cites all kinds of tremendous data from the medical field, and studies that have been done in the workplace, and it shows just black and white: crunch doesn't work," she explains. Its benefits last for only two weeks, at which point the return on investment drops to almost nil. "And there's no amount of energy drinks or free food or cots in the office or anything that's going to change that," she adds.

Edwards is no longer with the IGDA but she's fighting the good fight for developers everywhere
Edwards is no longer with the IGDA but she's fighting the good fight for developers everywhere

Worse, there's a clear negative link between Metacritic scores and crunch. "We're working these long hours to make the game better and to improve it," Edwards says, "and the evidence shows us it's exactly the opposite."

It falls on the leadership and the management teams to fix this, she says, and while some certainly have, Rockstar's proud boasts of 100-hour weeks and its unhealthy work practices show that clearly there's still a long road to go.

"As others have said here at GCAP, which I think is entirely appropriate, passion is often used as a code word for basically exploitation," Edwards notes. "'You're so passionate that I'm going to let you sit at your desk for 18 hours and keep working for me, and I won't pay you overtime because you're just passionate and you love making games.'"

Increasing numbers of developers have begun to speak more openly against crunch, too. "You even have long-time well-known people like Amy Hennig," said Edwards. "She spoke out about the crunch culture that she experienced when she was working in it [at Naughty Dog]. I thought that was fantastic that she was willing to open up about it. So when you see figures like that starting to say something, that is a shift. We've not seen that happen in the past."

Now that it's been so widely condemned and invalidated, Edwards believes that the people at management levels in the games industry have a responsibility to stop this exploitation — to help the creative people working for them to succeed at what they do. That means supporting and respecting them, and being someone they can go to for an open dialogue when they have concerns, and it means ensuring their wellness in the workplace by respecting their work-life balance and setting limits to ensure they don't overwork.

But Edwards sees a sort of wilful blindness at many game companies about work culture problems that obstructs this kind of thinking. To explain, she points out that her culturization work, in her day job as a consultant, involves looking at the political and socio-historical dimensions of the world we live in and understanding how different aspects of a game will be received around the world. Whether or not Taiwan is depicted in-game as an independent nation or a part of China will determine a game's — or even a studio's — fate in China for years to come, for instance. And companies are happy to have that discussion about the rightness or wrongness and business ramifications of certain acts of historical/political/religious representation.

"But when you try and shift that conversation to the rightness or wrongness of how they treat their people," Edwards said, "it's like, 'Well, no, no, no, no, no. You don't understand. You don't understand our company culture.' And all that kind of stuff. It's a very similar discussion, but they're not willing to have it when it pertains to their own culture."

Even so, the onus doesn't fall only on them to fix problems. Rank and file developers have a responsibility to be vocal about their concerns — to make sure company leaders hear about problems — and to engage management in open dialogue. And if things are to change, Edwards says they need to get past their fear that escalating concerns could get them fired. 

She adds, also, that the industry as a whole needs to do more to make the public aware of bad working conditions. 

"I know I'm an idealist, but I do think that with the right amount of engagement with the public and knowledge of how games get made — especially the bad model — I think people would have concerns about it," she commented, citing as evidence the backlash against Nike and Apple, among others, that changed unethical manufacturing practices.

And if all that fails? If incidents like Telltale's sudden closure — just a week after new hires relocated to work for them — and other instances of exploitation or prejudicial work environments continue to make the news?

For Edwards, the answer is collective action. Unionization. Especially (but not only) in the United States, where labor laws offer much less federal-level protection than in places with stronger regulation like Europe. And it's on this subject that she thinks we've seen the biggest changes in 2018. The traditional cultural obstacles preventing unionization in the US — over perceptions of unions being heavily politicized — had previously held back discussion about it, but sentiments have shifted this year.

"Even prior to these multiple body blows we've seen since July to the industry," she explained, "we've already seen the rise of groups like Game Workers Unite, which I think is fantastic. They made their big splash at GDC in San Francisco back in March and so basically got the ball rolling with that. And now there's groups all over the world." There's a GWU group in Australia, for instance, and as of last year an established games union (STJV) in France. "And I think what they're doing is a very, very vital part of the conversation that needs to happen," Edwards added.

She thinks unions are important to the games industry because they can provide developers with leverage. "It's not that they necessarily want to use it and wield it right away," Edwards clarified. "In some cases, yes, but for the most part they want to feel that there's some kind of security in their work and appreciation for what they do as the talent who creates these games. They want to know that if they need to take recourse against management, they could. And [right now] that doesn't exist. It just simply doesn't exist in most companies."

Edwards concedes that simply having unions won't fix the industry. They won't stop layoffs or prevent bad management. But she believes they will provide a buffer between the talent and any poor management practices. "That's the whole goal," she said, "to provide a buffer zone so that if there is a massive layoff, you will have protections, you will have severance, you will have benefits for a certain amount of time. All of these things are assurances that help buffer you from the stupidity of people making bad decisions at the top."

For all the mistakes and mismanagement on show this year, however, Edwards is upbeat on the industry's progress with inclusivity. "If there's one thing that came out of [GamerGate] that was useful, it was the fact that the industry did kind of wake up to the whole inclusion issue," she says. "I mean, there had been talk for many, many years and all that stuff. But I think [that's when] a lot of companies started to actually understand that this is something that you need to take seriously."

Somewhat ironically, "the very thing that the movement online was trying to stop," Edwards continued, "which is kind of this increased diversity of voices who make games — that is the outcome, I think."

This is not just a matter of gender diversity and fostering a comfortable working environment for women. It's about embracing a diverse cast of voices, from different cultures and age groups and career backgrounds, to improve the creative process. "And it really is more about inclusion than diversity," Edwards added, "because oftentimes diversity is basically the numbers — how many of these types I have."

Whereas inclusion is about the process. It's things like Disney inviting everyone in the building — including cleaning and security staff — to give feedback and share ideas on the latest footage for Oscar-winning animated film Big Hero 6, and Ubisoft hiring an indigenous actor for the role of a main character from the same tribal group. And it's about doing better at community outreach to show girls and people from diverse backgrounds that they are indeed allowed to be a part of game development — which is a problem Edwards still sees persist, right alongside the ongoing issues with harassment that have been making headlines this year.

But again, there are signs of improvement. "Because game creation has become so democratized, with all the free tools and the knowledge is out there on YouTube and everywhere else," she said. "I have met more and more young women who actually took the initiative to start making games on their own. They're still the outliers among their demographic, to a certain degree. But every once in a while I meet one."

And this optimism — this sense that the recent uptick in advocacy, amid a barrage of bad news, is a sign that real change is coming — is pervasive in everything Edwards says to me. She's angry about the injustices of today's games industry, but she's filled with hope about the future, and she's determined to lead by example.

Besides giving talks and making lists and helping to further discussions, Edwards has also created a legal defense fund for game developers who need representation — whether it's indies who've never dealt with a contract before or somebody being harassed at a company where management is not taking their reports seriously. She hopes this will complement the establishment of a game developers' union in the United States, as well as more unions in other countries around the world.

"But what I really want to see happen is that companies get the message," she added. "I don't want to see strikes happen. I don't want to see multiple lawsuits occur. What I want to see is management at these companies understanding the changing landscape and looking out there and saying, 'Wow, OK. Developers are starting to pool their resources and getting their act together and working collectively. I think it's time for us to actually think really hard about revising how we run our companies.'"

"That ultimately is my hope," Edwards concluded. "I really hope that, you know, just the hint of these forms of leverage taking shape would be enough for companies to get the message. But we'll see what happens."

Richard Moss is a freelance writer and journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. He likes to tell stories about people doing creative and/or innovative things related to games, science, and technology. His first book, The Secret History of Mac Gaming, is available now (and he's actively working on a second book, to-be-titled Shareware Heroes: Independent Games at the Dawn of the Internet). You can also find him tweeting intermittently about old Mac games @MossRC.