I don’t review games with scores or numbers, but it seems strange to assert criticism should be looked at in isolation from the energy that went into it. Whatever aspect of a game you’re engaged with, someone created it. While of course love and passion were no doubt part of the reason it exists, labour is required to bring the game to life. Games don’t arrive on your consoles and computers magically: People made it.
I can’t ignore what went into a game, anymore than I can ignore a game-breaking bug. This isn’t because I’m particularly special, but because we should have a standard moral foundation (which Jim Sterling discusses):
No game, however good, is worth more than the dignity, mental and physical health of people.
It’s not a very impressive standard but, with the kind of responses and dismissal of reports of poor work conditions so many put up, many people’s conduct seems to suggest being a digital cowboy matters more than people not creating severe physical and mental health issues.
If we agree bad labour practices matter more than bad graphics, I don’t see why you wouldn’t mark down a game for the former. Naturally, the game itself does not demonstrate these labour practices on screen – but, if it is something you become aware of, then that must be something you, as a critic, consider in your criticism. And, yes, while same players can overlook bad labour practices and will simply shrug it off, that doesn’t mean you don’t discuss or mark down a review score: After all, people still play games with bad stories and graphics (look at literally any Bethesda open world game): Just because players will ignore a particular aspect of criticism is not a reason to not use it as a yardstick to mark a game down.
Yes, corporations are not going to care about the opinions of a few random critics; however, at the very least, we hold them accountable in at least… some way. This is the least we can do to show solidarity with people’s dignity over a corporation’s profits. Of course, corporate defenders will in one breath claim there’s no point raising any stink, let alone a stink in a game review, about labour practices since it’s pointless – but then will also claim this might harm the employees themselves. The greatest trick corporations every pulled was putting the blame of its policies at the feet of those least able to create it. Don’t be fooled, don’t be complacent, don’t be defensive.
Nothing’s stopping you buying the games or loving them – that doesn’t mean you ever stop criticising them or criticising what went into creating them.
We should care about labour because we care about people more than video games.
(Photo credit: Josh MacDonald)