Games

How Games, Tech, and the Army Use Progressive Language as a Smoke Screen

Some of the most regressive institutions in the world just want to say the magic words.
September 4, 2020, 1:00pm
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Image: GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images

Tech and games companies have spent years marketing themselves as innovative, forward-thinking, and “progressive,”drawing on the imagery of the welcoming, inclusive, democratic workplace. This image served these companies well when they could portray themselves as underdog innovators, but as their internal tensions between labor and management become more pointed and their social impact has grown, they have faced greater scrutiny from reporters, critics, and their own employees. However, rather than finding their self-image makes them vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy, they increasingly appropriate concepts of social justice invert power dynamics to portray themselves as victims, and the people they exploit as aggressors.

It's an insidious but increasingly widespread tactic, as likely to be deployed against workers at a tech giant as within the confines of a small game studio. But it's also one that workers are getting better at fighting and deflecting.

The most prevalent form this kind of corporate gaslighting takes is probably the culture-obsessed, conflict-averse managerial framework deployed across much of tech and games. The indie developer UsTwo, known for Monument Valley and for infamously referring to itself as a “fampany”—a portmanteau of “family” and “company”—landed in legal hot water after allegedly firing an employee for attempting to unionize. UsTwo, likewise, branded itself as a gentle, inclusive and freewheeling creative work environment, even declaring in its manifesto, “It’s all about crafting the optimal conditions for the team to perform at its absolute best, in an environment of diverse backgrounds, thoughts, views, opinions and life experiences.”

Art from Monument Valley

Art from Monument Valley

This incident bears some resemblance to the Kickstarter union drive, which was supported by OPEIU representatives and which culminated in a successful NLRB union election in February of this year.

“I think [Kickstarter] just sort of lives off of that sort of startup culture and vibe and I think that feeds into a lot of the feigned innocence of some of the executives who ended up being active antagonists of the union, ” Grace Reckers, a labour organizer with OPEIU and Tech Workers Coalition, told me over the phone. I asked her to reflect on the incident and particularly on Kickstarter’s response to the union drive, with a focus on how they attempted to present themselves while engaging in union-busting activities.

The site came under scrutiny when a number of workers involved in the drive were fired under suspicious circumstances. Throughout, Kickstarter maintained that it was “progressive” and is classified as a “public benefit company”, while also claiming that “the union framework is inherently adversarial.” It claimed that it did not engage in unfair terminations while simultaneously hiring Duane Morris, a law firm specializing in maintaining a “union-free workplace.”  

“While many of the nuances of the arguments can change, the overall broad strokes anti-union employer handbook has some pretty consistent trends. When it comes to the family argument, that's one that we've seen in all sorts of industries but I think particularly in tech, that's one that we see pretty often,” says Reckers.

When Kickstarter claims to be a “progressive” company, there is an intentional slippage taking place, one that becomes important when tech companies up the ante by engaging in tactics such as pinkwashing and greenwashing, or weaponizing the rhetoric of harassment and toxicity to dismiss criticism. In Kickstarter’s charter, it promises to “invest in green infrastructure, support green commuting methods” and donate to “organizations fighting to end systemic inequality.” As Reckers notes with regards to the “family argument”, Kickstarter (and UsTwo only a year before them) rely on a romantic notion of unity between management and workers without any of the antagonisms one might expect to find in a more conventional workplace.

Everyone is at once a friend, an equal participant in a democratic process, and a valued member of an ersatz family. It’s kneejerk, then, for a “public benefit company”—a for-profit business that claims to operate in the public interest, but with very little public accountability—to conflate this idea of a “forward-thinking” business structure with a general posture of social do-goodery. It also therefore becomes very easy to frame any opposition as inherently bigoted or abusive, creating both the perception that it has outgrown the need for any real accountability and resolving any contradiction when it gets caught engaging in union-busting activities. After all, only a troll would want to cause a disturbance at such a nice company by questioning its motives.

As Reckers observes:

[Tech companies] try to brand themselves as having a somewhat flat hierarchy, or they'll talk about having a more casual work environment and having an open door policy or how ‘we're all in this together’. They're trying to build that brand together and there's a sense of camaraderie that is constructed specifically as a marketing tool not only for the brand itself but also for the employees who work there. That's certainly true at Kickstarter.

One of the more open conflicts between brand and employees to occur in games was the recent strike at Voltage Entertainment. Among other things, the VOW strike revealed certain contradictions in how companies may lean on—in this case—queer representation to market products while severely exploiting the workers who create those products.

Promo art from Queen of Thieves, showing a group of stylish young people running through a museum.

Promo art from Queen of Thieves

“It was insanely difficult to get people significant raises,” says Patricia, a former Voltage Entertainment producer who was able to speak to me about her time working at the company until Fall 2018. Voltage Entertainment initially refused to negotiate with VOW Together, the collective of independently contracted writers on its multi-series app Lovestruck, on grounds that the organization is composed of independent contractors and therefore cannot be classified as a union per se. In response, and with the counsel of trade union Communication Workers of America (CWA), VOW went on strike, maintaining a work stoppage for 21 days until, finally they succeeded in negotiating a new deal that includes a near-double pay increase from 3.5 cents USD to 6.5 cents per word on average.

In a statement Voltage published while negotiations were still ongoing, then deleted following a wave of social media backlash, the company articulated its non-recognition of VOW as a union or the writers’ attempts to collectively bargain, while minimizing their credit in crafting storylines by emphasizing instead the work done by its “internal production team.” It was an extraordinary letter, at once trying to trivialize its striking workers while also trying to wrest the concept of diversity away from the strikers, noting that "Our in-house team is around 24 employees from all different backgrounds, ethnicities, and gender expressions. We pride ourselves on collaborative storytelling and we feel that different perspectives are crucial to the stories we create."

As another writer who preferred to remain anonymous pointed out to me, Voltage hasn’t been shy about capitalizing on Pride Month to market its queer content to consumers, having done so since at least 2017. Patricia noted that while it is true that core story elements are developed in house, the vast majority of the legwork is done by the writers and that it took management “forever to realize that there was a market for this queer content and queer people were paying for this content [...] It was definitely more of a financial move than them being like ‘Oh, we actually care about LGBTQ rights.’"

When push came to shove, Voltage attempted to minimize contributions made by their writers to delegitimize their demands while all the same promoting queer storylines on their social media pages that they had to be pressured to include.

“Not everyone who was involved in the strike is LGBTQ, but those who aren't are all women. And Lovestruck's stories are mainly geared towards women and those in the LGBTQ+ community. The way our voices give authenticity to those stories was brought up in conversations with Voltage over the past few weeks. I think all companies should follow in making sure that diversity isn't just promoted and celebrated publically, but also discussed internally, making sure that the people within the company feel that their voices are heard and appreciated,” Z said.

She added, “This all happened because a group of contract workers supported each other. If anyone is unhappy in their position, I'd encourage them to look to the people next to them for help,

In a way, the Voltage strike was part of a much larger labor conflict that's been simmering across tech for years: the underclass of contractors who enable their companies to cheaply scale their operations alongside their growth.

Ben Gwin, a data analyst and union organizer at Google subsidiary office HCL in Pittsburgh who successfully helped organize a union there in 2019, spoke to me about his experiences over the phone. Unlike the Kickstarter case, the Pittsburgh union only represents one office contracted with Google rather than the whole company. Like with Kickstarter, union drives at Google, both at the Pittsburgh office and the company’s main offices in California were driven by a combination of concerns over job precarity and ethical concerns. Like with Voltage, Gwin cited low pay and poor benefits at the Pittsburgh office specifically, which facilitated convincing half—and eventually a supermajority—of HCL workers of the company’s shortcomings.

“I think Google definitely tries to portray itself as something it's not, for sure,” Gwin told me, echoing Reckers that there is a perception gap between how tech companies present themselves and how they actually behave. His experience reflected that of the Lovestruck writers in that Google has historically attempted to portray itself as socially-conscious, from its now-removed Code of Conduct slogan “Don’t Be Evil” to its Doodles celebrating Black Lives Matter, Women’s Day or Pride Month, often commissioned by independent artists. Much like with Kickstarter, Google leveraged its reputation as a safe and democratic workplace while retaliating against organizers at its facilities.

At Google’s main offices, workers who attempted to unionize in response to the tech giant’s dubious partnerships with the Pentagon and CBP and its mishandling of sexual harassment allegations were met with textbook corporate resistance, with a techie twist. Notably, the company fired workers at their main office, including organizers Rebecca Rivers and Laurence Berland, for “repeated violations” of its “data security policies.” Meanwhile, Google also implemented internal software that employees suspected was for monitoring them, but which the company insisted was for “moderating internal forums.” 

Gwin connected the material concerns workers had at the HCL office with the ethical ones expressed by organizers at the main Google office, arguing that unions can be invaluable not just for demanding better wages and benefits, but also for tackling broader political issues such as the company’s development of facial recognition technology. It also seems that an effective way to pressure these companies is for their workers to act as a bloc and force them to bring their behavior in line with their image.

The clients for some of these ethically objectionable products are not oblivious to these issues, and are trying to reform their own public image accordingly. Recently, an ill-fated Twitter conversation between the account for popular chat service Discord and the US Army eSports team summed up the Army's attempts at cultivating a soft new image.

In the interaction, dated June 30, the two verified accounts were seen schmoozing over a Snorlax plushie and blowing virtual kisses at each other. In one reply, the partnered Twitch channel account writes “UwU” followed by a heart emoji. It was farcical, the United States military cosplaying as a softboi.

This reply chain, confirmed activist and streamer Jordan Uhl, inadvertently helped expose the relationship between Twitch and the U.S. military to thousands of users who theretofore had no idea it existed.

“It was the ‘UwU' tweet that got a bunch of attention at the same time people were getting suspended or banned from the Discord server that the army had. They happened around the same time and that was just like [Laughs] enraging,” Uhl said to me over Discord. Using his relatively “modest” Twitch channel, Uhl was instrumental in directing a sizable mass of Twitch users over to the U.S. Army eSports channel who helped to reveal, among other things, that the channel was misleading its viewers to a recruitment link by claiming to be running a sweepstakes giveaway for an Xbox Elite Series 2 controller, banning users who attempted to discuss American war crimes, and as Uhl specifically said, auto-modding the word “transgender” to prevent it from appearing in chat, in violation of the First Amendment.

Uhl spoke to me about  the enormous contradiction between the military attempting to present itself as welcoming and cool and its attempts to paint its critics as toxic harassers for pointing out its legacy of bloodshed. Notably, a Navy spokesperson characterized the challenge posed by Uhl as “harassment” and “degrading in nature.” The United States military—the most expensive military in the world commanding an empire of 800 bases spanning 70 countries—attempts to portray itself as a poor smol bean by explicitly describing public disapproval as “harassment.”

To be sure, it is not tech and game companies alone that engage in this kind of self-mitigating behaviour. This is a reflection of broader trends, and it’s not surprising that modern “progressive” companies would therefore adopt the most contemporary language to project that image and insulate themselves from criticism. This is also largely happening in an attempt to neutralize increasing resistance to exploitation and unethical practices and to pacify restive workers.

It’s best to understand this trend not as an isolated phenomenon within games and tech but as part of a broader social trajectory for hegemonic institutions to recuperate social movements, empty them of their radical content, and commodify them. Think of brands like Bon Appetit or Cards Against Humanity getting exposed by their own employees for racist and sexist abuse despite manicured reputations for socially-conscious and charitable work. Think of the U.S. military’s most recent antics on Twitch in the context of its long history of its use of pinkwashing as a recruitment strategy.

None of this is new. It belongs to a long history, spanning the better part of a century, of state and economic powers appropriating the language of mass movements to undermine their goals and capitalize on the enthusiasm and energy behind them. (The concept of “recuperation” dates back to the Situationist Movement of the 1960s.) But that only makes the role of tech companies in this process all the more important. As Reckers points out, tech companies have only grown in political and economic power over time. In some cases, like with Amazon and Google, these multinational corporations have amassed more wealth than some countries and their influence over social life, law enforcement and geopolitics is undeniable.

Yet there remains a perception gap between what the public at large believe these companies stand for and what their actual practices are. A 2019 Data For Progress poll indicates that roughly two thirds of Americans desire to break up big tech in the belief that it will benefit smaller competition; however, other polls from the same year indicate that the tech industry in general remains broadly popular. Figures like Jeff Bezos continue to enjoy reputations as “liberal” visionaries at odds with the politics of Donald Trump, while smaller companies that would stand to benefit from an antitrust breakup continue to fly under the radar as ethical alternatives to their larger counterparts. Gwin and Reckers believe that the best way to address that gap is through education and collective action, and Gwin proposes a simple litmus test to see how vulnerable a company's reputation really is.

“See if there's pay equity issues, whether or not the workers are treated well,” says Gwin, adding, “If that's not the case then they're full of shit. ”

Reputation laundering is a clever tactic, but it has its limits when it meets material realities. That's helped propel a wave of victories for labor and anti-imperialist activists in spite of PR spin. Kickstarter’s workers succeeded in forming a union, as did Google’s HCL office despite setbacks at their main offices; the Lovestruck writers forced stunning concessions from Voltage despite their status as independent contractors; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed a congressional bill to impede the military from recruiting online which unfortunately failed but, as Uhl notes**,** “It's surprising to say the least, that 126 members of congress supported this, which would have been a huge rollback of military recruitment practices. That's unheard of. You have a big cause for optimism there.”