Artists Beware: Creative Exploitation in the Game Industry

Because video game development isn’t excluded from being a shady business

Many would regard video game development as one of the most fun industries a person could work in; a team of artists collaborate to create wondrous, fictional worlds people fondly use to take a break from the world we all know. This escapism is part of why some don’t consider what goes into making video games. As a kid, it’s not much of a thought. As adults, when we’re finishing academic papers at 3 am, juggling two jobs, working 40+ hour weeks, getting the kids to bed, it’s reasonable. Why insert that element of realism into a hobby you enjoy after a long day? It’s a reality that sadly ends up overshadowing that artists are getting screwed out of hard earned money.

As early as 2004, there was a lawsuit filed with EA to sue over unpaid overtime. Crytek’s former FX artist Ludwig Lindqvist had also chosen to crowdfund for a lawyer to take legal action for unpaid wages in 2016—some employees had still not been paid the following year. With this kind of disregard from even notable companies, a person could only imagine the unprecedented amount of misconduct that goes on in the industry. This brings to question how Ubisoft intends to handle their recent announcement of involving fan support.

Ubisoft’s E3 conference this year introduced Beyond Good & Evil 2. The trailer detailed to illustrate a futuristic space setting that the team impressed would draw various cultural inclusions and Ubisoft called for creators to join the efforts to create assets for the game.  The call entails that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRecord would be in partnership with Ubisoft to bring creators into the project. Rightfully, their partnership received criticism because of the details of how these artists would be compensated for their work. Right under the partnership video, a user questions the ethical nature of HitRecord and suggests that the artists won’t get paid.

What often happens with artists vs. the public is that people believe that exposure is interchangeable with pay; YouTube user Lucas Gore writes, “They’re doing you a favour by showcasing your art in a game that will be played by hundreds of thousands, possibly millions. They don’t owe you any money.”

This is harmful because realistically, there’s a fraction of online users that will simply like an artist’s work, a smaller fraction that shares the work and correctly attributes it back to the artist, and an even smaller fraction that decide to contract your work for pay. YouTube user TotallyCarbon’s response to the simple “it’s exposure” are questions that I often ask myself in the face of opportunities: How well are they going to credit? Why would this stand out on my portfolio? What form of payment will be given? HitRecord has an alleged $50,000 budget specifically for creators whose music, art, writing, and etcetera get approved. This begs the question, how much work will be approved and how will it be divided between the collective of people? It raises concern whenever a client can’t define the when, how, and what of these interactions and that uncertainty is what freelancers look for when contracting work.

These types of articles spotlighting lack of pay in video game projects aren’t uncommon and seeing as my research also brought up job postings for unpaid artist labor, this kind of exploitation will produce more to come. It’s an unfortunate fact that comes with the freelance territory. “For exposure” is such a common thing in the art industry that there’s satirical art, Twitter accounts, and pages outing clients who have the gall to ask to work for free. For those who are also creating content, here are a few things you can do to avoid any unsavory interactions with clients.

  1. Write a contract. Include what work you’re willing to do, the usage rights if they should want to continue working with you, guidelines of what you expect and what your client should expect, and what will happen in the event that the client decides to cancel their commissioned work.
  2. Research your client. If they’re a company, there should be information on how interactions with freelancers went. If it’s an individual, ask if they’ve had a history commissioning work from other artists—if there is no such information, continue at your own risk.
  3. Get verbal agreements in writing. If there isn’t something included in your contract that they’re offering, make sure to get it in writing. Don’t only take people’s word for it.

It’s the least you can do to protect yourself if you want to make money doing what you love that extends beyond the video game industry. Exploitation happens often and it can go unnoticed when we’re out living our lives and are the recipients of such beauty and blood. We should be mindful of what it took to bring one of our favorite past times into our homes. Awareness and education can go a long way to protecting the people behind the magic and protecting ourselves. It should be common sense that nobody wants to work for free, right?

Are you an artist or writer who has experienced this? Share your story in the comments.