The first and longest-living topic on the forums at Gamewatch.org, one with over 9,000 pageviews, is that frustratingly zen-like question: What is quality of life, anyway? We all know we want it, most of us want more of it, but that doesn’t bring us much closer to knowing what it is.
This column, which The Escapist has so graciously offered to sponsor, will be an exploration of that question, how it reaches through every aspect of game development (as through any profession) and how its successful implementation can be used as a barometer for the health of an industry. And an industry’s health always benefits the products it produces, and therefore its consumers.
It took a long time and a lot of suffering for the discussion of quality of life to become kosher in the game industry. I won’t even go so far as to say it’s cool (though it should be), because ultimately we are artists as well as craftspeople, and artists always like to suffer for their work. Talking about quality of life in certain areas of the industry is considered manifestly uncool, a chore at best, and anti-quality-of-game at worst; set rationality aside, because rationality is boring.
The problems with this are legion. First, feeling guilty about talking about quality of life perpetuates suffering, point blank. Not wanting to use the words “quality of life” for fear of being uncool causes us to do our jobs less effectively, suck less of the marrow out of life and overall be weaker human beings.
The thing with game developers and uncool is a lot of us spent our youths carrying around that label. Only within the last decade has anything having to do with computers become chic or trendy. And boy do we ever not want to be in the nerd camp again. So heaven forbid we talk about something so uncool as “quality of life,” and don’t even get me started on scheduling, child care or education.
But quality of life is bigger than all of that. As an industry, we are poised to launch from the leading edge, not just of graphics technology or multithreading but of process design. The game development process is inherited from other paradigms of software development, but in its perpetual change and persistent use of the most cutting-edge technology, it is by nature more flexible, more responsive and more innovative than its big-corp brothers. What’s phenomenal about the videogame as an expressive medium is its precious newness and its close integration with the basic way the human mind works. Its culture of exploration gives rise to one of the most kinetic and insightful professional communities in the world today. And there is no greater cause for this tremendous engine than to improve the lives of those that dwell within it, so that that energy can spread.
When we talk about quality of life, the things that come up first generally go like this: 1) Compensation; 2) Production efficiency (management); 3) Benefits (health, retirement); 4) Morale (company culture). Within those lives a lot of discussion all on its own, and we’ll get to that, but first I would suggest that to approach quality of life purely in terms of symptom management – that is, to engage in quality of life improvement solely in terms of making the development process less painful – is laudable but short-sighted.
There are other dimensions not generally considered part of the quality of life spectrum that impact it comprehensively and profoundly: 1) The education of future developers (academia and our vast army of aspiring game makers); 2) The public image of games as media (censorship and public relations); 3) Outreach and disinformation combat (the parent-child-game relationship); 4) Personal investment and professional longevity (credit, portfolio and trade organization). There are a number of reasons why each of these is critical to quality of life, but it basically boils down to this: I need to be able to sit on an airplane and tell a stranger what I do for a living without trepidation, without hesitation, without pauses for explanations that, no, not all games make you want to kill people, not all games are Grand Theft Auto (leaving out that I sort of, you know, liked Grand Theft Auto) and not all – not even many – game developers are immoral human beings. If I can’t be proud of what I do, then how can I consider that I have positive quality of life?
We’re going to talk about all of these things, and about why it is useless to consider quality of life without this full spectrum of the overall health of the industry. Hopefully you’ll hear some new ideas, and hopefully you’ll come up with some of your own, and implement them.
This column will appear on the first and third Fridays of every month. On the first Friday, the column will focus on information and ideas; the third Friday will follow the theme of the first but focus on perspectives and interviews with individual developers. In between those two, I hope you’ll send me your ideas. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that things get better when people start talking to each other.
There is a universe waiting when we use the enormous creativity present in this business to benefit the people who make, play and observe games – which, these days, amounts to a good portion of the world. That potential, I think, is pretty damn cool. And that is how we are going to talk about quality of life.
Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.