Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Games Industry Is Its Own Citizen Kane

Robert Rath | 13 Feb 2014 12:01
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I've never liked the phrase "the Citizen Kane of videogames." I suspect no one actually does, which is why it's become a joke about gamers' desperate need for validation. But what bothers me most about this ridiculous meme is that it misses the actual message Citizen Kane imparts, and it's something the game industry needs to hear. With systemic hubris driving business decisions and an almost palpable condescension toward the people that buy their products, one thing's become increasingly clear: games may not have a Citizen Kane, but the game industry is Citizen Kane.

The young industry was like the young Kane, trotting in with the cavalier enthusiasm that it might be fun to run a newspaper. They were scrappy and young. Sleeping in the office. New blood come to kick out the old guard and change the world. But as crusade became business and empire, owners came off the front line. Studios stopped being run by artists and the suits took over - like Kane hiring writers away from rival papers, creatives became something a studio collects and owns, and their treatment suffered accordingly. Today, executives too often treat employees as disposable, the first ones on the chopping block two weeks before ship date. Those that stay don't stay long, as the burnout rate is abysmal. The IGDA's most recent quality of life survey found that only 20% of employees had been in the industry for 10 years or more, and surveyed employees averaged only 3.38 years at their current job. Crunch still holds sway over production, and over 40% of developers surveyed didn't receive compensation for crunch time - and only 9.1% get overtime pay at all. This is how you treat assets, not people.

But it's not just about horse-trading creatives, the industry's taste for empty spectacle also has some similarities to Kane. Picture Kane standing in front of election banners: asking for votes while making no promises, thinking he can win without stating policies. All flash and no substance. All sizzle and no steak. I see that, and in my mind's eye I see the enormous banners and screens of E3 - events where journalists watch teaser trailers that have nothing to do with gameplay, or see games played, but never pick up the controller. I recall the PS4 reveal that showed us the DualShock 4, but not the console itself - which when it's revealed, was kept inside a plexiglass chamber like it was the Hope Diamond. Microsoft, for their part, kept the "first" retail Xbox One in a shark tank in New Zealand. This flash and dazzle routine can prove harmless, unless it's performed with the assumption that consumers will buy anything - and unfortunately, this is too often the case.

That's the assumption Kane made, and it's faulty. Kane loses the election due to a sex scandal he thinks he can weather due to his popularity. The voters desert him. And as Kane stands in his empty campaign headquarters ranting about the peoples' betrayal, his friend Jedediah Leland interrupts him.

"You talk about the people as though you owned them," Leland says. "As though they belonged to you."

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