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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

So, you worked on a video game. You might not appear in the credits.

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)
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In June 2012, during development on “Grand Theft Auto V,” a department lead told over 50 Rockstar North employees to come into work the following day, despite their contracts having expired. These workers had grown accustomed to a certain rhythm: Sign a contract for a three- to six-month interval, then get the contract extended the day before it lapsed. It wasn’t comfortable — the arrangement made it hard to sign a lease, for example — but it wasn’t unusual.

The next day, a department lead entered the offices where people were anxiously trying to work. Tapping individuals on the shoulder one by one, the lead directed them toward HR, where they were eventually told their contracts would not be renewed. In total, roughly 30 contractors were released, many of whom were new to the industry, multiple people present on the day told The Post. The silver lining, the unrenewed contractors thought, was the credit they would eventually receive for their time spent working on the game. The hotly anticipated fifth entry in the popular Grand Theft Auto franchise went on to sell more than 64 million copies worldwide. It became the most profitable entertainment product of all time.

But when “Grand Theft Auto V” launched, those workers were shocked to discover they were missing from the game’s credits.

Crediting is a huge area of concern for those within the video game industry. Even if a person works on a game, there’s still the possibility they will be ignored once the credits roll. It’s a problem that affects game workers at every level, from third-party contractors to employees at some of the biggest publishers and studios in the world. The impact of not being credited can be devastating, potentially reducing an employee’s future career opportunities and limiting their ability to self-advocate. It’s also been an issue for decades: Even in gaming’s earliest days, companies like Atari refused to credit their designers. (One of the first recorded Easter eggs, in the Atari game “Adventure,” pertained to crediting. Designer Warren Robinett made it so that players could access a hidden room that displayed the phrase “Created by Warren Robinett.”)

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There are currently no widely-adopted crediting guidelines within the games industry, as there are in film and TV, where studios abide by best practices negotiated by unions. Instead, crediting in games largely depends on the whim of the employer; many have their own exclusionary terms that they’re unwilling to change. Some companies purposefully withhold credits from workers who left before a project’s completion to create a culture that discourages employees from leaving mid-project, according to Emma Kinema, Campaign Lead at Code CWA, an organization that supports unionization efforts in the tech and games industry.

“There’s tons of companies that are actively using crediting as a way to have leverage over the workers and keep them dependent on the company … and that’s actively malicious crediting,” Kinema said. One studio threatened to not credit her on a project for leaving before release, she said, and she was cautioned against mentioning the game in her portfolio. Ultimately, she chose not to include it on her list of credits.

Many developers do this, but Rockstar Games has been particularly notorious for this practice. And as an industry leader, it has set an alarming precedent throughout the years. In addition to those omitted from “Grand Theft Auto V,” the publisher didn’t credit a collection of developers who left before the completion of “Red Dead Redemption 2.” Both titles were in production for more than five years each, with employees often forced to crunch to make deadlines, leading to complaints of burnout. The prospect of losing their credit, should they decide to leave the production early, was often a factor in deciding whether an employee stayed or tried to find work elsewhere.

“That has been a consistent policy because we have always felt that we want the team to get to the finish line,” Jennifer Kolbe, head of publishing at Rockstar, told Kotaku in 2018. “A very long time ago, we decided that if you didn’t actually finish the game, then you wouldn’t be in the credits.”

But multiple former Rockstar employees told The Post they never received any official communication regarding this policy before the Kotaku article. Instead, they had only heard rumors from former colleagues who had left; that was enough to convince them to stay. They also didn’t know whether the policy was still in place today. No changes were communicated to them following “Red Dead Redemption 2’s” release.

In a subsequent comment to The Post, Rockstar vice president of communications Simon Ramsey said current and future employees who leave the company before a product launch will be credited in-game on release.

Out of sight, out of mind

That promise is complicated, however, by the tangled nature of contemporary game development, and the question of who development studios deem worthy of a credit. Roles that are commonly outsourced, including production, quality assurance, localization and public relations are also often left uncredited; negative assumptions surround these positions, which are often viewed by core staff as less important to the success of a product. Workers in these roles are typically employed at third-party development studios, or are freelancers working through an external development partner that negotiates terms of employment.

“If you’re sitting there in the office with everybody, they’ll definitely recognize the work you are doing and credit you,” said one freelance translator, who has experience working through multiple agencies. “But those other roles tend to be outsourced, so they are out of sight, out of mind … ‘You are not part of the core team, so why should we credit you?’”

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Kinema said she’s seen studios just list the company to which the roles were outsourced. “They don’t list the potentially dozens or, in some cases, hundreds of workers whose labor went into the game and actually made it possible,” she said.

Multiple freelancers argued that these agencies don’t do enough to secure credits for their talent, and that large companies seem indifferent to the problem.

“From my experience as a freelancer, it seems to be a reluctance on the agencies’ side to make their talent known, out of fear the developer or publisher will [cut the agency out and work directly with the translator],” said one individual who has worked through Keywords, an external development partner hired to help studios finish their games. The individual spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize future work. “I’ve only been credited on two games I’ve worked on through a large agency, and that was because those projects required that I work more closely with the end client than is usual for agency work.”

Keywords declined to comment, citing confidentiality agreements.

The rarity of crediting has led to a culture in agency work where acknowledgment is often treated as a bonus, and freelancers are made to feel ashamed for requesting their name appear in the game they worked on, according to workers who spoke with The Post.

“[The agency model in games] is backward,” said one freelance translator who worked through Keywords and Lionbridge, another development partner. “In a lot of other creative industries — take books and acting, for example — the agency advocates for you. They seek to get you connected with clients and negotiate rates. In [games], these agencies … dictate rates and conditions based on the results of their bidding war with other companies to see who can draft the cheapest proposal in a race to the bottom.”

Lionbridge did not respond to requests for comment.

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One common response to these complaints is that workers should simply advocate for themselves, speaking openly about their past work in applications and on personal websites, in lieu of formal crediting. But the widespread use of nondisclosure agreements often prevents both in-house and freelance talent from discussing the projects they’ve worked on, which makes compiling CVs and portfolios particularly difficult. According to Kinema, current crediting practices discourage people from switching jobs and negotiating for better roles, privileges or pay.

“Companies force workers to be silent about projects they’ve worked on,” Kinema said. “That is part of a systemic approach of trapping workers in a studio, while also denying them promotions and pay raises and title raises.”

“Being able to mention even one title to a prospective client to show you're experienced really opens doors,” said one freelancer, who previously worked through Lionbridge and other agencies. “However, it's hard for newer translators to push for credit since they're often worried about upsetting or seeming difficult to the source of their work and income, so they end up at the mercy of a client/agency/whomever is the one who could theoretically give that credit.”

Few guardrails or guidelines

Workers in the industry and labor organizers both drew comparisons between games and other industries, such as film and TV, where unions are more present.

SAG-AFTRA is an American labor union that represents, among other things, voice-over artists and motion capture performers. It has been negotiating contracts with the gaming industry since the early 1990s, but believes negotiations over contracts are often more difficult in games. This is because other sections of the workforce — designers, programmers, QA, and writing teams — aren’t typically organized.

“Because our members are currently the only formalized sector of this workforce who can engage in collective bargaining, they’re also the only group able to ask and have collective leverage for big changes or improvements,” said Katie Watson, national director, voice-over contracts, for SAG-AFTRA. “Consequently, it can make companies apprehensive to provide those types of drastic changes [like crediting and residuals] for only one group of employees.”

“Part of the situation is that the games industry is just a much newer and younger industry,” Kinema said. “And I don’t mean to say that as a cop-out for the industry, because they absolutely are disrupting and derailing people’s careers by not having standard crediting practices for workers in the industry. But I think we also have to keep in mind that crediting practices weren’t standardized in television or film or many other mediums until well after the industry was established, and frankly, also, once unions were organized on a mass scale.”

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In lieu of unions, the most prominent effort to tackle this problem so far has come from the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), who created a Developer Credit Special Interest Group, to “promote best practices for how credits are attributed.”

The SIG acts as an intermediary between victims of poor crediting and studios, collects data on crediting practices, and issues crediting guidelines for studios to follow. These guidelines include rules on inclusion, specifying that anyone who worked on a project for 30 days or 5% of a game’s production (whichever is less) must be credited, and offer advice on how roles should be attributed. But these rules aren’t mandatory, and studios face little pressure to adhere to them, with the IGDA possessing little power to enforce them through fines or other disciplinary methods.

“Tons of different industry groups from the IGDA to random others have put out different proposed forms of standardized crediting practices … but it doesn’t actually do anything,” Kinema said. “[These companies] don’t care about moral arguments. They don’t care about what would be good for workers. Issues like poor crediting in the industry won’t change until we have a stronger foothold of workers being organized in the industry and being able to negotiate the conditions and terms of crediting with their employer across the bargaining table.”

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