The Game Awards Needs to Finally Acknowledge the Industry’s Biggest Problem
We need more than world premieres.
In January alone, more than 500 people lost their jobs at developers including Unity, 343 Industries, Bethesda Studios, Riot Games, and Respawn Entertainment. Hardly a week has gone by without a layoff announcement in the games industry, creating a harsh contrast between reporting on job losses and the celebration of games created by the same developers who are now out of work.
That contrast only feels more jarring as 2023 comes to an end, with the approach of the Game Awards. The work of people who made our favorite games this year should be celebrated, but if the Game Awards refuses to acknowledge the problem at the heart of the industry, its accolades are nothing but hollow words.
Game development is notoriously unstable for employment. Entirely without unions until the past few years, workers have few protections, especially since many are contractors who can be let go and replaced even more easily than full-time employees. But even in so precarious an industry, the layoffs of 2023 feel especially dire.
The figures I mentioned above come from videogamelayoffs.com, a website started this year by developer Farhan Noor to track staff reductions based on reports in the media and accounts shared by workers directly. Without such a database for previous years, it’s hard to say exactly how the layoffs in 2023 compare. What we do know is that Noor has tracked more than 6,200 lost jobs this year, though the actual number is likely higher as some layoff announcements don’t report how many employees are affected.
Aside from their sheer number, what’s striking about this year’s cuts is who’s been hit. Just since the start of September, Epic Games, Ubisoft, and Naughty Dog have laid off nearly 1,000 people combined, though not all of the 830 laid off by Epic were part of its gaming team. All three of those developers are massively successful, all with games that have been featured at the Game Awards and whose future titles are all but guaranteed to appear again.
The Game Awards may seem like a strange venue to demand coverage of layoffs. When it comes down to it, the show is largely a marketing vehicle for games. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Game Awards’ prominence and self-stated mission make it the perfect place to call out the state of the industry.
Often dubbed the “Oscars of gaming,” the Game Awards is by far the most visible showcase of excellence in the gaming industry. Last year’s livestream was viewed by 103 million people.
It’s nearly certain that a substantial part of this year’s audience will include developers watching the games they made receive honors while they themselves are without jobs. Another portion includes people who aren’t plugged into industry updates enough to even know the wave of layoffs has happened. For the Game Awards to ignore the devastating year the gaming landscape has had would be an insult to the former and a disservice to the latter.
While, in practice, the Game Awards may be a long commercial for AAA games, creator Geoff Keighley has always set out a loftier goal for the show.
“Our show is about celebrating game creators,” Keighley told The Los Angeles Times in 2017.
In a 2019 interview with The Washington Post, Keighley said the Game Awards was inspired by his experiences of meeting unsung game developers and asking himself, “How do we recognize these people?”
On its website, the Game Awards declares, “We strive to recognize those who improve the well-being of the community and elevate voices that represent the future of the medium.”
If the Game Awards doesn’t call out what’s harming the well-being of the community this year, it won’t be the first time. In 2021, following shocking reports of harassment and abuse from Activision Blizzard, Keighley opened the show with a brief, bland statement condemning abuse — but not mentioning its perpetrators — before moving along to the trailers. The Game Awards has likewise failed to highlight the rising tide of unionization that could soften the blow of layoffs (certainly something that would “improve the well-being of the community”).
There’s little the Game Awards could do to materially improve conditions for laid-off workers. No onstage monologue will give people their jobs back or make them safer in the future. But if the Game Awards is going to present itself as giving a voice to developers — not just promoting the fruits of their labor — the one thing it can’t do is remain silent.