Over worked, under appreciated: Managing Individuality, Reliance, Autonomy and Happiness as a Creative Worker


“It really wasn’t until after my first year at the company when people (higher-ups) started freaking out about how long the project had been in development, how much money was being wasted, and – and this is the big one – release dates.” Zero Dean, Senior Environment Artist working on Red Dead Redemption, shown above.


Zero Dean, an artist who worked for Rockstar Games during the development of Red Dead Redemption, a game that has been almost universally celebrated by gamers and which became even more famous after Zero Dean release an expose on the deplorable workplace practices being employed by Rockstar. The original essay by Zero Dean is difficult to find, due to defamation complaints placed by Rockstar. For much of this post, I refer to an article by Robert Purchese published in 2010 on Eurogamer.net that heavily quotes from Dean’s original article and which was written using Dean’s actual reports.


Zero Dean does not detail why the release dates are particularly important, but Hesmondhalgh and Baker offer valuable insight. In their book, Creative Labor: Media work in three cultural industries, Hesmondhalgh and Baker refer to commodity fetishism wherein commodities “come to be invested with magical powers” as production as the consumer is further separated from the point of production. Interpreting Marx’s notion of production as ‘hidden abode’, Hesmondhalgh and Baker explain that “Marx’s suggestion is that we are dependent in capitalism on the work of distant others but for nearly all of the time we are not aware of this fact” (ibid, 25). This explains why the release dates were so important to the higher ups at Rockstar.


The very notion of a release date completely hides the production chain. It implies instant transportation and we are made completely unaware not only of the physical labor involved in the production and distribution of game disks, jewel cases, collector sets, etc., but also all of the creative labor. GTA-5-MidnightSpeaking specifically about video games today, it is very difficult to fully understand the immense task of development, animation, storyboarding, programming, sound editing, motion capture and choreography, direction and cinematography. Even these words don’t fully capture the work that they refer to. Zero Dean was working as the Senior Environment Artist, implying not only a hierarchy specifically centered around designing aspects of the game already meant to feel seamless and invisible like the ground, grass, trees, and sky but the specificity of the job title itself also implies that Zero Dean’s department is just one of the many hierarchies within the creative production chain involved in creating Red Dead Redemption.


When discussing professional creative labor, especially when attempting to delineate the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ work, authenticity is often invoked as a potential factor for which to judge creative labor. When addressing the inevitable questions that arise concerning the individual and society in relation to the convergence of the market, pure capital, management, labor, production, culture and consumption that define the ‘creative industries’, authenticity, like ‘good’ and ‘bad’, can be a convoluted term with a variety of interpretations depending upon your point of entry.


It can be used to delineate between an original work or a reproduction, but is also used more subjectively to make statements of taste and interpretation about creative work. I find it important to mention that often times these kinds of statements only come into being after the creative work has been commodified, i.e. “I like Maroon 5’s first album, but now they’re total sell-outs!” Maroon_5_-_Songs_About_JaneThis vernacular, “sell-out” (or ‘good and bad’), is what I’m interested in. When considered within the framework of the creative industries versus the creative individual, phrases such as these begin to highlight the paradoxes that are present when we attempt to measure success both in terms of one’s ability to maintain economic autonomy through monetizing one’s intellectual property and creative work while not sacrificing their own voice or their “creative autonomy” to the market so that they may participate within it.

To return to Zero Dean and the story of Red Dead Redemption, Dean tells about “how many of the workers were extremely frustrated with their working conditions, [the management] increased hours from eight to 12, and days spread from five each week to six. Salaried workers weren’t compensated for overtime but paid for a standard 40-hour week.

‘Morale continued to deteriorate as the lies increased. And everyone was on edge. And we were being spoken to in meetings like incompetent 10 year olds,’” In short, Zero Dean locates much of the ‘bad’ work his creative managers were doing with their choices to limit the autonomy (whether it was economic or workplace autonomy) of their subordinates, while simultaneously asking more of them and paying them less, essentially taking advantage of these creative individuals through their dependence on monetizing their intellectual property and their individual desire to create ‘good’ work.

Dean remarks, “sadly, it was real-life and hell for a lot of people – people talked about wanting to leave, but couldn’t because they ‘had kids’, or ‘a mortgage’, or ‘the economy is so bad’ and ‘no one is hiring’.” bamford1Quickly applying Zero Dean’s recount about his experience with Rockstar to address questions of the individual, creative autonomy, authenticity, and what it means to be proud of what you create and where the individual will (and perhaps should) draw the line, Dean explains that “”[i]t wasn’t until my boss took credit for my work – and politely argued with me about who had actually created it (I had the original documents on my desktop) – that I went back to my desk and started cleaning it. And then I realised I wasn’t cleaning it, I was packing.”

To end on a brighter note, while still addressing some of the Catch-22s that exist for the individual looking to work creatively and authentically while turning creative labor into economic autonomy, agency and capital, I would like to turn to Maria Bamford (shown above).  If you haven’t listened to her stand up, I highly recommend it. She’s dark, and silly, and expertly crafts jokes that explore excellet social commentary. In one special, Bamford is talking about doing advertising work jokes that once she began to start gathering momentum in the stand up comedy world, as she put’s it “they (advertisers) said, ‘We’ll give you a big bag o’ money if you say what we want you to say…so I took that big bag o’ money, and I said exactly what they wanted me to say.” Or as Daniel Tosh put’s it in one of his specials, “They say money doesn’t buy happiness. It does in America because it buys a wave runner. Have you ever tried to frown on a wave runner?”

kenny powers jet ski


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