Headhunters and Funmakers: Game Industry Recruiting à Montréal

"Daily breakfast is served on site and regular meet-ups occur after work to re-energize and foster our employment community." Image source: EA Montreal.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Relocation, Media Industries, and City Branding.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

I concluded my previous post with the suggestion that the cosmopolitan allure portrayed throughout current recruitment efforts for Montreal’s game industry masks the particular conditions that were necessary for this industry to acquire its current form. I also noted that, much like the Gothenburg promotional campaign discussed by Helena Holgersson and Erik Florin Persson, these materials show a marked shift away from particular local needs and towards amorphous economic growth. In this post I am going to draw attention to some of the ways industry recruitment campaigns reflect official and unofficial cultural policies in Montreal’s game development scene.

Filled with shady dealings and double-crosses the game ends, of course, with a federal investigation! Image courtesy of David Loach.

One of the particular features of Montreal’s economy is that it is highly political, at times so absurdly and amusingly dysfunctional that it has become the object of a new board game. But while Construction & Corruption pokes fun at metropolitan problems that are not exclusive to Montreal, language politics and divergent notions of nationhood are fundamental features of the city’s culture industries. Montréal: Métropole de Talent / City of Talent: Montreal is a detailed 2017 report commissioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).1OECD (2017), City of Talent Montreal: An Action Plan for Boosting Employment, Innovation and Skills, OECD Publishing, Paris. The report is available in English and French. It presents a paradoxical situation: having all the prerequisites for success, Montreal consistently underperforms in terms of job creation, wealth generation, employment rates, and GDP / population growth. True to the contemporary zeitgeist, this report provides common-sense suggestions for improvement, but simultaneously omits a deeper analysis that should historicize specific causes of the current state of affairs such as ongoing threats of Québec sovereignty, ardent language laws,2Although Canada is a bilingual country, French is Québec’s only official language and, at least in principle, is the language of the workplace. and the resulting mass migration of minds and money to less meddlesome climates, not to mention the province’s difficulties in attracting new businesses and skilled professionals because of tax rates, which are the highest in the country.

In this environment, the game industry stands as an exception, at least in part. The recruitment strategies of big game developers demonstrate a serious effort to generate cosmopolitan allure by highlighting the prospects of a chic lifestyle in a culturally impartial manner that is equally welcoming to all applicants, worldwide. The ideal candidate, such as depicted across recruitment literature and detailed in HR job offer specifications, has mad programming chops or animation skills rarely attained by mere mortals. Across much of this type of media, the protagonist is usually a dude, although recent recruitment publicity explicitly opposes this stereotype, like Eidos Montreal’s Women in Games, EA’s Inclusion Means Everybody, or Ubi’s Zeitgeist’17 video. In 24H in Montreal, a more traditional recruitment campaign by WB Games, the principle character is a culturally multivalent 30-something representative of the transnational creative class, whose addiction to his work is only occasionally interrupted by a night on the town, where his creativity is re-energized by a myriad of entertainment and fine dining options on offer.

As the recruited subject of 24H in Montreal samples the sights and sounds of the city, he is exposed to a multitude of cultures, and is given the opportunity to learn a language—French or English, it’s a personal preference—should he wish to become attuned to local customs. A long way from simply providing cultural flavour, however, language politics are a key element of local professional life. A number of Ubisoft Montreal employees comment that fluency in French results in a higher pay scale and advancement opportunities, regardless of skill. Another major game developer employs a different form of compliance with linguistic regulations: Electronic Arts Montreal installs French-only versions of common software on company computers, “so, it’s like, totally legit,” comments one acerbic 3D animator, an Anglophone, referring to the Charte de la langue française / Charter of the French Language that lays down the communication requirements for doing business in the province.3Personal communication with a former Electronic Arts Montreal employee.

Stills from Warner Brothers Games’ “24H in Montreal” Campaign. Image source: WB Games.

While big game is a successful outlier, small and medium-sized local developers and indie multimedia boutiques reflect OECD’s bleak findings more closely. Montreal is home to a high concentration of such enterprises, and their strategies are almost exclusively oriented towards the local market—in no small part because they benefit from additional government and academic grants to develop titles that celebrate Québec culture, are conceived in French, or address issues that have a limited commercial application.4The Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC) is one of several government organization that provide special funding for local new media projects that meet certain cultural criteria. This is a critical strategy of cultural self-preservation, but it comes at an economic price. A focus on local culture or on indie games offers limited incentive for outside investors, as well as for local venture capitalists, to push for the kind of development that might see Montreal out of the economic stagnation identified in the report. Because their products are modest in nature, small developers rarely demand the level of skills and savvy sought after by their multinational counterparts. Consequently, the labour market grows increasingly polarized between high-quality jobs reserved for the type of worker described above, and the average local game industry employee who possesses a set of skills more easily attainable, but also exists in vastly greater numbers. Ultimately, the report concludes that the city suffers from an overabundance of mediocre jobs and a demand for higher qualifications which cannot be fulfilled locally, contradicting the common perception that Montreal is at the forefront of the knowledge economy. With six world-class universities and twelve colleges offering education in either French or English, and boasting one of the largest post-secondary student populations in North America, how is this even possible?

To explain this conundrum, we can take a look at the two divergent origin myths about how the game industry in the city began. Jason Della Rocca, co-founder of the hybrid game incubator Execution Labs, was a local consultant for the original Ubisoft exploratory delegation back in the 1990s. In his version, the labour subsidy was only part of the reason for Ubisoft’s arrival in the city. Even before the game multinational came to town, Montreal was a major 3D animation and CGI software hub (a local division of Autodesk had developed many of the animation tools used by Ubisoft), and there were many independent game developers in the city. In addition, there was already rigorous academic training available in computer science, digital arts, and techno-culture.5For instance the NAD centre (École des arts numériques, de l’animation et du design), ICARI institute (now defunct), and the Société des arts technologiques (SAT). Had there not been this pre-existing environment, he doubts that the big publisher studios would be in Montreal today: “the catch-22 of clustering dynamics is that you have to have a cluster to build a cluster.”6Rocca, Jason Della. “The Montreal Indie Game Development Scene…Before Ubisoft.” In Loading… 7, no. 11 (December 31, 2012). Cédric Orvoine, director of human resources and communications at Ubisoft Montréal, presents a different story. Though perhaps too young to have witnessed events first hand, he declares that when the company opened its Montreal office, “no prospective employees with relevant experience were available to hire.” They had to be created.

We can better understand these divergent accounts by looking at the official narrative—uncritically, albeit perhaps unintentionally, supported by the economic strategists who authored the OECD report—which states that foreign multinational firms are really the ones creating jobs. Anyone questioning this claim (as Eric Boyko, CEO of Stingray Digital, did recently) is cautioned by Orvoine that “the war for talent isn’t a local challenge, it’s a worldwide challenge and we have been extremely active in developing a workforce that didn’t exist 20 years ago.” In other words, we bring you work so stop complaining. Much like Richard Florida’s urge for cities to push against corporate subsidies mentioned by Lawrence Webb in the intro to this round, Boyko argues that multinational game developers do not need government funding for production that they would complete anyway,7For a detailed critique of tax incentives see Tannenwald, Robert. State Film Subsidies: Not Much Bang For Too Many Bucks, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, December 2010. while Orvoine challenges this idea by asserting that tax incentives are among the very few reasons why Ubisoft had settled in Montreal rather than, say, Boston, the company’s initial choice.8In the OECD report Boston ranks in the top two in almost any category, with Montreal trailing far behind, frequently at the bottom. Smaller players like Stingray Digital want a shot at creating product with global appeal by tapping into the talent pool accumulated by the multinational corporations, which they do not have the means to attract themselves. Meanwhile, multinational firms use their considerable resources to recruit skilled labour, but for a long time they have been recruiting one and the same type of worker, entrenching the gender and age stereotypes associated with the industry today.9The average age of employees has been early 30s for the past 20 years. Today, next to sexism—a topic deserving a lengthy discussion of its own—ageism is the second most common type of discrimination in the game industry.

As big game developers seek to expand their markets, they desperately try to break out of the stereotypes created by decades of HR hiring policies. They make great efforts to depict socially balanced and equitable work environments, perhaps to compensate for the fact that their flagship titles are still exclusively oriented towards a narrow age and gender demographic. In practice these efforts frequently rub against local cultural policies, but in due course big game firms stand to reap great economic benefits from successful recruitment campaigns, support for indie developers, and collaboration with academic research hubs, because this would help them generate a new identity and eventually bring them closer to new markets. In this sense, their current efforts to be more socially attentive are driven by economic premeditation. This is a perfectly logical marketing decision, but it does make one ponder the correlation between social outreach and commercial advantage that is implied by the recruitment materials presented here.

Notes   [ + ]

1. OECD (2017), City of Talent Montreal: An Action Plan for Boosting Employment, Innovation and Skills, OECD Publishing, Paris. The report is available in English and French.
2. Although Canada is a bilingual country, French is Québec’s only official language and, at least in principle, is the language of the workplace.
3. Personal communication with a former Electronic Arts Montreal employee.
4. The Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC) is one of several government organization that provide special funding for local new media projects that meet certain cultural criteria.
5. For instance the NAD centre (École des arts numériques, de l’animation et du design), ICARI institute (now defunct), and the Société des arts technologiques (SAT).
6. Rocca, Jason Della. “The Montreal Indie Game Development Scene…Before Ubisoft.” In Loading… 7, no. 11 (December 31, 2012).
7. For a detailed critique of tax incentives see Tannenwald, Robert. State Film Subsidies: Not Much Bang For Too Many Bucks, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, December 2010.
8. In the OECD report Boston ranks in the top two in almost any category, with Montreal trailing far behind, frequently at the bottom.
9. The average age of employees has been early 30s for the past 20 years. Today, next to sexism—a topic deserving a lengthy discussion of its own—ageism is the second most common type of discrimination in the game industry.

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