The High Cost of Fun: Updated with a Statement from Microsoft
Since yesterday, Microsoft has issued an official statement on the incident in Wuhan, as reported by Eurogamer:
“Microsoft takes working conditions in the factories that manufacture its products very seriously, and we are currently investigating this issue.
“We have a stringent Vendor Code of Conduct that spells out our expectations, and we monitor working conditions closely on an ongoing basis and address issues as they emerge. Microsoft is committed to the fair treatment and safety of workers employed by our vendors, and to ensuring conformance with Microsoft policy”
When some of the hidden, real-world costs of the gaming industry we love come to light, it can be a little difficult to digest. In 2011, allegations of poor working conditions at L.A. Noire developer Team Bondi contributed to that studio’s financial doom and eventual closure later in the year.
Now we’ve gotten yet another glimpse behind the curtain, this time into the manufacturing side of things: according to a post on GamesIndustry, 300 employees at a Chinese factory working on constructing Xbox 360 consoles recently threatened mass suicide over poor conditions and broken promises.
The post explains that the workers were offered a choice between continuing to work at the plant, owned by electronics-manufacturing giant Foxconn, or being dismissed with compensation. After many employees took the latter option, the compensation offer was yanked away.
To protest Foxconn’s alleged deception, 300 workers moved to the roof of the plant and threatened group suicide. Apparently the situation became so dire that the mayor of Wuhan, the province in which the factory is located, had to come and try to talk the workers down.
As the post points out, Foxconn has been the subject of much scrutiny over the last few years because of the number of high-end products they make for Western consumers, as well as a spate of actual suicides by workers who were making Apple devices. To combat the phenomenon, the factory installed nets.
An interesting investigation of Foxconn’s factories and conditions by one writer in a Wired article from last year helps to shed some light on the source of the gadgets we all enjoy, and provides some real food for thought.
The post notes that Microsoft has yet to comment on this most recent incident, but offered a quote back in 2010 after similar problems at plants making their devices had arisen.
“Foxconn has been an important partner of ours and remains an important partner,” said Microsoft’s Phil Spencer. “I trust them as a responsible company to continue to evolve their process and work relationships. That is something we remain committed to—the safe and ethical treatment of people who build our products. That’s a core value of our company.”
It remains to be seen what, if anything, Microsoft will say or do to respond to what happened in Wuhan.
At this point, it’s impossible to claim ignorance about the source of our products. At the end of the 20th century, American companies began to send manufacturing jobs overseas, driving costs down and revenues up. That has meant less expensive goodies for us, but with lost manufacturing jobs in the United States. The effect was similarly double-sided in Asia: there are way more jobs there, but the demands of those jobs have kept conditions and pay below what they would be for the rest of the world.
It’s a conundrum in many ways…if manufacturing were brought back to the US, the cost of production would go up, and would likely result in higher costs for goods. But at the same time, the American manufacturing landscape would bloom and more people would have money in their pockets to actually buy things.
Another interesting Wired article tackles the issue of overseas manufacturing, and how American companies are starting to shift back to making things stateside. According to that article, overseas manufacturers seem to value quantity over quality, resulting in more incidences of defective products. That means American companies who thought they were saving money by outsourcing their manufacturing to other countries are suddenly paying exponentially higher, repeated shipping fees to compensate and replace the defective products—and with oil prices rising all the time, their outsourcing-based savings started to disappear.
So here’s the question: how important is price to you? I’ve made no secret of my wish for all kinds of cheap, shiny goodies, like a cheaper PlayStation Vita. And I totally took advantage of the cheaper Nintendo 3DS when the price dropped last summer. But would I be willing to shell out more money if I knew that my dollars were employing my fellow Americans? I’d like to say yes. And I think I will say yes—but that position is a luxury I can enjoy only because I haven’t been forced to contend with higher-priced, American-manufactured video game products.
Do you think about the ethics of your gaming hobby? I can honestly admit that I do, but not nearly enough. Would higher prices with more ethically made products be worth it to consumers? Or do you think higher prices—especially with a crummy economy—would be the death knell of the industry?