This morning, the Japanese financial newspaper The Nikkei published a report filled with damning details about the corporate culture at Konami, the game publisher well known for its Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania, and Pro Evolution Soccer franchises. Kotaku published a translation of key facts from this report, and additional information was provided by Twitter user @SerkanToto in this Twitter thread and by Reddit user Dtnoip30 in this post.
The report outlines a number of policies that the company uses to monitor and control their employees. Development studios at Konami are constantly kept under surveillance with camera systems, not for security reasons, but as a measure meant to keep workers efficient and productive by reminding them that they're under close watch. This is further emphasized by a policy that requires workers to clock in and out with timecards during lunch breaks. Workers who run late are publicly named and insulted.
And when management at Konami decides that a developer isn't as "useful" as they could be, they lose their position as a developer. I don't mean that they're fired, either. The Nikkei reports that these workers are reassigned to roles in security at company offices, to the cleaning staff at one of Konami's many fitness clubs, or to the assembly line of a pachislot factory. This reassignment isn't just a punishment reserved for underperforming entry-level workers, either. Even experienced developers who have shipped numerous games are at risk of finding themselves reassigned.
One such case even had aftershocks that affected those only indirectly involved in the reassignment. When a former Konami developer who was moved to a pachislot factory finally found employment with another company, he did what a lot of us would: He posted the joyful news to Facebook. Some of his former development team colleagues, who were sympathetic to his situation, liked that post... and soon after found themselves re-assigned too. This sort of monitoring of private communication must be terrible for both morale and team cohesion. Not only can you not you speak freely at work, you can't even be sure if the things you say on your off time are being scrutinized.
Konami doesn't only watch how workers communicate, though. They also dramatically limit their ability to talk both with each other and with those outside of their offices. The majority of Konami employees do not have e-mail accounts at all. And while there are some developers who do have access to internal email services (and a rare few in PR or sales who can send emails to outsiders), these workers only have access to temporary e-mail addresses comprised of random letters and numbers, assuring that these employees can't be consistently reached. Those at Number 8 Production Department (formerly Kojima Productions), have it even worse: They don't even have internet access.
While a lot of folks have compared Konami's overbearing attitude to George Orwell's 1984, I think there's an even more apt reference: Michel Foucault's analysis of the Panopticon in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish. The Panopticon was a style of prison designed by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham which separated inmates into individual cells, laid out in a circle around a tall guard tower in the center. Prisoners couldn't see into other cells, nor could they tell if the guard in the watch tower could see them. The panopticon aimed to control prisoners by limiting the information they can gather, preventing them from communicating to other convicts, and giving them the constant suspicion that they were being watched. But for Foucault, the Panopticon isn't just about prisons, it's about any sort of structure (architectural or otherwise) designed to make its inhabitants feel watched. He writes:
Visibility is a trap. … [The individual] is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. … If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape, the planning of new crimes for the future, bad reciprocal influences ... If they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents.
Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.
For the Panopticon to be effective, the inmates don't even need to actually always be under surveillance. So long as there is the threat that the individuals are under watch, and so long as they can't communicate with each other, the inmates (or workers, or students, etc.) will self-police. Just imagine working at Konami, seeing your friend get reassigned for liking a former co-worker's Facebook post, and thinking to yourself "Well, shit. Will they see it if I post a joke about the long hours I'm working? I better not say anything, just in case."
Don't get me wrong, not every instance of surveillance is a Panopticon, in the same way that not every new restrictive law is actually Orwellian. But given all of the details that The Nikkei released today, I think "Panoptic" is a fair descriptor for the way Konami management is operating its games division.
Why should this bother us? Well, the result of this constant threat of surveillance is a sort of dehumanization. Groups of people are amazing: We talk and laugh and fight and collaborate and gossip and do all of these wonderful, weird, exciting things. Panoptic structures work to reduce all that makes us wild and unpredictable into something controlled, numbered, and carefully managed. There's a great deal of irony that Konami publishes Metal Gear Solid, a series known for its own wild and unpredictable nature, which ultimately sings the praises of people working together to do amazing things.
The Nikkei does more than just paint Konami's company culture as cruel, it also raises questions about the future of Konami as a major game publisher. Over the last ten years, the company has cut the console game portion of their business by 40%, and it is putting increasing focus on its social and mobile gaming, fitness, and casino operations. Meanwhile, The Nikkei also reports that Metal Gear Solid V's development costs have soared to $80m, a budget that will require big sales figures to make the game meaningfully profitable.
This puts consumers who are both eager to play the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V and who aren't happy with Konami's corporate culture in a tough spot. The money brought in by MGSV will likely go towards expanding the company's non-game operations, and given the treatment that Konami's workers face, the likelihood that good sales will result in good developer bonuses seems low. But if fans decide not to support MGSV, what will that mean for the "usefulness" of the game's developers?
Obviously consumers are going to do what they want, and this is only one more thing to add onto the incredibly long list of unethical production practices when it comes to video games. But while I can't imagine Metal Gear devotees staying away from what seems to be Hideo Kojima's final entry in the series, it could be tough to balance excitement for their favorite franchise with the knowledge that the people who made that game did so under these conditions.
Konami has not yet issued a statement in response to The Nikkei's article.