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culture

Make a Game at Night, Get Fired in the Morning

David S. Gallant, creator of I Get This Call Every Day, lost his day job after a Star article about his after-hours game-making.

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It’s really only been a few years since the social web has become ubiquitous, and the growing pains are still apparent in what has already become an all-too-familiar story: an employee mouths off about their job, are found out, and summarily dismissed.

There are at least two sides in every conflict. In this particular kind of tension one can defend freedom of speech or the freedom to face consequences for that free speech—and few would argue that when you directly call out your employer online, you’re not asking for trouble.

But what if you create a work related to your line of work without referencing your employer? Do you deserve to be fired for that?

In December a Brampton man, David S. Gallant, released I Get This Call Every Day, a point-and-click game for PCs that he describes as a “personal tale of unwinnable realities.” In the game the player takes the role of a call centre employee trying to verify a caller’s details, trapped between the bureaucratic demands of a call centre script and (understandably) impatient customers. The unspoken inspiration for his game was Gallant’s day job at the Canada Revenue Agency’s call centre—unspoken, that is, until he was outed by the Toronto Star.

After their article about his after-hours creative work, Gallant was fired.

Gallant didn’t tell the Star who his employer was: the paper discovered where Gallant worked independently (when the reporter asked Gallant about this he declined to confirm his employer’s identity) and informed National Revenue Minister Gail Shea, seeking comment about Gallant’s game. She responded through her communications director, Clarke Olsen, that “the Minister considers this type of conduct offensive and completely unacceptable. The Minister has asked the Commissioner (of Revenue, Andrew Treusch) to investigate and take any and all necessary corrective action. The Minister has asked the CRA to investigate urgently to ensure no confidential taxpayer information was compromised.”

Some important points: I Get This Call Every Day features no references to the Canada Revenue Agency. There is one use of a (fake, eight digit) social insurance number to potentially locate the game within Canada, and one offhand reference to a tax return. The game captures the experience of working at an entirely generic call centre—as specific as an average Dilbert cartoon. And Gallant didn’t name his employer to any media outlet, not until the Star did so first.

Gallant, who I spoke with by phone last week, admits that he “always had in the back of my mind that the game could get me into trouble with my employer.” He didn’t, however, think it would go anything like this far. “It was just, ‘hey, great, media coverage, and it’s from a traditional outlet.’ I thought I couldn’t have asked for anything better… I didn’t think that termination would be the final result. I knew trouble could have been—that could have been a verbal or written warning, being asked to modify or remove the game from public view. Honestly I didn’t really think that Canada Revenue Agency would ever have a reason to pay attention to a little game like mine.” (It’s unclear whether they would have if the Star hadn’t been in touch; Gallant told us that his termination was related to his having been “identified publicly as a CRA employee” in the story.)

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Gallant is adamant that his game was not targeting the CRA. “Even that one reference to a tax return, it’s not a focus to the game, it’s just one of the questions among several… The call is about changing an address. That could happen in any call centre, be that government or private sector or what have you. I mean, that was my intention, I very purposely tried to make sure the game didn’t reflect my current employment, when I made it, because I wasn’t trying to say anything about working at Canada Revenue Agency specifically, just about working at call centres in general.”

Valerie Hauch, the reporter who covered the story for the Star also doesn’t know what information might be in the game that could concern the revenue agency, make the game seem “offensive and completely unacceptable,” or worry that “confidential taxpayer information” could have been compromised. “I have no idea why they brought up that reference to confidential tax information, there’s no reference to that in the game,” she told us.

Playing the game itself makes it clear that it was no attempt to get fired.

“I worked for the Canada Revenue Agency because of financial need,” says Gallant. “If I wanted to quit, I would have quit. But I wasn’t able to quit. And I’m only really lucky that the situation has turned around so drastically that it’s not a complete financial meltdown for me and my family right now. I was really worried walking out of that office before sales of the game picked up. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my next month’s rent. I had February, but beyond that for March, I was incredibly worried.”

The future remains “a big worry” for Gallant. Game sales have picked up since his story garnered attention, but “that potential of financial failure is still there. It’s been deferred most definitely, but I don’t really know what’s going to happen next. I’m probably still going to try and get a job and try and make ends meet, that or I try and make a big indie success and we all know what kind of a huge gamble that is.”

As for the game itself, Gallant says, “The narrative has really been twisted by the media. A lot of people are seeing the game as putting down the type of people who call call centres, and that’s not the point. I really was trying to create empathy for both sides. The caller is in a bad situation, he is not a bad person, he may not have everything together, and may be rude at times but people are like that. No one can ever look at their lives and say they haven’t been that person at some point. And the agent is stuck in a position where really they do want to help, but they’ve got so many hoops to jump through themselves. If they just skip that bureaucracy and try and help that person, they get in trouble for that.”

Apparently, if they try to turn that experience into a game, they do too.

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