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Are Game Developers Standing Up for Their Rights?

January 9, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

So, what else do developers do?

Some engage in sabotage. This is another thing that all employees do. Sabotage can range from minor (you take some of the office stationery home) to more serious (you vandalize equipment). In white collar or knowledge work, a serious form of sabotage is leaking important or confidential information to competitors or the press. This is very risky because this can threaten the employee's reputation -- and the employee can often rightfully be sued, because of all the NDAs in the video game industry. This is not a common, nor very fruitful action for dissatisfied developers who want to remain in the industry.

A unique form of sabotage particular to the game industry is to drop an "Easter egg." This is used specifically to gain credit for work. The acknowledgement of intellectual property rights and the proper crediting of the people involved in each game is a sticky issue in the game industry.

With crediting largely unregulated, individual developers often have to bargain from scratch. Their success is highly dependent on their individual skills or their specific context. The practice of dropping these coded signatures within the gameplay became a way for developers or teams to make their mark.

This did have an effect in drawing attention to the issue of crediting, and the search for Easter eggs and decoding their meaning is great fun for hardcore fans. But, it is only one response to one challenge, and not as common, nor as easy, as it once was.

Some developers complain or make suggestions when they don't like something about their working conditions. This is called having "employee voice." Some of the developers that we interviewed said that their studios had formal policies for managers to listen to employees. Some referred to "open door" policies. One was more specific: "Managers, for instance, have to allow a certain amount...30 percent or so... of their time, or more, to answer employees' queries in general."

Our interviewees were mixed as to the extent and intent of employee voice mechanisms, like general meetings and open-door policies. Some thought that many senior and HR managers are open to such one-to-one discussions. As one developer said, "It's important to have a voice, otherwise you don't really feel that you're... You know, you're just there, you're not contributing. I'd say for the most part, if I feel strongly... I could take the effort to bring it to the attention of the upper management." As well, some women in particular reported gratitude for specific arrangements they received regarding work-family balance.

Others had mixed feelings toward the role of HR in helping employees. One said, "Sometimes they feel like they are not necessarily there to help you, because they are employees of the company." Another intimated that HR is complicit in perpetuating the negative norms of the company -- "Because a lot of people, even in HR, have a kind of 'well, you know how it goes' way."

Open door policies and other mechanisms of employee voice are not a universal norm in the industry and, like other workplaces, success often depends on the manager or team lead involved. In a 2010 blog post that was widely and favorably received on the web, Insomniac Games' Mike Acton shared his tips on how to be a good manager. He wrote:

One-on-ones: This is probably one of the most important aspects of my job. I do my best to meet with 20-something people for at least a half-hour, at least once every two weeks. For sure, that's a lot of time. But no time is better spent than this. It's an opportunity to listen. Every person is different. There is no "format" for these that works for everyone. Sometimes it's about technical advice and feedback. Sometimes it's about personal issues. Sometimes it's about the day-to-day struggles of development. But whatever it is, it's always about letting each person simply tell me what's on their mind and doing my best to help them, as best I can, grow as professionals.

Acton goes on to say that even these one-on-ones aren't enough: "It's fine to have an 'open door policy'. But more than that, it's necessary that I constantly seek feedback. I can't just wait for someone to come to me with a problem or suggestion. I need to use every tool at my disposal to figure out what's on people's minds. That's absolutely part of my responsibility."

This shows that successful employee voice requires trust and commitment on both sides of the managerial divide. This is not always easily built, and is definitely not built within times of conflict. For successful voice, employees must speak up with legitimate and reasonable concerns and employers must take their comments into real consideration.

There is a real sense in the video game industry that mistakes are repeated time and again; that managers, leads and development teams themselves do not learn from their mistakes despite the post-mortems. In the 2009 IGDA Quality of Life survey, developers were asked if management seeks their input and acts on it. One quarter said no. Over one-quarter were "neutral"; they couldn't decide. Only 12 percent strongly agreed that management sought and acted upon employee input.

Voice is a superior option than quitting or sabotage if the complaints or suggestions are received and produce positive results. Exercising employee voice also has more potential than employee exit (quitting) for the problem to be addressed for more than just one person.

When managers hear of a problem from an employee and act to resolve it for that employee, they may also permanently change policy for all employees, or at least consider their past decisions to maintain equity of treatment. Some of our interviewees did say that changes don't come easily and swiftly, but they do come if the issue is supported by a mass of employees or is particularly sensitive. "So there is an attempt to proactively respond to people, but in the aggregate," said one.

On the whole, according to those of our interview respondents who had voiced grievances, the workplace offered an ongoing discussion. That said, voicing your grievance is not a guarantee of it being addressed. And managers can cut side deals with individuals that do not benefit anyone else. This is called arbitrary treatment, and though it can have great outcomes for "superstars" or others management wants to appease, it is never guaranteed, and can create a lot of inequity. As we will discuss more below, the context of voice also matters. As one developer said:

They are really happy when you are in a meeting with your manager, privately talking about your salary and your performance, and you're having a say with HR. I think they are not so happy if you would go out and say, start a blog, or talking about how you or your spouse was very abused of their job -- and that forces them, a little more, to deal with the problem. So, having your say is contextual. Like you can have it, but they probably would rather have you talking directly to them, which doesn't give you very much ground to stand on. The public way could be dangerous for them, and they don't like it at all... So, it's not cool with them if you're saying publicly things that contradict... That can potentially damage the corporate line, especially if it's a publicly traded company, or something like that.

Another action that dissatisfied employees can take is to sue their employer. But employers have a lot more resources than employees, and sometimes the law might not be strong enough to support some employee complaints. Sometimes legal action can be more successful and less of a burden when done collectively. This also solves the problem for a larger group and is more likely to ensure permanent changes to the system. There have been some successful class action lawsuits in the video game industry -- especially over unpaid overtime.

Programmers and graphic artists have launched and won a number of suits of this nature against Sony (Wilson v. Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc.), Electronic Arts (Hasty v. Electronic Arts, Inc.; Kirschenbaum v. Electronic Arts, Inc) and Vivendi (Aitken vs. Vivendi Universal Games). These settlements totaled more than $39 million, and affected over 1200 employees. The settlements also resulted in the reclassification of many employees to be below the pay and responsibility grade that would make them exempt from receiving overtime pay.

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