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SIGGRAPH: EA_Spouse, IGDA On Industry 'Quality Of Life' Issues

SIGGRAPH: EA_Spouse, IGDA On Industry 'Quality Of Life' Issues

July 31, 2006 | By Beth Dillon

The ACM SIGGRAPH Sandbox Symposium, a two-day video game event of keynotes, panels, and papers from Saturday, July 29 to Sunday, July 30, 2006, held in conjunction with SIGGRAPH 06 in Boston, Massachusetts, integrated issues of game industry by holding the panel "The Passion of the Developer (ea_spouse in the h_ouse!): Labor Relations and Quality of Life in the Industry."

'Broken Leg Touchdown'?

Thomas J. Allen, who directs the awards program for NAViGaTR, an organization that celebrates game art, technology and production by recognizing developer talent, opened with a colorful rant about Quality of Life in game industry. Passion can only take an employee so far, and managers currently play a harsh role in development, explained Allen, "... like a deranged football couch screaming at you to make a touch down with a broken leg."

Panelists also somewhat bizarrely referred to an claimed reflection of Quality of Life issues in game story content. Though many might dismiss this as extreme conspiracy theory, they found threads of these issues in games such as Oddworld: Abe's Oddyssee, Deus Ex, and Half-Life. They have seen numerous accounts of evil corporations, psychological confrontations, and evil bosses in games.

The panel ran a short skit and asked for two people from the audience: one who is bitter and angry and another who is calm and fair but generally has no guts. To drive their point home, the skit was a scene from Doom 3 that began with the bitter, angry participant yelling, "Do I need to remind you of the groundbreaking work we've been doing here?!"

Allen argued that Quality of Life is a management issue, not a developer issue. He asked the audience how many hours of work a week should be appropriate in game industry, and most responded to his prompt of forty hours. He described a panel he had been on where a manager threw out the same question, and the entire session time was spent arguing over hour details. "Managers are the ones who need to change corporate goals and models," he added. He suggested three ways of dealing with Quality of Life problems, all of which he feels are bad options: lawsuits, unions, legislation.

'EA_Spouse' Speaks

As the panel title suggests, Erin Hoffman, who drew attention to Quality of Life issues in 2004 as user 'ea_spouse' on LiveJournal by blogging about her husband's extreme work schedule at Electronic Arts, was present to address lawsuit concerns. After her husband's lawsuit, she explained, there was an immediate ripple through the entertainment community. Lawyers realized that it was, in their perspective, appropriate to take legal action. "There are loopholes, but our rights are concrete," she said.

Other panelists, including Jason Della Rocca, Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), and Matthew Sakey, author of the IGDA-published monthly column "Culture Clash," jumped into the discussion. Panelists agreed that there is a stigma around filing a lawsuit and that there is an avoidance of being viewed as a disgruntled employee. "Not a single person approached my husband with those assumptions," stated Hoffman as an encouragement to employees considering filing a lawsuit.

In addition, panelists claimed that the laws are not vague, but rather that propaganda is in place. "Laws are much, much clearer for artists than programmers," Hoffman admitted, "but lawsuits can be won." As cases are resolved, more are coming down the pipeline. According to Hoffman, these lawsuits are not just directed at Electronic Arts, but also at Activision and Sony.

However, lawsuit stories are usually kept under wraps, despite media constantly looking to dig up stories. Della Rocca shared that journalists call him at least once a week to write on Quality of Life experiences. He added that although the human element was dry in the White Paper on Quality of Life and instead emphasized pie charts and other forms of statistics, IGDA was publicizing material before Hoffman's husband's lawsuit.

Unions - Not The Way?

Panelists considered the issue that many people in middle management positions are still too new to game industry and are mainly present in companies because they can make games. They feel that there is little structure for allocating man power or organizing man power for survivable work weeks. These problems can't be solved by unions, panelists agreed. Management emphasizes that you need to have passion to work in the game industry, which is often killed with a time clock. Panelists have found that management also grossly underestimates time and resources needed and at times does so purposefully to get initial funding knowing they will need additional funding in the future.

Andy Luckey, Co-founder and President of Greater Family, LLC, stirred up debate about outsourcing to handle rising development costs. Union issues of other countries emerged in the discussion. Della Rocca interpreted the opinions of developers: "It all comes back down to talent. It all comes back down to money. If I can find that in China, I'll do that. If I can find that here, I'll do it here."

Quality of Life is a symptom of larger structure problems, Della Rocca explained. As a non-profit, IGDA can't serve as a union, but ultimately Della Rocca feels that plugging into a union would imply that employees of the game industry have given up. "At the base level, each one of us is too passionate sometimes, too complicit," he added as he detailed the typical work behaviors in the game industry. Some employees shoot for team effort and don't want to let down co-workers, while others play into the bravado macho stereotype building up work hours, he described.

Also Discussed - Actual Solutions!

To end on a lighter note, Harmonix Associate Producers Helen McWilliams and Naoko Takamoto were invited to explain their company's "crunch relief" programs. Although they have shipped titles without having anyone work over 40 hours a week, crunch time has hit them as an absolute last resort occasionally. Their company changed the mentality of crunch time by viewing it as creative time and showing support and appreciation for employees. The company has done anything from provided employees with massages, to cleaning laundry, to giving them fruit salad.

During development of Karaoke Revolution, they had a trickle down effect of attitude change by doing something little every day. They even held water balloon fights and short fake game shows in the middle of the day. At most, their mandatory crunch time at Harmonix has hit a duration of 6 weeks with 80 hours of work a week. Another important aspect of Quality of Life for Harmonix pertains to viewing every employee's time as equally valuable, even if an employee doesn't have a spouse or children.


Panelists appreciated Harmonix's work environment stories, but some were concerned about companies who might use the techniques irresponsibly to justify planning in crunch time and offering small trade offs to employees. Ultimately, the panel concluded, Quality of Life concerns go beyond individual incidences and should draw attention to larger structural issues in the game industry as a whole.

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