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It is cool to work in the video game industry. You get paid work on games, right? This image of the video game industry as a cool, hip, fun place where you get to make cutting edge titles has some truth, but it also hides a dark side.
The dark side sometimes shadows the light -- like when Erin Hoffman made her now famous post as ea_spouse. And it appeared again with the allegations of Rockstar Spouse, 38 Studios Spouse, the investigative journalism of Andrew McMillen about the making of L.A. Noire, the IGDA press release about KAOS Studios, through IGDA reports about quality of life, and through conference panels, blogs and forums.
The dark side also emerges when you talk to individual game developers about their working conditions and the risks that they face. Developers say that they face challenges with sustained long working hours ("crunch"), unlimited and unpaid overtime, poor work-life balance, high incidence of musculoskeletal disorders and burnout, unacknowledged intellectual property rights, limited crediting standards, non-compete and non-disclosure agreements, and limited or unsupported training opportunities.
Most developers have stories of long hours: "[I work] an average 10 hours a day; there's days I would put 16 hours in, there's days where people stay overnight. It can get really hectic -- I mean, I was chastised for leaving," said one.
Another explained that the willingness to work is related to the passion for the job, but that this is manipulated. "That's pretty much what seals the deal. If a project is interesting enough, people would put up with anything. They will work crazy hours if they love the project... So people will go, 'Oh yeah, it's going to be a great game.' So they use that -- a company uses that to make people do more work than they should do..." Managers seem completely conscious of this manipulation. One lead said, "I never had to say 'you have to stay,'" but acknowledged that he uses a more subtle tactic:
But usually it's just, I think if your team and you get along, you can phrase it in a way that makes them understand that it would be really, really great if you could stay, and it will be greatly appreciated. But in other projects, people are tired, the project been extended and crunching for ages and then people are close to burn out, you know, some people are just... They practically sleep at the office, so...
These guilt-based tactics and veiled threats to career progression work, and also avoid the legal pitfalls of forced overtime. "I've never had a place that could physically chain me in the building, but the influence of the social and sort of -- not just social in the terms of peer pressure, it's like, also, you know that you have your career in their hands and if you... as a team player, that's going to ensure your progress within the company," explained one developer.
Are video game developers doing anything about these challenges?
Interviews with video game developers in Montreal, Canada, some sneak-peek data from the 2009 IGDA survey, and a canvassing of the social web show that disgruntled workers are speaking out and resisting in a variety of ways, both as individuals and in groups.
There are a number of individual actions that all employees can do if they are unhappy with their work situation. The easiest thing to do is quit and find a better situation somewhere else. The attitude of "if you don't like it, leave" is something that is heard often in the game industry. "In a sense it may be easier to go and start up your own company and do contract work... than it is to try to get a big company to change its ways," said one developer. In the face of a dispute, one developer said that rather than suing the company or going to the "labor people," "It's probably more worthwhile and cheaper just to find another job in the industry. We get fired and get hired at another place all the time."
Some people convey a sense of toughness or machismo about "surviving" an epic crunch, and these episodes become part of the lore of the industry. "I was there when..." This means that those who do not survive or who complain are sometimes considered as those who can't take it -- "this industry is not for you."
Other video game developers take personal advantage of the mobility of the industry -- particularly in regional hot spots or clusters where a lot of studios exist. Here, good developers can be head hunted away from competitors and dissatisfied developers can look for greener pastures. "Employers are waiting in line at my door," said one. "Yeah, we get a lot of calls," said another, adding that "There's a lot of headhunters. There's a lot of employee-pilfering... even inside here."
But this attitude doesn't fix any problems for the long term. If you don't like your work and you quit, your employer just hires someone else. Turnover has to be pretty bad before an employer will change their policies to fix it. You might be able to find a better job in the industry, but most studios operate the same way, so you are probably just getting into the same environment all over again. It could also be worse -- and then you are out of the frying pan and into the fire. You could leave the industry forever, but that sucks, because you like making games. If you are awesome enough to be headhunted or negotiate a personal deal, good for you. But that doesn't help anyone else.
Perpetual turnover also doesn't help the industry as a whole. It is expensive and wasteful to let people with learned studio-specific knowledge continually walk out the door, only to have to reorient the newcomers. High mobility hinders the industry's ability to mature and stabilize. This also creates the conditions where supporters of the status quo succeed and those with diverging opinions are chased out -- this can lead to groupthink and stagnation because no one can see a different way of doing things.