Crunch and labor exploitation in the games industry


#1

Inspired by the recent Life is Strange article here and this harrowing story in the NYT, I thought it’d be good to have a dedicated thread to discuss the specific issue of labor exploitation and work culture in the games industry. To start this discussion off, I wanted to offer a few of my thoughts on the article.

What strikes me as the most insidious aspect of crunch is how it’s normalized and reinforced by management and company culture. Games industry workers are only considered valuable insofar as they can cram in as much work as necessary to ship a product; their health has seemingly no intrinsic value to the company, and that perception embeds itself in the work culture and consequently in the individual employees (especially in the terrifying case of Brett Douville, who was worked so hard that in one instance he lacked the strength to get out of his car.)

Perhaps this is emblematic of the Silicon Valley work/overwork culture in general, but the conditions forced upon game developers seem especially egregious given the relatively low salaries of games industry jobs compared with others in the tech field.

I guess what I’m wondering is: what would it take to get an effective games industry labor movement going? What conditions need to change before game developer unions would have a chance of coalescing? I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic for the last couple years based on some of the many industry horror stories I’ve heard, and I’d love to hear what y’all think about this/the NYT article.


#2

It sounds real bad. I don’t work in the industry so I can’t speak from any personal experience with the work conditions, but I will say from an enthusiast standpoint, it puts a lot more reality behind those old endearing moments I would see in “making of,” or things like the little thank you pamphlet that CD Projekt Red packed into new copies of the Witcher III — all that burst of emotion feels a lot less endearing to see and a lot more painful.

I’ve already kind of shifted my idea of beating up on a game for shipping in a less than ideal state, too, because I know even sometimes when games end up kind of bad for the consumer experience, they usually required just as much sacrifice and labor to make.

It’s a hard thing to hear about, for sure, and I really do hope more developers try to take a stand against overwork practices — even if they feel they aren’t impacted greatly by it themselves.

It makes me worry about the culture when it comes to persistent online games like popular MMORPGs or “Games as a Service” structures, where work doesn’t really end at launch, too.


#3

You’re right. One of the biggest problems with game development labor more than even other kinds of tech labor is that there is a stigma that you should be laboring even more because you have a “passion” for your work, i.e. you can work 70 hours a week because you just love video games that much. It also acts as an excuse for lower salaries, 1) because if you love games so much you should be willing to work on them for cheap, and 2) because games are such a popular and beloved medium, there is a large workforce willing to work on them who don’t yet know the problems, so the labor is relatively fungible compared to other tech (though this is debatable).

I’m not sure what the solution is here. I think separating a love of the medium from the labor of creating games should be an important first step, and realizing that just because people want some semblance of better labor conditions doesn’t mean that they don’t love games or that they don’t love making games.


#4

Honestly, what I’d like to see is journalists putting it front and center as much as possible. This is already happening in some aspects which is excellent, such as what Waypoint has done and the work done here by Jason, but for quite a while now I’ve kind of been thinking more of a direct approach.

I’d love to see at events such as E3, PAX and other major cons, during off site interviews for upcoming games, when having guests on podcasts; when a journalist is interviewing a person of a high rank in a publishing studio / developer, drop the questions that need answers. “What are you / what is your company doing to reduce and eliminate crunch culture at your workplace?” I understand everyone is friends in the games industry, but putting this front and center over and over again, making the person who is being asked uncomfortable with this kind of question, is the only way to push the big companies into doing something about it. It’s been a thing since the industry started, it’s been growing in knowledge in the public eye for years now, but it will take making it a proper big deal before the execs will listen.

The people who are capable and responsible for this work ethic are the people in charge of the companies perpetuating it, and they need be held accountable.


#5

To feel the shape of the problem, start out going through an education machine which insists on a very specific “look” to who will become a worker. Head through university courses designed around at least full-time hours (this is the bare minimum on many courses related to fields that are core to video games from technical art to programming - these courses compete with hard sciences for hours expected/contact hours) and a culture that when you’re not working on the course then you’re still working towards the career. How about a 48 hour game jam, no sleep, just a few friends pushing themselves forward to complete a project for fun. We’ll be able to get them to let us use the labs and we’ve even got free pizza arranged. What about the presentations next week, just a bit of practice but it’s great experience and so good that there’s so much extra-curricular (but work related) here every week.

The culture is created before many people even join the workforce and get paid for it. If you’re lucky, you got some contract gigs and got paid for some of that work while you were still at Uni rather than it all being passion projects done for nothing. But don’t worry because the average salary when you get into the industry could be $60k or even more: it’s good money if you make it after that. Just keep some of it saved up just in case the studio gets rid of your team on Friday.

And that’s just the basic sales pitch. You see all those cars in the garage: one day you’ll be able to buy a fleet of Ferraris if you want and you make it. It only takes one break. What about this smaller team? Once the VC money rolls in then everyone is able to retire if we didn’t just love making games so much. It’s basically indistinguishable from the wider tech industry for a turbo-charged American Dream fantasy as the carrot that keeps everyone working for a reward almost none will survive burnout to enjoy. What would it take to break that grip? Anyone got a huge box of those They Live sunglasses lying around?


#6

From everything I’ve read, heard, and learned, crunch culture sounds uncannily like graduate school in the humanities.

There’s a kind of sink-or-swim mentality that exploits passion for cheap, disposable labor in a highly competitive atmosphere where most people will get burned out or forced out. Those who survive then pass on the whole structure as a kind of “hazing ritual” for the supposedly “worthy” and spread the myth about “perseverance” and “passion” in order to create a large new group of expendable, passionate young people who will work for peanuts and insanely long hours.


#7

As a humanities PhD student I can definitely relate.


#8

while i think its important to look at like specific aspects of the culture around this i dont know how useful it is as a whole to talk about labour exploitation in the games industry as its own phenomenon

like. pretty much every job that exists hinges upon the view of the worker as a disposable commodity whose wellbeing is absolutely secondary to profit (a profit that ofc does not GO to the worker). this is like, pretty much the entire basis of capitalism. that’s what it is

i dont say this like “nyehhhh dont talk about it nyeeehhh” but idk it weirds me out how often the discussion is about exploitation in [xyz] industry as if these are discrete unique problems. we need solidarity As Workers, The Entire Class not As Workers In Specific Industry yeah?


#9

It’s worth discussing because the degree of exploitation is so much worse than established norms would suggest. Like, 40-60hrs per week is, I think, about as much as most folks expect to work.

It’s also worth discussing because games industry folks skew young and have no representation for collective bargaining, which makes them very easy to exploit.

Also because Waypoint is a games focused site and these issues are of interest to its readership?


#10

It’s a pervasive, probably more than counterproductive system. It’s just gawking at one’s self righteousness because one sleeps even less than the person to their side, and not just videogames but Silicon Valley and other industries show the same problem, and I don’t see how it doesn’t destroy creativity, productivity, one’s health and how it doesn’t prevent people from gathering experience in the industry.


#11

Just like USA at large, the American games industry needs to unionize. I hope the improved conditions achieved by the voice actor strike will inspire the rest of the industry to unionize. The status quo crunch culture burns people out, and pushes experienced people out of the industry. It is untenable.


#12

i’ve got some news for you about the food service industry if you think working more than 40 hours and being expected to be on call at almost all times Only Happens In Tech

hell you even get the “you should do it for LOVE OF THE JOB” thing in a lot of food service roles too; i was a barista for a Large Coffee Chain and fully half of the employee handbook was this shit

like i said. disposability of workers and alienation from labour is universal to all workers. it’s worth talking about specifics to the gaming industry ofc but for the second time this is not a unique problem. its almost completely useless to talk about these issues without also situating it within a broader understanding of class


#13

Crunch is exploitative on so many levels. In general, I think it’s yet another way management and shareholders justify maximum profit. The game industry has such fire labor culture partially because people are expected to be grateful that they even have a job. It’s a depressing cycle.


#14

A thread very similar to this one exists regarding the suffering Cuphead’s devs went through to get that game finished. I expressed similar feelings to @goblin ,I think we are viewing specific instances of labor exploitation through a very specific lens because we’re all so invested in gaming as a hobby, but saying the treatment of game devs in particular is especially egregious is something that’s hard to prove when you take a look around at just how many companies in different industries require their employees to work soul crushing hours.

Just a thought, but I think a big part of the reason abusive labor practices in game development are extra shocking or unnerving to a lot of people is that we can’t fully shake the idea that being a game dev is always some glamorous dream job where everyone sits around in a trendy office with comfy bean bag chairs coding for a couple hours a day and spending the rest playing games at their leisure. This couldn’t be further from the truth in most cases of course. In general I feel like we overlook exploitation surrounding jobs in entertainment/the arts because we see these occupations as “fun” or “fueled by passion”. They suffer just as much, it’s just harder for some to believe it.


#15

It’s that, but also that this is a job where experienced people with sought after skills are still being exploited like this. No-one deserves exploitation, but it’s especially disheartening to think that skills and experience don’t allow for a better bargaining position because of how in control the people on top are.


#16

@SuperBiasedMan UUUUHHHHHHH buddy??? “””unskilled””” labourers deserve good working conditions as much as tech labourers.


#17

I completely agree re: the larger, more general issue of labor exploitation across the workforce; I was worried the topic would be too broad in scope for a single thread, and I wanted to discuss that NYT article, which is why I limited this one the games industry specifically.

America - moreso than many other Western countries - has a very underdeveloped sense of class consciousness, thanks in no small part to the Communist bogeyman played up during the 20th century and brought to a fever pitch under the McCarthy witch hunts. Now it seems like we’re entering an era of late capitalism which, without a solid “enemy” like the USSR to pitch itself again, can only justify its existence by some variation of the argument “well, it’s the best we’ve got.”

That decay unfortunately has to compete with centuries of the mythology surrounding the Great American Meritocracy, and that idea - that you can force your way through the barriers of the system through sheer “hard work” and “perseverance” - holds people back from looking at their economic system critically. That myth is hugely ingrained in the American public, and disillusioning people to it seems to be one of the most effective ways of fostering a sense of class consciousness.


#18

Nothing good can come out of saying “no-one deserves exploitation, but…”. Workers are workers and dividing the class by examining each person’s worth based on so-called marketable skills isn’t a good way of looking at it. Trying to scramble over each other and get ahead in a system rigged against us all is no way to live.


#19

@Tine @Foxtrot
I’m sorry I was unclear, I mean it sincerely. Nobody deserves exploitation. Being skilled or experienced is irrelevant, and does not entitle anyone to better treatment.

I was just trying to say that across the board, workers have so little power. Even ones you would expect to have more leverage are getting stepped on. I don’t think stepping over others to try and get ahead is remotely a solution.

So again, sorry I made it sound like that.


#20

I understand your point but I disagree with your position. Just because exploitation is everywhere doesn’t mean it is worthless to discuss the specific ways in which it manifests in different contexts.

Re service industry conditions: here in Australia things are moving toward casual employment. It’s super hard to get 40hrs a week in these jobs, much less 60 which would attract significant overtime.