Crunch and labor exploitation in the games industry

To piggyback onto this a bit, for some people, it can be helpful to have a particular instance of a larger problem to focus on fixing. If you show someone a big, giant systemic issue and say “It’s everywhere, look out!”, it can appear so overwhelming that the reaction becomes “I’ll let someone else figure it out/care about it.” Having an example to point to that’s a direct part of the person’s life (in this instance, gamers who care about how their games are made) is more likely to create concern rather than ennui.

i literally did not say it was worthless i said it had to be contextualised w/in a broader discussion of class & workers rights to actually be useful

I’ve worked in soul-crushing food service and call center positions, even in the last year between game industry contracts. I know full well that labor exploitation is not exclusive to gaming and frequently far worse in other industries.

Broadening out the subject to “well we need full unionization, better safety nets for laid off workers, an overturning of current labor dynamics, etc” is both preaching to a choir (this forum already skews socialist) and losing focus toward an industry where the exact modes of exploitation can realistically be overcome with concentrated effort over the next decade or two.

Lawnch pointed out earlier one suggestion of how game journalists can push the conversation in heavily consumer-focused industry events toward one of labor rights for workers in a way that pressures publisher representatives to disclose their practices. That’s actionable advice going forward.

I know it sounds assholish and defeatist, but “achieve at least European level labor equality” isn’t something that I or anyone else here can have nearly as much influence on accomplishing.

Right. What I understood from this is that, it’s not useful to talk about worker exploitation in games specifically but rather that we should talk about worker exploitation in general. As mentioned, I disagree. I think it’s easy to identify bigger and more general evils but that doesn’t help as much as saying hey, XYZ is broken in this specific way and in this specific context and by drawing attention to it maybe we can help such that it ends up less broken someday soon.

Small steps, you know?

Terrific post from @miscu above. Just noticed!

im not saying lets not discuss this! this is a good thing to discuss! for the umpteenth time i am saying while discussing this it is important to contextualise it within broader discussions of workers rights

i literally dont know how else to phrase this to y’all bc yr all somehow reading “lets not talk about anything except HELLMARCH BEGINS PLAYING FULL COMMUNISM” when i am saying “while discussing this lets not lose sight of the broader material context”

Actually I’m sorry. I should have taken your statement in better faith. I get what you’re saying: Capitalism is a hellscape for us all. There is no way to game it because it’s designed to exploit all of us. I reacted strongly because I often see suggestions that people working in games (and tech in general) are uniquely exploited, and uniquely deserve better working conditions. I think that’s what both @goblin and I are reacting to. The conversation around crunch is important, but the conversation in games spaces is usually about crunch specifically and fails to take into account the overarching structures which encourage exploitative working conditions. It can feel very “but I didn’t think it would happen in a space I care about”. Coupled with the fact that in many games spaces there is often a rejection of class consciousness and a narrow focus on games divorced from a wider cultural, social, and political context… idk, I think having the wider conversation is valuable too! It would be nice to see the solidarity extend to other industries rather than always being focused on games.


Oh I know you didn’t mean anything malicious by it, no worries.

I think @Highwire had a good point about class consciousness above that it’s important to keep in mind when we look at how a lot of citizens in western societies view themselves. That old quote about poor Americans viewing themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” as opposed to oppressed proletariat is kind of an oversimplification but it does explain what the mixture of anti-soviet propaganda and the overblown myth of the American dream has done to our collective psyche.

Decades of having been told the only successful society is one that values fierce individualism has made us think that the only way to eke out a decent existence is to look out for ourselves and invest all your time into making yourself as attractive to employers as possible, when the goal should actually be to form a kinder society where we don’t have to desperately look for a leg up on the competition.

As for the big picture debate, I don’t think there’s no value to talking about these issues in the context of game development, but I think removing oneself from their own bubble on occasion and realizing that certain issues are universal goes a long way towards bringing people together to find solutions.


OK, so what sort of broader context are you getting at? It might help us if you started talking about that, instead of talking about talking about it?

What goblin is talking about are the overarching umbrella issues that dominate American labor politics. Severe wealth and power disparity between workers and business owners, the near-destruction of unions across most sectors of employment, political discourse that defines certain jobs (coincidentally the ones capitalism has eroded the average wage to near-nothing) as worth “less” somehow due to completely arbitrary reasons.

There’s a very long list of additional problems I could get into, but those are some of the biggest pillars that creates the rampant abuses in western labor dynamics. Though there are issues which are somewhat unique to game development–“passion” fueling flagrant disregard for worker health and work/life balance, voice actors being considered outsiders to projects with none of the same protections as film/TV actors–the overarching issues in the American labor sectors absolutely have a ton of overlap into the game industry.


Really good thread on the changes in labor practices in the industry/labor in video games in general


Felt it was worth a bump to mention that Vox journalists are currently trying to organize a union. It’s been 26 days since they announced they were organizing it, but Vox Media proper still hasn’t recognized it.

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Vox Media responding predictably shittily to organizing efforts

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In related news, 45 of Buzzfeed’s 140 UK staff are facing redundancy right now. Their executives are also attempting to block unionisation (fearmongering about “perks” like the free food area staff use while working) at the same time.

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Pretty long-term bump, I know, but some big stuff might be happening this week at GDC:

A group called Game Workers Unite just put a site up with some resources for devs looking for information on how to organize/what being in a union entails and why devs should unionize. Additionally, they tweeted this out earlier today:

indicating that they’ll be organizing some further actions later in the week. I’m excited as hell about this honestly, and even the fact that they put this up at all is a huge rallying cry for exploited workers all over the industry.


GOOD because the IGDA are being awful regarding this. I’m glad that some folks are putting in real action at GDC.

and more recently (today!)
“IGDA Director Says Capital, Not Unions Will Keep Game Development Jobs Secure”


That interview sure is a thing and a half.

So for example if you are a relatively small studio that has laid off a team, odds are you laid them off because you can’t afford them anymore. A union’s not going to change that, access to capital is going to change that. If you are EA shutting down Visceral it’s for a different reason that’s not necessarily access to capital it’s because your relationship with your shareholders and how you are using capitals to further shareholder return on investment.



That quote’s hilarious, shareholders with ludicrous expectations have led to games that sold quite well being portrayed as colossal failures simply because they didn’t meet those expectations and only provided a slightly massive return.

Megan Farokhmanesh from The Verge did some great reporting on Telltale’s toxic management.

Some former employees reported working 14- to 18-hour days or coming in every day of the week for weeks on end. But where most developers go into “crunch mode” in the final months of a game leading up to its launch, they described it as constant. Because of the episodic nature of Telltale’s games, the studio’s development cycle was a constantly turning wheel.

“I remember hearing one of my bosses say, ‘I love that we can just shout at each other and curse at each other in a meeting. It’s totally great,’” says one former employee. “I [didn’t] feel that way at all. It sucks. I don’t want to work every day where I have to yell at people and scream to have my voice heard… I think a lot of people burned out that way.”

“That’s when things got really bad,” says a former employee. “I think a lot of the insecurity came from The Walking Dead.” The game’s success had significantly raised the profiles of Rodkin and Vanaman and earned them widespread praise. “I think that that really irked [Bruner, Telltale’s former CEO] a lot,” says the source. “He felt that… he deserved that. It was his project, or it was his company. He should have gotten all that love.”


is the best way to not support developers/publishers that force their employees to put the product before their health to just stop buying AAA games, period? are there some offenders who are worse than others? who are they?

can we get a “sustainable free range no-crunch environment” label on games?

I think Scott Benson (Night in the Woods) designed the logo. I know he’s been handling out pamphlets and stuff at GDC. I’ve a lot of respect for the wobblie love/approach.

Anyway, this is good. I’d really love it if there was a “built by union labor” label that gets stuck on the box right next to the ESRB rating.