I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Working in video game development is the dream of many young men; they imagine themselves devising the next mega-game that players will talk about for decades. Nobody tells them that they’ll be working 100 or more hours a week and will not have a life outside of writing code.
The Push to Release
Let’s say we’re working on a game called Zoo Attack. There will probably be a rabid wolf on the loose, a drunken psychopathic keeper, rogue elephants, and a group of schoolchildren trapped in the lion exhibit at lunch time.
The geeks in development say it will be ready in two years; the marketing department says no, we’ll launch in 18 months. Who has the ear of investors? Nerds or sales. This being the world that worships at the feet of the capitalist god called money, we all know the answer.
So, as the release date nears and the game is only two thirds finished the pressure is applied in what is called “crunch time.”
The developers eat, sleep, and live by their keyboards, putting in mind-numbing hours to meet the deadline set by the sales department.
In 2004, the partner of a game developer wrote an anonymous blog post outing the atrocious working conditions at Electronic Arts. Her fiancé was facing “mandatory hours [of] 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.―seven days a week―with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30 p.m.). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week.”
The poster was eventually identified as Erin Hoffman and the company had to settle a class-action lawsuit of almost $15 million in unpaid overtime.
“To any EA executive that happens to read this, I have a good challenge for you: how about safe and sane labor practices for the people on whose backs you walk for your millions?”
— Erin Hoffman
But, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of change over the last decade and a half.
In October 2018, the co-founder of Rockstar Games, Dan Houser, seemed to boast about the workload involved in getting the game Red Dead Redemption 2 to market: “We were working 100-hour weeks.”
This brought about a backlash. David Heinemeier Hansson, founder of Basecamp and creator of Ruby on Rails turned to Twitter. He wrote, “Imagine bragging about pushing your workers to 100h+ weeks while also claiming to be proud of how sensible your work practices are; especially on a sequel to an original game that brought the families of workers to plead with management for leniency.”
Houser changed the story by saying it was only him and a handful of others working such long days.
How Video Games Are Made
Developing a new video game requires the talents of many people in many disciplines. There are writers to produce the story line, artists to create the characters, computer programmers must write millions of lines of code, sound engineers, photographers, voice actors, and others make up the teams.
The process can involve thousands of people located in several countries. Some companies in the industry push their game developers into mandatory overtime in order to complete the work.
“By the third week of working there, I had noticed that I have never seen certain team members leave the office ever . . . You enter a certain point of depression where a process is comforting, and once I’d felt like another cog I just accepted this as my fate.”
— Video game artist Clarke Nordhauser
The Effects of Crunch
Take This is a charity that has looked into this corporate culture and what it found is summed up in the title of its white paper―“Crunch Hurts.”
The researchers wrote that “Common wisdom suggests that crunch is a necessary practice, and inevitable. Some developers even believe a successful product requires crunch, and that creativity and esprit de corps rely on it.”
Overwork of this sort has consequences:
- After prolonged periods of 40+ hours a week, productivity begins to drop off;
- Working long hours triggers depression, a condition that costs the U.S. economy $44 billion a year, not all of which can be attributed to overwork;
- Paul J. Rosch of the American Institute of Stress has estimated that stress caused, in part by overwork, costs U.S. industry $300 billion a year as a result of employee turnover, absenteeism, and legal and medical insurance costs;
- Take This notes that “Long work hours might mean giving up sleep, eating poorly, overindulging in caffeinated drinks, and otherwise abandoning healthy habits;”
- A 2012 study found that those working 11 or more hours a day have a 2.5 times higher likelihood of suffering from major depression than those who work seven or eight hours a day;
- The likelihood of having a workplace injury goes up by 61 percent when heavy overtime is involved; and,
- Excessive overtime can lead to failed relationships.
The corporate culture is such that the burn out of employees is not seen as a significant issue because there is an army of eager recruits waiting to replace those who fall by the wayside.
“They are expected to just dig deep into their passion for making games and overlook how their passion for their profession and their specific project is being exploited to cover poor management practices.”
— Former executive director of the International Game Developers Association Kate Edwards
- Adam Boyes worked in the video game industry. In October 2018, he told The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about a co-worker who spent nine consecutive days at the office working on a project. He was the father of a newborn and “His wife would bring him his daughter to visit. That was just sad, but it was his commitment to the company.”
- A survey in 2015 found that 62 percent of the people working in video game development said crunch was an issue for them.
- Japanese work culture has caused some employees to literally work themselves to death. It’s called karoshi and it took the life of 31-year-old journalist Miwa Sado in July 2013. She put in 135 hours of overtime in a single month before dying of heart failure.
- “Crunch Hurts – A White Paper Commissioned by Take This.” August 2016.
- “As Red Dead Redemption 2 Nears Release, Rockstar Games Is Under Fire for Employees’ Extreme Overtime.” CBC, October 20, 2018.
- “ ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’s’ 100-Hour Work Weeks Spark Video Game Industry Outrage.” Liz Lanier, Variety, October 15, 2018.
- “The Human Story.” Erin Hoffman, Live Journal, November 10, 2004.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Jessica Lewis on April 24, 2020:
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Liz Westwood from UK on October 25, 2018:
This gives a very interesting and revealing insight into the lives of those who create the video games that others enjoy playing.