Working Too Hard in an Industry of Fun and Games
Carnations and lilies were the final indignity.
The bouquet, which arrived at her door on a sunny Saturday in September, were from her fiance, a video game programmer who was working his eighth consecutive 72-hour week.
Far from being flattered, the woman poured out her anger and frustration in a 2,000-word essay that she posted on the Internet under the pseudonym “ea_spouse.”
“The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach,” she wrote. “My happy supportive smile is running out.”
Within 48 hours, ea_spouse had received more than 1,000 sympathetic responses -- from colleagues of her fiance at Electronic Arts Inc. and from men and women across the fast-growing $25-billion video game industry.
Links to her plaint rocketed through in-boxes at game studios nationwide and touched a nerve among the young, mostly male programmers whose engineering prowess brings ever more elaborate monsters and car chases to television screens and computer monitors.
“People regularly joke about forgetting their wives’ names, but it’s not funny,” said one senior developer, who asked that his name not be published. “When I read ea_spouse’s article, it just hit me.”
Since its founding as a garage industry in the mid-1970s, the video game business has been fueled by a dicey mix of testosterone and caffeine. Programmers routinely boast about napping under their desks or of forgoing sleep for days on end. Now, as those workers mature along with their industry, many are grappling with failed relationships, neglected families, weight gain and anxiety attacks. They complain that as budgets and expectations for games explode, so do the workloads for those making them.
Game companies don’t dispute that their employees put in long hours but contend that the workload is balanced with good pay, benefits and perks.
“Everyone who works in a game studio knows that the hard work that comes with [finishing] games isn’t unique to EA,” said Electronics Arts spokeswoman Tammy Schachter. “As the industry leader, EA generates a lot of attention on issues common to all game developers.”
Nonetheless, more than half of game developers expect to leave the industry within 10 years, according to an April survey by the International Game Developers Assn. Nearly 60% of those questioned said crunch periods were normal, and 47% said they weren’t compensated for overtime hours. Only 3% said their employers counted all the overtime hours they had worked.
“For game developers, never has the pressure to work hard and fast been stronger than it is today,” the report concluded.
That ea_spouse lashed out at Electronic Arts is, in part, a function of EA’s size. With 5,100 workers, the Redwood City, Calif.-based publisher is the world’s biggest. But it isn’t the only company that expects its developers to work 60 to 80 hours a week in the weeks and months leading up to the final release of games -- referred to as crunch time. Developers from other companies tell similar stories.
Their descriptions of life behind the computer contrast with the image promoted by big game companies and popularized during the tech boom of the 1990s. True, office campuses boast gleaming gyms, expansive swimming pools, gourmet cafeterias and volleyball courts, but, as one developer put it, “these things just sit there and mock us.”
“It’s ironic because we have these shiny new things that nobody has any time to use,” said the developer, who asked not to be named. “The best use of the swimming pool so far was by someone who jumped into it and started flipping off his managers on his last day of work.”
Although ea_spouse has become the online standard bearer for games workers, the battle actually began in July, when current and former workers sued EA over allegations that they were owed overtime pay. The company declined to comment on the lawsuit.
“Unfortunately this kind of thing is prevalent throughout the industry,” said Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Assn. in San Francisco. “There are a handful of studios that put an emphasis on work-life balance, but those are few and far between.”
What irritated ea_spouse most, she said, was that Electronic Arts appeared to exploit her fiance’s love of video games. Like many now working in the industry, he grew up as part of the first generation to start playing video games at a young age.
“It’s so difficult, because we love the game industry,” ea_spouse said during an interview. “Games have been a part of our lives for so long.”
But, she said, “he hasn’t been home for dinner to stay for months. It’s a constant stress. I can’t see him suffer without suffering myself. I noticed a change in him. All his interests have gone away. He’s constantly on the verge of getting sick. He’s pale and unresponsive.”
For months, she kept a meticulous record of her fiance’s hours and work habits.
In neat handwriting, she jotted entries like “August 28, 2004 -- Going home early, 8:30 p.m.”
She acknowledged that both she and her fiance understood long hours came with the job. Neither, though, was prepared for what they said were weeks on end without a break. “They increased the mandatory hours to 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., six days a week,” ea_spouse said. “Then it went up to seven days. They were just so pompous about it.”
Part of the industry’s work ethic grows out of its early days when solo programmers regularly pulled all-nighters to bring their games to life.
“There’s a cowboy mentality and a bravado about working 60 to 80 hours a week, drinking Jolt Cola to stay awake and being a game development machine,” Della Rocca of the game developers association said. “Some companies exploit that and pressure people to work long hours. The implication is that if you’re not willing, there are 10 other people lined up outside ready to take your place.”
The pressure on game publishers to churn out hits has increased too. Most big game publishers are publicly traded firms that have to meet ambitious Wall Street expectations. As games become more sophisticated, they can cost millions of dollars to produce. Also, many games are based on expensive movie licenses that limit publishers’ time to develop titles.
Some contrast the non-union game industry with the heavily unionized movie business, which often employs former game workers to produce digital special effects and computer animation work. The Walt Disney Co., DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., and Warner Bros. have labor contracts that require them to pay overtime for every hour worked beyond 40 hours a week.
“In computer graphics for feature animation and television, pretty much everybody gets overtime,” said Steve Hulett, business representative for the Animation Guild, a union for television and movie animators. “The difference is that we have labor contracts covering motion picture work but the game industry is relatively new. And labor law is so badly written that they fall into a gray area.”
Indeed. Most programmers at EA are classified as salaried employees exempt from overtime pay. The lawsuit filed in July disputes that categorization, saying that game developers should be paid on an hourly basis because they don’t have managerial responsibilities.
Instead, many game companies lavish other goodies on their workers, mostly free food. For example, the flowers sent to ea_spouse were part of a company-paid effort to boost morale: Employees were given a card from a florist and told to pick from four bouquets to send to their wives or girlfriends.
“What got me mad was that the flowers were so random,” said ea_spouse, who still plans to marry the EA employee. “Instead of giving their workers time off, they try to buy them off with frivolous things. I didn’t want flowers. I wanted my fiance.”