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Are Game Developers Standing Up for Their Rights?

January 9, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Video game developers have other options for collective action as well.

The industry has a non-profit professional association in the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). According to its webpage, the IGDA mission is: "To advance the careers and enhance the lives of game developers by connecting members with their peers, promoting professional development, and advocating on issues that affect the developer community."

This is important, because high-tech labor markets such as new media and video game development have high mobility and limited employer investment in training; therefore, professional associations play an important role in improving their members' opportunities for finding employment in the regional labour market, helping them to improve their skills, and improving their individual negotiating positions.

According to the work of Chris Benner, Associate Professor at UC Davis, professional associations or guilds are seeing a resurgence in high-tech sectors (i.e., System Administrators' Guild, HTML Writers' Guild, Silicon Valley Web Guild).

In a 2003 article, Benner cites the words of Kynn Bartlett, founder and then president of the HTML Writers' Guild. "The term 'guild' was chosen to look back at the older, medieval-type guilds. What we liked from that model was the notion of sharing knowledge -- that building web design was something of a craft... [The term 'guild'] keeps in mind the main purpose... sharing information to make everyone successful."

However, these contemporary guilds and the IGDA do not have the same leverage as legal unions. Most importantly, the IGDA lacks the ability to exercise monopoly control over access to skilled labor. It does not regulate and restrict entry into the industry through certification and exams like other professional associations (i.e., doctors and lawyers) or like the apprenticeship systems of the craft unions. It also cannot enforce restrictions on production standards or bargain working conditions on behalf of its members.

In recent years, the IGDA has shown some interest in more direct collective action. It offers a pooled health and benefits plan for members and supports volunteer special interest groups (SIGs) on key topic areas. The Quality of Life SIG advertises a grievance committee to "manage complaints from IGDA members about employer policies that are in contravention to IGDA standards."

Examples of committees that set standards are: crediting and intellectual property committee, anti-exclusive clauses committee, and quality of life committee. On a number of occasions, the IGDA has published press releases encouraging accused studios to curb excessive overtime and other poor working conditions and indicating their intention to further investigate employee claims (i.e., KAOS Studios, Rockstar San Diego, Team Bondi).

The challenges faced by the IGDA are its reliance on volunteers and its lack of real power to impose sanctions. The IGDA can say that it is displeased, and many studios will respond to this negative "peer pressure" and the bad press it garners. After all, studios are trying to attract the best people to work for them. But there is no fallout if the IGDA is ignored. The organization must grow more powerful for that to be the case.

Another form of collective action that people in the game community have used is "whistleblowing," or mobilizing over the internet. One of the first cases was the emergence of the anonymous virtual union "Ubifree" in December of 1998. The group described working conditions at Ubisoft in France, and sent a call for Ubisoft employees around the world to join the union. The small initiative harvested a wealth of supportive messages, many of them denouncing the working conditions.

After only a few months, Ubisoft management announced some improvements and the anonymous group closed down the website/union. One improvement was the addition of an employee representative in a few committees; however, this representative was never granted any decision-making power. Recently, the Ubifree 2.0 site has also been launched, with what appears to be one person's account of the working conditions of Ubisoft Montreal.

A more successful episode known to all in the industry was the "EA Spouse" affair. In November 2004, the fiancée of a developer (later revealed to be Erin Hoffman) used her LiveJournal blog to denounce an abusive situation of constant crunch time in Electronic Arts' Los Angeles studio. Similar to the Ubifree movement, her post received thousands of comments from gaming fans and beleaguered developers at EA and other studios. This rallied a movement against EA in particular and crunch time in general. EA later banned work on Sundays and adopted a policy favoring five working days a week.

Other tell-alls or exposés have followed, such as Rockstar Spouse, 38 Studios Spouse, and a series of articles by investigative journalist Andrew McMillen about Team Bondi studio. Each received a large number of supportive or appreciative comments and were discussed widely across the game community and in the press. But none reached the notoriety or impact of EA Spouse.

This raises the question of the efficacy of these actions. It could be argued that the success of EA_spouse in motivating change was due to a confluence of factors: It was the first instance of whistleblowing about unpaid overtime and crunch, so it was incredibly cathartic to those in the industry and a real shock for those outside the industry who thought the industry was a hallmark of the new, decent, knowledge economy jobs. The timing of the post also occurred in conjunction with a class action lawsuit against EA. We now know, of course, that EA_spouse's husband was a lead plaintiff in that case. The IGDA published its first Quality of Life white paper in 2004 as well. All this means that there was a considerable amount of energy devoted to the issue of crunch at that time.

The recent Occupy movement was amazing in its ability to raise consciousness and mobilize a large population without any formal leadership. Indeed, the lack of identified leaders and spokespeople was heralded as a central feature in the grassroots and democratic ideals of the movement. However, most social movements require leadership to collect, magnify and channel the dissatisfaction of its followers.

In the wake of EA_spouse, Erin Hoffman emerged as a leader and spokeswoman for the Quality of Life movement -- but additional, ongoing, formalized leadership is lacking. Hoffman's self-regulating industry watchdog website Gamewatch has seen only sporadic activity over the years. At the level of the IGDA, the association has been in transition, with a number of executive directors; there is uneven output from the various committees. Arguably, the energy has ebbed.

The more recent outcry against crunch and unpaid overtime at Rockstar San Diego by the "Wives of Rockstar" was essentially identical to Erin Hoffman's plea, but received comparatively less attention than EA_spouse. A Rockstar employee posted a comment under the name Code Monkey 20 days after the Wives' original post. It is illustrative of the fragility of the movement, and the ability of management to appease disgruntled workers with the promise of better things to come:

...R* management have informed its San Diego employees that everyone will be given a generous and extended break after the product conclusion. Maybe I feel a bit guilty about venting in a public place about any negative aspect of a job I still adore, especially now that I've read a few press snippets that have taken quotes of my writings slightly out of context. I don't think anything I ever said was "damning."

Since no one else has, I'll say that I feel our concerns have been responded to one way or another, and it has been favorable. I think it should also be said that the long mandatory working hours for this project, at least for my own tenure, are unprecedented at San Diego in particular. They've told us that it certainly wasn't their intention to extend working hours in such a manner, and I believe them. I think we'll all pull through just fine, we'll get our time off, and I don't see this situation happening again anytime soon.

My apologies go to Rockstar for not anticipating that anything I said here could possibly have a negative impact of some kind.

In this case management apologized, gave a one-time reward, and deflected blame. It is unknown whether lasting changes were made to the problems in the development process and decision-making hierarchy that were credited with creating the "death march" by these developers. The Ubifree movement was also quickly silenced with only cursory appeasements from management.

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Johanna Weststar
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I hope you find this article interesting!

For more information about Quality of Life in the video game industry also have a look at

You can download and comment on a new report co-authored by me and Marie-Joseé Legault
about the 2009 Quality of Life survey that was administered by the IGDA.

This site is also an archive of the Quality of Life related stories that pop up online and in the news.

Glenn Storm
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It may not be apparent to those in commercial games that challenges such as these exist in the realm of serious games as well. And due to a relative lack of maturity of this sub-industry, as compared to commercial games, these problems are magnified.

The impression that this is fun and games, overriding practical consideration, is a pervasive viewpoint held by all but the most savvy of non-developers that the serious game community works with.

CT Bon
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Hi Glenn,

Can you clarify the distinction between commercial and 'serious' games?

Glenn Storm
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Sure. Serious Games:

Despite the challenges described in this excellent article, the entertainment-based commercial games segment of the industry tends to be more mature in terms of funding models, development expertise and general recognition than the serious games segment.

The comment was aimed at raising awareness within the game development community at-large about the steeper challenges facing this sub-industry. The question seems to reinforce the point.

Bruce Wilkie
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"EA later banned work on Sundays and adopted a policy favoring five working days a week."

EA did not ban work on Sundays after EA_Spouse. Was that only at EALA? Certainly at EARS Sunday became the new Monday many times after EA_Spouse. I'm curious where this information came from?

Johanna Weststar
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Hi Bruce,

Thanks for your inquiry. Unfortunately I don't have a satisfactory answer for you. Over the years we reviewed and gathered a lot of information from published sources, news sources and social media. I have trolled through my material and I am coming up short with a specific reference for this information. The trouble with online sources is that they often vanish and I am afraid we did not practice our due diligence with saving a copy of this one.

I would be interested to put this out to the community to see if anyone has more information about EA's response to EA Spouse or to the law suits that occurred in the same time period. I do have this link:

From comments below @Samuel Burnstein it seems like any policy adjustments that might have been made were short lived.

Thanks for reading!

Legault Marie-Josee
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Hi Bruce,
Thanks for your inquiry. I found out the source, but it has disappeared from the web... it read : Once the EA Spouse, Erin Hoffman fights to keep the video game industry in check - February 27th, 2007 - By Ted Boscia - PALO ALTO, Feb. 27—In late 2004, Erin Hoffman sounded the alarm about worker exploitation at video game publisher Electronic Arts. Now she’s trying to keep EA and other gaming companies from hitting the snooze button and lapsing into old habits.... It was Erin Hoffman telling this about banning work on Sundays. If you want the whole, just ask me!

Erin Hoffman
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I believe what this is referring to is EA's "five great days" policy, which appears to date back to November 2005. There was media coverage of this at the time, but it appears to have evaporated. I don't believe it was just EALA. Someone -- Probst? -- released a statement, or perhaps it was a leaked internal document, discussing the changes they'd made (this was about six months before the two lawsuits were settled IIRC). I distinctly remember the phrase "on Sundays we rest", which is what I would have expected to yield a google search, but the source is gone, though you can still find references to "five great days". If it was late 2005 this would have been near the end of Probst's time, so maybe Riccitiello rolled it back? That would be disappointing to hear if so. Someone should ask him "so, whatever happened to that 'five great days' thing?" ;)

TC Weidner
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its starts with the problem of supply and demand, When the supply of workers outpaces the demand for workers, you get certain companies that will take advantage of the situation. We are seeing this across all spectrum's of business now with this one world economy fiasco. With business convinced that making money and profit trumps all else, taken advantage of workers falls into the category of " just doing business". I find this preposterous but MBA programs everywhere say otherwise.

Then again its why I dropped out of MBA business school and have been self employed most of my life. Its also why I eat free range and organic foods, I'm nutty that way, I think quality of life matters, for everyone and everything.

Great article by the way.

Lance McKee
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I really liked this article! Thanks for helping to shed some light on what continues to be a major problem. After 7 years in the industry I finally decided that it wasn't fair to my wife and kids to have to put up with an overly stressed father/husband who was always either scrambling to find a job or working way too many hours at a job. I've now got a much more stable and better paying job and can just develop games on the side for fun.

Jonathan Jennings
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I always feel sad reading posts like this because I know game development is a very passionate career and for people to devote so much of ourselves only to be pushed to a breaking point is disappointing. I hope I don't come to this point myself but i hear far too many stories about developers who worked hard, gave all they could to game development, and ultimately sound like they received very little in return in terms of respect and the impact on their well-being .

Samuel Burnstein
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EA banned working on Sundays after EA Spouse? Well, that's one policy that's been quietly rolled back.

Judy Tyrer
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Sadly, the devs perpatuate the situation by believing crunch is necessary, you can't make a good game without it. It's not just management that causes this problem. Once some good games start coming out of studios that aren't playing the crunch games, people will see this as the myth it is. At least, that's what I'm banking on.

Michael Herring
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It's not just management that causes the problem, but it is just management that has authority to fire employees.

Nat Tan
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More like: New features and ideas are added in by Management that doesn't have to work the OT and have never really been part of any core development, while the timeline apparently is not allowed to change.

Michael Rooney
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@Nat: It's not always management. Our management works at least as much OT as any developer; a lot of them stay at the office anytime anybody is doing OT so that they can coordinate schedules and deliverables with what actually gets done during OT.

edit: Executives/marketing are usually much more the culprit, but I wouldn't exactly put executives in an envious position work wise despite how their job generally comes off.

John Harmon
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As someone who respects the artisans within the gaming industry, I would love to see it unionized. But history has shown us that isn't going to be easy, and I would imagine that the publishers will put up a great deal of resistance. Knowing this, I was tried to think of ways that workers can give themselves more power. One alternative might be that all new up start up studios begin as worker co-ops. This would probably be more akin to the Valve style of business, just with a bit more democracy. I've always imagine that indies within the industry would spearhead in this type of alternative style of business, as they do not have adherence to publishers. As for studios that are own by publishers, I think that resistance would be the same as if it were a union. This could help workers rights in the short term, maybe in the long term, but it's something that would give each individual a voice. Of course they're could be problems with a worker's co-op, like managing deadlines (Half-life 2: Episode 3 anyone?) or trying to keep financially afloat (it's not like everyone has a Steam like service to keep their employees well payed). Who knows maybe Valve will be the only one to pull anything close to this in the next decade. There's two cents from a nobody that only sells video games in the middle of nowhere.

Michael Joseph
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As long as there are no steep artificial barriers in place preventing independants from bringing their products to market, I don't think unions are necessary.

The answer is for independants to avoid entangling themselves in debt and a lifestyle that requires a certain cash flow that ends up being a faustian bargain chaining them to their fulltime jobs and trading their tomorrows for a little of todays comfort.

Michael Rooney
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I think a part of the problem is also that developers are generally very passionate about what they are making. I've seen a good amount of people who work overtime because they want to when they've been told repeatedly to go home. There's definitely some studios that become toxic, but I think it has a positive reinforcement loop that's fed by both sides; executives want developers to work more than is reasonable, and a lot of developers want to work more than is reasonable. Those factors combined put a lot of pressure on people who don't want to work more than is reasonable to stay relevant in the company.

With that in mind, I don't think the industry as a whole is bad. I think it's just that there are some parts that are very very bad and give it all a bad name. I have never worked unreasonable overtime as a developer. The worst was fairly isolated as there was a major bug found really late in alpha.

I'm generally not in favor of unions for skilled labor. The companies that treat their labor the best will get the most skill and produce the best results. The market rewards treating skilled employees well. It's not like unskilled labor where you are treated more like a commodity.

Edward DiNola
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My latest job has been great for quality of life so far. Usually work 8-9 hour days, excellent benefits, haven't worked a weekend yet, the respect level is high, and the team and management have been very good about needing to leave work early or postpone arrival for health and family obligations. It's interesting because it's a very large studio, and I've seen nothing but evidence to the contrary that it's an excellent place to work.

This compared to another gig at a much smaller studio, where I was working 12-14 hour days regularly, had horrible pay, would often be yelled at by producers, and where there were a number of walking HR and contract violations (such as being payed days or even weeks late), and which is a company which will probably never get called on it.

Johanna Weststar
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Glad to hear your positive story! It is important to note that in the IGDA's 2009 Quality of Life survey "Almost 40% of the sample report crunching rarely and 6.2% never
crunch." So almost half of the 3000+ people who answered that survey do not crunch. That is a great news story about the industry! (note, not all the respondents were in core dev though).

The important message is this article (I hope) is bigger than crunch and OT. In all workplaces employees need to have an effective means to voice their opinions and concerns and have a hope of seeing them addressed.

@Dimitri Del Castillo - I totally agree with you. Game devs need a way to influence their workplace to make it better for them - quitting is a bad solution to long-term problems. The question is...what other solutions are out there and which ones work or might work?

Michael Pianta
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When I was in high school I wanted to make games as a career. I thought games were an exciting emerging art form and I had lots of ideas for cool things you could do with them. I took a lot of programming classes, but as I learned more about the industry I read a lot of stories like this. (This was before digital downloads and indie developers were a thing). I learned that working in games meant longer hours and worse pay than other industry - which you would accept because it's games and you're privileged to have a job in that industry at all! And also I learned that I would be a gear in a very large machine and that creative freedoms would not be given to me for a long time and that I certainly wouldn't be able to make the games I was dreaming of probably ever, and definitely not without putting in decades first. So I said "Being a creator is more important than working in games per se," and I majored in fine art instead (although I still have a great interest in games and develop them as a hobby). Who knows how many others did the same? Do these companies not realize that they are driving away potential talent?

Jonathan Jennings
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I have always heard the reason they abuse their powers is because no matter how much talent they drive away ( i almost quit on a career in games myself before starting for the same reasons you did). there are droves of people everywhere who would probably switch places with a developer any day of the week. it's easy to treat your number 1 commodity as disposable if there is an endless supply of other commodities to replace it .

Jacek Wesolowski
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Michael - No. They've developed a system of rationalizations to help them cope. They're also not terribly interested in long term thinking.

There is a dire shortage of potential employees in my home city and everybody keeps acting like they have no clue why.

Last year, I went to a job interview that lasted for an hour and a half. I talked to three guys at the same time: one did his best to convince me they didn't need me, another was openly hostile, and the last one spent the entire time contradicting all of my opinions just to prove he knew better. They basically spent an hour and a half trying to make me feel bad about myself. They seemed disappointed when I eventually declined to take a test.

Fortunately, the situation is actually improving. Roughly half of the workplaces in this city (or at least half of those that I'm aware of) are decent. The job I have now is the most balanced and most creative ever, which is a bit ironic, because this is a porting company that doesn't make games of its own.

Michael Pianta
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I think you're both right. I also think that the example of independent developers will influence this in a positive way. If you were a talented young designer/developer, now that you have Jon Blow and McMillen and countless others sitting there in front of you, why would you give these companies a moment of your time? Perhaps you would just to see how it worked, how projects were organized or how to work on a team or something, but I would think that such people would have a greatly reduced patience for ridiculously unfair practices, compared to the past when it seemed to be that or nothing. That will ultimately force these companies to change I expect.

Tony Giovannini
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"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."

--This attitude needs to die. If the industry is to progress in any way, shape or form, this sort of machismo needs to go. There is nothing macho about making video games, or crunching to make a video game (Nor should there be). Crunch doesn't build camaraderie at all, crunch just simply destroys lives.

mikko tahtinen
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Agreed, totally!

Dimitri Del Castillo
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It's a matter of advocacy. When the only people you can go to about your work issues are your supervisor or an HR person employees begin to feel that the only people that are looking out for their well being is themselves.

mikko tahtinen
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Ultimately people need to ask some questions:

1. Do we work OT?
- If we do? Then go to next question:

2. Why do we work OT?
- Did we underestimate: Workload, Time, Difficulties or Plannnign needed.
- Or, did we even negotiated the price totally wrong? Meaning we got underpaid and we pay the price?

3. How do we cope with planning?
- Do we keep the scope fixed or do we keep adding tasks?
- If we change scope do we adjust dates? Or dates are fixed and we keep adding to the scope?

Overtime should be treated as a instrument. The instrument gives an indication if something is wrong, in this particular case: Overtime. Overtime should be a serious indication that something is wrong.

Overtime will always be there, but should be treated as something you want to eliminate or minimize. If OT is used regularly and often then something is clearly wrong. Either the planning, budget, scope or knowledge, has clearly failed.

Erin Hoffman
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This is certainly one of the best articles I've ever read on game industry quality of life. Thank you for your work on it, Marie-Josée and Johanna.