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We Can Make Video Games Without Crushing the People Who Make Them


Jack Gardner

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I like big games. The potential for truly deep and moving experiences on unprecedented scales often inspires new levels of excited anticipation within my nerdy heart. They almost always fall short of their promised potential, but when marketing promises the moon, how often does one actually get the moon? The triple-A development world and its focus on ever bigger blockbuster games makes clear a problem that has long lingered underneath the dazzling graphical quality and sweeping vistas of the modern gaming industry: The soul-crushing grind of crunch time, the period during which a staggering number of developers push their workers as hard as possible to hit those all important deadlines. 

 

It can be easy to shrug off the vocal complaints of employees, both current and former, who speak up about the working conditions they endured while pursuing the dream of making big and interesting games. They're even easier to ignore if the developer whose workforce complains about its labor practices makes games that people love. Once the game boots up, it can be hard to remember that the spouses of those working on the original Red Dead Redemption had to start a campaign of public shaming because they weren't seeing their partners for prolonged periods of time due to mandatory 60-hour work weeks.

 

An outpouring of criticism occurred recently toward Rockstar Games after one of the studio's co-founders, Dan Houser, proudly declared to New York Magazine that they had been working 100-hour weeks on Red Dead Redemption 2, a claim that was quickly downplayed by a PR clarification that the quote really only referred to the four person writing team that included the Houser. Even if we take the clarification at face value, something I'd argue a reasonable person should view with skepticism given the investment Houser has in the company he helped to create, the conversation about labor and crunch time should still happen. 

 

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So, let's talk a little bit about labor in the game industry. And to do that, we need to dive into the history of labor practices in the United States. 

 

In 1866, workers in the newly formed National Labor Union began lobbying Congress to enact an eight-hour work day as the standard. Of course, the attempt failed to gain political traction, but the eight-hour work day did become the goal most labor movements pushed for from that point on. People began petitioning state and local governments to limit the number of hours employers could legally force them to work. This eventually led to Illinois mandating an eight-hour workday. Employers hated the law so much that they refused to abide by it, resulting in a workers strike, the Haymarket Affair that crippled the city of Chicago. The strike became what we now know as International Workers' Day, an event that commemorated the large-scale strike to assert labor rights. 

 

Every year following the Chicago protests, strikes were organized across the country to push for additional protections and an eight-hour workday, making small gains here and there. Some unions won the right to ten-hour workdays while others demonstrated for workplace safety, especially following the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that left nearly 150 workers dead due to the poor construction of exits in the factory. While federal employees would eventually receive the eight-hour workday, the private sector's support for such a plan often took the form of outright hostility.

 

What really turned the tide and standardized the eight-hour workday across many private companies was the Ford Motor Company's adoption of the five-day, 40-hour work week in 1926. Though not the first company to do so, FMC and its assembly line production helped shape overall factory culture.(Fun fact: It's popularly believed that Henry Ford moved to this schedule and payed workers a high wage as part of a brilliant way of selling more cars to the very workers producing them. This belief built up the mythos of the American Dream. However, Ford was pushed to the schedule and associated pay raise not by a brilliant, forward-looking business plan, but by the fact that he couldn't retain workers for the production lines at the wages and work week he wanted. The work was so dull and paid so little that in 1913, Ford hired 52,000 workers to maintain a workforce of 14,000.) The decision to make eight-hour work days the standard for factory workers became what many to this day see as a full-time occupation. That was solidified into law in 1940 with the Fair Labor Standards Act amendment which stipulates that employers are required to pay overtime for time worked over 40 hours per week. 

 

That law and the long fight leading to it was (and still is) largely despised by many companies across the United States. However, in the years since its conception many of the higher-ups in those companies devised ways around the law. The most effective way to circumvent the law is by making a 40+ hour week optional, at least on paper. The common way of doing this is by selling the dream that working more than the designated 40 hours serves as a way for the worker to distinguish themselves on the job. Such an outstanding worker would surely be promoted and advance in the company while those working their mandated time would seem slothful despite working their full-time job. This creates a race where everyone tries to stand out and doesn't want to look bad. It's also a huge win for the company because any time criticism comes its way, the representatives can turn around with a shrug and point out that, at least on paper, working more than full-time is completely optional. 

 

For companies that embrace this work ethic, a culture emerges that holds up those hard-working employees as examples to the rest of the workers. This can lead to those deemed "too lazy" for working their full 40 hours to be labelled as the kinds of people who aren't team players. Their coworkers begin ostracizing them for slowing down projects that are already moving faster due to many people putting in overtime. And so, the social pressure to conform to an ever longer work week escalates, sometimes to the point that employees are let go for not being a good fit for the company's culture because they work their required time.

 

At an individual level, the pressure to advance in a career and earn money will always be a strong one under capitalism. Compounding that with the social pressure of wanting to fit in and help the rest of the team achieve a collective goal makes it even harder to realistically stick to what is generally considered to be a full-time job. Many people slowly erode over time and find themselves giving more and more of their lives to the workplace, especially if that workplace benefits from their enthusiasm. 

 

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In the video game world, many developers go through periods of crunch where an average work week ranges from 60-80 hours. These periods vary from developer to developer, but a staggering number of companies enter into crunch to meet deadlines and release dates. Sometimes crunch can last months or even over a year. It happens so often that it has just become a given in recent years that crunching before the release of a game is just the way things are.

 

Game devs could stick to 40-hour work weeks and still finish large, impressive, triple-A games, but it might take them a bit longer without pressuring employees to work more than full-time. The reason that becomes a problem from a business perspective isn't that it couldn't be done or that fans couldn't wait - I mean, look at games like The Last Guardian taking so long to come out people thought it was dead - it's because the people who have invested in game development want to get the quickest return on their investment. For example, if you invested $100 million into an Assassin's Creed game, you would rather get that back with profit in two years instead of two and a half years, especially if you as an investor exist largely removed from the creation process of the game. 

 

And those long hours? Those are destructive to the developers themselves. Research has suggested that working more than 50 hours per week results in a decline in productivity and more than 55 hours per week results in almost no increased productivity. A Stanford study found that, on average, someone who puts in 70 hours accomplishes remarkably little, even with the 15 additional work hours, than the person who works a 55-hour week. And that's just productivity.

 

Workers often find health issues exacerbated by working over 40 hours per week. These include increased likelihood of cardiovascular problems, relationship woes with friends and loved ones, substance abuse, depression, injury, and hormonal imbalance. One could make a compelling argument that pushing workers to put in those longer hours just so that an investment returns a few months faster is killing the people who make some of our most beloved video games.  

 

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Normally, I'd like to end on a cheerier note about how, if we all work together, we can change the way the video game business works and eliminate crunch time so that our games are made more ethically. Unfortunately in this case, most of the power rests in the hands of publishers and developers. Video game workers could unionize, of course, and exert pressure on their employers to limit hours and impose standard practices across the industry, much like how the voice actors worked together to secure better deals following a strike against various video game companies who initially refused their terms. This idea only just seems to be gaining traction with organizations like Game Workers Unite advocating for unionization in the game industry, though whether or not workers in the game industry will actually unionize remains an open question.

 

It's also possible that those in positions of power in the game industry could look at the studies and conclude that putting employees through crunch ultimately leads to a worse product, though those studies are a couple years old at this point and not much has been done to combat crunch. It's also possible that Congress could step in to pass a law that better regulates the industry, but considering the political situation of the United States at the moment, it's unlikely that regulation of video game developer's working hours will be a high enough priority to gain any traction. 

 

A boycott could weigh the scales a bit in worker's favor. However, it seems unlikely that gamers as a whole would effectively boycott all the companies that contribute to making crunch a common occurrence in the game industry. Despite that, the potentially harmful practices companies implement in order to increase profits will always be something worth discussing.  

 

Maybe talking about it, making it a point of public discussion, and raising awareness will help, little by little, to make this industry one where the people who make our games aren't crushed just to make the art we love so much. 

       

Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!


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