Work in the Game Industry

This week saw the conclusion of a two-year legal story involving so-called quality of life issues for workers in the computer and video game industry. Electronic Arts settled two lawsuits (one in 2005, one this week, reports Gamespot) regarding unpaid overtime for millions of dollars. These lawsuits are the tip of an iceberg that not only involves EA, but stretches across the game and indeed the entire media industry to some extent. According to the Associated Press report, EA is "one of a number of game companies hit with lawsuits in recent years for demanding grueling hours without paying overtime." What makes this case especially relevant is the fact that EA is the industry's biggest publisher, developer and distributor, with studios in Redwood Shores, Los Angeles, Orlando, Vancouver (Canada) and Chertsey (UK), along with development studios in Chicago, Montreal (Canada) and Tokyo (Japan). The company claims to employ more than 4,100 people in its various development teams.

Careers in the game industry are one of the most fascinating aspects in the study of mediawork, because in this relatively young industry all the aspects forming today's (new) media ecology come together and a way that is unfiltered through past traditions, long company histories, or well-established industry 'best practices'... So game developers still operate in a relatively autonomous creative playground, while at the same time facing tremendous commercial pressures. Game development is also interesting because of its delicate balance between creating compelling content for increasingly sophisticated gaming experiences, and allowing the gaming community to have its own share of control over the narrative through 'modding' (modifying existing games, like for example in the case of Counter-Strike, originally a gamer-created 'mod' of Half-Life), and through 'world-building' (programming persistent online multiplayer game environments, where there is no set storyline or quantifiable outcome - the game becomes open-ended and the game experience is dependent on the player).

The interdependent issues of corporate pressures, unpaid overtime, creative work, and intense producer-consumer relationships bears upon all media industries, but is particularly prevalent in the work game developers do. The International Game Developers Association released a 'Quality of Life' white paper in early 2004, concluding:

"By and large, game development is stimulating work, better than most alternatives. However, it is all too often performed in crippling conditions that make it hard to sustain quality of life and lead too many senior developers to leave the industry before they have had time to perform their best work."

After this week's court ruling, discussion forums all over the Web lit up. Especially so on the Gamewatch forum started by the people who got the EA ball rolling in late 2004: Leander Hasty and his spouse, Erin Hoffman. Hoffman became famous for her anonymous post on LiveJournal about what life was like as game developers working for EA, citing 90-hour workweeks, no 'comp time' (time off after completion of a game title), and no paid overtime:

"No one works in the game industry unless they love what they do. No one on that team is interested in producing an inferior product. My heart bleeds for this team precisely BECAUSE they are brilliant, talented individuals out to create something great. They are and were more than willing to work hard for the success of the title. But that good will has only been met with abuse."

This week, Erin Hoffman signaled the turnaround at EA (and indeed at other game studios, some of them - like Pandemic - even using the quality of life at their company as an advertising strategy):

"I've been trying to poke around and talk to people and I was really, really glad to hear that things have turned around at EALA. I meant every word when I said that you guys were way too freaking brilliant and wonderful to continue suffering like you were. It wasn't smart and it wasn't fair. Kudos to EA indeed for turning it around, and here's hoping that they stay on track."

When I attended this year's GDC, many discussions focused on quality of life issues - although not only from an employee's perspective: some managers even complained about the problem of getting their developers out the door after 5pm... Stay tuned: I will post quotes from interviews we did with game developers in different countries in the near future.