Suffering for Your Art Has New Meaning in Video Game Industry

Van Goh

Indifference is par for the course in today’s consumer society. In our lust for more “stuff” we purchase products every day without even a passing thought as to who made them and how those people are treated.  Most of our products today are made in totalitarian countries like China who have been known to use slave labor. Even in the good old USA many products and services are made by prisoners who are incarcerated in the Federal Prison system.

It seems that even the video games industry has fallen prey to questionable practices such as outsourcing to countries like India so they can get cheap labor. Many of them also bring in unpaid interns to help cut costs and boost profits.

I wonder how many people who buy and play video games are aware of the draconian working conditions of the average employee in the industry. Not many I wager. Until the heartbreaking and shameful scandal of the EA Spouse that rocked this industry not many gamers were aware of what was going on. Yet despite the changes that EA was forced to make many people who work in this industry are still forced to put in crushing and unsustainable 60-80 hour work weeks. But somehow it’s ok for artists to suffer for their art? And is it ok for someone to suffer for your video game enjoyment?

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair

This week it came to light thanks to Greg Costikyan, that the IDGA an organization who’s primary role it is to improve the quality of life for thousands of people working in the video game industry had a member on the board that was not supportive of their mission.

Here’s how Greg summed it up:

Mike Capps, head of Epic, and a former member of the board of directors of the International Game Developers Association, during the IGDA Leadership Forum in late 08, spoke at a panel entitled Studio Heads on the Hot Seat, in which, among other things, he claimed that working 60+ hours was expected at Epic, that they purposefully hired people they anticipated would work those kinds of hours, that this had nothing to do with exploitation of talent by management but was instead a part of “corporate culture,” and implied that the idea that people would work a mere 40 hours was kind of absurd.

Now, of course, the idea that a studio head, which Capps is, would have such notions is highly plausible; but he was, at the time, a board member of the IGDA, an organization the ostensible purpose of which is to support game developers. Not, you know, to support management dickheads.

He continues:

The notion that a f*cking board member of the IGDA should defend (and indeed, within his own studio, foster) such exploitative practices is offensive on the face of it, and has caused a considerable kerfluffle within the organization.

Bravo to Greg for his excellent analysis of the situation. I believe he speaks for many people in the industry (afraid to speak out) who are sick and tired of perpetual crunch mode where they work. Also kudos to Scott Jennings for spreading the good word about this insanity on his blog.

Here he makes a valid point:

Crunch doesn’t work. You simply don’t gain more productivity by applying a 1.5 multiplier to everyone’s work hours. More likely, you start to introduce failure into the system as people get sloppy and careless as a best case scenario, and as a worst case scenario people start to flip you the virtual finger and spend their hours at their cubicle playing World of Warcraft instead. (I’ve seen both.)  This is not a problem unique to game development, and there have been literally hundreds of studies that show that the productivity gained from crunching is minimal at best. It should be noted that the management consultant who originally came up with the 40 hour work week was Henry Ford, who was anything but a soft humanist.

Ben Hur

After watching the video of the panel I was taken aback at how casually all of them (with the exception of Brett Close who *gets* it) treated this very important quality of life issue. It was appalling how they kept trying to justify how working a 60 hour work week is somehow “normal”. These kinds of excuses and rationales are all part of the management playbook that has been around since the start of the industrial revolution.

Nobody should be forced to work more then 40 hours a week in an industrialized society. Besides, if you can’t make a great video game by not abusing your employees then you are a poor manager and should not be in the business.

Dracula in Charge of the Blood Bank

Here’s some brutal honesty, I have nothing but scorn and contempt for people like Mike Capps the head of Epic. Watching the video as he sits there on the IDGA panel drinking his glass of Chardonnay and pontificating reminds me of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. In this case it’s the good people in the trenches making the games who are getting burned. The fact that he gleefully extols the virtues of working a 60 hour work week to an organization that is supposed to be advocating for quality of life is outrageous.

Having someone like Mike Capps on the IDGA board of directors is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank. It’s an affront to the noble mission of the IDGA which is supposed to be bringing quality of life issues to the attention of the industry at large.

Dracula

Anyone that can base the profitability of their company on making people work 60+ hours a week is undeserving of the support of the video game buying public. As gamers we need to boycott despotic video game companies like Epic and other companies that force their workers to work draconian work hours.

Studio Culture = Crunch Culture

While it’s beyond the scope of this article to delve deeper into the systemic problems of the business model of the industry it’s worth mentioning briefly. Much of the blame is the unhealthy nature of the publisher and developer relationship. It’s all based on meeting the publisher’s milestones so the development studio can get paid. Add to that the vagaries and unpredictable nature of having to creating code, art, scripting and playtesting and managerial incompetence — you end up with the “crunch” culture which means you will be working at least 60 hours a week.

When you visit the careers section of most video game developer’s websites you soon realize that they are trying to promote a unique studio culture. They show picnics and other “fun” outings that the studios put on for their employees. Most of it is an attempt to convince you that it’s *fun* to work there. The dirty little secret is that most likely they are using it as a bait and switch recruiting trick. The bait is the studio culture; the trick is that you’ll most likely end up working 60-80 hours a week as you work toward making your milestone.

Spinal Tap

In order to justify the crunch culture, Tim Train one of the panel members made the inane comment that they expect their employees to be like rock stars on tour. Well that kind of energy and enthusiasm is impossible to sustain. Look at most rock stars and you see a trail of broken marriages and drug abuse because of “touring”. Also most rock stars make millions of dollars and live in fancy mansions which is obviously not the case for the people who work in the video game industry.

Why Things May Never Change

The problem is that every year there are thousands of bright eyed kids graduating from vocational schools like DigiPen who will work 60-80 hours a week because they are desperate to get a job in the glamorous video game industry. Like the music industry, the video game industry attracts many people that would kill for a job. Quite honestly they are young, naive, single and don’t have families — they don’t know jack squat about the world. They are the warm bodies that the industry needs and craves.

It’s this desperation to be a part of this industry and the lack of life experience that contributes to a unhealthy situation where people willingly allow themselves to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous executives.

Anyone with a brain and a few years under their belt soon learns that the video game industry as it currently stands will chew you up and spit you out if you stay part of it long enough. That’s why you don’t see many mature and older people in the video game industry who are not in management. This may also explain why there aren’t enough people who will stay in the industry long enough to lobby for change.

Conclusion

The video game industry is still young. Most industries in their infancy that are exciting and attractive like this one often have the negative side effect creating unjust working conditions that tend to favor the employer. Just because employees are passionate is no excuse to overwork them but that is the mantra that I kept hearing from some of the members of that unfortunate IDGA panel.

As someone who’s worked in the video game industry I know that being constantly creative means that you need to have a life outside of work.  That means you need to spend quality time with your family and on other things of *your* choice. Having a healthy life is important as art is a reflection of life. If you chronically end up working 60-80 hours a week then the art you create will ultimately reflect that kind of imbalanced mindless existence.

No video game or job is worth destroying your health, your relationships and your family. No video game is worth buying that is made by destroying the health and families of the people who made it.

-Wolfshead

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