“You Can Sleep Here All Night”: Video Games and Labor

Exploitation in the video game industry provides a glimpse at how many of us may be working in years to come.

(Chase N. / Flickr)

For being such a big deal, the video game industry isn’t treated very seriously.

Let’s not make any mistake here: the industry is a big deal. Globally, yearly sales rival or surpass those of the Hollywood. Entire cities are planning on making video games the cornerstones of their new economies. They’re played at least as much by adults as by children.

Yet there’s a dearth of rigorous coverage of the industry. The video game press, such as it is, remains mired in a culture of payola and ad revenue addiction, outside of a few outlets like Gamasutra. The one television station devoted to industry news, G4 (which has moved away from covering only video games), seemed committed to proving every gamer stereotype true, with an endless parade of uncritical corporate press releases punctuated only by sophomoric oral sex jokes.

All of which is a shame, because something in the industry is wrong. Here, as in few other places, we see the kind of exploitation normally associated with the industrial sector in creative work. Already subject to lower wages when compared to the broader tech sector, video game studios’ management maintain the status quo by consciously manipulating the desires of writers, artists, and coders hoping to break into a creative field. The profit vacuumed up goes to ever more bloated management salaries and the unremittingly glitzy, tacky spectacles churned out by gaming’s PR departments.

The exploitation in the video game industry provides a glimpse at how the rest of us may be working in years to come.

Few outside of the video game industry would think of gaming as a site for major labor abuse and exploitation. The real state of things occasionally bubbles up into the mainstream press when the situation becomes too great to ignore, as with the infamous EA Spouse controversy a decade ago – the first time the industry’s labor practices were discussed on a national scale.

EA, the largest, most successful video game company in the world at that time, was revealed (through a blog post by a software engineer’s wife, herself a game developer) as a place which insisted on permanent “crunch time,” cutting costs by insisting on up to 80-hour work weeks from employees rather than hiring more workers to make production schedules. The story broke at a time when EA was buying up small studios throughout the industry, enforcing its particularly draconian standards on workers with little say in the matter.

After lawsuits filed in the wake of the scandal, EA was forced to soften its practices. The titular EA Spouse, Erin Hoffman, formed a small watchdog group, hoping to monitor abuses. Once the media inevitably lost interest, however, the industry as a whole returned to its culture of inhumanly long hours, too little pay, and high burnout – and remains there today.

I came into the video game industry in 2007 through working at Funcom (where I did not witness anything extraordinarily abusive). I entered as a blank slate, not knowing what to expect or why I did it other than the fact that I liked video games and it seemed like a cool job.

I was a QA engineer, and a QA’s job is to break things in-game, record how the things were broken, and then pass the information to the content creation team, who would hopefully fix them. It’s a common entry-level gig in the industry, one which gives you a broad knowledge of how things work to eventually launch something more specialized.

Most of my coworkers viewed their gigs at Funcom as having “arrived.” Almost all of them had come through Red Storm, one of the most respected studios in the country and an industry linchpin in North Carolina. The stories they told were galling: gross underpayment, severe overworking, and middle management treating the cubicle farm as a little fiefdom all their own.

Red Storm at the time employed the bulk of their QAs as temps. Lured in by promises of working their way up the ladder, scores of college kids and young workers would come in, ready to make it in the new Hollywood of the video game industry. The pay was minimum wage. The hours were long, with one of my immediate supervisors casually stating that he regularly worked at least 60 hours a week during his time there. Being temps, there were no benefits.

This would go on for the duration of a project, usually the final four months or so. When the temps weren’t needed anymore, it was common for groups of them to be rounded up, summarily let go without notice, and told that a call would be forthcoming if their services were needed again.

There were other stories – strange and mean ones, like the producer who waltzed into the QA office and asked if anyone was heading for the dumpster. When no one answered, she dropped a big bag of garbage in the middle of the floor, snarled, “I guess I’ll just leave this here, then,” and stalked off; the QA lead chewed them out since the woman was a producer, a project manager.

Everyone who came through related the same story of QA’s complete sequestration from the development team; nobody was allowed to speak to a “dev” directly, only through intermediaries, nor to enter the dev side of the building. The QA temps were a clear underclass on one floor, while full-time “real” video game workers occupied the other.

At the time, I didn’t understand why someone wouldn’t leave such a situation. The pay was awful, the hours too long, and it sounded like a rotten place to work if even a fraction of the stories I’d hear over lunch breaks were true.

But everyone kept returning to some variation of the same theme: it was their dream to work in the video game industry.

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) is “the largest nonprofit membership in the world serving all individuals who create video games.” It is not, as its brass are usually quick to point out, a union. They want to advocate, in that distinctively American liberal way, for good working conditions and fair compensation for their members without rocking the boat too much – such a thing would be unseemly for developers on the frontier of the twenty-first century tech industry.

The IGDA’s board rotates and consists largely of luminaries from the industry’s management class (perhaps unsurprising, given its more or less explicitly anti-unionization stance). A CEO or manager comes in for a bit, rolls out when his or her term is up, and is replaced by another with similar views on labor.

One such board member was particularly big: Mike Capps, then head of Epic Games. Capps is a major figure in the industry, with Epic being a major gaming company. Rich, outspoken, and powerful, in a 2008 panel, while serving on the board, he let slip what everyone running the industry thinks but won’t say for matters of decorum.

The exact quotes have weirdly disappeared into the ether, scrubbed from the IGDA’s minutes, but Capps stated bluntly that Epic would not hire people willing to work for less than 60 hours a week; that this was not a quality of life issue but a matter of Epic’s corporate culture, and that it was patently absurd that anyone getting into the industry shouldn’t expect the same.

The furor over the comments was immense. Greg Costikyan, a writer and industry critic, delivered a scathing rebuke. He was followed by others, from all corners of the gaming world. This was too much, apparently; as with EA Spouse, the industry’s mask had slipped too far for the incident to pass without comment.

Capps was forced to run damage control, particularly after the head of the IGDA, the person most responsible for setting the tone of the organization, gave tacit approval to his comments, stating that “work/life balance also goes far beyond the number of hours worked. Quality of life also varies significantly according to the individual.” Though the incident drew attention at the time, the follow-up interviews, where Capps doubled down on what his expectations and payoffs for industry workers were, were largely ignored.

“Games like Gears, you know, it’s one of the best reviewed games of all-time. . .  You don’t get a game out like that with a bunch of people who don’t have any passion about the quality of the product and don’t want to spend that one extra night,” Capps states.

The p-word, “passion,” is used three times in the interview.

Again and again, when you read interviews or watch industry trade shows like E3, “passion” is used as a word to describe the ideal employee. Translated, “passion” means someone willing to buy into the dream of becoming a video game developer so much that sane hours and adequate compensation are willingly turned away. Constant harping on video game workers’ passion becomes the means by which management implicitly justifies extreme worker abuse .

And it works because that sense of passion is very real. The first time that you walk through the door at an industry job, you’re taken with it. You enter knowing that every single person in the building shares a common interest with you and an appreciation for the art of crafting a game. Friendships can be built immediately – to this day, many of my best friends arose from that immediate commonality we all had on the job.

This is an incredibly enticing proposition; no one who goes in is completely immune to it, no matter how far down the totem pole of life’s interests gaming is. And there are few other jobs quite like it.

Geek culture takes such strongly held commonalities of interest and consumption far more seriously than most other subcultures. I recently wrote a piece for this publication which was, in part, about the replacement of traditional class, gender, and racial solidarity with a culture of consumption. Here, in the video game creation business, is the way capital harnesses geek culture to actively harm workers. The exchange is simple: you will work 60-hour weeks for a quarter less than other software fields; in exchange, you have a seat at the table of your primary identifying culture’s ruling class.

It would be a bad socialist, indeed, who would dismiss people working on something they love as worthless. Fulfillment and choice are pillars of a just labor market. That is what makes the actions and comments of managers like Capps so nasty. It is hard for someone working on a game, perhaps after a lifetime dreaming of such a job, to take an objective look at the situation and realize that, with a few outliers, the industry stinks.

And it does stink. Hard data on the industry is notoriously hard to come by, given the general uselessness of industry-wide organizations such as the IGDA and many figures lumping video games together with either general software or entertainment, but they do exist. Game Developer Magazine, a now-defunct sister publication folded under Gamasutra, has done yearly surveys of wages, gender participation, and other figures. The sample sizes aren’t huge, but they’re the best available to the public:

  • 12 percent of respondents had been laid off within the last year. That’s over twice as high as the national mass layoff rate and higher than the national unemployment rate. Of those, 12 percent were still unemployed at the time of survey publication – again, well above national unemployment rates.
  • While the overall salary numbers are only slightly lower than what workers in other software fields make, the entry level salaries for each position are consistently and significantly lower in the video game industry.
  • The gender gap is massive and inexcusable. The job with the most female representation, producer, clocked in at just 23 percent and an average salary $7,000 less than males’. Female programmers stand at 4 percent; QA, the front door to a career in the industry, at a woeful 7 percent.
  • Indie games, the only currently viable ticket to breaking the stranglehold of the big studios, are a ticket to poverty. The average indie worker made $23,000 a year.
  • A whopping 84 percent of respondents work “crunch time,” those notorious 41+ hour work weeks which line up with the end of big projects. Of those, 32 percent worked 61–80 hours week (and usually goes on for months).

The QA figures are worth paying extra attention to. This is where the programmers, producers, writers, and artists of tomorrow invariably come from. And this is where taking advantage of “passion” exerts the most pressure on the entire industry.

In addition to gaming’s notoriously manipulative management, one of the true villains of modern America decided to hitch itself to the burgeoning and increasingly chic industry in the 1990s. Just in time to latch onto the boom years of the Sony Playstation, for-profit universities began marketing sham programs to people hoping for a career in video game creation.

They’re still at it in 2013. The commercials come on late at night or, more rarely, the middle of the day. The times chosen aren’t an accident — they’re aimed at the jobless and underemployed. A wailing guitar or dubstep kicks in. Sometimes there’s an attractive woman or a fast car. The (almost always) male student recalls how nobody ever thought video games would make him money; they, he smirks, were wrong.

For-profit colleges sell a vision of a career which doesn’t exist. Moreover, they use a weird, sexy, completely untrue version of a video game career as bait for their other programs, showing a school where even the screenwriting students can hobnob with these cool slackers.

As with so much other hard data regarding the industry, figures from education are obfuscated and hard to come by. When I spoke with the National Center for Education Statistics, we had to set parameters on our searches that left out programs which I know exist, simply because many are filed under general computer science. Coupled with total enrollment figures being available only once every other year, and this data only being available from schools accepting federal student aid, makes the numbers on video game design programs nearly impossible to accurately assess.

Cracking what numbers are available reveals an unflattering portrait of for-profit video game programs. Such institutions do not, as a general rule, graduate many students as a percentage of their enrollment. But of the total degrees given in 2012 at schools with video game/interactive media programs, a significant percentage were in those programs –  in the 20 to 30 percent range. A significant number of graduates of the higher-profile for-profit schools hovered around 50 percent.

These degrees are largely worthless. I personally know several developers who, as a rule, summarily pass over applicants for anything but entry level QA positions if they hold a degree from such schools. Even prospective video game workers know these degrees aren’t going to get them in above the ground floor. Yet the figures prove that people keep signing up at for-profit colleges for a shot at their dreams – and the for-profits have no interest in dissuading them from doing so.

Here, then, is how the entire clanking machine of the video game industry works, from student to worker. More people are trying to get into the industry than there are positions available. With traditional universities and community colleges only recently beginning to offer serious, robust programs in interactive media, anything to get a leg up is tried. For-profits prey on this ruthlessly and without oversight.

Management is only too happy to keep this revolving door of for-profit graduates and dreamers going. It depresses wages, giving breathing room for the beancounters who are, almost without exception, allowing management compensation, marketing costs, and non-worker compensation costs generally to skyrocket. It forces employees to give in to management demands because there is always, no matter what position you hold, someone who is enough of a dreamer, with enough passion, to do it cheaper.

Burnout inevitably sets in after the long hours of “crunching” and eyeballing the wages of comparable positions elsewhere. 24–year-olds become 30-year-olds, and often find partners and have children and take out mortgages. And suddenly, objectively, clinging to a dream which wasn’t as fulfilling in practice as once thought isn’t worth never seeing your family. So they quit and do something else.

Management is okay with this, though, because each round of departures and replacements means cheaper, younger workers willing to do more crunch to keep up. The for-profit colleges are okay with it because they can advertise graduates breaking into the industry. The beancounters are okay with it because they can funnel more money to hyping new games. The geeks are okay with it because it keeps the price of games low.

Each cog in the machine clicks and continues. Sometimes someone will go and start an indie studio, making $20,000 a year in a place needing $50,000 to be remotely comfortable. The dream’s a little purer — though that person still doesn’t see their family and can’t pay rent, everyone feels like the industry is working just fine.

Through it all, it’s increasingly apparent that the whole thing is about to topple over at any second. Console sales are bottoming out; even if the charitable view that we’re returning to normal is taken, budgets are still dangerously inflated, operating under the assumption that the boom will never end — meaning that sometime very soon there won’t be the sales to cover the bills. People will lose jobs, lots of them, and they’ll be left with experience and degrees in a field which no longer needs or wants them. Even if the crash isn’t crushing, the burnout level means that people with real experience are replaced with people without it, all to keep wages low and hours high — leading to increasingly shoddy games.

So what is to be done?

First and foremost, employees at all levels of the industry must organize. The first step is to abolish the IGDA wholesale. Darius Kazemi, a former board member, eloquently laid out why recently, but it boils down to the IGDA being an organ of management. It is, bluntly, a sham, a sop given to the workers in order to let them feel that change is imminent through quiet debate — a classic “company union,” for and by the gaming companies.

Real unionization, involving an alliance between middle-rung workers and those itching to take their jobs below, is not just desirable but necessary, not only for the workers enmeshed in twelve-hour days, but to save the industry from tottering over the edge into obsolescence.

Many observers pin their hopes on indie studios. But working in a five person shop making small games is no guarantor against the same sorts of abuses the corporate players truck in. The rise of indies must be married to a just and equitable approach to work and employment if they are to serve as a collective counterweight to corporate abuses. Given the size of most indie studios, radical approaches such as cooperatively owned studios and flat hierarchies are within easier reach than most anywhere else in the wider tech sector.

Secondly, women (and, though no data on them currently exists, racial minorities) must be better represented in the workforce. The survey results regarding women are unacceptable. Any “grownup” industry would see those figures plastered on major news outlets, irrefutable proof of a complete lack of commitment to equity’s most basic measures. A commitment to gender equality is not necessary simply for basic reasons of fairness; a just labor movement must be an inclusive labor movement.

The industry is not a helpless bystander in this. The common refrain from the tech world, that more women would be hired if only more women applied, is a poor excuse. Companies can recruit women more actively, make certain that the workplace is not hostile, and help work with local colleges to lobby hard for female students.

Thirdly, traditional colleges and universities should begin to displace the for-profits’ programs in this field. Video game programs are such a big part of for-profit marketing and enrollment pushes because traditional schools have not filled the gap.

Finally, media of all sorts must begin to treat the industry seriously. The industry’s practices must be examined seriously. The dearth of hard data and obfuscation in the education figures come directly from this tendency to dismiss the video game industry as something not worth covering seriously. There is real money here, with real people’s lives altered by how it flows.

At the moment, as with much of the tech sector, video game workers tend to fall into a familiar trap: reliance on beneficent management as a replacement for worker organization. For all the rotten practices, there are some genuinely rewarding places to work. But such environments exist at the sufferance of management rather than through any threat of collective action by workers. That is a tenuous situation to cling to — one which leaves workers completely helpless when management’s whims shift.

That said, there are possibilities of more radical approaches to both content production and labor reform in the industry. While the tech sector tends to skew libertarian, there seems to be a real thirst for more leftist approaches to reform in certain quarters, though it is not yet loud enough to alter the discussion on a large scale.

The very real possibility that such a transformation would affect the broader tech sector leaves the enticing proposition that the video game industry, ignored or mocked by so many, might actually prove an important struggle in the twenty-first century.