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Research shines light into darker side of gaming industry

Johanna Weststar
Johanna Weststar, a DAN Management and Organizational Studies professor

In its early days, the video game industry was perceived as a fun, high-tech business where young creative types were 'paid to play games all day.' Then in 2004, in an open letter to Electronic Arts (EA) executives, a disgruntled partner of an EA employee brought the darker side of the industry to light in an anonymous blog post. Her exposé told of seven-day, 80-hour work weeks and a mantra of 'put-up, shut-up or leave.'

"The post was quite damning," recalls Johanna Weststar, a DAN Management and Organizational Studies professor. "A wholesale criticism around the work practices of EA – and the entire industry – bled into health and relationship concerns."

Weststar, who was working on her PhD in Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the time, was intrigued, and intent to learn more about videogame developers, an understudied group of workers. Five years later, she got her chance.

The 'EA Spouse,' Erin Hoffman, is credited for initiating a quality-of-life movement in the gaming industry. Her tell-all prompted 5,000 responses from developers sharing similar experiences, and the first industry quality-of-life survey in 2004.

A call for a follow-up survey in 2009 brought Weststar into the fold. Along with fellow researcher Marie-Josée Legault of Téluq University, Weststar partnered with the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) to author the 2009 survey and analyze the data, as she did for the subsequent Developer Satisfaction Surveys of 2014 and 2015.

"The survey data allows us to track the working conditions of the videogame industry, which helps inform our academic work on work/life balance, equity, compensation, representation and unionization. The conversations we have with the developers help the industry be better informed, with industry leaders and developers consciously using that data to set their agendas," Weststar explains.

One of the most controversial issues revealed in the EA Spouse post was the issue of 'crunch' – a sustained period of long working hours without compensation.

"We think the use of the word, 'crunch' is deliberate. Management doesn't want to say, 'overtime' because that word has very direct implications that we all understand, like pay for extra hours. Whereas, 'crunch' has become an acceptable industry term that describes what happens when you 'just have to meet a milestone.'

California law – similar to that in Ontario – exempts businesses from having to pay overtime to certain 'specialty' employees, including software programmers, leaving developers without a lot of recourse. In the case of EA, a lawsuit seeking overtime resulted in a payout and a reclassification allowing employees to be entitled to compensation, but that didn't mean crunch became a forgotten trend.

In fact, as Weststar and Legault reported to industry representatives at an IGDA leadership summit this past fall, there are still studios practicing intense crunch, with 60 per cent of developers still not compensated for crunch hours in 2014.

"There is still an ethos of 'this is how you make games' and many developers have internalized that view, and are willing to sacrifice everything – including their mental and physical health, and their relationships for 'the love of the game.'

"This is not an industry that ages well," continues Weststar, noting that when employees decide to start families, or are ready for a healthier work/life balance, they feel their only option is to leave the business entirely.

"If the gaming industry really wants to mature, they need to face the issues around working conditions – and not just 'crunch' but other important issues such as sexism."

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