Applicant Wanted (tolerance of crunch & job insecurity required)

Monty Python - mud peasants

The subject of game development crunch time has popped up again thanks to a lengthy piece in the Guardian exploring the changes – if any – in industry practice following the 2004 EA Spouse revelations. It does not come as a huge surprise to hear that there there haven’t actually been many changes at all. Excessive workloads and tremendous insecurity still seem to be the order of the day at a lot of developers and publishers. On the matter of insecurity, incidentally, some of the stories recounted in this Kotaku article are heartbreaking.

My own past time in the development side of the games industry, working in QA at an outsourced testing company, ended many years ago, but some of the practices I have read about since then are familiar. It’s worth noting that in outsourced testing “crunch” works differently. Because your employer’s business is in supporting the overflow QA requirements of other companies, crunch can come at any time and last for highly variable durations. It was not uncommon for testers – employed on what would today be called zero hours contracts – to work 12 or 16 hour days for 5 to 7 days a week for long periods of time, and then receive no work at all for weeks or even months. I know a few people who worked 24 hours straight on certain projects, which isn’t just unhealthy, it’s possibly illegal (I believe it’s supposed to be obligatory to sign a waiver in order to opt out, but I’m no expert on employment law).

The vagaries of workloads delivered from clients are a perpetual challenge in many outsourcing businesses, and ‘flexible workers’ are a sadly inevitable part of how companies scale up and scale down to meet client demand. This is not a particularly pleasant way to work and live, but it can work out for people if they’re young or healthy enough to work excessive hours for a finite time, and then live off that until the next bit of work comes along. A job testing games is pretty appealing to a lot of people, even if it is insecure and variable, because at the end of the day the work beats data entry, telesales or the service industry, and you do get to work with some colourful people. Personally, I quite liked working night shifts for a while, as the meal allowance helped buy me groceries, and because I was working nights I wasn’t spending lots of money at the pub. I did this for a few months and it helped me buy a new PC, an Xbox and a GameCube on top of paying my rent and bills.

I mention all of this to acknowledge that any kind of working environment can work out well for some people. I know people who relished the opportunity to work huge numbers of hours; these are mostly the people who went on to construct a career on the back of their start in QA. Those who wanted to retain more of a work-life balance were less likely to excel, and more likely to be ‘culled’ next time the variable workloads dropped off. Thus my anecdotal experience corresponds with the wider picture that whistleblowers like EA Spouse reveal: that there is a widespread cultural conflation of willingness to work excessive hours with the employees who you wish to retain. It is not hard to imagine that this mindset, writ large, is problematic. It is no secret that a large number of developers leave the games industry after ten years or so, having been effectively burned out, and the attitude of many employers has historically been that it doesn’t matter because a new crop of graduating young coders, designers and artists will be served up next summer.

Then there is the matter of lack of security. To discuss one without the other is to fail to see the big picture. Again, turning to anecdotal experience, I recall hearing horror stories much like those outlined in the Kotaku article I linked above. One that has really stuck with me is a major corporate publisher whose QA workforce was largely composed of people working on short-term rolling contracts. As I understand it, employment law would have obliged said publisher to take testers onboard on permanent contracts once a certain number of months had passed; instead they sacked workers on the cusp of passing this threshold and told them they couldn’t re-apply for a certain number of months, but were welcome to do so after that time. Surprisingly, many workers did re-apply, attempting to build a career around openly exploitative employment practices.

I have no idea whether that sort of behaviour still goes on, or if so how common it is. One piece of evidence comes via the free indie game Game Test Life which, although poorly written, does a decent job of highlighting just how arbitrary and callous working in QA often is – and although QA is usually regarded as less important than other fields involved in development, I don’t doubt that such problems and criticisms are unique to QA.

There are strong indicators that groundwork is being laid for future improvement. The Guardian article quotes Chris Avellone (currently the co-owner of Obsidian) saying “Developers and managers should never have to work more than 40 hours a week. It’s a fun job, but it shouldn’t be an exploitative one. Everyone has a life. Let them live it, it’s short enough as it is.” Avellone goes on to explain how this can be accomplished via sensible management and cultural practices. He’s reportedly not alone in his views, with an increasing number of senior manages ‘coming up from the trenches’ and recognising the harm and damage that crunch culture, as well as similar exploitative practices, can cause.

The IGDA (International Game Developers Association) is also being looked to to offer leadership on these issues. It is unlikely to do so, being a trade representation body and not a union, but the expectation that it should act is not wholly unreasonable given Erin Hoffman’s – the famous EA Spouse – presence on its board of directors between 2010 and 2011. In any case, pressure on the IGDA may lead to another outlet springing open. And, unexpectedly, the article states that the question of unionisation is an increasingly hot topic “in Montreal, an important centre for game development with major Ubisoft, Square Enix and Warner Bros studios in residence. Here, there are now regular and very passionate meetings about the viability of unions and worker co-operatives – they could represent a vital first step in an industry without much history of labour organisation.”

It’s pleasing that there are such signs of improvement, but it is distressing that ten years on from the EA Spouse controversy – and fairly widespread reporting on damaging working practices – that more has yet to be accomplished. It would be all too easy to look at the good that is being done and imagine that such practices will naturally spread. The more probable reality is that exploitative practices will continue as long as the games industry is able to offer ‘dream careers’ to naive new generations of university graduates and young hires, and employers see no serious drawbacks to burning out parts of their workforce beyond occasional negative publicity.

The real palliatives and cures, I suspect, will be for all of us, as employees or audience, to demand better of this industry: to expose negative practices wherever possible, whether via anonymous whistleblowing or more openly; to boost the signal of those who do expose such practices; and to support, however we can, those who are demonstrating a better way of working. Institutional change is slow and difficult, so we must be prepared for the long haul.