There’s a moment in every gamer’s life where they ask themselves a question. Maybe it’s while they’re slouched on the couch engrossed in a video game flashing on the screen, or while they’re daydreaming to get away from the lecture. This moment is an escape, a ‘what if’ that allows a gamer to become a part of their favorite projects: what would it be like to be a part of the gaming industry? It’s an enticing prospect; getting to design games with people who share a love of gaming in a workplace that’s both casual and state-of-the-art sounds like a perfect job. Millions of people across the world fantasize about just what it would be like to work in a job like that, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that, in the gaming industry, rife with, those conditions are just that: a fantasy.
In the game industry (as well as in many others), there’s a concept called ‘crunch.’ Crunch is, in its most basic form, excessive overtime: when game developers have to put in extremely long hours towards the end of a game’s development in order to get it finished for the product’s release date. Crunch can often mean working 60 to 80 hours a week, sometimes going up to 100 hours in more severe cases. Sleeping at the office, skipping meals, and losing relationships are all common experiences for developers during these intense crunch periods, and many experience mental health problems such as severe anxiety and depression, too.
Crunch has been a problem in the industry for decades; most games that are released go through some sort of crunch, meaning that pretty much every working developer has gone through it at some point in their career. For a long time, it was sort of an unspoken issue within the industry, but that changed in around 2004, when an open letter dubbed the “EA Spouse Letter” became a rallying point early in the discussion about crunch in games. The letter, written by the anonymous disgruntled spouse of an employee working at game publisher Electronic Arts, detailed their significant other’s experiences with crunch while working on one of the company’s flagship titles. The letter was a major piece of news at the time and resulted in multiple lawsuits filed against Electronic Arts (EA). More ‘Spouse Letters’ have been released since then, and have detailed what crunch can do to a developer and how it can affect the relationships they have to the people around them.
Although it’s been talked about much more since those letters were released, crunch is still a problem. The announcement that developers at Polish studio CD Projekt Red will have to work overtime, despite the company’s promise not to, is the most recent example, but crunch happens all the time. Studios like Epic Games, the developers of the worldwide phenomenon Fortnite, had employees working 80 – 100 hour weeks for months after the game exploded in popularity. The same happened with Rockstar’s blockbuster title Red Dead Redemption 2, and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us 2. It’s a major problem, one that affects every facet of the industry, so a lot of people have been asking: how can this be fixed?
There’s been a lot of talk about unionizing the video game industry, partially as a response to the intense pressure that crunch puts on employees. A lot of folk working in games were sceptical, though, or outright resisted the idea for fear of hurting artistic integrity or damaging game budgets. As Steven Kaplan, a Representative at the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, said: “There have been many attempts in the past to organize in the game industry, but much like other industries, those attempts were met with fear and doubt.”
Luckily, things have started to get serious. Founded in 2018, Gamer Workers Unite is an organization that has been a major voice in the fight for the unionization of the games industry, with chapters all over the world that work towards improving developers rights. The International Game Developers Association was founded in 1994 to advance the cause of developers throughout the industry, and is, perhaps, the earliest organization to do so. In one of their surveys, it was found that about 51 percent go through specified crunch time, and another 44 percent reported working extended overtime that they did not specifically refer to as ‘crunch.’ Organizations like these have been started by developers and other industry folk with the goal to fix problems like crunch, and they’re a welcome force in the push towards a better industry.
Recently, though, there’s been another organization that’s thrown its weight behind the movement. The Communications Workers of America (one of the U.S.’s biggest unions) posted a press release on their website in early January, announcing their plans to aid game developers in unionizing. The organization has also brought in figures like Emma Kinema, cofounder of Game Workers Unite, to aid in the effort. While it’s unclear how COVID-19 has affected their plans, this could be the catalytic step that finally gets the games industry to accept unions into the workplace.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of CD Projekt Red