We Need a Union for Game Developers

This idea has drifting around in my mind ever since I read Kotaku’s article about Rockstar’s employee crunch during Red Dead Redemption 2‘s development. I want to preface this with the caveat that I know maybe 25% of what actually goes on during game development. I only know what’s shared on developer blogs and journalist articles. So bear in mind this opinion is from a fan’s perspective.

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I’m a Speech Therapist, and I’m very passionate about my work. I enjoy seeing people improve their communication skills. I enjoy teaching others about disabilities and being a resource for parents. At the end of each day, I can look back knowing peoples’ lives are better because of what I did.

That being said, near the end of 2018, upper management decided to cut corners, making my work life significantly more stressful. My day of 10 moderately intense hours increased to 11-12 highly intense hours. I was already tired coming home back then, but now I’m exhausted. I have time for an early breakfast, a late dinner, and about 2 hours to decompress and socialize with my wife before going to bed. However, I only work 4 days a week, so those 3-day weekends are a welcome respite before starting again. I usually average anywhere from 45 to 55 hours of work during a week. It’s stressful, and not sustainable in the long term, but for the time being I can still manage my life.

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So when I read Polygon’s recent article about Epic games having their employees work 70+ hours in a week, I was disgusted.

Let’s break down a 70-hour work week: if you take Sunday off, you’re working a little over 11 hours every day. But according to the article, having a day off is a daydream for these employees. They mostly work 10-hour shifts every day. Nonstop.

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If I had to work that much, I’d have a mental breakdown, despite loving my job. No one can work like that — at least, not without suffering health problems. And not without your family relationships crumbling or without stopping the rest of your life from falling apart.

And 70-hour weeks are the low end of what some of these employees are reporting.

Then we have Kotaku’s article about how BioWare’s leaders mismanaged the company, leaving the main bulk of Anthem’s development into an 18-month-long crunch. The trailer from E3 2017 was effectively a sham — worse, it was the first time many employees actually learned what game they were making. BioWare’s approach reminded me more of a middle schooler trying to finish his science project the night before it’s due, and certainly not the professionalism I would expect from a AAA developer.

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I feel conflicted that so many developers and publishers have this culture with their employees. I don’t think crunch can be avoided 100% of the time, and I’m sure some of these devs would devote that many hours anyway. Sakurai certainly doesn’t seem to understand work/life balance, and other indie developers like Concerned Ape seem to be willing to make that sacrifice as well.

But that’s it. Sakurai and Concerned Ape actually volunteer to do it.

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It’s when companies make it an expectation, manipulating their employees to “volunteer” into working overtime (otherwise they lose their job), that problems really arise.

So… I cut the cord. I uninstalled Fortnite.

I haven’t played it for about a month, but I still felt dirty that it was on my system, like buying a blood diamond or a wearing a sweatshop t-shirt. On one hand, I don’t want to ignore all that hard work the devs did. I’d love to appreciate their work. But at the same time, there’s just no excuse for that kind of working condition. Making video games is hard enough without these businessmen making it worse.

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Now with this rant, I don’t want to become some kind of “video game moral police.” I understand if you still want to support the developers, that’s your decision and I respect that. But for me, I can’t. I’d feel like I would be complicit in that terrible crunch culture. Things need to change first.

It doesn’t exactly have to be unions that make that change, either. That was just the first thing that came to mind. It could come from the companies themselves, or from government intervention, or from a Fairy Godmother. I don’t care how it happens, but these people deserve better. Until then, companies like EA, Epic, and Rockstar won’t get a cent from me. That’s not an easy decision to make, but in the end I think that’s the only way to get a CEO to really listen.

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