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Crunch: Inside the unethical employment practices of the video game industry

9-10-2019

Francesco Corso, News Editor

The video game industry is one rife with controversy. Those outside the video game community have claimed that video games cause violence, a claim that was originally propagated in the 1990s. This idea has since made a resurgence in the wake of the Parkland Shooting, and has now been the go-to scapegoat for Republican politicians, up to and including the President of the United States, every time a mass shooting occurs, despite the fact that experts maintain that there is no link between playing video games and real-world violence. Many within the gaming community are increasingly concerned about the business practices of the industry, where full-priced $60 games have begun to adopt the predatory monetization practices of the free-to-play mobile games industry. However, one major issue with this industry has been almost completely overlooked by many.

When talking about the development cycle for games, the practice of crunch inevitably comes up. Crunch is defined as being periods of time in the development cycle, usually right before a major deadline, where developers put in massive amounts of additional hours in order to make sure the project meets those deadlines. Currently, over half of developers expect this as just part of the job. Oftentimes this work is done with no form of compensation for the extra hours whatsoever. As Erin Hoffman, the wife of a former Electronic Arts (EA) employee, said in her now-famous exposé that was anonymously published back in 2004, “EA salaried employees receive a) no overtime; b) no compensation time! ('comp' time is the equalization of time off for overtime -- any hours spent during a crunch accrue into days off after the product has shipped); c) no additional sick or vacation leave. The time just goes away.”

Hoffman was also astute to point out was not only highly unethical but also illegal, saying “Whenever the subject of hours come [sic] up, inevitably, it seems, someone mentions 'exemption'. They refer to a California law that supposedly exempts businesses from having to pay overtime to certain 'specialty' employees, including software programmers. This is Senate Bill 88. However, Senate Bill 88 specifically does not apply to the entertainment industry -- television, motion picture, and theater industries are specifically mentioned. Further, even in software, there is a pay minimum on the exemption: those exempt must be paid at least $90,000 annually. I can assure you that the majority of EA employees are in fact not in this pay bracket.” This assertion proved to be correct, as EA wound up settling two different lawsuits for $15.9 million and $14.9 million over this issue.

This did not solve the problem, however, as evidenced by the fact that developers today still expect to encounter the practice, and despite the amount of hours being less, a survey conducted by the International Game Developers Association (IDGA) has found that developers are still dissatisfied with the amount of crunch that is expected of them.

It is worth also noting that this practice comes with numerous cases of wreaking havoc on the mental health of developers. In fact, BioWare, a studio currently owned by EA, regularly has what are called “stress casualties,” which according to an email from a former BioWare employee “means someone had such a mental breakdown from the stress they’re just gone for one to three months. Some come back, some don’t.” Another employee is credited with saying, “Depression and anxiety are an epidemic within Bioware,” which should really put all of this into perspective. 

It should not be considered normal for employees to regularly be mandated by their doctor to take months off because of their job. A business should never be allowed to require its employees to put so many hours, without any form of overtime compensation, effectively destroying the work-life balance of their workers. It is especially not acceptable for the HR departments at these studios to say, as Hoffman claims to have heard from multiple managers inside EA, “If they don't like it, they can work someplace else.” This is an industry that is long overdue for regulation, and one can only hope that they get what they deserve.