Toxic workplaces and “crunch culture” in the video game industry

Late into the year of 2004, a blog was posted to LiveJournal titled EA: The Human Story. Written by Erin Hoffman, the post detailed the workplace culture her husband Leander Hasty experienced at Electronic Arts. Namely, it’s gruelling work hours (up to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week) and lack of overtime pay, compensation and sick and vocational leave. The post discussed the toll this took on the mental and physical health of the developers, stating that EA’s general mentality on the subject was indifference towards their workers.

The post blew up online, injuring EA’s reputation and eventually leading to a lawsuit in 2006 in which EA had to pay it’s employee’s $14.9 million in overtime compensation.

In May of 2019 PlayStation’s YouTube channel dropped a two-hour feature titled God Of War -Raising Kratos, which documented the making of the game over 5 years. It’s apparent that while crunch culture is nowhere near as extreme as it was 12 years ago, it is still a significant issue in the video game industry.

Working overtime or “crunching” to complete a game in time for release has been apart of the development process for so long that it’s widely accepted as part of the game making process. Understandably, developers may occasionally have to work longer hours to stay ahead of schedule. However, at this point in time crunch culture in the workplace is still posing a danger to employees.

This February, it was reported by Kotaku that several Naughty Dog employees came close to being seriously injured when a large metal pipe fell from the ceiling, landing dangerously close to them. The late-night construction crew had assumed that, due to the extremely late hour, the building would be empty. While the owners of the building quickly fired and replaced the construction team, this doesn’t fix the toxic workplace culture inside Naughty Dog.

Naughty Dog is well known for developing game series that become instant classics, such as Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter, Uncharted and The Last of Us. Naughty Dog strives for perfection when creating one of their games. Unfortunately, while this is reflected in the quality of their games, it puts intense pressure on their employees, creating a toxic workplace. The dev team has seen a high turnover rate for several years now due to crunch. One anonymous developer told Kotaku that they expect to see this repeated when their current title in production The Last of Us Part II is released.

Anonymous ex-employees also said that “You feel obligated to be there later because everyone else is there later. If an animation needed to be put in and you weren’t there to help the animator, you’re now blocking the animator, and they may give you grief. It may not even be spoken—it may just be a look. ‘Man, you totally screwed me last night by not being here at 11 p.m'”. Another developer also told Kotaku that “At a certain point you realize, ‘I can’t keep doing this. I’m getting older. I can’t stay and work all night'”.

This style of workplace culture is reflected in some form in almost every game dev team. Before closing down in 2018, it was reported that Telltale Games had their employees crunching to a dangerous degree solely in an attempt to keep the company afloat. It was announced in 2019 that Telltale Games will be relaunched by LCG Entertainment, this time with a more stable “non-crunch work environment”, according to LCG’s CEO, Jamie Ottilie.

A workplace culture structured on crunching and high turnovers isn’t sustainable for the future of gaming. So what’s the solution? Shortly after it’s closure, Telltale’s now-former narrative designer Emily Grace Buck said at Sweden Game Conference 2018 that it was time for “a really serious talk about potentially starting a union”.

The push for video game developers to unionise has been gaining traction over the past few years. With crunch culture being an issue for over a decade now, more decisive action (such as unionising) may be one of the only options workers in the industry have if any change can be made.

In early January of this year, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) announced that they would be launching an initiative to support workers attempting to unionise in the technology and game industries. The Campaign to Organise Digital Employees will provide support and resources to American and Canadian workers. In contrast, Game Workers Unite provides assistance to developers attempting to unionise across Europe and Australia.

A change in the way the industry operates behind the scenes is clearly wanted and needed. As employees become more and more outspoken, it’s unlikely that crunching will survive as an accepted part of game development for another decade.

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