Over-watch or Over-worked ?

In October 1958, American Physicist Willy Higinbotham creates a tennis game called “Tennis for Two” on an oscilloscope and analog computer for public demonstration at Brookhaven National Laboratory. This was the world’s first video game and was a major inspiration behind the 1972 arcade game legend: Pong. With Pong came a boom of other successful video games including Pac-Man (1980) and Donkey Kong (1982) and a new industry was born.

In recent years besides consoles and arcades with the emergence of social networks, smartphones and tablets introduced new categories such as mobile and social games into the picture and now in 2021 the value of the video game industry in the United States was estimated to be $65.49 billion. But as tens of thousands of video game fans and creators shell out their dollars, a difficult truth about the gaming industry is beginning to emerge: what’s seen by outsiders as a fun, creative business is becoming psychologically and financially unbearable for those working in it.

“Every game you like is built on the backs of workers,” says Nathan Ortega, who thought he found his dream job when Telltale Games offered him a position as a community and video manager in 2015. Ortega was a Telltale enthusiast so it was an easy decision to pack up his stuff and relocate near the company’s headquarters in California. But he was soon so stressed out by work that he developed an ulcer and started coughing up blood. The dedication that goes into masterpieces of gaming is admirable. Whether it be designing, coding, producing, or even testing a game, it is clear that passion is abundant from people working “behind the screen”. While this euphoric hype is indeed an aspect of the gaming industry, more often than not the wave that pushes these passion-filled developers forward is harsh and ruinous, leaving nothing but a husk of what once was a spirited creator. Video game makers call it “crunch” – the process of working nights and weekends to hit a tight deadline. But unlike other professions that might muster employees to work overtime in the final stretches of a project, in game development it can be a permanent, and debilitating, way of life. In October 2020, Polish game developer CD Projekt Red, asked all of its employees to work six-day weeks in the lead-up to the November release of Cyberpunk 2077, one of the most anticipated games of the year. But the new policy was just the formalization of an informal code that has long existed at the studio. Various departments had already been working nights and weekends for weeks or months straight in order to meet deadlines, according to people who have worked there. Studio head Adam Badowski said he was aware that many employees had been testing their limits to bring the game to launch, efforts for which he was “immeasurably thankful!”

The “crunch” is a situation that has existed in the gaming industry for decades. Many other game developers have also cultivated reputations for running flat out. As the industry prepares for another big holiday season, workers are putting in long hours to finish their games in time. Few employees would object to putting in the occasional night or weekend, but crunch is a culture, an atmosphere, a state of mind. Countless horror stories have come out from ex-developers who know crunch is bad news. After a 70, 80, or even 90-hour work week, spending quality time with family becomes more of a challenge than a relief. An offset of these overworked developers not being able to take basic care of themselves is an inclination to abandon the industry.

Amid this turbulence, dozens of workers in the gaming business are calling for the industry to unionize. The turmoil presents them with both an opportunity and a challenge. On one hand, the instability can make it difficult to talk about unionization. Still, a recent survey conducted by the industry group International Game Developers Association found that 47% of workers said they would support a union at their company, while 26 % said they “maybe would.”

Video games are supposed to be an outlet to relieve stress and spark imagination and creativity, but they are instead being exploited by companies to squeeze money out of their employees. If crunch isn’t solved, this industry is doomed to failure.

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