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The Human Factor

Tamsin Oxford

The Human Factor

In my recent article about how games can be considered a form of art, I briefly touched on a sensitive issue facing the gaming industry – the treatment of designers, developers and engineers by games publishers.

This is not a new issue or even a horrible shiny new trend. This is something that has been plaguing the back of the industry for quite some time now and hopefully is something that will meet its end soon. The first real explosion of this concern was in 2004 when a woman by the name of Erin Hoffman wrote a blog criticising Electronic Arts for the way they treated their staff.

The Human FactorShe wrote this blog on November 11 and it was completely anonymous. She says, “I am retaining some anonymity here because I have no illusions about what the consequences would be for my family if I was explicit.”

She describes a life that would be difficult to distinguish from a labour camp. Hideously long hours enforced on staff who worked eight hours a day, six days a week. This was only in pre-crunch time, when they were working to prevent a big bang at the end of the project. Then suddenly this became the norm and then the real crunch came and they were expected to work from 9am to 10pm seven days a week.

To make things even worse those staff that were on a salary got no overtime pay, no compensation time and no extra holiday leave or sick leave. The article raises several salient points about the position of EA in the industry, how they were rapidly absorbing many smaller game studios and that they were making a ridiculous amount of profit.

In short, employees were expected to put up and shut up or leave. If they left then there weren’t very many optionsThe Human Factor left to them. If they stayed they worked hours that affected them mentally and physically to the point of breaking.

It is worth noting that this industry is notoriously tough on its workers. Not in terms of unfair labour practise as described above, but rather in terms of it demanding long hours and dedication. Those who decide to enter into this world are usually very determined, passionate and dedicated. They expect to work longer hours than most other professions but they do it because they love it.

This does not mean, however, that this dedication and their boundless talent, should be used to manipulate and control them. Or taken advantage of. So Erin Hoffman’s blog was a massive awakening for the industry and a passionate plea for better working conditions for people who were, literally, giving their lives for their careers.

The Human FactorThe response was enormous. Articles and features by respected news organisations hit the stands and the web with many vilifying the treatment of software developers. It was a landmark. By 2006 she was revealed and her fiancée, about whom she wrote, was a plaintiff in a class action suit on behalf of the software engineers at EA. They won.

Erin started an organisation known as Gamewatch.org as a forum for software developers to come forward about bad treatment in the industry. Also as a place to praise companies that treated their staff with respect. A watchdog for the industry where software developers could make a difference for themselves by warning each other of bad practises, among other things.

You’d think that this would have woken the industry up, that it would have heralded change. Instead, in 2010, there is yet another outcry and this time the wives of employees at Rockstar have written a heartfelt plea about the conditions their husbands have to endure.

You may struggle to read the letter a bit, it’s not brilliantly written, but you’ll get the general idea. Written by the Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees, this essay describes conditions that easily match the unpleasant circumstances of EA Spouse. The Human Factor

What’s truly interesting about both these articles are the comments that follow. Comments that are heartfelt, angry and, sometimes, listless. People having to work ridiculous hours at ridiculous pay for no real benefit to anyone but the company that seems to delight in sucking them dry.

The Human FactorThe news has exploded with articles from Shacknews, PSX Extreme, GameSpot,  Gamespy and many more. Sadly the comments mostly seem to be about whether or not certain games will be released or whether Red Dead Redemption will be any good. Isn’t this missing the point somewhat?

Shouldn’t we, the consumers, be looking at how we can positively impact this situation? If we stopped buying games from these publishers then perhaps that would make them sit up and take notice. The power of the consumer is still there and we can make a difference to other people’s lives. All it would take is proof that they offered sane working hours and treatment of staff and we would then buy their games. If enough people did this then perhaps we could change this for the better.

Add a comment 1 comment
Gunn  Jan. 13, 2010 at 14:36

I would have liked to work in the game industry but after speaking to a few who did go in they said basically low pay and long hours with plenty stress, so only do it if its your absolute passion.

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