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Game Mode: Work Hard, Play Hard

Todd Howard, director and executive producer at Bethesda Game Studios, introduces 'Fallout 76' during the Microsoft xBox E3 briefing in 2018.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Todd Howard, director and executive producer at Bethesda Game Studios, introduces 'Fallout 76' during the Microsoft xBox E3 briefing in 2018.

Last year, total video game sales in the United States hit a record-breaking $43.4 billion.

That’s partially because games are bigger — and longer, and more complicated — than ever before. Some scripts involve more than 500,000 lines of dialogue… and some graphics are so sharp you can spot every single wave of grass.

But all that detail comes as a cost. Some game developers say their working conditions have steadily deteriorated, in part because of the industry-wide expectation than they work non-stop.

The phenomenon is so common it has a name – crunch.

Crunch is the name given to working intense overtime, sometimes for stretches that last weeks or months. In the game industry specifically, it was generally associated with the period leading up to a game’s launch. But in the age of early access releases, post-launch updates, downloadable content, and games as a service, crunch can be a constant problem.

Those stretches of overtime can last for months… or years. In an age where many video games come with a string of updates, upgrades and expansions, game developers are often the ones shouldering the burden.

That workload can lead to mental and physical health issues caused by sleep deprivation and an atmosphere of intense stress.

A recent Kotaku article on working conditions at game publisher Epic Games quoted several employees on the condition of anonymity:

“I work an average 70 hours a week,” said one employee. “There’s probably at least 50 or even 100 other people at Epic working those hours. I know people who pull 100-hour weeks. The company gives us unlimited time off, but it’s almost impossible to take the time. If I take time off, the workload falls on other people, and no one wants to be that guy.

Polygon reported that some companies have been “found to be abusing their power” as they force their employees to limit what they say about company regulations and guidelines.

Nathan Allen Ortega, 34, was hired as the community and video manager at Telltale Games. He says he’s worked tons of hours to maintain the reputation of the company. While doing so, he encountered health problems.

An ulcer grew in his body and he began to cough up blood.

“I was working with compromised games made by people killing themselves to get them out the door month after month after month,” he says. Both his doctor and therapist advised him to quit, but he stuck around until Telltale laid off 25 percent of its staff, including Ortega, in 2017.

Recently, there has been a growing movement among game workers to unionize. Will that finally address these long-standing workplace issues? Has the industry reached a tipping point? We’ll discuss on the latest installment of 1A: Game Mode.

Produced by Avery J.C. Kleinman. Text by Mikah Sullivan and Paige Osburn.


Colin Campbell, Journalist, Polygon; @ColinCampbellx

Dave Lang, Founder, Iron Galaxy Studios; @JosephJBroni

Emma Kinema, Co-founder, Game Workers Unite; @EmmaKinema

Jared Rea, Video game social media manager; @jaredr

For more, visit https://the1a.org.

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