NEWS - Sunday, November 21, 2004

Video Game Programmers Give Their All

Carnations and lilies were the final indignity. The bouquet, which arrived at her door on a sunny Saturday in September, was from her fiance, a video game programmer who was working his eighth consecutive 72-hour week. Far from being flattered, the woman poured out her anger and frustration in a 2,000-word essay that she posted on the Internet under the pseudonym "ea spouse." "The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach," she wrote. "My happy supportive smile is running out." Within 48 hours, ea spouse had received more than 1,000 sympathetic responses -- from colleagues of her fiance at Electronic Arts and from men and women across the fast-growing $25 billion video game industry. "People regularly joke about forgetting their wives’ names, but it’s not funny," said one senior developer, who asked that his name not be published. "When I read ea spouse’s article, it just hit me." Part of the culture since its founding as a garage industry in the mid-1970s, the video game business has been fueled by a dicey mix of testosterone and caffeine. Now, as those workers mature along with their industry, many are grappling with failed relationships, neglected families, weight gain and anxiety attacks. They complain that as budgets and expectations for games explode, so do the workloads for those making them. For their part, games companies don’t dispute that their employees often put in long hours but contend that the workload is balanced with good pay, benefits and perks. "Everyone who works in a game studio knows that the hard work that comes with (finishing) games isn’t unique to EA," said Electronics Arts spokeswoman Tammy Schachter. Nonetheless, more than half of game developers expect to leave the industry within 10 years, according to an April survey by the International Game Developers Association. Nearly 60 percent of those questioned said crunch periods were normal, and 47 percent said they weren’t compensated for overtime hours. Only 3 percent said their employers counted all the overtime hours they had worked. `Crunch time’ That ea spouse lashed out at Electronic Arts is, in part, a function of EA’s size. With 5,100 workers, the Redwood City, Calif.-based publisher is the world’s biggest. But it isn’t the only company that expects its developers to work 60 to 80 hours a week during the weeks and months leading up to the final release of games -- referred to in the industry as "crunch time." Developers from other companies tell similar stories. True, office campuses boast gleaming gyms, expansive swimming pools, gourmet cafeterias and volleyball courts, but, as one developer put it, "these things just sit there and mock us." "The best use of the swimming pool so far was by someone who jumped into it and started flipping off his managers on his last day of work," said the developer, who asked not to be named. Although ea spouse has become the online standard bearer for games workers, the battle actually began in July, when current and former workers sued EA over allegations that they were owed overtime pay. The company declined to comment on the lawsuit. "Unfortunately this kind of thing is prevalent throughout the industry," said Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association in San Francisco. What irritated ea spouse most, she said, was that Electronic Arts appeared to exploit her fiance’s love of video games. "It’s so difficult, because we love the game industry," ea spouse said during an interview. `Constant stress’ But, she said, "he hasn’t been home for dinner to stay for months. It’s a constant stress. I can’t see him suffer without suffering myself. I noticed a change in him. All his interests have gone away. He’s constantly on the verge of getting sick. He’s pale and unresponsive." She acknowledged they understood long hours came with the job. Neither, though, was prepared for what they said were weeks on end without a break. "They increased the mandatory hours to 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., six days a week," ea spouse said. "Then it went up to seven days. They were just so pompous about it." Some contrast the non-union game industry with the heavily unionized movie business, which often employs former game workers to produce digital special effects and computer animation work. The Walt Disney Co., DreamWorks Animation SKG and Warner Bros. have labor contracts that require them to pay overtime for every hour worked beyond 40 hours a week. Alternative compensation Most programmers at EA are classified as salaried employees exempt from overtime pay. The lawsuit filed in July disputes that categorization, saying that game developers should be paid on an hourly basis because they don’t have managerial responsibilities. Instead, many game companies lavish other goodies on their workers, mostly free food. For example, the flowers sent to ea spouse were part of a company-paid effort to boost morale. "Instead of giving their workers time off, they try to buy them off with frivolous things," said ea spouse, who still plans to marry the EA employee. "I didn’t want flowers. I wanted my fiance."

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