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DIGITAL WAGE SLAVES
The fine line between team spirit and exploitation in the video-game business.

BY GRAHAM LEGGAT

The video game industry has deep roots in geek and hacker culture. Even as it moves closer to the epicenter of the entertainment industry — Hollywood and the movie business — many gamemakers remain marked by an obsessive interest in computer programming and fantasy role-playing. Not surprisingly, this obsessiveness carries over into work practices. Particularly in the last days before a game nears its launch, the stock images of feverish sunken-eyed code monkeys working round the clock fueled by pizza and Jolt are not far from the truth.

For many, these images and the realities they represent can be compelling. As Masters of Doom (2004), David Kushner’s fast-paced industrial biography of id Software, makes clear, those who embrace the pressure-cooker atmosphere and brutal hours during a game’s prefinish crunch time attain heroic, even legendary status, and the development team as a whole feels an incomparable camaraderie, not unlike soldiers during wartime.

Problem is, not everyone who goes to work in the game industry wants to go to war. Not anymore anyway. Sure, among small independent developers the guts-and-glory attitude prevails: “Killer hours, often at modest salaries, without complaint...[are] a small price to pay for the excitement and the shot at a bonanza someday,” writes the Wall Street Journal Online. But as the game business evolves, consolidates and produces more corporate conglomerates, the work environment changes radically.

“In small developer companies there is a lot of collegiality, [so the employee’s] view is that he’s in a pretty positive environment working with friends,” said attorney Patrick Madden, a wage-and-hour litigation specialist. Larger game companies, however, “have developed the culture of constant-peak working hours.” Their employees no longer have the same renegade start-up feeling that they are all in this together. Madden quotes a May 2005 CNET story to the effect that it’s possible that “as many as 50 percent of developers could be eligible for overtime.” Loose estimate though this may be, if this small army of programmers, visual artists, copyists, level designers, modelers, animators, etc., do not receive cash compensation for their extended hours, they can begin to feel exploited, even ground to a pulp.

In film, of course, crew members and office staff have felt this same exploitation — often when working on independent productions. Largely, however, these pressures are alleviated when crew members graduate from non-union indie films to union jobs, which have strict and specific wage and overtime rules. (There are exceptions, however — Miramax has been targeted with overtime-related suits from office workers and interns.) But in the game industry, this type of workplace change has been slow to take place.

Madden recently authored a paper titled “Revenge of the EA Widow: Employment Issues Facing the Gaming Industry.” In it he quotes a 2004 blog entry by “EASpouse”: “[Do you realize that] when you keep our husbands and wives and children in the office for 90 hours a week, sending them home exhausted and numb and frustrated with their lives, it’s not just them you are hurting, but everyone around them, everyone who loves them? When you make your profit calculations and your cost analyses, you know that a great measure of that cost is being paid in raw human dignity, right?”

According to Madden, EA has been the subject of two notable wage-and-hour class-action lawsuits in California and has taken a $21 million pretax charge in relation to these. Sony Computer Entertainment America has also been involved in a suit in California, and there are surely several other game publishing companies in the same boat. Like mice, for every one wage-and-hour suit in the public eye, you can bet there are 10 more beneath the floorboards.

Before you set fire to your copy of NCAA Football 2006 and call for a boycott of Burnout: Revenge, however, it’s worth examining a few key elements contributing to the situation — beyond the fact that some people are not being paid adequately for their work, that is.

As alluded to above, a key factor is the evolution of the game business from a sort of high-tech cottage industry to a form typical of advanced monopoly capitalism. (Yikes! Marx Attacks!) Like other entertainment industries — notably popular music, mass-market publishing and Hollywood movies — increasingly the game business is being dominated by massive conglomerates and franchised, hit-driven product lines. The transition from one structural economic form to the other produces all kinds of nasty-ass shear and corporate-culture shock, wage-and-hour inequities being one.

This tectonic shifting is going to get progressively more pronounced in the next two years as the three giant game-console manufacturers roll out their next-generation hardware — Xbox 360, PlayStation3 and Nintendo Revolution — which in turn will drive up the cost of doing business across the board and widen the divide between smaller and larger companies.

Another contributing factor is legal/geographic. Thus far, all the suits have been filed in California, under state rather than federal labor law. Golden State legal statutes are the most pro-labor in the country, and according to Madden, “in other markets [game companies] probably have more latitude” in how they treat their employees.

Equally notable are the classifications the suits hinge on, of employees being either “exempt” or “non-exempt” workers. In brief, if an employee has significant artistic or creative discretion or decision-making agency in his work, then he is exempt from overtime requirements. If he does not, then he is non-exempt. That is, he is entitled to overtime payments — and, as it happens, ineligible for stock options, a mainstay work incentive of the tech industry in general.

A final factor worth noting, according to Madden, is the cynical fact that when law firms specializing in class-action suits sense an industrial weak point they bite down and don’t let go. Their attorneys will build a “machine to work on [a specific] class action.” Once built, that machine is like an engine of war driven from one kill zone to the next looking for trouble. Thus, as in this case, you often see a rash of suits sweeping across localized areas of an industry.

The prognosis? Could go one of three ways:

• Some companies will change their practices and get in line with labor laws, develop better relations with employees and walk away unscathed.

• Some companies will change their practices, develop better relations and get indicted regardless, mostly for prior offenses.

• Some companies won’t change at all. And they will get screwed.

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