It Was Labor Unions That First Proposed Labor Day, And It May Be Labor Unions That Stop Crunch Time
Later today, I’ll be firing up the grill and flipping burgers to serve to the family on Labor Day. Like millions of other Americans, I see the day as the unofficial end of summer, a last chance to relax in the back yard and enjoy the barbeque before things get hectic again with school and all the activitiy that goes with it. And like millions of other Americans, I often forget the real importance of this holiday. However, since I write my blog posts on Mondays, this Labor Day I’m giving the day a little more thought and recognize that it more than just parades and barbeques.
A quick check at Wikipedia reminds me that it is public holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September in the United States to honor the American labor movement and the power of collective action by laborers. However, this honor was one that had to be fought for. Back in the 19th cdentury, different groups of trade unionists chose a variety of days on which to celebrate labor. Oregon was the first state of the United States to make Labor Day an official public holiday, in 1887. By the time it became an official federal holiday in 1894, thirty U.S. states officially celebrated Labor Day. Yet the federal law only made it a holiday for federal workers. As late as the 1930s, unions were encouraging workers to strike to make sure they got the day off.. All U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and the United States territories have subsequently made Labor Day a statutory holiday.
Why do we need a holiday to recognize labor? Well, labor often gets taken for granted by those in power. We in the game industry should know that — management often expects its employees to put in enormous amounts of labor to get projects finished by their deadline.
I found this out during my early days in the game industry. It was August, and my boss tasked me with developing a new game for the company to sell that Christmas season. The year was 1981, and in those days, there were no game developer teams. One person — me, in this case — was responsible for designing, programming, and testing a game responsible for keeping the company afloat for the next quarter. So, over the next three months, I put in as much as 18 hours a day developing what would become Empire I: World Builders, the first of an eventual trilogy of science-fiction role-playing games I developed for Edu-Ware services. I finished the game in time for the Christmas selling season, and it went on to win Electronic Games Magazine’s Best Science-Fiction/Fantasy Game of the Year award.
Yet, that reward did not come without its associated risk. When I drove home after working one of those 18-hour-days, I would sometimes experience hallucinations while driving, seeing phantom objects crosing the road in front of me. My girlfriend at the time became so concerned for my safety, that she would sometimes call the office and have people force me to come home at a more reasonable hour.
While I did comply during that project, I fell into the same habits on the next project and the next and the next. Fast forward to fifteen years later: I was the executive producer at Cyberdreams and responsible for several projects being developed by third-party developers. One of these projects was scheduled to be featured on a press tour the following month, but it had fallen behind in development. So, to quickly get the game back on track, I would drive over the development studio after finishing my work day at Cyberdreams to help out with the programming at night.
For the next month, I worked 100+ hour weeks at the two locations. One morning, as I was driving to work, I dozed off at the wheel, drifted into the next lane, and was side-swiped by a truck. Fortunately, I was unhurt and my car was slightly damaged (I don’t know about the truck; it didn’t bother to stop). But it was a wake-up call — not for me to cut back my hours but to take up drinking coffee, because by god, the game needed to be ready in time for the press tour.
It’s not just long work days I felt I had to put in, but weekends and holidays too. For example, I was a producer at Walt Disney Computer Software when it published its first PC game, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, just in time for Christmas. When I realized that our customer service department of one or two people would not be in the office on Christmas day to handle all of the inevitable calls from our customers who were having difficulty with their gifts, I took it upon myself to come in Christmas morning and handle nonstop calls until late in the evening.
Now, it’s true that I was complicit in working all these overtime hours, but that was part of game industry culture and I was expected to work those hours. During my first week at Activision, I would arrive at the office at 9am (ahead of everyone else) but when I left at 6pm, everyone else was still at their desks. So, I asked my boss how late I was expected to stay, and after a pause to plan his reply, he said, “It’s tough to leave before 7:30.” A few weeks later, he told me that any game developer who didn’t put in a 60-hour week, even when they weren’t on a deadline, wasn’t a true game developer.
Of course, it doesn’t need to be that way. During the final three months of my contract with Activision, I was sent to work as an animation producer at their Neversoft studio. The entire studio worked from 9am to 6pm on Monday to Thursday, and they would alternate Fridays by working a half-day and then working until 10pm the following week. They told me that in all their history they’ve never had to work “crunch time”, the weeks (or sometimes months) of extreme overtime that developers were expected to work to keep their projects on schedule.
Neversoft was a very rare instance of a game company that works “normal” hours, but apparently it was not unique. A few weeks I went to the New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles campus to listen to Scott Roger’s interview with legendary LucasArts game designer Jonathan Ackley, and one of the many entertaining stories he told was how he was surprised when he went to work at Lego’s game division and saw that when the clock struck 5pm, everyone got go home. When he asked why, they replied, “We have lives.”
Employees should have lives. What I learned the hard way is that working a crushing number of hours not only can lead to burn out, but it can lead to anxiety, depression, and physical health problems. Sleep and recreation is necessary to keep employees producive, enthusiastic, and creative. In fact, to be a well-rounded person, able to be resourceful and think out of the box, it’s important to have life experiences outside of work.
Yet according to a survey the International Game Developers Association put out in January 2018, more than half of game developers are still crunching for at least 60 hours per week more than once per year.
Fortunately, the problem of crunch time in the game industry is being discussed more and more, and more games companies are looking at ways to minimize or eliminate periods of extremely long work hours. But some companies are stuck in the crunch culture, so to give these companies a push, many game developers are talking about forming labor unions. In a separate study published in 2017 by French-Canadian researchers Johanna Weststar and Marie-Josée Legault, 66 percent of game developers said they’d endorse a union at their studio, and an astounding 82 percent said they would endorse an industry-wide game development union.
Many game developers are taking action toward establishing a labor union. Game Workers Unite! is an international grassroots movement and organization dedicated to unionizing the game industry. It has already established unions in the United Kingdom, France, Finland and Scotland. They have local chapters all over the world to coordinate regional efforts and community discussions about forming game developer unions.
I’m not sure how I feel about unions, and I know the game publishers are terrified of them, so maybe everyone, from labor to management, should take some time this Labor Day and the days that follow to appreciate the labor force and find ways to change their project management practices so that crunsh time is minimized or eliminated entirely, because if we don’t, labor unions might.