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What I believe in, for Quality of Life

The furore[link] over the IGDA’s failure[link] to live up to it’s own precepts continues to snowball[link] [link] (as I suggested it would, if the IGDA Board didn’t ‘fess up and take a stand[link] against the unethical practices they were being implicated in).

(I’ll do a summary later this week; personally I’m aware of 6 different unique forum threads and several separate bloggers speaking out on the topic, each with their own comment threads – we’re gradually seeing the message spread, which is good. But it also means it’s getting hard to keep up)

One commenter, perhaps playing Devil’s Advocate for those at fault, has repeatedly posed the question: “What would you *like* the IGDA’s stance to be on this topic?”

There are all sorts of reasons that’s a dumb thing to ask, and it essentially misses all the points being made here by the unhappy IGDA members, but I thought it was a good question to answer anyway, philosophically.

Quality of Life for the Games Industry: Adam’s stance on “Crunch”

NB: this is only covering the crunch/working hours/overtime issues; there’s more to QoL than that, but it’s definitely the headline aspect.

(and hopefully you’ll also have a look at Darius’s stance on this and other related topics, since he’ll be standing for election to the IGDA Board next year, and he’s got my vote already ;))

  1. the term “crunch” is a euphemism for “unpaid overtime” used largely to disguise the true nature of what’s being described. No-one should ever use the term “crunch”. Everyone should actively encourage others to call it what it is (unpaid overtime). “unscheduled overtime” is NOT an acceptable alternative; it is simply another, slightly less positive, euphemism.
  2. no employer gets an opt-out from responsibility for Quality of Life issues, neither charities nor startups. Quality of Life is about the relationship between employee and employer, independent of individual industries, organizations, or projects
  3. the company must at all times actively discourage staff from doing unpaid overtime; if the company wishes to support overtime, it should be supporting *paid* overtime only
  4. no programmer, artist, or designer should ever stay late in the office “because it’s quieter then, and I can get more work done when everyone else has gone home”; if the office environment is that poor, the company needs to fix it, fast
  5. the MOST EFFICIENT (for the company) number of weekly office hours for programmers, artists and game designers lies somewhere between 30 and 50 hours a week.
  6. the MOST EFFECTIVE/DESIRABLE (for the employees) number of weekly office hours for programmers, artists and game designers lies somewhere between 20 and 60 hours a week.

Why does this even matter?

Most workers in this industry live to work, instead of working to live; this makes the industry especially prone, and the employees especially vulnerable, to abusive employment practices.

It also means that – handled correctly – most people ought to be happy and healthy. This topic has the potential to improve the lives of thousands of people; that it will almost certainly also improve the quality of the games they produce is a secondary (although highly desirable) side-effect.

Details / explanations

1 – Terminology

Cynically, I’d like to point out that to many young males (the bulk of the workers in the game industry), the term crunch probably initially conjures up images of the painful gym exercises that build the widely desired abdominal muscles.

i.e. the base assumption of an English speaker is that Crunch is something that “hurts now, but is good for you, and in the long run you will appreciate it”.

Actually, I don’t think that’s even all that cynical, looking at the companies that actively use the term: I think they’re extremely happy to have got such a positively-connotated word used as the main term to describe their unethical business practice.

2 – Opt-outs

Several people (such as Erin Hoffman (EA_Spouse) EDIT: my mistake – sorry, Erin! – see comments below) have claimed that startups are “special”; too fragile to be held accountable to the same standards that ordinary companies are held to; that they could never adhere to sane and ethical working practices and remain in business.

As a previous founder, co-founder, or C-level exec in 5+ different startups, and a consultant or external adviser for a further 20+ startups, it is my personal opinion that this is absolutely not true.

Further, I believe it is deeply insulting to most entrepreneurs to imply that they are so incompetent that they need to be allowed to break with ethics or law in order to succeed. The majority of successful entrepreneurs I know are awesomely competent people, and have earnt (*earnt*) their wealth not merely through “having a good idea” but through being better and smarter and wiser than their equivalent salaried employees. They need no leg-up.

Of course, there’s also plenty who simply got lucky. But that’s another story.

3 – Working late in order to work better

There are two issues here.

Firstly, if someone is doing unpaid overtime, the company needs to either reward it or try to persuade them to stop; anything else is unfair. Simply taking the proceeds of the free work and paying nothing in return is perfectly legal (although arguably, since the work falls outside of the contract, if the company’s employment contract isn’t good enough the company could find themselves not entirely owning the output of that work), but unethical.

Secondly, unless the employees have strong legal protection against coercion (both explicit and implicit) then the claim that staff are “voluntarily” working unpaid overtime is often going to be a lie that – in practice – is almost impossible to uncover. A nice, comforting lie, but a lie all the same. I have many times worked with people in the games industry who have openly claimed their unpaid overtime was voluntary – until they buckled from stress a few weeks later, or got drunk, or met up outside the office, and admitted the true reason(s) they were doing it. Generally those were “to keep my job”, “because everyone else on the team says I have to”, or a variant on those. i.e. to satisfy the employer, or to satisfy peer pressure.

This is true even in Europe, where employees have fairly strong legal protection – but in many cases don’t realise the full extent of the protection. Generally speaking, only the inexperienced, younger staff are ignorant of the basic laws here. Within 5 years they normally see at least one friend or colleague go through some situation which uncovers the laws involved, and they gain a basic understanding of what their own rights are, under the law.

4 – Optional isn’t always optional

I’ve worked with many programmers who felt forced to work late hours because of this, and a few artists. I haven’t worked with any designers yet who were *seen* to, but I know plenty who have done it – they simply went home and worked from home instead.

The main reason programmers show up with this problem more than others is that they are entirely dependent upon the tools at their desk to get any work done (software, hardware, office systems, etc). It’s *not* that they are the only ones who work hard and have to concentrate to get good work done!

5 – Efficiency

As far as I know (please correct me!) … no-one currently knows via research what the MOST EFFICIENT weekly office hours are for programmers, artists, and designers in the games industry; the research I’ve read summaries of, and in a few cases read myself, from other industries and anecdotal evidence, plus the experience of skilled game developers, suggest that it lies somewhere between 20 and 40 hours.

Further, the majority of research from other industries and evidence and experience strongly support the claim that values over 60 hours are less efficient than ANY value between 25 and 60 hours.

6 – Quality of output, quality of life

As far as I know (please correct me!) no-one currently knows via research what the IDEAL (for the staff work/life balance) weekly *working* hours are, but assuming 14-16 waking hours a day, i.e. 70-80 waking hours a week, and assuming a work/life split somewhere between 30/70 and 70/30, you get between 21 and 56 working hours per week

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