To many, the video game industry seems like a dream to work in. Afterall, you spend your entire day building and playing video games, what could be better? Unfortunately, the gaming industry has a distinct problem with its creators burning out, and the reality of the industry’s demands on developers and designers can be far greater than what many people realize. There are a lot of factors that play into the industry-wide issue of burnout, from company culture down to whether or not the workers building these games are even considered “real” employees.
Gaming companies take their culture very seriously because it is the fanatical support of their employees and fan bases that often helps carry them through difficult deadlines to the completion of new games. This, however, also puts a lot of pressure on contract or freelance workers to be able to fit in with the company culture, or risk being passed on more quickly for another, better fit. When that culture is also steeped in “crunch time” mindsets and toxic environments, this can quickly create situations where games are being developed by exhausted teams, who are told that they should see working in video games as its own reward, rather than encouraging them to seek better environments.
There is an idea that is often present in artistic communities, that exhaustion and long hours should be worn like a badge of honor and proof of commitment. In the gaming industry this same mentality has reinforced the idea that crunch time — specifcially, a period of intense, long hours, usually as a deadline looms where developers and creators are expected to work as long and as much as necessary to finish a game — is a normal part of the development process. However, crunch being considered a “normal” part of the process and culture of creating games is damaging the industry and hurting employees, especially as companies are forcing the release of incomplete or buggy products that are created by mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted developers.â€‹
Apart from immediate health concerns, the demands placed on developers and designers has a documented effect on them outside of work, too. When asked to discuss working conditions in interviews, it takes almost no time for employees to begin naming the ravages of burnout and exhaustion, the prevalence of various sleep disorders, and the expectation that some portion of a team may be lost due to doctor-prescribed professional rest, all as a result of severe burnout. From open letters written by family members describing the effects of these work environments on those close to them, to the miscategorization of workers, crunch culture affects every area of a development company.
Contractors Vs Employees
Regardless of how beautiful and creative a game is, the companies that create them are still focused on the generation and retention of revenue. This often brings about decisions that are made in favor of a greater bottom line rather than the health and well being of the workers associated with a given project. One of the ways that companies do this is by using contract or freelance workers rather than hiring full-time employees.
It is not uncommon for those who are looking to break into the video game industry to begin with part-time and freelance work, but as gaming has grown to a stable, multi-billion dollar industry, that stability has not extended to its creators. Many large companies have a cap on how many full-time employees they can have on payroll, with the intention of using contractor staffing agencies to fill any gaps in teams and projects as needed.
By doing so, companies can save around thirty percent compared to the costs of hiring a staff of full-time employees. They are not required to supply health insurance, paid time off, or carry workers compensation insurance for any of these contractors, making it more profitable to rotate through contracts rather than to invest in a stable in-house team, even if a full-time opportunity is used as a motivator for contractors.
Many agencies will use contracts which state the potential for a full-time position at the end of the defined period, but make no promises. Dangling this carrot in front of contract workers often pushes them to take on more than they should in order to prove that they are worth hiring on full-time. With the previously mentioned acceptance of crunch time as a normal part of product development, this positions contractors to work insanely hard on contracts that can be several years long, only to be told at the end that they are not able to be converted to a full-time status. This leaves workers exhausted, and starting over at the beginning of the cycle on a new contract.
How to Reduce Burnout
A major step towards diminishing the rate of burnout is acknowledging the taxing nature of the work that these professionals are doing. The gaming industry suffers from the same mentality that creative industries have been afflicted with for decades: the idea that the work should be its own reward because it is creative. This mentality has kept groups such as actors and writers from unionizing until a major intervention occurs. By not acknowledging the toll that this work can take people, the industry itself is perpetuating the idea that workers do not need to be protected or adequately compensated.
The type of unionization mentioned is already in play in areas such as film, where creative professionals work on contracts, often for extended periods of time. Should there be disputes over the treatment or performance of anyone involved, both sides have resources that they can draw on in order to make sure that both they and the project are protected. Though it is a discussion that we are beginning to see, there is no such standardization in the gaming industry at this time. Introducing these types of measures and resources can not only help spell out limits on the number of hours creators can (and should) work, but establish standardized timelines that must be worked within, and what benefits must be made available from the companies.
Outside of systemic changes, individual workers, whether they are contractors or full-time employees, should be aware of steps that they can take to reduce their own burnout. For example, it is very easy when steeped in a culture of stress and crunch time to stop caring for oneself and to prioritize the project over everything else. Making sure to take breaks, even short ones to step away from the computer screen, is a simple way to give yourself a chance to refresh, stretch your legs and back, and go get some fresh air. Making sure to take time to eat away for your projects, as well as making sure that you are maintaining adequate sleep hygiene, can also be instrumental in helping reduce the effects of burnout.
While crunch time, burnout, and all of the side effects surrounding them are prevalent in the gaming industry, there are steps that companies and individuals can take to reduce it and its effects. For companies, seeking to actively put into writing the limitations of projects, work hours, and demands that can be made on workers is an excellent start. For contractors and employees alike, seeking out companies that have a history of employee advocacy, as well as maintaining their own health and boundaries, can be a massive step towards warding off their own burnout.