TL;DR – If you’re happy, healthy, and have energy to make things happen most of the time, then keep doing what you’re doing. If not, or if you used to be and now aren’t, then you may be interested in what I have to say.
This May will mark the tenth year that I have worked in the video game industry. Technically, I could be classified as a “veteran”. However, whenever I think of that term — veteran — I conjure up images of other great developers, some of whom I have had the good fortune of working with, that are senior to me. Regardless of the appropriate use of the term veteran, I’m calling attention to it because one out of every three of us who came into the industry were not expected to be around after 5 years. Extend that period to ten years and it would either be you or the guy / gal next to you that would leave behind an empty chair.
I’m citing these numbers from a Quality of Life Survey put out by the IGDA that I remember coming across back in 2004; only a year after joining the video game industry. I was disheartened to read that attrition was a concern in our industry and that, among all the reasons given, long hours and crunch were omnipresent. In other words, people weren’t leaving the industry because it was unfulfilling as a career. No; people were leaving because it was a choice between their health / sanity / relationship / family / social life / etc. and a creative endeavor that was bleeding them dry.
My experience at that time with others in the industry was that neither the IGDA, nor it’s report on quality of life were to be taken seriously. In my judgment, there was cowboy bravado at play that took pride in the fact that we worked ourselves to the bone; all of which was “necessary” to produce the next hit title. If you couldn’t keep up with that pace, then you weren’t cut out for the industry. I even had a senior manager tell me in an exit interview that he was surprised I was headed to work for another company in the industry instead of leaving altogether.
I remember sifting through pages of the Department of Labor’s Enforcement Policies to understand the legalities around working unpaid, and for all effective purposes, obligatory, overtime. For reference, I’ve managed to dig up the original highlighted sections from my files as I’m writing this blog post: 49.1.2, 49.1.5, 49.2.1, 50.3, 50.6, 50.7, 51.5.2, 220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168, 51.6, 54.1, 54.4, 54.5. If this stuff bores you to tears, then I’ll inform you that the crux of all questions around overtime as it comes specifically to “computer software workers” is whether you are classified as an exempt (as in from overtime pay) or non-exempt employee. See, California, being a hot-bed of software innovation, for reasons not known to me, decided to single us out for protection. One of the three criteria, of which all must apply, for an employee to be exempt is that you are paid at least a minimum hourly rate for your time.
You may be wondering why I would be interested about an IGDA whitepaper, legalities of overtime, and classification for pay only after a year of being in the industry. Well, although I didn’t have much awareness about my well-being back then as I do now, I did know something was wrong. My first indicator was health; noticing that my overall energy level day-to-day had declined. I found that I was chronically tired, felt “heavy” to move around even though I wasn’t grossly overweight, and started to think that most things I had to get done were weighty tasks. The second indicator was my mood; noticing that the enthusiasm and optimism that I entered into the industry with had been replaced with irritability and negativity.
I decided to see a doctor for a health check up to see if anything was gravely wrong. Oddly enough, the blood work that was done indicated that nothing was awry. In fact, the results even showed that I had a high level of “good” cholesterol (HDL) and a low level of “bad” cholesterol (LDL). Nothing the doc found was abnormal and I was told to get better sleep and exercise more (which I eventually did start doing during lunch with coworkers). Had I had the awareness that I have now to understand that health was my responsibility, I would not have accepted the blood work as conclusive. My current understanding of doctors is that they aren’t in the business of making us healthier; they’re there to make sure we don’t get any sicker than we already are.
Over the next year, I worked on my third console title, lifted weights and exercised multiple times a week with co-workers, ate salads occasionally during lunch, and, unfortunately, was also drinking numerous cups of coffee during the day to fuel the work that I was doing. Commonly said, I was working hard and playing hard. Sure enough, at some point during development, we entered our multiple-month crunch during the project and sleep and free-time became a luxury. What’s odd about that time is that I was in the best physical shape I had been in since my years playing football in high school, yet my energy level, mood, and mental health were getting worse.
In parallel, a letter from a disgruntled ‘EA spouse’ and a class-action lawsuit against EA by a collection of artists both emerged in late 2004. Both spoke to the unfair working conditions that employees faced at EA. In 2005, the class-action lawsuit was settled for $15.6M and would later be succeeded by a separate class-action lawsuit composed of programmers (also settled out of court). In comparison to the film and television industry, the labor practices of the video game industry were and in some cases still are juvenile. For film and television, professionals get paid for overtime and although the health effects of crunch aren’t mitigated, at least the costs are made material.
I experienced overtime pay firsthand, when I joined a visual effects company, The Orphanage, here in San Francisco in 2008. I learned quickly how volatile the film industry could be — projects came and went, hours went up and down, and staff increased and decreased on a week-to-week basis. However, even with the volatility, there was a fundamental understanding that everyone would get paid for his or her time. The California Department of Industrial Relations released a working order in 2001 specifically for the film industry. The working order dictated how overtime would work within a single workday and workweek, required minimum days off, alternative workweeks, meal and rest periods, and even the temperature for working conditions. Even though I had a salary, I logged every hour that I worked against different projects at the company for budgeting purposes. What I found so cool about this process is that, not only would I be paid overtime when I worked longer hours for a specific project — it would show up in the cumulative costs for that specific project. Essentially, accountability was built into the process, since having people work longer hours resulted in more costs for the project. Unfortunately, I joined the company almost immediately after the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike concluded, which left the film industry on shaky ground. Our goals as a company to re-build the VFX pipeline from the ground up were thwarted when a major project of ours was lost and multiple rounds of lay-offs ensued.
The awareness of unspoken quality of life issues in the video game industry that 2004 brought us was much needed. In my judgment, we’ve seen some improvements come out of that awareness, such as flexible working hours and smaller studios that attempt to treat their employees better. However, there is still a prevalence of crunch time across the video game industry. I see an opportunity here to spend more of my own energy inviting others in the industry to consider the awesome effects of what a happy, healthy, and energetic workforce would bring. In that regard, I’m doing my part as a studio owner to have reasonable working hours, minimize unhealthy levels of stress with projects, and respect our employees. My hope is that at the very least I will not perpetuate the cannibalism of creatives in our industry.
However, my attention right now and the purpose of these articles is to heal the damage that has already been done at a personal, individual level of health. My story continues past 2005 with more crunch periods, stress on relationships, and more health problems (including mental health). If any of what I’ve said so far resonates with you and you’ve come to accept as “normal” the sub-optimal ways you feel, think, and view life, then know that life can be better. Whatever you’ve been getting out of your body and mind under extended periods of stress comes at a cost. I wholeheartedly believe that whatever has been taken requires replenishing.
Over the past year and a half, I have focused on improving my own health. I have noticed that changes in the health of my body have resulted in improvements with the way I think and the performance of my mind. Another benefit is that with more energy, things that I wouldn’t have considered to do in the past come easier now, such as riding my bicycle to work. My hope for us all is to feel good in our bodies at a physical level, happy at an emotional level, and energized at a creative/intellectual level. Together, we’ll be able to make our industry a sustainable outlet for human creativity.
In the next article, I will go deeper into the health side of things as best as I have come to understand. I will share briefly a few anecdotes of my naivety as it relates to health and some of the things that I have done in an effort to make improvements. I will explain a bit about the PAT (pituary-adrenal-thyroid) axis and why it is so important to your overall well-being and your perception of well-being. If I find that there is more information to share or that this next article is too lengthy, then I may continue with further articles.
EDIT: I am a (hu)man, therefore I am imperfect. I have revised this article to remove references to what, unbeknownst to me, could be considered controversial — hair testing mineral analysis. I’ve become aware of arguments on both sides and would be happy to share with you the information, so that you can make your own educated decision. I have had my own positive experiences with hair testing/nutritional balancing, tailored supplements (as opposed to a catch-all or taking supplements that my body doesn’t need), a healthier diet, reduction of caffeine, drinking much more water than I thought was necessary, and a variety of other things. My goal is to raise awareness about health in our industry, provide one story as a reference point to others that may have had a similar experience, and offer some suggestions on how you may be able to improve your own health. My intention is not to back myself into a position of having to defend a specific approach to nutrition. What I have come to understand is that health and nutrition are not a simple thing. Simply Google ‘improve health’ and see all the various approaches and opinions that are returned. As to the Game Developer Performance Challenge that was originally linked here, I’d still like to challenge you to improve your own health if your day-to-day experience is sub-optimal.