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Revisiting the Concerned Spouses of Game Developers

About five and half years ago, I wrote about the spouse of an Electronic Arts employee who was upset about the working conditions at her husband’s job. At the time, her blog post got a lot of media attention. I’m not sure if conditions changed for her husband, but one of the outcomes was Gamewatch, a discussion forum where people could discuss the working conditions inside gaming companies.

I was poking around that forum and clicked through to another blog post from January, 2010 by the wife of a Rockstar Games developer that articulates very similar complaints. The article is written in a peculiarly baroque style, but here’s an excerpt:

Little is there to motivate continuation as they also have lost a free vacation week between Christmas and New Year. Without time to recuperate and no efforts made to alleviate the stress of such conditions would procure on an employee after a period time, serious health concerns. Yet, now the health concern becomes another financial concern as the stripping of medical benefits surfaces to realization. It becomes rather worse rather than better as employees gain experience and become “senior”. Instead of appreciation, numerous non-exempt designers and artists have had their overtime pay cut as a result for being “too senior”.

Apparently not much has changed in the intervening six years.

Here’s what’s weird: why do we keep hearing from the spouses of game programmers, and not the programmers themselves? The obvious answer is that the developers won’t speak out for fear of losing their jobs. Yet both the blogging spouses remain anonymous. The developers could write articles anonymously with a similar result, couldn’t they?

Perhaps these are just clever programmers posing as their wives, figuring that they’d be able to bring more attention to the issue in this end-around fashion?

And why is this phenomenon specific to game developers? I’ve see no open letters from the husbands of prenatal care nurses, or the spouses of public defenders?

To me, their entire argument is specious. If you don’t like where you work as a game developer, get a new job. You’re highly educated, in demand and have skills that are transferable to other parts of the technology or animation industry. If you really can’t find another job, then tough it out in this one for another year, save some money and start retraining in another field.

Of course, if your spouse doesn’t like where you work, that may be a more vexing problem.

13 Responses to “Revisiting the Concerned Spouses of Game Developers”

  1. Derek K. Miller

    A lot of game developers do jump ship: most software houses in Vancouver sport at least one ex-EA employee with horror stories to tell, it seems.

    My impression is that the culture of game development companies remains locked, like so many games, in a youthful-male mindset. Focused, geeky, unmarried coders who want to make some dough might be just fine with insane hours, lack of vacations, and high-pressure deadlines — when they have nice hardware to work on and easy access to food and drink and other onsite amenities. At least for awhile.

    But then they grow up, and they leave. Maybe there’s enough new talent coming in all the time that the game shops don’t worry about employee churn, but I do have to think that they’re intellectually impoverished because of it.

    As for the prenatal care nurses and public defenders, they may also work hard, but they have better structures in place to support a grown-up life. Plus, they are doing things that are actually important, which probably helps.

    darren Reply:

    Agreed on the youth-centric culture inside game companies–that was certainly my experience. Even the senior people and technical architects were rarely over forty.

  2. gillian

    Vancouver is particularly bad when it comes to the treatment of its IT workers (game or otherwise): http://www.bcbusinessonline.ca/bcb/bc-blogs/insider/2010/04/12/vancouver-cheap-city

    What I’m being offered by companies in, say, Seattle are close to twice what Vancouver standards would pay me. Oh, and I could get more vacation. The video game industry has its problems for sure, but Van is particularly bad.

    “If you don’t like where you work as a game developer, get a new job.” Don’t be a jerk. Some of these guys grew up wanting to work in video games so just telling them to give up on that if they don’t like the hours is just as specious an argument. You are not an IT worker or developer so you have no idea what it’s like to be them. You could try asking me, or someone else who has actually lived the life, before making such simplistic judgments.

    Oh, and nurses have a union, right? IT workers don’t, plus employee standards give them limited rights.

    darren Reply:

    Having worked at a game development company for a few months, and having worked directly with software companies for the past fifteen years, I do have something of an idea of what it is to be an IT worker. For example, I sat among and worked directly with software development teams for four years early in my career, and I’ve talked to such folks pretty much every day since then.

    Besides, one doesn’t have to be a particular thing in order to think about or criticize that thing.

    There are few workers with more privilege, opportunity, flexibility and alternatives than game developers. My argument that they can move to a more preferable job with relative ease is truer in this sector than nearly any other I can think of. For whom is it easier?

    gillian Reply:

    I’m too tired from my long hours in the games industry to have the energy to argue with you further. You win.

    Chris Reply:

    Data point – I am an IT worker and a developer. I grew up with video games, wanted to be a game developer, did a degree in computer science, and did an internship at EA. I worked 70 hours a week for 4 months, and at one point did 45 days without a day off, by which I mean there wasn’t a day where I didn’t spend at least 4 hours in office.

    For a little while, I loved it. I was 22, not married, and learning a lot. But I saw the guy next to me who was 30, had a one year old, and didn’t ever leave. When my internship was up and I left, I didn’t really have much of a desire to go back there.

    So, Darren’s point is valid. Yes, you can get a new job, or at least apply for other jobs. There are other game companies in Vancouver that don’t suck, as Donna says. There are options, people just don’t want to hear them.

  3. Donna

    As the spouse of a game developer (ex-EA, even) … y’know, in our case? It’s not too bad. They actually treat him pretty well.

    Generally… for a month or two a year, his schedule is unpredictable, hours are long, and weekends are a bust. But the games industry HAS improved drastically since EA Spouse first posted her plight. And… he gets roughly the same amount of time as paid time off as thanks.

    That said, I’m told that Rockstar totally blows in that department, so the wives of Rockstar have a very valid complaint.

    But I’m actually pretty happy with how my game-developer-spouse is treated. :)

    darren Reply:

    That’s interesting–I’m glad to hear that it has improved.

  4. Jen

    A different thought about the “spouses writing letters” movement for developers. My current spouse’s previous partner often made the same complaints about the long, long hours he worked and how he was a “slave to the company.” As far as she knew or was concerned, it was the only way. He was pressured to find a new job (he didn’t).

    She would have made those complaint, but he never did. He’s actually said “working on a project I loved was way more enjoyable than spending more time at home with someone I really didn’t like much anymore.” The “terrible working conditions” were a very convenient excuse.

    I can count the number of times he’s worked late or seemed like an “oppressed tech worker” during the years we’ve been together on my two hands.

  5. robert

    I’m assuming you hear from the spouses as the developers themselves have no time to write blog posts.

  6. colene

    My SO works at EA and I waited til the weekend to talk to him about this topic as I find it very interesting (the fact that I had to wait til the weekend to talk to him is also telling! ).

    We both agree that it has much more to do with your spouse’s personal feelings about work/life balance than it does with the job itself. While he works really, really hard there, he’s also really loving what he does so it’s not a total hardship. But he also agreed with robert that he’d also have no time to complain ;)

  7. kelly

    Before I started working at EA, I had heard about EA Spouse, the long work hours, the lack of work life balance, the scary scary demands and expectations from the gaming industry. I made the move anyways from my more traditional industry IT job. It’s been about 3 years now and honestly I have no idea what the fuss is all about. Sure, we’re busy, we work really hard at different times of the year, most of us enjoy what we work on and we’re passionate about it. It’s a career at a really cool place and for all the hard work, there are afternoons of video game playing, beer drinking and very non-work type activities during work hours. Honestly, the ones that whine (and they are there) usually hate their jobs and should probably leave. As Darren indicated, we all have options. EA as a whole treat their employees really well with tons of perks and privileges.

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