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How 'crunch' time and low pay are fueling a union drive among video game workers

Sarah Parvini and Brian Contreras, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

For months, Andrés Vásquez’s days working on the first-person shooter game “Doom” blended into one another.

A quality assurance tester for id Software in Texas, he spent 10 hours a day sitting at a desk and “crunching” on the game with his colleagues, repeatedly playing through its map creation mode and running through multiplayer matches in search of glitches ahead of its 2016 release. He’d often work weekends, logging nearly 60-hour weeks.

“It almost starts to feel like ‘Groundhog Day,’” the 33-year-old says. “It’s just so mentally challenging. You’re so tired that you just sleep and wake up to do it again the next day. It becomes a blur. ... You peek your head out from being in a tunnel and you’d come back to reality once the crunch was over.”

Video game workers have long decried so-called crunch periods, many of them dreading the months-long gantlet that leads up to a game’s release. Some workers describe sleeping at their desks or missing out on time with family and friends during this period; others struggle with anxiety and burnout.

Those and other grievances — including claims of discrimination and calls for fair and transparent pay — have led a growing segment of the industry’s workforce to unionize — a tactic many might associate more with old-school factory lines than 21st century software gigs. The organizing effort marks a budding shift in power in an industry that has long relied on contract labor and the romantic ideal that working on games is a dream worth sacrificing for.

Some 3.6 billion people are expected to play video games globally by 2025, up from 2.9 billion in 2020, according to a report from industry tracker Newzoo. The industry boomed during the first two years of the pandemic, but researchers say 2022 proved a course correction as revenue shrank. Analysts at Morgan Stanley believe the industry could rebound this year, as more big-budget games land alongside new consoles.

 

Yet, some workers feel they aren’t seeing their share of the industry’s growth.

The widening labor conflict has particular resonance in California, home to more gaming industry companies — over 600 of them — than any other state, according to the Entertainment Software Assn. trade group. A State of the Game Industry survey released in January found that a majority of game developers — 53% — are in favor of unionization. About one-fifth say they or their colleagues have actively discussed unionizing, according to the survey published by the Game Developers Conference and Game Developer, a trade publication.

“People are sort of waking up to the idea that they are, in fact, entitled to predictable work schedules, healthcare, fair compensation and equitable treatment,” says Joost van Dreunen, a games industry analyst and the author of “One Up: Creativity, Competition, and the Global Business of Video Games.” “That, historically, is something that hasn’t really pervaded the industry very much.”

But organizing efforts have had mixed results at video game studios both large and small.

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