Employment Law

“Crunch”ing the Numbers Behind A Marquee Year in Video Games

Ellie Soskin, MJLST Staffer

The COVID-19 pandemic has made this past year a financially devastating one for film and for sports, industries that rely on in-person ticket sales for a share of their revenue. But while those industries struggled, another form of entertainment was having a banner year. The videogame industry saw revenues reach a whopping $180 billion USD, by one estimate. As of last year, more than 214 million people in the United States alone reported playing some form of videogame for at least one hour per week. Four of five U.S. consumers reported playing a video game in the last six months. And with pandemic restrictions limiting activities, gaming on dedicated game consoles, on computers, and on smartphones (“mobile gaming”) has skyrocketed. For many, online gaming has provided a social outlet during a period of isolation, or an almost therapeutic form of escapism. But for all of the potential in the videogame industry, both economic and otherwise, there is a looming labor (and moral) issue that has escaped the law.

The Washington Post recently published a piece on the legality of what’s known in the gaming industry as “crunch.” Generally, crunch, short for “crunch time” occurs at the end of a game’s development cycle. As deadlines loom, the hours become longer and longer and every day becomes a workday; thirteen hour days and seven day workweeks are not remotely unheard of. Ultimately, though, crunch can occur any time there is a major development milestone looming, not just the end of a project.

This is not a new problem, with reports of crunch at major game developers and publishers like Electronic Arts (EA) dating back seventeen years. Back then, video game revenue sat at a relatively miniscule $7 billion annually, a mere 3 percent of where it is today. That explosion in revenue has not changed employment habits. As the Washington Post reports, a 2019 survey revealed that “40 percent of game developers reported working crunch time at least once over the course of the previous year,” with many working “at least 20 extra hours” per workweek and only 8 percent reporting overtime pay. The reports have been consistent over the years: one developer reported working “14 hours a day, six days a week” during a crunch period in 2016. In 2018, employees at major game development studio Rockstar reported an average of 60-hour weeks during crunch (generally six days of ten hour workdays); Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser described “100-hour weeks.” Those kinds of working conditions are a breeding ground for prolonged stress and fatigue, causing mental health issues and even actual physical illness.

News outlets have generally framed crunch as an industry problem without mind for the legal analysis. Publishers demand last minute changes, and studio heads push workers into crunch to appease their financial backers. Or it’s viewed as a rite of passage within the industry and just part of working what is a dream job for a number of young people. In the words of one employee, “[e]mployers know that it’s many people’s dream to be there, so they are able to exploit the fact.” Take This is a mental health non-profit focused on the gaming industry that published a white paper in 2019 reporting on the most pressing mental health issues faced by game developers. Career instability, particularly crunch and lack of job security, were found to be key drivers of poor mental health in developers. Additionally, developers report working for an average of 2.2 employers over a five year period, indicative of the low stability afforded by the industry.

The Washington Post’s piece is admittedly one of the first to focus on the legal framework enabling this kind of employment behavior in the United States. In sum, the video game industry has either exploited existing overtime exemptions for salaried employees under the FLSA and state law or lobbied for new exemptions. For example, after that aforementioned EA crunch exposé, employees sued and settled multiple multi-million dollar class action lawsuits over working conditions. The settlements would have limited the exemptions and reclassified certain employees as overtime eligible, had a new set of exemption rules not been enacted in 2008, lowering the point at which salaried employees are no longer considered eligible for overtime pay.

Crunch as a concept is not simply a United States video game industry problem. Crunch, particularly uncompensated crunch, is also a noted problem in Japanese studios, as well as in various studios worldwide. Polish video game studio CD Projekt Red (CDPR) made six-day workweeks mandatory in the weeks leading up to the highly anticipated release of their big-budget game “Cyberpunk 2077.” Notably, however, those employees all received paid overtime in accordance with Polish labor laws, as well as splitting 10% of the company’s 2020 profits amongst employees as a bonus.

Ultimately, crunch seems to be deeply embedded in the culture of the video game industry worldwide. But there’s no doubt that, as the Washington Post states, it has been enabled by the structure of current labor laws in the United States. Some industry insiders have floated unionization for developers as a potential solution to the lack of legal protections overall, particularly the lack of overtime, poor working conditions, and overall job instability. An industry survey from early 2020 indicated that, when asked if they should unionize, 54 percent of workers said yes, though only 23 percent believed that they actually would unionize. Last January, one of the biggest unions in the United States, Communications Workers of America (CWA), announced their intention to help game workers unionize. But it remains to be seen if anything will come of that and no new reports on unionization have emerged since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. For now, it seems like it’s business as usual for a booming industry.

In the interest of full disclosure, this author’s brother works in the video game industry.