Software Development: Game Over?

PHOTO: ROBERT DALY/GETTY IMAGES

Computer-game developers of the world, unite! A surprising legal victory against too much work for too little pay has come out of the US $10.5 billion gaming industry.

Software publishing is booming, so why are the people in it so unhappy with their game-writing jobs? Gaming software development is notorious for the long hours put in by the folks who grind out the code. And their employers have come to expect a level of commitment that includes long days and nights of voluntary service from their mostly young employees. So much so that some firms take this unpaid overtime for granted—even building it into their planning and forecasting. But now the issue has escalated for all concerned, including the world’s biggest game developer, Electronic Arts Inc., of Redwood City, Calif.

In April, EA reached a nearly $15 million settlement with its own software engineers over the issue of uncompensated overtime. Some of the plaintiffs in the case will now be reclassified as hourly workers in order to qualify for overtime, but they will give up perks such as stock options and bonuses.

The matter was pushed to the tipping point, not by EA employees, but by, of all people, a fiancé home alone. Now the wife of an EA software engineer, she started the employee uprising by blogging about it.

In her original post, EA Spouse—identified by San Jose’s Mercury News as Erin Hoffman, of Troy, N.Y.—wrote in November 2004: ”EA’s bright and shiny new corporate trademark is ’Challenge Everything.’ Where this applies is not exactly clear. Churning out one licensed football game after another doesn’t sound like challenging much of anything to me; it sounds like a money farm. To any EA executive that happens to read this, I have a good challenge for you: how about safe and sane labor practices for the people on whose backs you walk for your millions?”

To say she was upset at the treatment of her fiancé would be an understatement. More important, Hoffman had pointed to a human resources problem at EA that was not only wearing down its game developers but also introducing mistakes into its products. ”The stress is taking its toll,” she observed. ”The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing.”

Hoffman’s blog inflamed an already raw nerve in the game development community. Her first EA posting had approximately 1500 comments from sympathizers. As she lamented, the perceived attitude of managers to their staffs in companies such as EA was: ”If they don’t like it, they can work someplace else.”

Of course, the company is not alone in this regard. According to the Mercury News account, over the last two years, software engineers have filed at least six lawsuits for unpaid overtime against EA, Sony Computer Entertainment America, and Vivendi Universal Games.

The bigger question for engineers and technologists everywhere is whether the practice of counting on the generous enthusiasm and adrenaline of dedicated professionals to meet or beat draconian goals and deadlines for little or no additional compensation should be put to an end. One can certainly think of many occupations—chip designing and medicine and magazine editing come to mind—in which the practitioners toil long hours in the service of their professions without punching a time clock. But has the work of software engineering—or in this case a particular subset of software engineering, computer-game development—become so commoditized that it is indeed best characterized as hourly wage work? Drop us a note and let us know what you think:spectrum@ieee.org.

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