Charles Dickens himself would shudder, I should think, were he to see the way young adults are put to work in one semi-modern corner of the US economy. Gas lamps are long gone, and the air is free of soot. But you can't look at a place like Electronic Arts (EA), the world's largest developer of entertainment software, and not think back to the early industrial age when a youthful work force was kept fully occupied during all waking hours to enrich a few elders.
Games for video consoles and PCs have become a US$7-billion-a-year business. Based in Redwood City, California, Electronic Arts is the home of the game franchises for NFL football, James Bond and Lord of the Rings, among many others. For avid players with professional ambitions to develop games, EA must appear to be the best place in the world. Writing cool games and getting paid to boot: What more could one ask?
Yet there is unhappiness among those who are living that dream. Based on what can be glimpsed through cracks in EA's front facade, its high-tech work force is toiling like galley slaves chained to their benches.
The first crack opened last summer, when Jamie Kirschenbaum, a salaried EA employee, filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, accusing it of failure to pay overtime compensation. He remains at the company, so I spoke with him by phone last week to get an update. He told me that since joining EA in June last year in the image production department, he has been working -- at the company's insistence -- around 65 hours a week, spread over six or seven days. Putting in long hours is what the industry calls "crunching." Once upon a time, the crunch came in the week or two before shipping a new release. Kirschenbaum's experience, however, has been a continuous string of crunches.
Crunches also once were followed by commensurate periods of time off. Kirschenbaum reports, however, that EA has scaled back informal comp time, never formally codified, to a token two weeks per project. He said his own promised comp time had disappeared altogether. At this point, he said he would be glad to enjoy a Labor Day without laboring, or eat a Fourth of July spread at some place other than his cubicle, pleasures he has not enjoyed for two years. The company said it had no comment on the lawsuit, but it is likely to argue that Kirschenbaum's image production position is exempt from the laws governing overtime compensation.
A few days ago, another crack opened -- one large enough to fit a picture window. An anonymous writer who signed herself as "EA Spouse" posted on the Web a detailed account of hellish employer-mandated hours reaching beyond 80 hours a week for months. No less remarkable were the thousands of comments that swiftly followed in online discussion forums for gamers and other techies, providing volumes of similar stories at EA and at other game developers.
I learned the identity of the EA employee described in the anonymous account and spoke at length with him in person late one night, adding a third shift to the day's double that he'd already worked. He seemed credible in all respects, in his command of technical detail, in his unshakable enthusiasm for the games he works on -- and in his pallor.
For around US$60,000 a year in an area with a high cost of living, he had been set to work on a six-day-a-week schedule. On weekdays, his team worked from 9am to 10pm, and on Saturdays, a half-day (that means 9am to 6pm. Then Sundays were added -- noon to 8pm or 10pm. The weekly total was 82 to 84 hours.