The sweat shop computer games industry

If you followed the story of ea_spouse, the wife of the Electronic Arts employee who wrote in her personal blog a from-the-heart tale about working conditions and practices at the game developer and the effects on her husband and family, a report in the New York Times throws some more light on what it’s like being an employee at many companies like Electronic Arts.

Ea_spouse’s original blog posting has generated passionate comment and opinion from others with similar experiences at game developers, not only at Electronic Arts. When I first posted about this story ten days ago, ea_spouse’s post already had nearly 2,000 comments. Today that number is 3,000 and still climbing.

From the NY Times article:

Games for video consoles and PC’s have become a $7 billion-a-year business. Based in Redwood City, Calif., Electronic Arts is the home of the game franchises for N.F.L. football, James Bond and “Lord of the Rings,” among many others. For avid players with professional ambitions to develop games, E.A. 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 E.A.’s front facade, its high-tech work force is toiling like galley slaves chained to their benches.

Perhaps this is what it’s all about (read some of the comments to ea_spouse’s post and see if you agree):

E.A. is noticeably young in appearance. After Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, spent a sabbatical last spring as a researcher at the company, he wrote, “I am 43 and I felt absolutely ancient during my time there.” He said the place felt to him like “Logan’s Run,” the 1976 science fiction movie in which no one is allowed to live past 30 – and he felt even older when he realized that the 20-somethings were too young to know the reference.

The company has 3,300 employees in its studios developing game titles, and it hires 1,000 new people a year. (Company officials said voluntary turnover is about 10 percent annually.) In the past, it has hired only about 10 percent of new studio personnel directly from college; it has set a goal of increasing that to 75 percent, which would skew the median age still younger.

Professor Pausch listed cost savings from lower salaries as one reason E.A. wishes to shift hiring to a younger group. The company also recognizes that fresh graduates are the most suggestible; Professor Pausch said he heard managers say that “young kids don’t know what’s impossible.” That, however, they will learn when they get their schedules.

New York Times | When a Video Game Stops being Fun (registration required)

Electronic Arts is steadfastly not making any public comment about this issue. Indeed, the NY Times article includes comment from a spokesman confirming there’s no comment.

Purely from a communication viewpoint, let me say again what I’ve mentioned on such issues previously. As with the Friendster and Delta Airlines employee-and-company-policies-related cases, the employers say they are strictly a private employer/employee matter and so cannot comment. There will no doubt be legal implications to consider, so staying firm on a no comment policy appears to be the right move, whatever pressures might exist.

The time may come, though, when it will be to the company’s advantage to comment, internally as well as publicly, on such organizational issues. I would imagine E.A.’s communication people have worked on a communication plan, and are ready to go as circumstances and plans require.

I must admit, every time I pop in the Half-Life 2 DVD, I’m now thinking about ea_spouse. Is that some kind of weird association?