Frustration against video game firm grows into crusade against overwork

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Erin Hoffman's heart was breaking. She hardly got to see her overworked fiance, a video game software engineer who was laboring 85 hours a week at the industry's premier company, Electronic Arts of Redwood City, Calif.

Yet they didn't clash over it; she was grateful for the few minutes she could spend with Leander Hasty. And he was too exhausted to argue, anyway.

So Hoffman, then 23, poured out her frustration -- under the pen name EA Spouse -- in a November 2004 Web log, or blog, that resonated so strongly with other video game developers that it helped spark an employee uprising inside EA and several of six lawsuits for unpaid overtime against three of the industry's most prominent employers.

Hoffman wrote on her blog that EA's attitude toward its workers was: ''If they don't want to sacrifice their lives and their health and their talent so that a multibillion-dollar corporation can continue its Godzilla-stomp through the game industry, they can work someplace else."

Now, more than a year later, game developers have won settlements in three class-action lawsuits alleging EA created exhausting work schedules without paying overtime, and successfully pressed employers to ease unrelenting workloads. And EA Spouse, whose true identity has been cloaked until now, is becoming a voice against America's culture of overwork.

''We had received so many excuses, and they had done so much overtime and everyone was so tired," Hoffman said. She told her fiance, ''I need to write something about this. It's not right."

Jesse Schell, chairman emeritus of the International Game Developers Association, said ''the EA Spouse letter kind of created an atmosphere where a lawsuit like that would be taken more seriously."

Round-the-clock work schedules have long been common among game developers.

The $10.5 billion US games industry is ''kind of like the canary in the coal mine," said David Fugate, an independent literary agent who is helping Hoffman find a publisher for her book about overwork in America.

In late April, EA, the world's largest video game publisher, said it settled the third lawsuit brought against it for nonpayment of overtime hours. The original plaintiff in that lawsuit, which covers programmers, was Hasty, now 26 and Hoffman's husband.

The couple met as college students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where they created a video game together for a class project. After graduating, they took jobs testing games at the same small Southern California game studio, Taldren.

But Taldren tanked. So it seemed fortunate, at first, that EA swooped in and hired a bunch of Taldren employees, including Hasty. EA even offered Hasty a $5,000 signing bonus that stipulated he stay on the job for a year.

In June 2004, he started working in EA's Los Angeles studio on the game ''Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth."

On Hasty's second day of work, the team was sucked into a six-day-a-week ''crunch," an intense work period. By September, the team had to work 13-hour days, seven days a week.

The exhausted team members started making mistakes and getting sick. For Hasty, the stress triggered an allergic reaction that resulted in stomach problems and chronic headaches. He dropped 10 pounds and turned pale.

They desperately wanted to ditch EA. But they didn't have the $5,000 to repay a signing bonus.

At that point, Hoffman funneled her frustrations into writing a 1,962-word essay she hoped would catch the attention of EA executives and warn potential employees.

''No one works in the game industry unless they love what they do. . . . They are and were more than willing to work hard for the success of the title," Hoffman wrote. ''But that good will has only been met with abuse."

The essay appeared on the Live Journal blogging site anonymously because the couple feared retribution and blacklisting from potential employers. But within 24 hours, 15 game companies left comments or sent e-mails offering to hire Hasty.

And hundreds of other readers commiserated. Some said their children didn't get to see their father as they were growing up. Others asked EA Spouse for help.

''That was actually the really heartbreaking part," Hoffman said. ''There was nothing I could do besides tell them, 'Get out.' "

A few days after his contract expired, Hasty resigned from EA.

They moved to Troy, N.Y., where they work together again. He's a programmer and she's a designer at 1st Playable Productions, an independent game development studio. And they finally have free time to read science fiction novels and indulge in their first love -- playing video games.