Experience the damaging reality of China’s 996 work culture in a new game
My Office 996 parodies work practices once championed by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, JD.com’s Richard Liu and Huawei
Just six weeks into my shiny new programming job at a Hangzhou tech startup, I was thrown into a moral dilemma: Should I agree to the proposed firing of my senior coworker, who had been hospitalised after weeks of late-night working – or should I speak up to the CEO, who was clearly annoyed by the growing pile of unfinished work?
I chose to go against the boss. And then the game was over.
Barely five months old, and with no backing from major publishers, My Office 996 has become one of the top-rated games on Taptap, a popular Chinese online game community. Scoring an average of 8.4 among nearly 1,000 reviews, the free-to-play indie game seems to have struck a chord with some of the country’s chronically overworked employees.
The game is a microcosm of China’s tech scene, which glorifies long hours and personal sacrifices as a prerequisite for success.
But your success depends on more than just the hours you spend in the office. The choices you make each hour – work, surf the internet, eat, nap, go to the bathroom, go out for a walk, chat with a colleague – all make an impact. They determine your health, stress, aptitude, salary, savings and other people’s trust in you.
I soon discovered that it’s impossible to complete the ever-swelling workload without draining my health and increasing stress. They’re dwindling by the day, as shown by the energy bars on the screen.
Adding to the damage, I’m running out of money to pay my rent even though I only eat cheap takeout in the office and spend most weekends catching up on sleep. The reason? The CEO slashed my pay with little explanation. But it’s likely because the startup still hasn’t released its first product – which is, ironically, a game designed to reduce stress.
As the game progresses, I find that rather than toiling days on end like any hard-working employee, it’s more important to foster relationships with the right people. They aren’t necessarily the most capable employees – in fact, the key is to target those who are likely to stay on without quitting or getting fired. Along the way, I accumulate essential survival skills such as back-slapping.
If there’s a moral to the story, perhaps it’s not about the villains, whom I’ve learned to bribe.
While some characters are inherently loathsome – like the autocratic but often clueless CEO, or his ass-kissing underling – they aren’t designed to be the focus of the game. Fang Hang, who helped develop the game as part of the four-person team Evil Wind Studio, said the team hopes My Office 996 encourages people to achieve a better work-life balance and see their colleagues through more empathetic eyes.
Even though it’s been a year since the project first came into the spotlight, recent anonymous reviews on the Glassdoor-like job seeking platform Kanzhun suggest that overtime is still a norm in many of the blacklisted companies, including the country’s biggest tech titans.
Many players say My Office 996 is an accurate portrayal of their lives.
My Office 996 is still in beta and the story arc is still developing. Evil Wind Studio said the game is a side project being developed in the team’s spare time as the members contend with a 996 schedule in real life. Still, they’ve promised a finale by autumn.
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