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 hospitalized 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.
My Office 996 is a new mobile game that puts you at the heart of a notoriously common work culture in China’s tech industry: Toil in the office from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. Follow this unspoken rule, and you’re promised a bright future of lavish pay and a nice title to match — even if it means putting your physical and mental health at risk.
Alibaba founder Jack Ma once called the gruelling schedule “a huge blessing that many companies and employees do not have the opportunity to have.” JD.com CEO Richard Liu said his company wouldn’t force any employee to adopt 996, but added that, “Every JD staff should have the will to fight!”
(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)
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.
When the main character Wang Jing asks a company veteran whether he can leave at 5pm — the end of his 8-hour workday as stipulated by Chinese law — he’s told to “form a good work habit” and always finish his daily assignments before leaving. The CEO lectures staff on his admiration for the “wolf culture” — an aggressive, bloodthirsty work ethic advocated internally by Huawei. It emphasizes loyalty to the company and team spirit over almost everything else — just like a wolf pack.
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.
In China, tech workers have tolerated 72-hour workweeks for years — a schedule that alarmed even seasoned Silicon Valley investors. But growing resentment reached a tipping point last year when a group of Chinese developers took to Github to protest by publishing a blacklist of companies with long working hours.
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.
Even during the coronavirus pandemic, which forced many employees to work from home, some told Bloomberg they’re still putting in long days with back-to-back virtual meetings. The boost in demand for internet services also created a soaring workload for already-busy tech workers.
Many players say My Office 996 is an accurate portrayal of their lives.
“I feel like the game writer is secretly spying on me,” one reiewer wrote. “After working into the wee hours, my [character’s] workload still rose three times on the third day, just like it was for me in real life. In reality, I kept going for a while and couldn’t keep up, so I protested. My boss used a lot of ugly words. And then I left because my body couldn’t cope.”
“Quite fun, and very real,” said another reviewer. “This boss reminds me of my ex-boss, exactly the same.”
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.
“We hope the game isn’t just a tool for killing time,” the team wrote in their latest update. “Perhaps the game doesn’t last longer than an hour, but we sincerely hope that we can stir some thoughts and feelings among the players.”