It’s an odd word, crunch.
The kind of onomatopoeia that can represent the playful innocence of a children’s cereal, but which can also describe the sound of the worker’s back breaking beneath the iron heel of oppression. And with ‘crunch time’, we’re not talking about breakfast.
Crunch is, to avoid any editorialising on my part, when a team works hours far beyond the norm with the express aim of finishing a current piece of work – whether that be to meet the release deadline or to add things like DLC. Crunch is also, to heartily jump back on the editorialisation train, a complete travesty of justice in the workplace.
Crunch has been a plague on the games industry for far too long. In 2004, an exposé written by the spouse of a developer at EA brilliantly deconstructed some of the horrifying excesses of industry executives, offering a window into the world of how a grubby, detestable corporation can manipulate and swindle its employees out of their basic rights. At the time, Erin Hoffman needed to hide her identity under the pseudonym ‘ea_spouse’ through fear of negative repercussions for her significant other.
What was the immediate response? A couple of settled lawsuits, along with the assertion that all affected give up their stock options. “Oh, we’re sorry for kicking you all repeatedly in the face. Here’s some soothing gel alongside one final kick in the face. Call it a parting gift.”
EA: Challenge Everything, Including Human Empathy
I concede that this happened over a decade ago; surely things have improved since then? Well, according to the available research, reports and developer surveys: yes, things have improved. In the same way that if I move you from one vat of boiling oil to another vat of boiling oil, this one with a cute melty rubber duck in a cowboy hat, then things have, technically, improved. There’s still exploitation, there’s still the culture of crunch, and there’s still the obstinate refusal for any meaningful change to occur.
In 2015, The Game Outcomes Project conducted an extensive and brilliantly documented study into crunch that you can view here on Gamasutra. It’s not only a great read, but also a thorough illumination of the prevalence of crunch and how little practical sense crunch makes. It proves that not only is crunch immoral, it simply does not work. The ‘crunch salvage hypothesis’, in which a test was made based on the assumption that failing games require crunch to get back on track and would therefore display a positive game outcome, showed that the correlation between game outcome and crunch was in fact “weak, negative and statistically insignificant”.
Talking of weak, negative and insignificant: Alex St. John (incidentally the only man to have a punch-able name) infamously wandered into this debate like a tranquilised bear unsteadily tottering along moments before falling face-first into a heap of its own shit. In his thinkless piece “Game developers must avoid the ‘wage-slave’ attitude”, he toes a delicate line between narcissism and belligerence, and, in fairness to him, manages to get the balance spot on.
There’s so much rubbish to pick apart, and, as overworked developers know all too keenly, only so many hours in the day, so I’ll discuss a couple of choice segments.
St. John bemoans developers who rant about “how they can’t produce their best work when their creative energies are tapped after a long forty-hour work week … sitting … at a desk…. Apparently people can even ‘burn out’ working too hard to make … video games….”
Here… Silly old, tired old, crotchety old… Alex St. John uses… ellipses… liberally, in the… hope it gives his point greater… weight, when in fact… it actually makes him seem like… a petulant… detestable… absolutely irredeemable… wanker whom I would journey across continents to avoid.
Then, the pièce de résistance! “Making games is not a job — it’s an art.”
DING! DING! DING! There we have it, he’s said it, he’s said the thing! The qualifying statement, which, by extrapolation, paves the way for unpaid labour if your work can be deemed as in the least bit creative.
A genuine slide of advice from Alex St. John, in case you thought he might be anything other than the lowest of the low
His barely-even-specious argument relies on that old vestige of thinking that posits ‘art is art and art requires imagination! Creativity! Not fair payment.’ It’s double-think which permeates the mind of not only cretins like old Alex here but also the damn labor law stating that you can avoid paying overtime to a software professional if they earn $41 an hour or over and “engage in advanced creative or intellectual work” – the same deregulation which, by the way, EA and other game companies have lobbied heartily to secure in British Colombia. So tell me again how crunch is an unfortunate necessity with which companies aren’t entirely happy.
This whole ‘art is passion, you’re lucky to be doing it at all’ spiel is, more or less, how this bullshit persists. It’s no coincidence that unscrupulous folk like Alex St John, who said exactly this on his own website, claim that you’re best off recruiting interns from college who “haven’t learned wage-slave mentality yet” and can be worked “too hard”. Alex St John may be the most despicably overt proponent for such vile practices, but these are the ingrained truths that every boss who utilises crunch accepts.
There’s a point to be made regarding diversity in the workplace, too. In the book ‘Games of Empire’ by Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, they discuss how crunch is inextricably linked to machismo in the office, citing Lizzie Haines’ research with 20 game firms in the U.K. She talks about “a world where women are referred to as ‘ladies,’ where to go home early is to let the team down, and to fit in is to be seen as ‘laddish’”, referring to game studios. A picture is painted of the development studio as a masculine dungeon – allowing the bravado and romanticisation of crunch to seep in while steadfastly keeping women out.
Going back to The Game Outcomes Project, they conclude their study by saying that the data “loudly and unequivocally supports the anti-crunch side” and should allow for a “transition from objective analysis to open advocacy.” That we’ve had far too much of the former and precious little of the latter is apparent, even in interviews such as this one with Kate Edwards, executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IDGA). While the work done at IDGA is positive, with anonymous surveys highlighting the good and bad companies, there’s still the feeling of stepping on eggshells both in the questions received and the answers given. They’re attempting to tow a line between being for the workers while trying to keep corporate annoyance to a minimum – but this approach is wearing thin.
Former Kerbal Space Program developers have also spoken out about crunch time
According to a 2014 IDGA survey, 56% of developers support the formation of a national union, contrasted with just 14% who do not. That’s a sizable majority in favour of a collective that works for them to keep corporations in check. The case for unionisation amongst developers is now so glaring that it barely requires articulation.
That fight won’t be an easy one, and indeed EA have already warned against such a move with their Human Resources VP bemoaning “people who want to step in and take a piece of the pie or get in the middle of things without contributing to the growth of the business”. If you’re thinking that sentence doesn’t actually mean anything, then you’d be entirely correct. Unionisation would give developers the ability to organise and to fight back against bosses who demonstrably do not have their best interests at heart; of course EA wouldn’t like that.
The response to all of this has been dishearteningly listless, and I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t an inevitability of the path we’re all headed down: as this industry fucks up over and over again, each fuck up more iniquitous than the last, we become less surprised and therefore less disgusted. We’ve seen it with flagrant DLC and micro-transaction money-grabs that prey upon the base consumerist impulses of gamers, and now we’re seeing it with unambiguous flouting of basic employee rights.
We can get angry about the moving of a label on box art which we falsely deem to be censorship, we can get angry about the latest top ten article which doesn’t exactly correlate with our own opinion, we can get angry about any time someone dares to suggest that women or minorities aren’t well represented in a game, and yet we can’t bring ourselves to get angry about corporate attacks on worker’s rights? Maybe we deserve this contemptible industry.