Point Break: How Crunch Culture Survives Despite a Decade of Criticism

We have continuously talked about how harmful crunch is. But game studios haven't changed their ways.

by Eira A. Ekre on March 16th, 2016

More than a decade ago the harmful nature of crunch was dragged into the open by Erin Hoffman. Her detailed description of what it’s like to have a partner who’s being taken advantage of by employers, and how “limited mandatory overtime” turns into “mandatory overtime” – which is in no way compensated – put words to a problem that many developers had been aware of for a long time. Finally we were talking about how many game studios require their employees to work unpaid overtime for months on end, with the risk of losing their jobs should they refuse.

It ignited a furious response throughout the industry, with heated discussions, studies and lawsuits following in its wake; employees of EA, one of the biggest game studios, sued their employer and won. It seemed like the game industry had reached a turning point. But it’s been more than 10 years, and it’s time to ask some hard questions about what we have actually accomplished. Hoffman’s outcry was the start of something great, but it didn’t trigger much of a reformation in the industry. According to polls made over the years by the International Game Developers Association:

“Over the last decade, the average amount of crunch time worked has dropped, with 19% of 2014 respondents indicating they haven’t crunched in at least two years compared to 2.4% of 2004 respondents. Also, 38% of the 2014 respondents reported typical crunch times of 50-69 hours per week compared to 35% of 2004 respondents reporting crunch times of 65-80 hours per week.”

– Kate Edwards, IGDA Executive Director

So while there has been a decrease in the extreme working conditions that are caused by crunch, the industry still relies heavily on this flawed work structure to create their products. And we’ve only scratched the surface on how tech companies completely disregard the health of workers with mental illness, disabilities and chronic illness when they continuously enforce a work structure that relies on crunch.

The “Mental” Is Silent

Shadow of someone pressing their hands against a screen door.

Photo CC-BY Helen Harrop, cropped.

Crunch occurs in a cultural context where employers have a skewed relationship with health and the well-being of employees. For example, gym membership cards and visits to massage parlors are common perks offered to all employees, while company sponsored visits to therapists/psychologists, physiotherapy or special equipment to make offices accessible are incredibly rare. This brilliant article paints a picture of how behavior that doctors would consider harmful and destructive is seen as signs of “brilliance” and “genius” in tech, and goes on to ponder the difference in how the industry views physical improvement versus treating mental illness:

“Mental health is wholly separate from ‘health’, which people assume is purely physical. It’s quite normal for people to discuss measures they’ve taken to improve their physical health. Most of the cyclists I know are anarchists or work in the tech sector. I know a dozen people who own a Fitbit to work out more and sculpt their appearance. But if I bring up the subject of mental health at work, it’s in whispers. The double standard can be glaring. Taking care of physical health is ‘improvement’, whereas taking care of mental health is considered ‘correcting the aberrant’.”

But no matter how many personal stories, studies and analysis are put out into the world, detailing how crunch is physically and mentally harmful and how it’s expensive and often causes developers to produce broken and inferior products, it’s still seen as a viable option to fall back on when development issues arise.

Many structural issues of game development feed into the practice; the expectancy of unquestioned loyalty from employees; excuses that people putting up with crunch is a sign of passion and how real, creative game development works; the student-like culture where caffeine fueled late-nights and drinking binges with colleagues to celebrate meeting a deadline are more than encouraged. Yet, crunch is in no way necessary to sustain high-quality production. It lowers the final quality of the product, while also causing permanent harm to the developers. And the management responsible for enforcing crunch rarely – if ever – partakes in the overtime, while the people enduring it have no power to change their working conditions.

Crunch and Consequence

Crushed beer can on the ground.

Photo CC-BY glasseyes view.

Crunch takes control — of your schedule, health, time, boundaries, balance — from you. When people feel powerless, their desperation for control will have immensely negative effects on their lives. Self-harm and eating disorders are common amongst people who are trying to control an uncontrollable situation, while drugs and alcohol can be used as self medication for the stressful situation. It’s also very common for companies to supply workers with alcohol during crunch – either as motivation during working hours, or as a reward at the end of a long day – which in turn encourages harmful drinking habits. The unbalanced work hours contribute to stress and an infrequent sleeping schedule, both common triggers for insomnia and depression.

“Asked to measure the impact crunch cycles have on their social and family life, 1% of devs respond that it has a very positive impact, 4% report a somewhat positive impact, 17% see no impact, 50% see a somewhat negative impact, and 28% see a very negative impact. In general, devs start reporting a negative impact on their social/family lives when crunch schedules exceed 50-hour weeks.”

Inside the Video Game Industry’s Culture of Crunch Time

Ask any developer and they will most likely have stories of losing weight, sleep, or even the concept of time. I have more than once had to reassure colleagues that things such as blacking out, losing memory and being unable to remember hours, weeks or even months of production “happens to everyone”. Because the sad truth is that in our industry, it does. Few game developers are exempt from the physical and psychological effects of crunch. In some situations the end product might be great. You might be genuinely proud to have been part of the creation. But you’ll also suffer chronic back pain, be unable to remember major parts of the production, and have your friendships and relationships be negatively impacted by your job.

When we see the irreversible damage that repeated crunch work has had on generations of game developers, we have to realize how people with a chronic illness, mental illness or a disability fares in this environment. It’s punishing for everyone, but even more so when these common ramifications mingle with already existing conditions and risks escalating them. Developers rarely have recourse during periods of crunch, but those lucky enough to not live with anxiety, depression or insomnia may at least get some rest when they finally finish work for the day. People without mental or physical illnesses are more likely to have support structures both within and outside the company; a relaxing massage to sooth the muscles, a brisk workout session at the gym to get the endorphins going, help and care from loved ones. Therapy and physiotherapy are, in comparison, rarely found as employment perks and are therefore harder to fit into a overloaded workday. Introverts will find little room to recharge in a crowded office, all while requests to respect people’s sobriety gets pushed aside to enable a binge-drinking culture. And due to the stigma that disabilities, chronic and mental illnesses carry, employees who suffer are discouraged from speaking out. Mentioning your situation to co-workers is enough to get you ostracized, while trying to get help from management is more than enough to get you fired.

Last year I personally wrote a piece about harmful situations I had encountered while working with different game studios, and the negative impact these experiences had on my life. An ex-colleague eventually read my article, and commented “you’re too fragile for this world”. While short and simple, it speaks volumes about the attitudes within the industry: shut up and accept your shitty situation, or don’t work with games at all.

Tape that reads 'fragile' stretched against cement.

Photo CC-BY sisssou, cropped.

This mindset will eventually doom the industry. As game development continuously refuse to diversify their workforce by making it more accessible, they also effectively shut out the people that could help with reinventing the medium. In order for games to continue to evolve as an artform, they need to include more perspectives; our stories can’t be about abled-bodied and neurotypical people forever. People with chronic illness, disabilities and mental illness would offer unique outlooks on life that could affect everything from the story, look and feel of a game, to the accessibility of its controls. But because of crunch, these people quickly leave the industry, or don’t feel comfortable getting into game development at all. The uncertainty of working with games, and usually bad experiences of the past, ultimately silence the employees who suffer the most, and shut out the people whose knowledge and perspectives are most needed.

The Meaning of Loyalty  

We work in an industry where loyalty isn’t something that a company gains through treating people well, but instead entails absolute subjugation, “passion” and silence. Loyalty isn’t a positive feeling that employees develop over time towards an employer who treats them fairly; it’s seen as part of the company culture, and is required in order to keep your job – if you don’t feel it, you better be damn good at faking it.

And we do. We normalize these harmful structures and keep up a happy facade. Recently when Anti-Crunch activist Tanya X. Short started a petition for developers to take a stand against crunch, many were hesitant to sign – fearing how it might affect their career and future opportunities. Fear has brought us to a point where many prefer to accept harmful structures rather than fight them. Of course, our “loyalty” is not returned: not only does crunch leave you physically and mentally scarred, partaking in it does not guarantee that you get to keep your job. In Kotaku’s “Layoff Series” dozens of developers tell the stories of how they got fired from game studios, and a common theme is how months – or even years – of crunch culminate in terminated contracts.

Clock face, slightly burned as if it's been in a fire.

Photo CC-BY olavXO.

I wanted the opening statement of this article to be catchy. Urgent. A call to action. But crunch is not a secret structural problem. We talk about it. The discussion sometimes blooms with anger and urgency, but ultimately it has grown apathetic. Not only have we normalized harmful practices that permanently damage young workers for life, we have built a development standard that actively shuts out and alienates a myriad of developers. Neurotypical and able-bodied people who go into game development jobs will years down the line face both mental and physical consequences; meanwhile, people who already suffer from mental or physical illness, people with disabilities will lack support structures and have their conditions worsen throughout their employment.

We know this, yet we have accepted it as part of our daily lives. It’s been more than a decade, and we have continuously talked about how harmful crunch is. However, this has in no way encouraged game studios to change their ways. The culture is very much the same as it’s always been, languid and strained. And fearing the consequences of what might happen if we refuse these demands, we’ve entered a cycle that’s abusive and unsustainable.

It’s been ten years. So what will it take to break it?