Burning Out: The Video Games Industry’s Crunch Problem

“Crunch time” is the name given to a practice that’s almost ubiquitously utilised in the video games industry. Almost every game that reaches shelves, physical or virtual, is a product of at least some work carried out under periods of crunch conditions. Essentially, crunch is mandatory unpaid overtime- most developers are salaried, meaning many aren’t compensated for their extra hard work. It’s a practice that’s employed to ensure deadlines are met, although the jury is still out on whether corporate-mandated deadlines are realistic or not.

Back in 2004, the EA Spouse scandal highlighted the issue to the general public: Erin Hoffman published an online journal under the pseudonym “EA Spouse” detailing her husband’s hellish working conditions. He was working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for months, although this worsened to 12-plus hours a day, 7 days a week nearer to the game’s very final deadline. A few class action lawsuits against EA followed over lack of overtime pay, which EA settled for tens of millions of dollars each.

But, over a decade later, the majority of games developers have endured periods of crunch time: the 2015 survey by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) revealed that “crunch is still a problem: 62% indicated that their job involved crunch time; 58% said they were in crunch more than twice in the last two years; and 61% said that crunch time was expected in their workplace.” Furthermore, 44% of those that didn’t report engaging in crunch still said that they were required to work for extended work hours that weren’t labelled “crunch”. The majority of employees (31%) reported 50-59 hours per week, closely followed by those that reported 60-69 hours per week (30%).

All in all, it seems fair to say that crunch is still an omnipresent shadow over the games industry, although it’s fallen back into wider discussion due to an article published by ex-Microsoft DirectX developer and industry veteran Alex St. John. In response to Dean Takahashi’s article on VentureBeat featuring a crunch-focused interview with IGDA executive director Kate Edwards (the IGDA is launching an investigation into crunch practices in large companies), St. John published an article on VentureBeat himself in defence of crunch time.

St. John headlines the article, “Game developers must avoid the ‘wage-slave’ attitude”. “Wage-slave” is a term that he uses often in the article. Already, he’s established his view of people that want better labour rights: they’re there just for the money, without passion or heart, and are not justified in their grievances.

In defence of crunch, St. John contrasts his background to that of other people in the tech industry. He grew up in rural Alaska “with no electricity, plumbing, heating, or cable TV”, and that he’s “still thrilled by the incredibly decadent luxury of a porcelain toilets and fast food”. This humble upbringing grants St. John the perspective that he “can’t begin to imagine how sheltered the lives of of modern technology employees must be to think that any amount of hours they spend pushing a mouse around for a paycheck is really demanding strenuous work”.

The view that “pushing a mouse around” is the primary task of work is repeated in the article, as well as the notion that making games isn’t laudably difficult work. St. John continues, “They rant about the value of “work-life-balance”, how hit games can be delivered on a schedule with “proper management” and 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….”

It’s a troubling notion indeed that such a prominent figure can be so dismissive of the mental and physical effort a team of people must pour into creative projects like video games. It strikes me as astoundingly disrespectful and reductive view that St. John holds regarding labour in the games industry; while sitting at a desk and moving a mouse isn’t physically demanding in and of itself, long periods of focused concentration for 12 hours or more, every day, 6 or 7 days a week, is going to cause immense stress on the mind and body.

What’s confusing about St. John’s perspective on this matter is the fact that, years ago, he famously “burnt out” himself while working for Microsoft on DirectX. Reportedly, he would “pass out at his keyboard”, turning up to meetings “with key marks on his face”. Work seemed to have a serious effect on his personal life. In 1997 he “succeeded in getting himself fired”, and “walked out of Microsoft feeling 100lbs lighter”. This is not life experience you’d expect from a man that’s advocating crunch and decrying detractors of the practice as “wage-slaves,” attempting to diminish their complaints because they’re not “trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families”.

Alex St. John’s stance on this issue is, perhaps, not as much of a conundrum as one might think. People stuck in terrible working conditions are often afraid to speak up because they’re “easily replaced”, but having grown wealthy off stock options and founding his own company he’s in a position to work as much as he wants without fear of being fired over unfair labour requirements. Crunch isn’t something St. John must endure as a matter of course any more; he benefits from those practices himself, and so he seeks to protect them, or so it seems to me. Hell, the man’s exploitative tendencies can be found on his personal website on a presentation with the monicker, “Recruiting, Training and Retaining GIANTS.” It’s a presentation that’s focused around squeezing as much work from your employees as possible, and having read through it I find it particularly objectionable. Amongst other things, St. John describes Autistic engineers as the “holy grail” of employees, and suggests that you work to retain not engineers themselves, but their “wives and girlfriends”. Read it yourself to see how responsible you think the proposed practices are.

A “workaholic” attitude isn’t enough to save you from the effects of overworking. Long-term mandatory unpaid overtime an inherently unfair practice unlikely to endear employees to their work. More than that, though, that amount of work is provably dangerous; even work that’s loved strains the mind and body. That’s not good for the product, and it’s not good for the people.

The silver lining in all this is that crunch is, once again, at the forefront of the conversation in response to St. John’s article. Hopefully the continued publicity on this issue, along with investigation by the IGDA, will help to bring about real change in the coming years.

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