We’ve all had at least one assignment that we’ve procrastinated on until the final night. It’s normal for Uni students, and in the grand scheme of things, your life probably won’t be affected much by a sub-par essay in your first year Visual Arts class. That mad rush to get everything done on time, right before the deadline is ‘The Crunch’, and in game development it has been a consistent supplier of controversy. Massive game publishers with international studios, the likes of EA and Ubisoft, have been accused over many years of abusing workers’ rights for the sake of getting a game done on time.
Game publishers typically have a razor-thin profit margin, so wringing out as much work as possible has become standard practice for as long as the industry has existed. But building a crunch period into the development cycle of a videogame should have been phased out long ago. After all, we’re talking about billion dollar companies – you’d think proper planning and management would be something they had picked up by now.
Back in 2004, EA developer Erin Hoffman posted a blog to LiveJournal (remember LiveJournal?) which viciously attacked the labour practices of the company. This became a focal point for fed-up workers and three class-action lawsuits to EA followed, leading to changes in the industry to the benefit of marginalised workers. But track forward 10 years, and a 2014 survey by the International Game Developers Association found that 81% of developers had experienced crunch at some point over the past two years, and 50% felt that it was a “normal part of their job”. Crunch time didn’t go away.
Why is this still happening? Well, consider the latest controversy caused by a recent article to Venture Beat, by software engineering legend Alex St. John. In the article, St. John waxes over the current state of ‘privileged’ game developers, and encourages crunch period in spite of ‘pathetic whiners’. In his mind, game development is supposed to be brutal work. The role should be reserved for those that are willing to make sacrifices, because they’re actually passionate about creating art. This is not a new argument. Peter Molyneux, another legend in game development, has also talked about the virtues of a crunch period, stating that it instills a sense of team camaraderie and a unique energy. St. John and Molyneux are men that have absolutely earned their status as top-level, sought-after employees – but they don’t understand the reality of ‘crunch time’.
This romanticised image in our culture of burning the candle at both ends for the glory of good work has brought in this wave of defenders for the crunch period as a necessary part of the development. But the idea that sleeping at the office, not seeing your friends or families for weeks at a time and generally working yourself to death is considered ‘normal’ is borderline inhumane, and an extremely unhealthy workplace culture. Not to mention the fact that most game-devs are generally paid a salary, which means no overtime pay, which is pretty shitty.
The glorified ‘crucible’ experience of working under the pump for no other reason than the joy of the work itself is something I can at one level understand – you learn skills, make friendships, and are on autopilot the whole way through as you trust your team to get shit done. The heat, sweat and unbelievable pressure this work puts you through is a unique type of suffering that only others in the field can understand. But where the argument falls to pieces is when we have to actually examine the differences between the ideas behind how workers should approach their job, and the practical application.
This simply is not a lifestyle many people could possibly adapt to. If crunch time is mandatory, then those that have families – who cannot commute or be ready to go in at a moment’s notice -need not apply. Personally, I have done heaps of unpaid work out of a desire to learn more and because I felt a sense of obligation. This is perceived as ‘being passionate’. It’s a type of work that systematically excludes anyone who isn’t generally a young, wealthy male, with lots of spare time, and is more than willing to put in extra hours for that un-quantifiable asset of ‘experience’.
This also isn’t a sustainable model for a workplace. Nor should it be in any reasonable society. We cannot allow ourselves to encourage publishers, profiting off the labour of others, to be given permission to break people mentally and exploit them financially. There needs to be a distinction between the ‘crunch’ period and what is acceptably considered ‘working hard’, because the ideas employed by Alex St. John reek of high-minded conservatism, which starts from the assumption that everyone is inherently lazy, and workers’ rights undermine businesses by giving their employees an excuse to slack off.
Working hard doesn’t just have to mean putting everything aside and breaking yourself for the sake of work. It can take lots of forms, like spending more time at home thinking about various solutions to a problem instead of taking some downtime to watch your favourite TV show. Or bringing in coffee for everyone at the office. Or anything really – because working hard doesn’t have to mean sleeping at your desk because it’s assumed you don’t have a kid you need to take care of. If people like St John and Molyneux understood that people can be both passionate about their work, but at the same time unable to endure a workplace culture and practice which is utterly geared against the realities of their non-working lives, then perhaps we could make some actual progress on workers’ rights – without it devolving into an argument about privileged, cry-baby millennials who have to be shoved and whipped if productivity is ever to be achieved.
Words by Cameron Moyses