Crunch Time: Working Overtime to Kill You

Games Features

In the first installment of his new monthly column, Brian Taylor looks at the folklore precedent for the game industry’s “crunch time”.

At the 2012 Game Developer’s Conference I went to a talk about the making of Saint’s Row: The Third. One of the developers talked about the kind of city its Steelport was: a formerly-booming industrial town that had fallen into decay and then been taken over by a few over-the-top criminal organizations, each with their own uniforms. It gave me another thing to like about the game: Its post-post-industrial setting was something I could relate to, living in Pittsburgh.

In Saints Row 3 there is an island with a giant statue. Since the game’s designers created a fictional city and didn’t have to make do with what nature had given them, the land itself could be shaped after Fort Wood. The statue in Steelport is more blue-collar than Lady Liberty: a man in a hard hat pours molten steel onto the I-beam he stands on. They called him Joe Steel, but I knew better: that was Joe Magarac.

Magarac was ostensibly a folk hero. You’d think the man had a great publicist for how consistently he’s described as a steelworker’s Paul Bunyan in early writing about him. He was first written about in Scribner’s in 1931. Owen Francis, former steel mill employee and writer, claimed stories about Magarac were told by “Hunkie” steelworkers—Francis uses the term affably, erasing all the xenophobic anti-Eastern European laborer sentiment it carries. His story gives a brief history of his experience in and around the mills, before settling into a vernacular retelling of the arrival and demise of Magarac.

His last name means “Jackass”, which Francis explains is actually a compliment among the “hunkies” because it means that all you do is work and eat (to describe Francis’s attitude toward these steelworkers as “condescending” would be putting it lightly). While Steelport’s Magarac has a lot in common with the Colossus of Rhodes, the Magarac of the stories is more like the Colossus of Westchester.

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Like the X-Man, Magarac is made of steel and is incredibly strong. But where the comic book character’s personality is in opposition to his sometimes-metallic exterior, Magarac is steel through and through. He first arrives in the mill town during a party thrown by a guy who wants someone to marry his daughter.

Since the story is kind of offensive to women as well as Eastern Europeans, the man decrees that whoever is the strongest man present will marry his daughter. Guys lift some heavy stuff, then Magarac laughs at the apparently-strongest’s inability to hoist the final object. There’s some alpha-male posturing and Magarac lifts both the guy and the heavy thing at the same time.

But there’s a twist! Magarac doesn’t want to marry the young Mary Mestrovic, and instead tells her she belongs to one of the weaker men who she secretly loves.

When the mill gets so far ahead of production that they’re able to shut down for three days, the boss tells Magarac he can stay and keep the fire going during the weekend. This may be the most fantastical part of the story.

Most mills operated in two twelve hour shifts with workers alternating day and night shifts each week. The Saturday night shift began “the long turn”, which lasted through two shifts, 24 hours. After this, the workers would get twelve hours off before they began working the Monday morning shift. The long turn marked the transition from a worker’s day week to his night week: he’d get a whole twenty four hours off from the end of the Saturday day shift to the beginning of the Sunday night shift!

An industry that works this way by default is not one where production shuts down for three days because they’re ahead of quota. But it’s necessary for the story, because when the mill re-opens on Monday morning, no one can find Magarac. Turns out he’s in a crucible of liquid steel, ready to be melted down, Terminator style. Except instead of sacrificing himself to halt the progress of technology, he does it so they can have the best steel for a new mill.

Not particularly subtle: He loves his industry SO MUCH that he’s willing to destroy himself so that it can be better. Little wonder US Steel Corporation used Magarac in a pair of promotional comic books in the 1950s. They can do that because the story completely ignores the reality of the steel mill, the horror of the industrial accidents and the toll it took on workers. If Magarac’s a folk hero, it’s not for the workers.

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Since the ’30s, plenty of folklorists have suggested Magarac was totally made up by Francis. But whether Francis or other steelworkers made up Magarac, whether he was initially intended to be empowering or amusing or critical of the industry isn’t really relevant. Despite his size and strength, the man is nonthreatening to both industry and your daughters.

He literally kills himself for the good of the company.

You don’t have to squint very hard to see a cautionary tale here: an ironic criticism of the exploitation of a worker’s goodwill, their enthusiasm for their work. That version of Magarac could be useful to some workers in the games industry right now. While the immediate threat of long-term bodily harm has been taken out of the equation (at least for the majority of game developers; Nina Huntemann and Darius Kazemi’s The Three Least Powerful Women in Gaming succinctly and surgically criticizes the way the game and tech industries exploits young women’s bodies), stories of crunch time abound.

“Crunch” is the polite-company term for when a team has to work overtime to meet a project deadline. Giving it its own name might suggest it’s not a normal state of affairs, but in a quality of life survey conducted by Game Developer magazine earlier this year almost 70% of respondents said they work over 50 hours a week during crunch time, and over 70% reported crunch times that last for over a month. 50% of respondents reported a “somewhat negative impact” and another 28% a “very negative impact” on their family and social life because of it.

There’s a story about crunch where it’s motivated by the excitement of the team, a group of people rallying around a project they really believe in. But a business model that regularly allows workers to contribute huge amounts of (often unpaid) overtime to meet deadlines, that opens and shuts studios on a regular basis, is not primarily concerned with the stability or quality of life of all its employees. A 50-hour work-week costs the single twenty-something differently than it costs the single parent of a ten-year-old. There’s a reason why Magarac couldn’t marry Mary.

Nine years after EA Spouse, a blog post calling out Electronic Arts and their crunch requirements, Ian William’s piece at Jacobin looks at conditions in the game development industry and suggests they’re not getting better. He argues they’re leading the charge into a brighter tomorrow where we’re all expected to melt ourselves down and be thankful for the opportunity to do so.

Brian Taylor really hopes all of the people he knows who make games aren’t killing themselves to do it. Binary Mortal is his new monthly column on games for Paste.

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