Working Overtime to Kill You: Crunch Doesn’t Work

Games Features Crunch
Working Overtime to Kill You: Crunch Doesn’t Work

Boxer was the admiration of everybody. … there were days when the entire work of the farm seemed to rest on his mighty shoulders. From morning to night he was pushing and pulling, always at the spot where the work was hardest. … His answer to every problem, every setback, was “I will work harder!”—which he had adopted as his personal motto.
— George Orwell, Animal Farm

Miwa Sado, who worked at the broadcaster’s headquarters in Tokyo, logged 159 hours of overtime and took only two days off in the month leading up to her death from heart failure in July 2013.
The Guardian, Oct. 5, 2017

Friends, we live in a world of natural cycles. Spring follows winter. The tides roll in and out. OJ enters and leaves prison, bees are married to birds, dogs and cats live together and then have messy celebrity divorce. And eventually, someone decides to defend crunch time. Two months ago, Walt Williams did so in the bro-iest way, and it’s pretty darn godawful.

In August, Polygon excerpted a section from a new book by game-industry veteran Williams. It was a long hymn to crunch time. Hymn. I choose that word deliberately. Not a defense. Not a reasoned essay. Not an apology or eulogy or half-hearted ramble in favor of. Literally, Williams wrote a paean to crunch time literally titled “Why I worship crunch.”

Crunch is like the plague; we really should be immunized against this stuff by now. We’ve got a good two years before the End of Days, and we ought to be spending it on orchids and weapon systems before the stars go out for good.

Urban Dictionary has the best definition of the crunch:

The interval of time immediately before a project is due, when it becomes apparent that the schedule has slipped and everyone is going to have to work like dogs to try to complete the project in time. Crunch time usually occurs during the period between the next-to-last scheduled milestone (prior to which everyone was able to delude themselves that the schedule had NOT slipped) and the final deadline for delivery. During crunch time, workers are in crunch mode. Prevalent in the software industry, but used elsewhere as well.

In the gaming industry, ship-time is always last Tuesday. No prizes for those of you in the audience who have guessed how the game industry now works: crunch time is practically all the time now, across the industry. Everyone does it. The Internet is full of testimonials about crunch time, and how blasted and barren the practice is. One of the most famous is a LiveJournal entry titled “EA: The Human Story” by Erin Hoffman, who called herself “a disgruntled spouse.” “EA” means Electronic Arts. This was written thirteen years ago. Three class-action lawsuits were filed as a result, resulting in $14.9 million against EA.

… Within weeks production had accelerated into a ‘mild’ crunch: eight hours six days a week. Not bad. Months remained until any real crunch would start, and the team was told that this “pre-crunch” was to prevent a big crunch toward the end; at this point any other need for a crunch seemed unlikely, as the project was dead on schedule. I don’t know how many of the developers bought EA’s explanation for the extended hours; we were new and naive so we did. The producers even set a deadline; they gave a specific date for the end of the crunch, which was still months away from the title’s shipping date, so it seemed safe. That date came and went. And went, and went. When the next news came it was not about a reprieve; it was another acceleration: twelve hours six days a week, 9am to 10pm.

…. Now, it seems, is the “real” crunch, the one that the producers of this title so wisely prepared their team for by running them into the ground ahead of time. The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm — seven days a week — with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week. Complaints that these once more extended hours combined with the team’s existing fatigue would result in a greater number of mistakes made and an even greater amount of wasted energy were ignored.

… you do realize what you’re doing to your people, right? And you do realize that they ARE people, with physical limits, emotional lives, and families, right? Voices and talents and senses of humor and all that? That when you keep our husbands and wives and children in the office for ninety hours a week, sending them home exhausted and numb and frustrated with their lives, it’s not just them you’re hurting, but everyone around them, everyone who loves them? When you make your profit calculations and your cost analyses, you know that a great measure of that cost is being paid in raw human dignity, right? Right?

What arguments can Williams make against this? Here’s one:

Yes, Crunch is that fun. And yeah, I’m going to capitalize Crunch as if it were a proper noun, because Crunch is not some idle concept or a construct of the human mind; Crunch is a demon lord, hiding behind the no-charge Coke machine, laughing as you guzzle down those free sodas, knowing that each delicious slurp sells off tiny pieces of your soul, and that soon—so very soon—that bill’s gonna come due and Crunch’ll step out into the light and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth as the hope vanishes from your overly caffeinated eyes because you know this is all your fault; it was you who allowed this foul demon into your midst and now your ass belongs to Him.

Jesus, what a poetry slam mess! Williams later defended his piece saying that he crunches for a therapeutic reason, and “It is not necessary (with good planning), and should not be forced on people.” Pleasant of him to do so, but why write this in the first place? If you know that crunch has hurt people, why write a fun ramble about it? Why cast it as an elaborate regimen of personal medicating? Why defend it in such stark moral terms?

Why am I being so hard on Williams? Because he’s carrying water for a desperately unjust system.

Frankly, the entire excerpted spiel reminds me of those ex-Marines who used to justify drill sergeants kicking the ever-loving shit out of 18-year-old kids. A few people come out of training or bullying with good results. The rest are traumatized when they don’t have to be. Why would you defend it? I’m not sure what the hell Williams is getting at, but his description sounds like the confession note of a desperately unhappy man:

I love it, except for when I hate it, but I can’t hate it if I never stop. Even when I’m not crunching, I work too much. I’ve edited scripts in ICU rooms, responded to emails while begging lovers not to walk out the door, sent brainstorming lists during the birth of my child. I held my grandfather’s hand while he passed away, then went into his office and wrote text for mission descriptions. … When I finally come up for air, there’s a smoking crater where my life used to be. Instead of picking up the pieces to start again, I slip back down into the thick of it. This is how I cope.

Game companies only oppress you to help your self-care, nerds!

It’s natural to wish things weren’t this way, but it won’t change anything. You either agree to the cost or move on with your life. Those who rail against it are either naïve or bitter—they paid the price and didn’t go as far as they had hoped. That’s the risk you take. Being an artist is not easy. Selling your soul will not always bear a profit.

Whatever in the good hell Williams was trying to do, here’s the result: He comes across as a man mourning his fleeting youth, a man who is secretly ambivalent about crunch. He wants it both ways: to scold crunch and to laud it; to come across as a harried naive cog and a worldly wise man who can counsel the youths about what crunch is and why it is a Quite Good Thing. Ever run into a man in Vegas defending his gambling addiction? Williams lauds over the toxic parts and segues shamelessly to shaming customers:

Not to you, of course. You’ll only pay sixty bucks and not a dollar more, because you lack the ability to measure the value of digital goods either through cost or effort. If we try to sell you five-dollar downloadable content, you’ll attack us with negative reviews, claiming we’re trying to nickel and dime you. But if we package our game with a plastic figure and book of concept art, you’ll shell out an easy hundred because it’s “limited.” It’s this same mentality that allows you to say Crunch is plaguing our industry while shouting, “Masterpiece!” at games that laid waste to the hearts and minds of their developers. You’re a bunch of fucking hypocrites, but it’s OK—so are we.

What’s funny about Williams’s defense, and all the defenses of crunch, is that we know crunch doesn’t work. We knew so a hundred years ago. Henry Ford and the rest of the Detroit autocrats did studies back in the Twenties to see how much labor they could eke out of their subject populations. The findings are remarkably consistent: you can’t work twenty-hour days by will for weeks. You can’t magic-think this shit into reality. Evan Robinson wrote a piece titled “Why Crunch Modes Doesn’t Work”:

In 1908—almost a century ago—industrial efficiency pioneer Ernst Abbe published in Gessamelte Abhandlungen his conclusions that a reduction in daily work hours from nine to eight resulted in an increase in total daily output. (Nor was he the first to notice this. William Mather had adopted an eight-hour day at the Salford Iron Works in 1893.)

When Henry Ford famously adopted a 40-hour workweek in 1926, he was bitterly criticized by members of the National Association of Manufacturers. But his experiments, which he’d been conducting for at least 12 years, showed him clearly that cutting the workday from ten hours to eight hours—and the workweek from six days to five days—increased total worker output and reduced production cost. Ford spoke glowingly of the social benefits of a shorter workweek, couched firmly in terms of how increased time for consumption was good for everyone. But the core of his argument was that reduced shift length meant more output.

Crunch mode forever leads to more bugs than a 40-hour workweek. There are heaps of studies explaining that eight hours of concentrated labor is about all human beings can manage. Chapman notes that ”…by the 1960s, the benefits of the 40-hour week” were accepted on Wall Street: “In 1962, the Chamber of Commerce even published a pamphlet extolling the productivity gains of reduced hours.”

There is a diminishing set of returns to crunch. The management in Silicon Valley does not understand how human productivity works. If what you really wanted was to cold-bloodedly squeeze the maximum productivity out of your laborers, you would take heed of hourly productivity. Having done so, you would realize that mental and physical fatigue are actual, real phenomena that must be accounted for. This is true of knowledge workers as much as physical laborers. This is true in the long term, and it’s even true in the short term.

If it’s true for one person alone, it’s true for an entire factory. This magical-workshop notion needs to die, steamrolled into a ditch like all the lost Atari titles somewhere out in the desert. It’s a fantasy, like spot reduction for abs.

Why would anyone praise crunch—and in a public forum? There a dozen reasons to do so. Seeking contrarian applause. Humble-bragging. Concern-trolling. Sometimes defense of crunch time come from the honest belief that crunch time is character-building, the way bullying and corporal punishment were once imagined to be helpful in schools. Sometimes the writer is doing some deep-vein virtue signaling. Sometimes it’s just classic dude takes, written by men who think that thanks to Soylent and Adderall, they’ll live forever.

Every once and again, the pro-crunch takes are jotted down by Valley owners who used to be serfs; they’re written from the POV of people who want to simultaneously justify exploiting their coders and re-experience the furtive thrill of being a 23-year-old on energy drinks again. If Williams loves crunch so much, why doesn’t he go on a totally legit awesome super-intense Red Bull crunch, except instead of coding for the next installment of Homefront: The Revolution or Call of Duty: Infinite Gunishment, why doesn’t he spent 20-hour days visiting terminally overworked people and their families? Why not intensely sit on a plane and then crunch your way over to Japan, to learn about their culture of suicide and overwork? Try a crunch of sitting with them, listening to them, hearing what working for major publishers has done to the ordinary human beings. Why haven’t Williams, and the owners he’s essentially defending, done just that? Are they afraid of a little hard work?

Jason Rhode is a staff writer for Paste who specializes in politics and Smoothies. He’s on Twitter @iamthemaster.

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