What is ‘crunch culture’ in the gaming industry, and why should it matter to you?

Consumers can impact industry behaviour – here are some ways you can make a positive difference

Sixteen years ago, the partner of an EA developer lifted the lid on “crunch culture” in the gaming industry. They talked of mandated 13-hour working days, seven days a week, shining a light on the industry-wide secret for the very first time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the shocking report went viral, prompting a lot of introspection, opinion pieces and plentiful hand-wringing from executives who pledged to do better.

Fast-forward to 2020, and seemingly little has changed. Right now it’s Cyberpunk 2077 developer, CD Projekt RED, that’s in the headlines for all the wrong reasons – give it a week or two and another will take its place. Crunch is systemic and cyclical, and still rampant right across the industry. In extreme cases, exploitative work practices are paraded about like a badge of honour.

Cyberpunk 2077
Cyberpunk 2077. Credit: CD Projekt RED

Crunch in the video game industry is something of an open secret now. We’re getting better at talking about it – press and developers alike – but we’re certainly no better at tackling it, let alone eradicating the practice. But if the industry’s not prepared to make a change – not even when the media airs its crunchy, dirty laundry for all to see – what can we, the game-buying public, do? Can we make a positive difference in the lives of the people who make our favourite games?

In a quick, dirty and highly unscientific query on Twitter, I asked the collective hivemind how we, as consumers of video games, could make meaningful change. Unsurprisingly, most of us were struggling for concrete ideas on how we can improve things.

There are several ways the industry itself could do to prevent this, of course, and unionisation is right at the top of the list. But companies also could stop announcing games when they’re little more than cinematic concepts, instead waiting until games are 50/60/70 per cent – hell, 100 per cent – complete before making them public knowledge. If they must announce games way ahead of release, studios could transparently share plans to mitigate crunch (as one respondent said: “Crunch is essentially poor product planning and if things don’t go to plan then the plan has to be changed. Crunch shouldn’t come into it”).

As for us? The easiest way we can revolt against crunch is, paradoxically, probably the hardest. If you know a game has been forged under horrific stress, it’s simple: don’t buy it. Don’t support it. Don’t play it. Don’t stream it. Don’t talk about it in any way that doesn’t include explicit reference to the mistreatment of the people who made it. If you simply must play it – we’ve all been there – give it a few weeks and then pick it up secondhand from your local trade-in store.

The Walking Dead: The Game
The Walking Dead: The Game. Credit: Telltale Games

There’s always the fear that “voting with our wallets” won’t work, or – worst still – detrimentally affect the hardworking devs more than the executives who’ inflicted crunch culture in the first place. But it’s a matter of principle now, surely? To be brutally honest, it doesn’t matter how much you want to play that sweet, highly-anticipated AAA blockbuster. If you know an upcoming game has been created in an environment that mandates long hours and zero work-life balance, we should not support it. No, it won’t be easy, but other industries have proven that it can be done, from cruelty-free beauty products to Fairtrade tea. Consumer behaviour can positively impact an industry.

That’s not all. We could, and should, publicly and vocally respond to video game delays with kindness and understanding. Be mindful that a delay is usually the last thing the team wants to do. Always be kind. If you’re active on social media, make sure studios and developers of the games you support know you value the wellbeing of the development team over your desire to play it. It’s in our collective interest in the end anyway, quite honestly; the more unhurried time a studio has to hone and polish, the better that game will be.

It might also be helpful to know the difference between developers and publishers. Developers? They’re the brilliant people that design, program and create the game. Publishers, on the other hand, are the hardworking folk that distribute it, be that physically or digitally. The choices of one may not reflect the values of the other, but they certainly don’t operate in a vacuum, and if there’s a publisher or a studio that pops up with eerie regularity in these reports, remember it. Share it. Make sure we all know where the pressure is stemming from and boycott it.

Anthem
Anthem. Credit: BioWare

As for people like me, who write about games? We need to do more and be more critical. It’s no good chastising a studio for 85-hour work weeks one day and awarding its latest shooter a 10 out of 10 rating the next. Maybe the development process of a game should be routinely reflected in reviews, but my fear is that would only drive these unethical practices back into the shadows again. But maybe if we flatly refused to reward excellent games made under terrible circumstances, declining to divorce art from its creative process and taking account of evidenced crunch when it comes to scoring games, that may very well force a change.

Unlike movies or TV, game makers spin whole worlds out of thin air. There are no actors or props or set-pieces here; nothing on your monitor or TV is real. That kind of alchemy needs our support, but also our protection, too – our compassion and consideration. Let’s prove to studio heads and their thirsty investors that we simply won’t tolerate the mistreatment of artists any more. Let’s make things better – for them, and for us.

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