Crunch Culture Is Never Just About Individual Choice
Terrifyingly long hours might be the norm in the games industry, but that doesn't mean that they're inevitable.
Screenshot of Spec Ops: The Line courtesy of 2K
Walt Williams, a writer who has worked on titles like Mafia II, Star Wars Battlefront II, and most famously, Spec Ops: The Line, has published an excerpt of his book about working in the games industry over on Polygon. It's titled "Why I Worship Crunch," and perhaps unsurprisingly, that's what it's about.
If you're not familiar, crunch is the practice of doing intensive, long hours of game development on a tight schedule. It is brutal on the mind and the body, and it is taken as the norm in many studio situations worldwide. Kotaku's Jason Schreier wrote an excellent (and horrifying) piece about crunch practices back in 2015 if you're interested in more details.
Williams's piece is a very personal essay about the two sides of the coin of crunch. As Williams told me in a Twitter exchange, at its core, it's about how crunch itself is both seductive and destructive. It is clear that, for Williams, crunch is a way of dealing with the world. Like any kind of intensive activity, it is a way of dissolving the myriad problems of daily life and focusing in on one thing to an extreme. In that way, Williams seems to find crunch therapeutic, despite the fact that it seems to have had a severely negative effect on his life. In some follow-up tweets about the essay, that was the way of reading the essay that he clearly prefers.
At the end of the day, no matter how much an individual loves it, crunch is not about individuals themselves. Crunch is a systemic, top-down solution to the problem of extracting the most labor from game developers; it is a strategy that is implemented on workers, and it is performed widely in most sectors of the industry. One developer's complicated relationship with crunch is a blip on the constantly-screaming radar of worker exploitation that the practice enables as part of the normal operation of the game industry. It is not an exception in one person's life, it is the norm.
On one hand, it's hard to damn Williams for wanting to write artfully and in a complicated way about something that he has a complicated relationship with. On the other hand, Williams literally says that "crunch is a natural occurrence brought on by the creative process." He also tells us that "it's natural to wish things weren't this way, but it won't change anything."
The essay functions as a romantic, florid apologia.
The conditions of work, the organization of humans in relationship to the things they build, and the corporations that manage that building process are all left out of this "natural process." The implication here is that, whether you have Williams's addictive relationship to crunch or not, you might as well just shut the hell up and get on with crunching, because that's what it's going to take.
Williams might not be celebrating crunch, but he is legitimating it, and even if he doesn't feel that way, that's what the essay (even with the context of his Twitter follow up) does. The final paragraphs are meant to function as stark honesty in relation to the manic illustrations of the middle of the essay. Williams tells us that "we can accomplish almost anything, but only if we're willing to pay the price" before patiently explaining that "it may not be fair, and it definitely won't be the same price quoted to someone else, but it will still need to be paid."
Then, to end, despite all the protests about how crunch is bad, how his relationship to it is poison, and about how we're all chumps for accepting this industry practice, he delivers this:
I've paid the price more than once. In return, I more or less got exactly what I wanted — I shouted into the void and the void shouted back, "We hear you." That puts me in a unique position to look back on the past ten years and ask, "Was it honestly worth it?"
I don't know. But I know the price was fair.
He says he doesn't know, but the very structure of the essay screams "Yes!" This final paragraph is an endorsement. If crunch is "natural," as he claims, and the reward has been recognition for the work you have put in, then it seems impossible for me to see that recognition as anything other than an unalloyed good. It's easy to summarize these final paragraphs, after all, as "I put in the time, and then I got mine!"
I am of the opinion that we need these kinds of discussions about crunch, and I'm glad that Williams is being open about his own. This essay, though, gives so much ground to a practice that Williams claims not to support, and radically individualizes a systemic issue to the detriment of those who crunch and who do not have a complicated relationship with it. The essay functions as a romantic, florid apologia.
When this story first hit, it was tweeted out as "a brutally honest look" at the practice—but in so far as that's true, it's true only in the most individualistic way. Individual stories are useful: It is important to highlight how people feel about the structures they live within. After all, that's how we learn about those structures, and that learning is the only way to change them for the better. But Reducing a systemic issue into an individual one masks the exploitation at work, though, in the same way that talking about local weather doesn't give you a diagnosis of global warming.
And if we want to change crunch, to de-naturalize it and make it a practice of the past, then a collective perspective needs to be the approach.