A meditation on the practice of workplace crunch
Why exactly should we overwork creative labourers? Game makers have been asking this for a long time.
Science can’t produce consensus about so vague an idea as “the value of overwork.” It’s like trying to measure “bite force” by clamping a measuring device to a scared puppy dog's jaws: Sure, there’s some number PSI at the end, but the data you get won’t give you the knowledge you sought.
Scientists do their best, clamping “crunch measurement” tools onto frightened human jaws, and from this we actually get way lower numbers than any Boss Guy would like. One popular suggestion is that creative workers might actually top out at approximately three good/hard hours per day.
Instead of looking to understand crunch, Boss Guy only really wants to justify crunch. He therefore tends to argue in a “first principles” sort of way: Looking deep inside himself and pretending he’s immune to the effects of ideology, Boss Guy dredges reasons why he himself might’ve crunched back in the day.
Will he reflect upon the horrific destruction it wreaks upon people’s lives? Not usually, because survivorship bias tends to suppress that. We tend to hear from the industry’s biggest “winners,” and for these folks it’s always like: Their boss made them do it and then they got filthy fucking rich, so correlation is causation because these folks work in management now (and that, reader, is what we call “a cycle of abuse”).
Managers discuss crunch the same way they discuss “building the pyramids,” because that’s some racist shit that appears in my region as a valid question of ideology. Ask certain Americans out there—maybe those ones who stormed the U.S. Capitol building in January 2021—and they’ll guess the pyramids were built by chattel slaves (a practice their forebears implemented to help the boss’ boss get richer than god).
Reader, I ain’t no student of ancient culture. Before I talk, I should read a book! But there’s one thing I do know: Word from Egyptologists has long been that chattel slavery didn’t build those pyramids (nor was it enslaved Israelites, etc.). My crude understanding is it was something like “seasonal labourers from outlying Egyptian farms,” which is still pretty brutal and awful (as well as a practice Americans/Canadians currently use). Yet this is irrelevant to “building the pyramids” here, because people here use that to fantasize about being their own culture’s bosses.
The fantasies they have are awful, though in fairness many fantasies are! The point is that people’s ideas regarding “how work gets done” are always distorted by the way they view themselves.
Conspicuously, it is seldom the programming/art/design staff who go out and work to justify crunch (“Please, boss guy, we insist you waste more of our lives for no reason!”). It’s the executive-type people. The “three good/hard hours” concept has never once deterred them from requesting 12 good/hard hours, and it’s a big problem.
These folks are sometimes craven assholes who waste all day sending digital messages and laundering abuse. Manager B sees Manager A crunching; they fear being liable for having erred from “best practice,” so they too mandate crunch. Everybody’s holding their job as a product of nepotism to begin with, so they’ve all got 'imposter syndrome” (because they fit the literal definition of imposter: a person who pretends to know better than everyone else in pursuit of fraudulent gain).
Bad managers have differently shaped receptors in their heads, which permit practices like crunch to spread virally between them (not due to effectiveness but simply because the incoming virus “looks/feels right!” to the chain of nepotists that own our world). Their corporate hierarchies, taken all together, form a “nerve system” for the grand fuckin’ body of capital whose upkeep saps resources from everything. It saps resources from lower-level employees/friends/families/entire communities to form a big bloom near the top.
Crunch—or “managers trying to invent something from nothing by performing schedule-based abuse”—infects people’s brains, which are like the executive neurons of this weird corporate entity. This forces the game-maker cells to behave strangely (e.g., staying in the same location for 12 consecutive hours). As a result, the cells become confused as to their goal. Everybody came here to help move this body towards new sources of capital, but infection causes them to achieve very little whilst generating many new problems. Corporate bodies lack good immune systems, and easily become sick.
Solidarity can fight and kill the infection, eventually. Yet the “necessary reasons” for crunch always mutate, and cells burn out fighting that kind of stuff. (It's easy to find some new asshole manager, but that only makes things worse. You need the people who already quit or got fired.)
The corporations are dying, reader, just like everything else; but we’re scheduled to die in their defense.