OPINION: The Numbing Tragedy Of Abusive Crunch

Fortnite vs PUBG

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. A game studio’s workers are forced to crunch for a year or more in order to deliver a game on time. Developers and workers of said studio are driven to mental breaking point, and soon after the game launches, an article is published by Kotaku or some other outlet detailing this abuse.

The studio responds to the article in a very defensive manner. Nothing changes. The cycle repeats and six months later, another report of crunch is published.

The fact that what I laid out sounds so familiar and so damn common is indicative of an epidemic in this industry. It is a symptom of incompetent management, insatiable greed, and a culture keen on weaponizing the careers of real human beings, bordering on sadistic ransom.

Make no mistake. This is abuse. When you psychologically break a human being and drive that person to a mental breakdown, you are an abuser. What these companies are doing to their workers is abuse. It must be recognized for what it is.

I fear that due to the tragic frequency of such reports, consumers may become numb to it all. After all, if you’re constantly exposed to the same thing over and over again, you will inherently become desensitized to it.

We cannot become numb to this.

In just the last month, we’ve had reports from Kotaku of abusive crunch in BioWare and their run-up to Anthem. Just last week, we had a detailed report from Polygon outlining how management at Epic abuse their workers with crunch on Fortnite. And just Friday, PC Gamer reported on toxic crunch at NetherRealm while developing Mortal Kombat and Injustice.

The details and stories are tragically familiar. They all have common themes. Management heavily implies that if you want to keep your job, you must work longer hours. This psychological pressure pushes workers to work insane hours. The pressure builds until people break. These people either leave, or are fired. Management fills their roles with contractors or other workers and the hell continues.

Speaking with Polygon regarding Epic’s crunch on Fortnite, one QA employee said,

We worked, typically, 50- or 60-hour weeks and upwards of 70-hour weeks on occasion…If I got to the end of an eight-hour workday and I turned to my supervisor to ask if I needed to stay on, they’d often look at me as if I was actively stupid. Officially, you don’t have to keep working, but in reality: ‘Sit back down, we’ll be here for a while.’ If you did not do overtime, that was a mark against your character.

Management view their workers not as human beings, but as disposable objects. Here again, from the Polygon article,

All [management] wanted was people who are disposable…The situation was, ‘Come in and do as many hours as we need you.’ They put the contractors in a situation where if they don’t do that overtime, they know they’re not coming back.

One senior guy would say, ‘Just get more bodies.’ That’s what the contractors were called: bodies. And then when we’re done with them, we can just dispose of them. They can be replaced with fresh people who don’t have the toxic nature of being disgruntled.

This extends to Epic’s psychological pressure used to maintain complete dominance over their employees’ careers,

The managers were very standoffish. When I had some concerns and took them to my manager, I was ignored and [the manager] never spoke to me again. They just didn’t care. When I complained, one of my managers told me to just quiet down, and warned me that I’d be let go. It was a very ‘fuck you, I got mine’ mentality … and management did nothing to discourage this.

We were told that we had to work 50-hour workweeks and complete 200 tickets a day. It’s very, very exhausting, because we had to work really fast. When they announced that I cried because I was just so tired and exhausted and it just felt like they didn’t give a crap.

You don’t need me to tell you that this is inhumane.

As reported by PC Gamer, this tragic story is largely similar at NetherRealm per former QA tester, Isaac Torres,

I crunched for about 4 months straight…I was regularly doing 90-100 hour weeks and worked every single day…I was tired all the time. It took me about 30-45 mins to get home since I had to take a bus. But I know someone who stayed on the couch in the office to not risk falling asleep while driving. I literally had no life for several months.

There just wasn’t time. I would get to work at 9 or 10 am. I would leave at 2-3 am. And then that process would mostly repeat itself. Honestly, I have no clue how I did it. I’m pretty sure I aged 20 years in the span of three months.

And despite this, nothing changed as the studio moved from MKX to Injustice 2 per former NetherRealm QA analyst Rebecca Rothschild,

For each one it felt like we were coming in hotter and hotter…I was working 90-100 hour weeks for both titles. I can personally say from my recollection that nothing improved from MKX to Injustice 2. Everything was down to the wire. Everything was worse.

There is no clearer indicator than this that widespread abuse like this across the industry is deeply embedded in the video game industry’s culture. When unsustainable profits are your primary objective, it becomes entirely obvious as to why companies treat their employees not as human beings, but as disposable objects.

Nowhere is this stripping away of any human quality more evident than in the PR responses provided by these companies, like this from Epic to Polygon (emphasis added),

All Epic contractors have a fixed contract term that is communicated up-front, typically between six and 12 months. Epic makes contract renewal decisions based on the quality of work performed and willingness to work at times needed to meet critical release dates.

Such responses have zero contrition, zero empathy, and zero consideration for the human beings they employ. Look at what is said there: contract renewal decisions are based on a willingness to work on part of the contractors. Who casts final judgement on an employee’s “willingness to work?” The company.

Again, we see the weaponization of people’s livelihoods used to psychologically drive human beings to overwork, all in the name of what? Money.

Yet despite these inhumane conditions, you get a portion of consumers showcasing the same complete lack of empathy, doing nothing but perpetuating the abuse.

Such sentiments are borne from a few things. For one, some people legitimately just don’t care what happens behind the scenes, as long as they get their promised Fortnite skin. To them, such abuse behind the scenes doesn’t affect them so why should they care?

Some sentiments stem from this notion that working on games is a dream job, and that you should be grateful to even be in the industry. If you need to work long hours, just suck it up and be grateful.

Some sentiments stem from the fact that the frequency of such reports on crunch have become so commonplace, that people are simply becoming numb to them. Like I mentioned at the top, if you are exposed to the same thing over and over, you will just become desensitized to it over time.

That cannot happen. This should not be normal. The consequences of such abuse is very real and cannot nor should not be downplayed in the slightest.

Workers in the games industry must unionize simply to defend and protect themselves. We know the industry is utterly incapable of regulating itself. So now, workers must seize back control of their destiny and unionize.

I genuinely fear for what will happen if such drastic action is not taken. The current environment is a result of a toxic culture driven by insatiable greed. And it is having legitimate detrimental effects on real human beings.

As one Epic employee so terrifyingly put it to Polygon,

It’s killing people. Something has to change.

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