Union criticises use of crunch culture in video game industry

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Credit: IWGB Game Workers

A leading trade union which campaigns for video game workers’ rights has criticised the use of “crunch culture” being used in developing video games.

Crunch is a form of unpaid overtime where workers at a company or studio work long hours to finish a video game project they’ve been working on for months or years.

The Game Workers branch of The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB Game Workers) has been campaigning against crunch since the union was created in December 2018.

Ending crunch culture in the video game industry

IWGB Game Workers first executive committee back in December 2018 when it was known as Game Workers Unite UK. Credit: IWGB Game Workers

Ending excessive overtime (or crunch) is one of the things that IWGB Game Workers is campaigning to end in the video game industry.

In the 2019 International Game Developers Association survey, employees reported that 41% of their job involved crunch, with 35% working long hours that are not referred to as “crunch”.

Austin Kelmore, who has been with the union from the start in December 2018, and has over a decade of experience working in the video game industry is a former chair of IWGB Game Workers and general secretary.

Kelmore has spoken out against the use of crunch, and has written a blog post on how to eliminate this practice in the video game industry.

He writes about how crunch is forced upon workers when working on a project:

“Overtime is not a result of production issues or missed deadlines, however it is a mode of working that is often forced upon workers when those happen. Management could just as easily choose to change the scope of games or push back milestones instead of resorting to overtime.

“Because companies want workers to work overtime, regardless of the effectiveness, they usually also reward the behavior. When executives and managers give promotions and raises, the people who work overtime are often seen as more invested in the company and therefore more deserving. This gives individual workers incentive to work overtime, even if they know it’s ineffective and will physically and psychologically harm them.”

Crunch and mental health for video game workers

Credit: IWGB Game Workers

While crunch can take a personal toll on a video game worker’s life, it can also affect their mental health due to the long hours being worked to develop a game.

Take This, an American non-profit charity for mental health in the video game industry produced a State of the Industry report in 2019 where it highlights the conditions that crunch creates which can affect an employee’s mental health.

Kelmore was happy that more people who are working in video game development were talking about mental health due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s good when people are able to publicly talk about the issues collectively as a group.

“When it’s a couple of people speaking out, it can feel like isolated incidents of oh, it’s that one company, it’s this one team, and then, it’s not necessarily an industry-wide issue.

“But if you have people from companies talking about the amount of overtime that they’re working, or the cultures that they have at their companies, then it becomes okay, this is a bigger issue, and we need to approach it differently.”

He added:

“If it’s a small company or one company that’s doing it, then we can have a targeted, okay, let’s maybe not do that at that one company.

“But if it’s a bigger issue, then we have to have a different approach of okay, let’s, let’s think about this systemically, like how do we approach this with a global workforce? How do we approach it that way?

“I think it’s fantastic that people are talking about it, especially mental health, burnout in the video games industry and we need to try and prevent that as well, and overtime is part of that.”

Video game studios coming out against crunch culture

Credit: Ke Vin for Unsplash

There are some well-known video game studios which have spoken out against using crunch in the game development cycle of their projects.

Media Molecule, Mediatonic, Playground Games, and Criterion Games are a few video game companies who are anti-crunch towards game development.

Kelmore wants to see more companies and studios go further and ban crunch from their game development cycle:

“It’s good that companies have come out and say that they’re against crunch, I would love to see them take a step forward further, and just ban it outright?

“Saying not only are we against crunch, but we’re taking active steps to prevent it from even happening at all in our workplace.

“I haven’t really seen many companies do that step. They kind of say publicly that they’re against it, but situations that may pressure people into working overtime do exist.”

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