Moral Choices: The (Un)Ethics of Crunch

Words: 2556 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

Note: I wish to extend my thanks to my friend Peter, whose discussions with me about the topic of crunch (along with plenty of other subjects regarding video games) served in part as the inspiration for this essay.

When we often think of video games, and many forms of media, we tend not to think much of the processes by which they are made. They sort of pop into existence, fully formed, as though they were planted in the ground and plucked when they were ready. Occasionally major issues bring to our attention how these things get made, but for most people that information is going to be largely irrelevant to their daily lives. But obviously, video games are made by people, and very often a lot of people. And those people have to put in actual work to make the various ideas and movements and inputs all a reality that can be played.

I’ve focused in some of my earlier morality essays on topics within video games. About how players are directed to moral problems through video games themselves. But for this one I want to step back to examine the topic of morality from the viewpoint of how those games get made. Because morality is not something that exists in a bubble.

And for that purpose, I wanted to focus on a thing called “crunch.” There are plenty of subjects regarding ethical and unethical behavior in the process of making video games – or of making any other product – that we could talk about, but I focus on crunch because it is a topic that has been becoming more and more prevalent in discussions about video games and how they’re made, and entirely with good reason.

For those who are not familiar, “crunch” is when employees at a game development studio work overtime in order to implement features in a game or get it finished in time for the game’s launch. Such crunch can often have employees working 12-14 hours a day for weeks or months on end, which can quite obviously lead to employees burning out and in many cases quitting – either from the particular company or abandoning game development altogether.

The causes of crunch are numerous. Sometimes crunch can be actually mandated by management: we’re running up against a deadline and we won’t be able to meet it if everyone works normal hours, so everyone will need to work extra long days. But crunch can exist even without that mandate. Sometimes crunch can exist because it is expected. That is, no one tells you that you have to work 12 hour days, but if you don’t, you’ll almost certainly be passed over for promotion in favor of the person who did. And in other cases, it can be seen as a sign of your personal commitment to a project, thus meaning it is encouraged without being outright stated: if you really cared, you’d put your blood, sweat, and tears into this, which means working overtime. The mere expectation that crunch is required, whether it is directly or indirectly reinforced by people at the top, leads to the exact same effects.

Pretty much everyone regards crunch as “bad.” It’s hard to find people who look at these practices and say they’re good. Perhaps the only people who defend crunch are the people who implement it.

And so the purpose of this essay will not be to simply tell or remind everyone that crunch is a bad thing. Instead, I think it is useful to step back and examine it from the perspective of moral philosophy. That is, we know it’s wrong, but why is it wrong? Think of it as an exercise in understanding how morality works: we can easily say something is right or wrong or okay, but actually coming up with principles and linking those principles to the issue at hand is much more difficult.

I’ll note at the outset that crunch is recognized by most people as being counterproductive: when people work too much, they tend to make mistakes, which means more work is needed to correct those mistakes. And so from a basic self-interest standpoint, it’s actually worthwhile for a developer to avoid crunch. But nevertheless, calculating self-interest is rarely so easy, and people can often be bad at it. But nevertheless, I wanted to point this out in part to help set the stage for what comes next. Crunch is not wrong because it is counterproductive. Even if crunch did actually produce better products, it would still be an unethical practice. When talking about crunch, we can appeal in terms of self-interest and we can appeal in terms of ethics, and choosing which appeal to make – or which part we emphasize – can be relevant.

The Cruelty of Crunch

To step back for a moment, moral philosophy is largely guided by three “camps.” These three camps are basically three different ways of thinking about what makes an action “right” or “wrong.”

The three camps are deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. To give a very shortened and simplified description, deontology is about rules and duties and how well a given act conforms with those duties, consequentialism is about the effects of those actions, and virtue ethics is about the character of the person who does those actions.

I bring these up because within all three theories we can identify why crunch is wrong, and particularly why those who perpetuate crunch through direct and indirect means are behaving unethically. And so in what follows I will present a brief analysis of crunch through the lens of each theory.

Breaking Rules

People who work in game development are employees. They might be employees of a small studio, or they might be employees of a huge company.

Whatever the case, an employee works as part of an arrangement that is spelled out in advance. Usually the arrangement is about how many hours that employee will work, what work the employee will be doing, how much the employee gets paid for that work, and so on. An employer might be able to make slight adjustments to these expectations, but those adjustments either need to be done with the consent of the employee, or else reasonable for the employee to expect.

Which means that any demand made by an employer that violates that principle becomes unethical. So requiring the employee to work too much or perform a task far outside of the employee’s job description would be examples of how an employer could breach their moral duty. There may be reasonable accommodations that can be made within that duty: adding a task that isn’t far afield of the employee’s normal work, or asking for extra work on a very minimal basis, can be justified within this framework.

But crunch is necessarily excessive. If a reasonable request might be having an employee work an extra few hours for a couple days, requiring that employees work 12-14 hours per day for weeks naturally goes way past too far. And so demanding crunch is a breach of the employer’s duty.

But just as important is that it doesn’t matter whether this is an explicit command or request from a manager or employer to an employee. After all, as already noted, crunch can exist because employees feel they are supposed to do it: it’s expected of them, even if that expectation is never explicitly stated.

When such behavior becomes commonplace, it creates “crunch culture,” the idea that everyone needs to continually work excessively. And this culture itself violates the actual arrangement given as part of that employment agreement mentioned earlier. If it takes hold, it becomes the moral responsibility of the employer and managers to put a stop to it and return to what we might call a normal and healthy working environment. When the employer fails to put a stop to that culture – when they essentially rely on it as a way of getting things done – it becomes a breach of their moral duty.

Someone might respond here by saying that if an employee is doing this excessive work without being forced into it, then it must be done with their consent, and thus is fine. But this mistakes how consent works. It is not enough that a person simply do something to showcase their consent. People often engage in crunch because they believe that they have to do it. And that impression that they must crunch – to keep their job, to get a promotion, or for whatever reason – becomes its own form of coercion. It is the kind of invisible coercion that seems lighter, that if you don’t have a gun to your head anything less than that must be okay. But it is ultimately coercion nevertheless, and to use that coercion or rely on it means that an employer is violating their duty to their employee.

It may seem weird to talk about this in terms of moral obligations and contracts and consent and such, but part of ethics is about understanding how different people may have moral duties that are specific to them because of their roles in society. A parent has special moral duties towards their child. An individual has special moral duties with respect to friends as opposed to a stranger. And in that same vein, an employer has special moral duties with respect to an employee. And we need to be able to explain what those duties are, and what a breach of those duties might look like.

The Bad Effects of Crunch

Let’s say we wanted to instead focus on the consequences of crunch, and use those consequences to judge the ethics of crunch.

If we were to do that, then let us begin by noting the ways in which crunch puts excessive stress upon people. If you’ve ever worked continually for 12-14 hours, then you too may understand the effects it can have on your body and mind. And doing that for weeks on end only exacerbates those problems.

And having to spend that much time on work can impact other parts of an individual’s life. After all, we are not built to simply work all day. Other things we may need to do to promote our physical and mental wellbeing, such as socializing with friends and exercising, may be harder or almost impossible to do under conditions of crunch. And sometimes even basic things like eating and sleeping properly can be disrupted, which has negative effects on our health, our social life, and our mental wellbeing.

If we wished to simplify the problem, crunch drains the life of employees. It can basically kill them.

When we see the consequences of crunch in that way, we can understand why crunch poses a serious threat to employees. And why putting employees through crunch would be unethical. It is essentially robbing employees of their life for no real benefit. The closest thing we could get to a positive consequence is a good video game, but even that is a consequence that doesn’t actually happen. Most games made under crunch end up being poor – riddled with bugs and design flaws – because development teams often have so little time to actually do the work they need to do, and have to rush so many things to get the game released. So the one positive consequence of crunch isn’t even real.

So it’s sucking the life from employees for, quite literally, nothing. And so the balance of consequences weighs so heavily against crunch that it becomes not just clearly but also horrendously unethical.

The Vice of Crunch

The last lens we can use to look at crunch is by thinking about virtue. Namely, what kind of person would put employees through crunch, whether directly or indirectly?

What virtue ethics asks is essentially “what would a good person do in this situation?” If we’re faced with a desire to do something, how do we react to that desire? Do we give in to it, or do we control it? The idea being that giving in to those desires, particularly those that lead to us harming others, illustrates that we are prone to making bad choices, and that unwillingness to even try to control those bad tendencies makes us bad people. Meanwhile, trying to keep our worst impulses in check shows that we’re actively striving to be good.

So how does that fit into the topic of crunch? Most crunch comes about because of things like poor planning and reliance on crunch to solve that problem. Crunch, in that sense, is essentially a way for managers to avoid having to do their own jobs effectively.

But relying on other people to do the work that you essentially didn’t do is merely laziness. That is, when you are expected to do a task, you are avoiding it and handing it over to someone else. You, of course, might not rationalize it in that sense. But the effect ends up being the same.

But more than just laziness, it also shows a callous disregard for others. Because by not only being lazy, but then putting the burden of that work on the employees by making them work excessive hours to make up for the mistake, you are disregarding other people to fulfill your own needs. Or to put it in a different manner, you are hurting other people. And when your attitude is “this is a great and shows how devoted people are,” you are displaying that you don’t care about the wellbeing of others. And that is something a bad person does. If you were good, you wouldn’t care about devotion and things like that. You’d do what you could to protect the wellbeing of others. So if people are getting stressed and burnt out because of crunch, then a good person would look at that and say “I need to do everything in my power to put a stop to this.” That is the virtuous response. And the opposite is giving in to vice.

Within virtue ethics, crunch will always be wrong, but the sign of a good manager is taking steps to actually put a stop to crunch. Merely saying “don’t crunch” or saying that crunch is bad is insufficient: it is ignoring the real problem. It is why virtue ethics places a strong emphasis on actions, because as we often say, actions speak louder than words. If someone who has the power to end crunch does nothing with that power, then they act by giving in to their desires (i.e. their wish to be lazy and not do the hard work of putting an end to a serious problem), which is an act of vice.

Concluding Remarks

Almost everyone who is aware of crunch knows that crunch is morally wrong. But being able to articulate why things are wrong is important. Much as we tend to rely on gut reactions and our own subjective views, being able to explain these things in more rational terms, and particularly in ways that other people can more clearly understand these issues, is a valuable skill.

Because not everyone knows what crunch is, and while almost everyone agrees that crunch is wrong, it is something where absolutely everyone should agree on its wrongness. Knowing how to explain these issues to others helps for convincing others. Just saying “crunch is wrong” sounds good, but it actually means very little for a person listening. It is by being able to explain why crunch is wrong that the person listening can be fully brought on board, and perhaps even change how they behave.

Further Reading

https://screenrant.com/video-game-crunch-development-time-studio-impact-controversy/

https://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2020/10/cyberpunk-2077-video-games-crunch-culture-cd-projekt-red

https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2019-03-01-how-to-avoid-game-development-crunch

https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/gaming/2019/07/09/layoffs-crunch-time-hurting-video-game-workers-mental-health/1681531001/

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