Today on Kotaku Splitscreen we’re talking about crunch, a complicated issue that affects us all in a lot of ways. Work-life balance can be a tricky thing for many people working in all sorts of fields, including video games.
We talk about Kirk’s impressions of Rockstar’s latest epic, the parallels between Red Dead Redemption 2 and Rockstar, the crunch it takes to make a game like this, and our own struggles with work-life balance.
Get the MP3 right here, or read an excerpt, starting with a question from listener Chase:
Congratulations on the amazing story on Red Dead crunch. I particularly liked your transparency about how many people were interviewed and the strange interview conditions on site. An amazing story shedding light on a serious problem. That work, and the work of your colleagues, is the exactly the kind of journalism that improves the lives of those who don’t have a voice.
I’m curious. As a fellow journalist, I often find myself working long hours often without overtime compensation though I do sometimes get comp time. That is contradictory to my own opinions about work: If you work the time, you get paid.
How do you balance longer work schedules? Comp time? Overtime? This Red Dead story must have had its own crunch.
I hope public talks about crunch opens up the pathway for journalists and other workers to talk about our own poor work habits and conditions.
Thanks for your work.
Jason: This is something that I’ve been struggling with a lot, because every time someone would tell me, ‘Oh man, I just wanted to stay a few extra hours to put in this work,’ I could relate a lot, because I am also a workaholic who tends to work a lot after hours. And while I think things are a little different for a variety of reasons that we’ll get into, work-life balance is still something I struggle with.
And sometimes I wonder, am I being such a hypocrite by reporting on these work-life balance problems at studios while also working constantly? Tell me what you make of this.
Kirk: I have a lot of the same thoughts that I think you had. Here’s my first big thought on this, and I think it helps me understand where people who like to crunch are coming from.
So the last week, I’ve been joking about how I’ve barely seen Emily, I’ve been doing nothing but working on this review. And it has been an outrageous amount of work, 14-hour days or something, I’ve been marathoning this game and then for the last several days I’ve been writing, writing, writing.
I haven’t written this hard, maybe since my Destiny 2 review or something, just so much writing and editing and iteration.
That has been exhausting. I’m exhausted right now. Anything I say on this podcast doesn’t count because I’m so exhausted.
Jason: It’s a do-over.
Kirk: Just kidding, I mean every word of it. But I made this joke to you earlier—when I look back at the last week, OK, my version of crunch was playing an amazing video game for 70 hours, and the bulk of it was spent doing that.
So that’s not really crunch, is it? So OK, that’s true, playing video games is pretty fun, and Red Dead Redemption 2 is pretty rad so it was cool to spend 70 hours playing it.
However, I do think that’s a helpful way to think of the mindset of someone who’s really proud of their work and loves, in this case making video games, in our case putting out articles, in your case doing reporting that’s really important. In anyone’s case, the work they’re doing.
When you love the work you’re doing—when you’re so excited to publish, or you’re so excited to finish, or you can’t wait in this case for people to play the game you’ve been working on for eight years that you know is so amazing—that makes it really motivating and makes it really fun to work so hard.
So we do do it to ourselves, I mean I did, I signed up for this. I said, ‘Alright, I want to do this, I want this to be a big-arse review that I’m going to bust my arse on, and I want to do it because it’s the biggest game of the year and damnit I’m excited,’ and I voluntarily went and did that.
And so yeah, I think that helps me understand that mindset, and that is something people voluntarily do. That doesn’t necessarily make it not—“bad” is such a simple word—it doesn’t remove the problematic aspects of it that we choose to do it.
People choose to do all kinds of harmful things to themselves, and those things are still worth examining and understanding. But it changes it somewhat, and it definitely is important to understand that, to also view this as not quite a stark of a, ‘Guy at the top mandating everybody work so hard’ thing, because it is much more complicated than that. And actually, viewing it that way removes a lot of the agency from a lot of the people who love doing this, and who are actually doing the work, which is never something you want to do.
Jason: Very good points all around. Something I think about a lot is that first of all, journalism is a very different world. I think you have to be willing to work odd hours in journalism just because you have to be reporting, responding to people immediately, finding stories. If news breaks, it doesn’t wait.
Kirk: It requires you to move at the same speed as culture.
Jason: Also, one of the reasons I spent the past week crunching non-stop on this Rockstar story was because I wanted to make sure that not only were we the most thorough account of everything, but also that we were first, and not beaten to the punch. I think that’s an extremely important aspect of journalism.
I also think something that makes our work very different is that when we publish things, our names are directly on them. We get bylines, our work is known by people, people get to know us, hear us on this show.
You know that all this work you’ve put in over the past week with your Red Dead review, that as soon as it goes up it’ll be read by thousands of people and over the next day it’ll be read by hundreds of thousands of people if not millions of people. That itself I think changes the equation a bit.
It’s also a much tighter turnaround. I think crunch is very different in bursts. I have never in my life had to crunch longer than a couple of weeks, or a month at most to finish Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. So I don’t know what it’s like to crunch for months, and I can’t even imagine that. But just the immediate gratification aspect of it ... it must be a lot tougher if you are an animator at a studio or a designer at a studio and you know that you’re really proud of your work, but how many people are going to know it was you?
I think that’s a logistical problem with games, a systemic problem with games that people aren’t recognised enough, that we don’t spend enough time talking about the individual people who contribute to these games. Part of the problem is we just don’t know—we don’t know who made that level, made that tree, who made that root of that plant look as good as it does. That’s part of our jobs to talk about more. But yeah, that can help make the crunch feel less painful for you and me.
Kirk: I think that’s true. That also highlights a broader idea, which is that anyone who struggles with work-life balance, in whatever industry they’re in, is going to do it in a different way for different reasons with different incentives, and it’ll require understanding in a different way.
Even while I think it’s also worth keeping in mind that all of this is sort of the byproduct of a capitalist society, which we so have been soaking in our entire lives and are so fundamentally hard-coded to follow, at least the older among us. The younger generation are less hard-coded than I am, which is wonderful to think, to hear people say, ‘Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way.’
Jason: Yeah, and part of that is equating working hard to working long hours. You brought this up on the last crunch conversation we had two years ago, which was that we have this culture of, we just want to brag. Nobody wants to say "Oh yeah, last week I went home every day at 5pm."
People want to say, ‘Oh man, I worked this intense shift last week, I worked so many hours,’ that’s just how people are.