The Video Game Industry Calls It “Crunch.” Workers Call It Exploitation.

In the video game industry, “crunch” refers to an extended period of strenuous unpaid work in the months on either side of a game launch. Industry leaders spin it as an initiation ritual, but it’s really exploitation of game workers.

Peeling back the layers of spin, we can see crunch culture for what it really is: exploitation. (Omar Marques / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

In the video game industry, the term “crunch” refers to an extended period of strenuous unpaid work in the months on either side of a game launch. Employers often expect their employees to work extra hours and weekends, often sixty and sometimes a hundred hours a week. The most egregious instances of crunch are sometimes referred to as “death marches,” and can last for years.

Industry giants have promoted crunch as a rite of passage that tests mettle and confers insider status on video game developers. But when we peel back the layers of spin, we can see crunch culture for what it really is: exploitation.

A former artist at Activision, referred to here as Lucas, told Jacobin that one of his coworkers suffered a heart attack at his desk during a particularly brutal crunch period. Another colleague would come in while sick, said Lucas, and vomit into a trash can at their desk because they didn’t feel they could miss the crunch. These horror stories are pervasive in the industry, and crunches at big companies like Activision Blizzard are, as Lucas described them, a “total arms race” that raise expectations at other workplaces throughout the industry.

Lucas told Jacobin that he was sometimes expected to work seventy-five hours a week for months. Beyond that, he reported that he routinely worked fifty or sixty hours a week throughout his ten-year tenure with the company, compelled by company culture and pressure from his boss. The work was physically strenuous, Lucas said, and came with diminishing bonuses. Lucas reported that the work culture caused problems in his relationship. He left the company, among other reasons, to spend more time with his children.

A game developer at a middle-market or “AA” company, referred to here as Owen, told Jacobin that he once crunched seventy hours a week for a total of six months. Owen said he was compensated for overtime while on contract, but was told by his partner that he shouldn’t “give himself away for free” when he became salaried. He described his crunch experience as the “insidious kind” where he was compelled to sacrifice quality to meet unreasonable deadlines. He added, however, that this is “nothing like those multiyear death marches that people at Naughty Dog or Blizzard would have to do.” (Naughty Dog didn’t responded to a request for comment, but after initial publication Activision Blizzard contested this characterization, requesting that Jacobin include the company’s code of conduct for employees and the company’s transparency report.)

Not all companies share the same work culture. A former environment artist at the Swedish company Avalanche Studios, referred to here as Miles, told Jacobin that he never really experienced crunch. He described his workplace as relatively “crunch-averse,” saying, “I was lucky no one exploited me and expected me to grind.”

Many companies insist that crunch is voluntary and that nonexempt employees are compensated. However, salaried employees in the industry report that they often feel manipulated into working excessive hours. A 2019 survey from the International Game Developers Association reported that 40 percent of developers worked crunch time in the previous year for at least twenty extra hours above their standard forty-hour workweek, with only 8 percent of those receiving additional compensation for those hours.

Between surveys and anecdotal reports, a picture is emerging of an industry that takes advantage of a primarily young male workforce, many of whom began their careers unpartnered and some of whom remain single, who are eager to prove themselves and make their mark in the industry. Since it’s also a relatively new industry and medium, there are few unions that draw up fair contracts and enforce existing worker protection laws, as well as a paucity of laws specific to the industry. Lucas told Jacobin that studios also increasingly outsource work overseas in order to pay lower wages, adding the threat of job insecurity on top of extravagant working hours.

In the early days of the industry, games were made by much smaller teams of developers. Many who crunched had a vested financial interest in the product and would see financial returns at least somewhat proportional to their hard work. But the revenue-sharing model has become increasingly elusive, as big companies are staffed by hundreds or even thousands of employees. Lucas told Jacobin that many who work at large studios like Activision Blizzard can’t expect to be fairly compensated or credited. He added that “lionizing big games and studio executives” who engage in this “toxic behavior” is part of the problem.

Pressure and Motivations

As studios become increasingly accountable to publishers and shareholders, companies crunch to cut costs and meet deadlines, regarding overtime-exempt staff as the most flexible aspect of their business models. There have, however, been class action lawsuits against companies like EA that allegedly misclassified overtime-exempt employees who were subjected to uncompensated crunch.

As Trent Oster, a former BioWare developer, told CBC in 2019, “These are publicly traded companies. They have earnings obligations. They put products into a kind of timeline and they’re under a lot of pressure to hit those timelines.”

Many see crunch as a partial result of mismanagement, too. Owen told Jacobin that crunch is often the result of studios “not understanding how long something will actually take. They make commitments when they shouldn’t and then the money runs out.” He added, “Poor planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on my part.”

Management might tacitly or overtly demand crunch in an effort to finish a project, but crunch also can have an adverse impact on productivity and morale. “Crunch does not work. More hours does not mean more productivity,” Owen said. “You’re working way more time at a super-reduced capacity.”

Activision Blizzard and Diablo

A prime example of the problem can be found in Activision Blizzard’s Diablo franchise. The popular dark fantasy action RPG series released its latest entry, Diablo IV, in June of this year.

David Brevik, a cofounder of Blizzard, told Game Developer in 2019 that crunch on the original Diablo lasted for eight to nine months, and almost caused him to miss the birth of his child. Brevik says crunch on Diablo II was even worse, lasting for a year and a half straight, saying, “It was the worst crunch in my life.”

Blizzard merged with Activision in 2007. The company came under scrutiny in recent years when its CEO, Bobby Kotick, failed to properly address the company’s widespread allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination on the basis of gender. Employees staged a walkout in protest and signed petitions calling for Kotick’s resignation. The company was also sued by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. (Activision Blizzard denied that the allegations against CEO Bobby Kotick have any basis, citing an expert report; an Activision Blizzard spokesperson stated the California lawsuit is ongoing and that the court has not found any of the agency’s allegations to be true.)

Employees spoke out in a Washington Post article last year about crunch on Diablo IV, which they allege resulted in significant attrition, chronic back injuries, insomnia, anxiety, and less time to spend with family or romantic partners.

Notably, Raven Software, an Activision Blizzard subsidiary, went on strike in December of 2021 after part of its quality assurance (QA) team was fired. Workers ended the strike in January 2022 on the condition of union recognition. As a result, the Game Workers Alliance became the first Activision Blizzard union and the second game workers union in the United States. There are currently two QA-related Activision Blizzard subsidiary unions, but attempts to unionize at another subsidiary were shot down.

QA unionization is a big step for the industry, as these are typically entry-level positions that are routinely exploited. Lucas, who previously worked at the Raven offices, told Jacobin, “Raven has been complicit in this for years, since 1997.” He said he was discouraged from discussing unions while at Activision, and that the company would furlough the bulk of its QA staff every year or so in an effort to skirt California regulations regarding full-time employees.

Microsoft approved the acquisition of Activision Blizzard in April of last year and the deal closure is slated for October of this year. Microsoft subsequently entered into a labor-neutrality agreement with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). While Activision Blizzard has allegedly taken anti-union and union-busting measures in the past, this new agreement by Microsoft might represent a significant change for the industry. (In a statement, an Activision Blizzard spokesperson stated: “Activision Blizzard is aligned with Microsoft’s neutrality agreement. We have always been committed to creating a welcoming and inclusive workplace, and we look forward to a shared approach to labor as part of Microsoft.”)

Beyond Crunch

A world without crunch is possible. In fact, it already exists in some European countries, alongside robust labor protections for those working in the video game industry.

The labor rights group Game Workers Unite, organized in 2018, is legally recognized as a union in the United Kingdom. The group seeks to end crunch in the game industry, support targeted workers, and ensure steady and fair wages. Game Workers Unite began working with CWA in 2020.

Lucas told Jacobin that there were times when he was working for a Swedish company that the American side would crunch, but his Swedish coworkers didn’t. He says, “It was really funny because the [American] creative director was livid. Sweden was like, ‘What are you gonna do, fire me? My union will freak out.’”

While he supports efforts to unionize domestically, Lucas said he recognizes it’s “an uphill battle when you have corporations fighting you and telling you no.” He also said that the industry would benefit from experienced project leads who can scope responsibly and appropriately to avoid crunch. Owen agreed that unionizing would be beneficial, saying, “I, right now, am in a position where I’ve got way less power than I’m comfortable with.”

As the video game industry matures, it’s important for workers to assert their rights through collective bargaining and unionization. It’s entirely possible to develop a game without compromising the well-being of its creators. Just as unions dramatically improved labor conditions in the automobile industry in the decades after that technology was developed, they have the potential to shape a more humane future for those game workers today.