Level Up! | Hardcore working environments aren’t healthy

Level Up! Is a biweekly blog about all types of games, from Dungeons and Dragons to Mario Party.

By Sinéad McDevitt, Digital Manager

In mid-November, Elon Musk told Twitter employees that they could either opt in to a “hardcore” work environment or resign. That immediately stuck out to me as a bad thing. After I made the mistake of scrolling through other people’s reactions on Twitter and saw several people — to put it lightly — not understanding why someone might find this noteworthy or have a bad reaction, I decided I’d offer an explanation.

A “hardcore” working environment with no other details sounds to me, as someone who follows the gaming industry, a lot like being asked to crunch. Crunch is the act of pushing yourself to get a project done, and it’s a problem the video game community has dealt with for a long time.

Now, I don’t know if that is necessarily the case for the people still at Twitter. Perhaps they have absolutely splendid work-life balances and Mr. Musk is a swell guy. But given that it is also finals season and people might be tempted to push themselves with an all-nighter, I thought this would be a great opportunity to look at the physical and mental effects of crunch just to get everyone on the same page.

As per my last article on this topic, there’s a difference between pulling an all-nighter every once in a while because you really want to get something done, and a work environment that expects you to crunch for long hours. This can be the case even if it’s not explicitly stated, because otherwise you’ll be fired for “poor work ethic” or the like, or slow down the rest of the team. This can look like up to 60 or 80 hour work weeks, something some people see as inevitable to complete a game.

We’ve all probably heard the term “burnout” many times at this point, and obviously crunch culture severely harms the mental health of people involved. This happened so often at BioWare that they had a term for it — “stress casualty.” But what is often overlooked is the potential serious physiological effects. Ian Schreiber of the Rochester Institute of Technology gave a talk at the 2022 Game Developers Conference on his study of the physical effects of crunch, which Joseph Knoop relayed in an article for GameDeveloper.com.

“Crunch in video game development can still change your biology in ways similar to drunkenness and other harmful effects. These include increased chances of stomach ulcers, heart attacks, strokes and other medical conditions that could debilitate workers for a significant period of time,” Knoop wrote.

The article also points out how cognitive function for creative tasks peaks at around 25 hours per week. This means people need recovery time by the end of the work week to continue creating at a good pace. Furthermore, a tired employee can end up making critical mistakes which can actually cost a company time since people have to fix them.

Simply pushing an employee harder does not guarantee better work, and in fact can result in the opposite. Just look at games where developer crunch resulted in incredibly buggy games on release, like “Cyberpunk 2077.”

Now students in college, hopefully, aren’t crunching that hard. They can, especially if they’re balancing coursework with a job or other responsibilities that can add up, but ideally most aren’t. Even so, crunching every once in a while isn’t great for your health either. Though I doubt I need to tell people that, in the same way I don’t need to tell you chocolate is bad for you. You know the essay you wrote at 3 a.m. propelled by Monster Energy definitely is not your best work, but it’s better than turning in nothing — I get it.

However, just like you shouldn’t eat chocolate for every meal, there are steps you can take to avoid having to crunch too often. Here are some that personally work for me.

Write deadlines in your calendar as soon as you get them

Whenever I get a syllabus for a new class, I flip through and put the due dates of major projects in my calendar and leave a reminder two weeks out. Even if you don’t have the prompt for the paper or project yet, it’s good to start thinking about it early.

Break a project into smaller bits

If you give yourself enough time you can use smaller deadlines to make sure you’re on track. So if you have to research something for a paper, say “I want to have all my sources by this date,” then move on to “I want to have an outline by this date” and so on and so forth. There’s no unit too small to break up a task as long as you pace yourself — even a goal of “having a thesis” can work.

Take a break if you hit a roadblock

It doesn’t do you any good to stare at a blank page wishing that ideas would come to you. If you simply can’t write or get a project done, switch to something else. Work on something else, listen to music or go for a walk. All of these things can give you time to refresh and come back to a project with fresh eyes.

Reward yourself

After every small task say, “I’m going to spend time scrolling through TikTok” or “I’m going to watch a video.” Having something to work towards helps with motivation, this again gives you a chance to come back with fresh eyes and it helps to break up the monotony of working.

These may or may not work for you, but I really do encourage you to find whatever strategies help you avoid having to pull that proverbial college all-nighter. Suffering is not a virtue, it does not make your work higher quality and even if it did, that wouldn’t make it worth hurting yourself. Ask for an extension if you need it — just make sure you’re okay before anything else.

You’ve got this.