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Fixing overwork isn’t easy, but it’s the best investment we can make

Start with your own habits, then work outward

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This sentence is the only time I’ll use the word crunch.

I’m going to say “overwork,” for the rest of this article, because that’s what it is. You — a very specific person, not The Industry As A Whole, but you — are very likely working too much.

What does “too much” mean? It can mean different things to everyone, depending on a nearly infinite number of factors. If you’re young, old, single, married, healthy, struggling with a chronic condition, working a second job, battling insomnia, taking care of kids or whatever else, you have a limit for being overworked and it’s different from mine.

I’ve been in games for 20 years. I was a programmer at a small company before anyone called it indie. I was at Raven Software for 11 years, where I shipped a dozen AAA games on half a dozen platforms. Since then I’ve been a consultant to numerous companies of all sizes and have also sometimes been embedded as a contract producer to advise leadership on organizational health, and often I’ve just been an empathetic ear for developers in the trenches.

I’ve been overworked, voluntarily and otherwise. I’ve received the intangible Badge of Courage for sleeping under my desk and “being with the team,” for whatever that was worth.

I’ve watched coworkers go through the same things, and I’ve witnessed tragic results. I’ve seen broken relationships, dissolved marriages, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems, declining health and lingering illness. It’s a long list.

I clicked on Walt Williams’ article “Why I Worship Crunch” as quickly as everyone else, if not more so. I knew nothing of the author. I didn’t know he wrote a book. But I read the entire piece because I wanted to understand where he was coming from. The story itself made me feel some intense emotions.

Before I get into those feelings I want to clarify a point that wasn’t immediately evident upon my first read of the article: The Walt Williams, as described in that piece, existed years ago. He’s said he has a better balance between life and work these days, although he still enjoys short bursts of long hours. He now keeps his work habits mindfully under control.

Viewing the article through this lens, let me tell you how it made me feel.

I felt gross after reading even the initial paragraphs. I was picturing — with the same ease as many of you — the events the author experienced. Days and nights stretching out into endless stress. That nagging discomfort that you’re never bringing all of your faculties to bear on your work, but not knowing what to do about it other than stay later only to rinse and repeat tomorrow.

Then there’s the dead certainty we’ll do it all again in a few months or next year because the game’s always late and the bugs have to get fixed and there’s never enough time and you always pay for it with overwork.

So, yeah. “Gross” is a good start.

But then I also started to feel angry.

Because the object of all of this is a human being with unhealthy work habits and they’re admitting to being compulsively degraded by this crap. My first inclination is to point to the leaders in the company, because everything rises and falls on leadership.

But I have to admit some of the anger is self-directed. I aim it at myself because I never had this revelation before. That yeah, overwork is inherently bad but it’s so much worse when inflicted on people predisposed to craving it. It became clear to me that I may have worked with some of these developers and not realized they needed help to find a healthier way to manage their lives.

I remember a lead programmer who got saddled with an impossible project, an absentee creative director and ridiculous publisher constraints ... who then insisted on working double hours to manage an enormous team AND SIMULTANEOUSLY REWRITE THE RENDERER. Is there something more I should have done other than tentatively suggest they go home and sleep?

What moral weight should rest on the studio hierarchy that allowed overwork to be the first, last and only response to “You have to hit the dates?”

The flu is inherently dangerous enough, but what if you deliberately infect someone who says they like the fever and the aches? Is it somehow justifiable to do so every two years because “that’s the only way games get made” and “that’s just how the industry is” and “that’s how we’ve always done it?”

Overworking any employee is bad enough, but the situation becomes even more evil when you start with people who have addictive personalities and then reward their worst impulses.

These are heavy words, so I should take a step back and state clearly that overwork exists on a spectrum. There’s the fairly benign end of things where you call your significant other to warn them you’ll be late for dinner because you’re finishing something.

That might not even qualify as overwork to most of us, but it’s very easy to quickly move up this scale. You can fly right through “missing dinners” and shoot past Danny Bilson’s “thousand yard stare” and Amy Hennig’s “my health really declined” until you’re at the Japanese word for “overwork death.”

Well, if it’s not all bad then how much is too much? What’s acceptable to rely on as standard operating procedure if you only do it every year or two? How much overwork is OK?

Overwork is like any form of abuse; the person doing the abusing will often test to see how much they can get away with, to see how much you’ll endure. Once they have a starting point, they can begin to increase the pressure slowly to increase your tolerance. And sometimes you start with someone whose mental health issues allow them to not only endure a lot of overwork but, at least in the short to medium term, enjoy it. There is no process in place to protect those people, and I’m told the rest of Williams’ book talks about the price he paid for staying inside that system for so long.

That’s the risk you’re subjecting people to. In fact, you know what? I’m not even going into the effects of overwork here. You can Google “chronic stress” as easily as I can. Just understand that almost everything that can go wrong with your body will occur if you go without proper sleep long enough and are subjected to enough stress, even at a cushy desk job where — as we all know — all you do is play games all day.

And that’s just the purely medical, thoroughly researched and scientifically proven stuff. We aren’t even touching the lasting damage to friendships, relationships or marriages. I’m a child of divorce myself. My children have suffered because of their grandparents’ decision. If you, as a studio leader, are so unyieldingly beholden to launch dates and shareholders and maximized marketing spend that you contribute to the trauma of two generations beyond your employees, something is very wrong.

This isn’t a simple problem

It’s easy to start discussions like this by talking about the responsibility of leaders, but overwork has many causes. “It’s always and only the result of poor management” is a popular refrain, but it’s not true. Tanya Short wrote an excellent piece not too long ago describing at least 10 non-leadership induced causes for overwork. Even the healthiest of us are capable of bringing this on ourselves, especially on small teams when the developers often are the leaders. The damage is no less.

So what do we do?

Studio heads: Assess the leaders under your charge. Do you know for a fact, right now, that exactly zero of your leads will prioritize a deliverable ahead of a single developer’s well-being? You need to know that. And if that number isn’t zero, address it with mentoring or removal.

You are what you allow.

I feel “people before milestones” is imminently defensible as a business proposition as well as simply being humane, but it’s still a complex problem. I acknowledge this. But I believe the majority of industry organizations — even the largest — would still find a way to turn a profit even if they adopted an inviolable Hippocratic stance toward their employees. It’s just that, years back, we realized we could instead turn the temperature up on the frog a few degrees each release until it’s boiling, and we’ve been doing so ever since.

Leaders: Those who set the tone and enforce the unwritten policies either by volition or failure to correct them, need to be vocal in their valuation of people over deadlines. You have disproportionate power to influence the culture of your company. Use it. Say out loud, “I value your health over the milestone,” and then back it up with action. Hold your peers accountable. Bake it into your project management processes.

Make sure you’re also modeling healthy behavior by leaving at reasonable times and taking some days off. You can’t convince the team that overwork is bad for the game and their health if you’re overworking yourself. Lead by example.

Developers who proclaim during these moments that their project/team/studio doesn’t overwork its employees — speak up when there isn’t an article like this being published. Submit a proposal for a conference. Write a blog post. Tweet it. Stream it. Share your solutions. Give the industry proof that it doesn’t have to suck.

Don’t just say overwork is bad or, even worse, say that you used to work unhealthy hours and will likely do so again, but it’s still bad. Give solutions for how the younger developers coming up can avoid it.

Saying that you don’t like overwork while still being part of the system that allows it to happen may not make you responsible, but it does make you at least partially complicit. If you don’t know how to, or can’t, say no to overwork, you need to look at that first before you begin talking about how to solve the problem for others.

Those who through their silence allow “We’ve always done it that way” to remain the de facto standard for which our industry is known, you need to start talking. This is an issue that impacts everyone, in every creative industry. But gaming is our house, and we can become an example of how to do it right instead of arguing that it’s OK to be just as bad as everyone else.

But let’s end this on a brighter note. Consider the Walt Williams we’ve all worked with — knowingly or unknowingly — and make an effort to learn about the signs of stress.

Rather than peppering Twitter and Facebook with your hot takes, help remove the stigma of mental illness. Stand up for healthy work practices. Educate the next round of entry-level developers so that they might never fall under the employ of an organization that would prize a date more highly than their well-being. Model healthy working hours and hold other people accountable for taking breaks and managing their sleep and mental rest.

You can’t say that you overwork yourself but then say it’s wrong for other people to do so. Push back. Say no, as much and as often as you can.

If you’re in a leadership position, make sure the people working under you feel comfortable working reasonable hours. Promote those that do to prove healthy work habits don’t mean a lack of ambition or motivation. It’s a good investment. Those people are going to keep the institutional knowledge inside the company and will be more efficient at their jobs. Those that don’t are going to burn out in a few years and take their accumulated knowledge with them. Losing employees to overwork comes with a very high cost.

It’s not reasonable to suggest we make games in the complete absence of long work weeks. Of course there will be times when a measure of overwork takes place due to consensus or company ground rules. But what I would suggest as a guiding principle is this: First show me the discipline to adhere to a no-overwork policy, then we’ll talk about extending grace in exceptional times. It shouldn’t happen the other way around.

Make it clear that those times are the exception, not the rule. Put your foot down about the fact that overwork is just one tool to fight deadlines, and not a solution of first resort.

Keith Fuller is a leadership and employee engagement consultant in the games industry. He spent 11 years as a AAA studio dev, and now helps game studios improve their leadership and work environment. Author of Beyond Critical.

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