On the parallels between game design crunch and academic work

Before we begin, a disclaimer. Since this is my personal blog, these are my personal thoughts – and I know they do not necessarily represent those of my employer or my co-workers. With that out of the way, let’s begin!

Kotaku, an online magazine concentrated on game cultures, recently released a story looking into the culture of “crunch” in the field of game development. (Read it, and especially the comments!) Crunch here refers to – often excessive – overtime that workers have to put in to meet deadlines in the process of developing games. Most of the time people doing this are on salary, with no overtime payment. The story got me to thinking (again) about the parallels between the “coder-hero” and the “researcher-hero”, and the way in which the concept and ideal of crunch is embedded in academia as well as in game development.

Interestingly enough, many of the paragraphs in the original story work just as well when you replace “developer” or “gamer” with “researcher”, “development” with “research”, and so forth. Like this (emphasized words have been changed):

Often, researchers equate crunch with the final weeks in a research project, when everyone on a team has to go into overdrive to ensure they hit their deadline—”crunch time” is a euphemism for the very last minute of a project. But in reality, according to many of the researchers I talked to for this story, crunch is always there, hanging over universities like a big gloomy rain cloud. Plenty of the people who do research say they have to crunch all year long.

One of the main similarities between the two contexts becomes apparent with the realisation that in both cases we are talking about creative work that is often difficult to predict. It may be impossible to know when a new insight is going to appear, or how long it takes to actually analyse a large set of data (posing challenges for project management, such as scheduling). What this leads into is that it is easy to feel that you have to stay one more hour to complete a thought, or fire up the computer late in the night when you get an idea. I argue, though, that this mindset is largely an illusion. Those “fantastic” thoughts are not as fragile as people think. They will not be lost if you get your children from the kindergarten in time or go to your yoga class (And if they do, good riddance! Most probably they were not that special to begin with). From my viewpoint, sometimes it is necessary to forcibly pull yourself away from your work to gain critical analytical distance. Just putting in the hours does not mean anything by itself.

Another similarity is the stance that people have towards crunch. Like in game development, there are many, many researchers who think that “passion for science” means working extra hours. They think that research is a way of life, an identity, something larger than everyday obligations. This kind of hero-researcher discourse is very common, and I can understand its allure. Due to the way academia works (rewards, tenure, promotions…) I argue that it is probably the case that most of the people who have been able to climb up the ladder are likely to be people who subscribe to this line of thought. Heck, I might be one of these people myself, come to think of it! The end result is that we have “managers” (professors, principal investigators) who not only allow for, but actually expect for crunch to happen, and who absolutely do not see it as a problem but rather a normal price to pay if one wants to do this line of work.

Just like in game development, people’s different stance towards crunch can be a source of ill feelings and conflict as well. Again, the original story has a wonderful quote related to this:

It’s also tough to imagine a culture where people don’t equate long hours with passion and commitment. Many of the game developers I interviewed for this story said that when some members of their teams voluntarily crunched while others didn’t, the crunchers would grow to resent the people who left at 6 or 7pm every day. Even in studios where crunch is never mandatory, a divide like this can rip teams apart—unless there’s a manager forcing people to go home.

What is sorely missing in academia, from my viewpoint, is the kind of leadership culture where people in leading positions would actually take care that others leave home early, and do not work overtime unless it is absolutely necessary to do so. You see, most of us are in this for the long haul, expecting to work in academia (or similar line of work) for decades to come. What we need is a work culture that supports that aim, instead of focusing on the short-term and constantly asking: “How many articles did you publish this year?”


“Run! Time is money!”

Especially alarming for me is the experience of one designer in the story, where he tells how “he and his team found themselves crunching not to finish but to build fake demos for publishers and trade shows” (emphasis mine). It is alarming because I am sad to say that I recognise this element in current research practices as well. Crunching to be ready for a conference deadline, a funding call deadline, or a deadline set by outside partners or funders has the potential of pushing people to take the easy way out with regards to important decisions related to research. It doesn’t need to be as dramatic as coming up with results that you “need”. It can simply be about wanting to find that suitable quote to prove your point or provide a theoretical backdrop for your argument. Being in a hurry means that you might simply use the sources you have always used, or for example go cherry picking a source that others have used (but which you actually don’t know that well) – whatever the strategy, the risk of thinking too fast is present. And thinking too fast can lead researchers to search for anything that supports their initial ideas (sometimes called hypotheses), instead of trying to test their position and argumentation as critically as possible, trying to find counter arguments to them.

Of course it stings if you end up missing a funding deadline or a call for papers of a conference, but you know what – there will be others. Life will go on. You can do it better next time. (Of course it would be nice if your livelihood would not depend on meeting that one deadline, that the university structure would allow for more safety in terms of reliable income instead of leaning more and more towards to the absurd union of competition and science – a rant for another day).

I have to make it clear here that I do not think any creative process can totally escape the idea of crunch, or the last minute push, or those moments where you are so intently concentrated on developing your stuff that you forget the flow of time. Also, for me it is totally okay that towards the end of a project, or when an article deadline approaches, people are asked (and ask themselves) to work late. But this is okay only when it is occasional, for example for a few days or for a week, and not when it becomes normalised. I also don’t buy the idea that just because this type of work is more fluid, more personal and independent, it would not take its toll on the human psyche and body. Perhaps the age-old idea of eight hours of work, eight hours of free time and eight hours of sleep does not work in knowledge-intensive work like research, but this shouldn’t mean that people sacrifice their mental and physical health, including relationships (interpersonal and societal) to the altar of “science”.

I feel it is very important to talk about issues like this especially for the benefit of the newcomers to academia – doctoral students, project workers, research assistants, etc. With our actions and the discourses surrounding them we are setting an example for young researchers.

My dream is that we may create an environment where crunch would not hang over research institutes “like a big gloomy rain cloud”. Where the hero-researcher is not the norm or a source of admiration, but where we understand that the important, long term scientific and academic goals can be reached with other strategies as well. Where researchers can have family and hobbies and a life outside of the academia without feeling bad about it – be a part of the society they are living in (and often studying as well).