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Humans aren't machines: Exploring the physiological effects of crunch

"[Extended crunch is] just not supported by reality, because humans aren't machines. We don't have a constant output per hour. We get tired."

Joseph Knoop, Contributor

March 25, 2022

5 Min Read

The conversation surrounding crunch in the video game industry continued at GDC 2022. While the negative impact on mental health has been well-documented, Ian Schreiber, assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and game designer, spoke during a GDC 2022 talk, focusing on the physiological effects of non-mandatory crunch rather than mental.

Schreiber noted that workers' cognitive function for creative tasks peaked around 25 hours per week, suggesting it takes a day or two for workers to get in the groove of tasks before slowly losing steam by Friday.

"Once you get past 60 hours, your cognitive function is actually worse than someone who wasn't working at all," Schreiber said. "So there is actually scientific evidence that Mondays suck, but if you talk about Wednesday being hump day, that's actually not supported by science."

Productivity dips into the negative

Schreiber noted that, under crunch conditions, there's a degradation of productivity over time that continues to go down the longer that crunch happens at a studio. He demonstrated how extended crunch can negatively impact productivity with a chart showcasing literal negative productivity after approximately a month.


"This can actually go negative, and the reason is because the more fatigued someone is, the more likely they are to make catastrophic errors," Schreiber said. "So what zero productivity looks like is you spend three hours fixing a simple bug and you create another bug in the process. That's zero productivity."

"Negative productivity is you're tired, you see a deprecated file in the git repository and you go to remove it to clean things up. And by accident, you actually delete the entire git repo and cost the entire company like a person month's worth of work because a bunch of people lost their most recent check-ins and everything had to be restored from last night's backup."

It's not simply a matter of crunching for a period of time, then relaxing for a weekend, either. Extended crunch can also mean it takes longer and longer to recover to semi-normal levels. Performance degrades within a single week, and putting in overtime hours results in lower average output per hour.

"Long-term, there is really no science I could find showing any productivity benefits of doing extended crunches. In fact, just the opposite. It's less efficient, you get less done than just working 40 straight. There's really no justification for crunch beyond like a month or so. So now it seems intuitive to say well, if people people work longer hours you get more out of them. But that's just not supported by reality, because humans aren't machines. We don't have a constant output per hour. We get tired."

Physiological impact on developers

While workplace injuries are most commonly associated with physically demanding tasks like construction or factory jobs, 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. Psychologically, crunch can result in increased anger and hostility at work on a mood scale, which leads to greater conflict between coworkers.

Some of the most dangerous effects include alterations to your bloodstream, including fluctuating cortisol, catecholamines, glucose, hba1c, triglycerides, cholesterol, prolactin, oxytocin, and more.

"While I could say chronic stress here, I'm actually talking about alterations in your blood chemistry, and there's a vast body of literature that links those biomarkers with a number of physical illnesses. Mental, illnesses and cognition deficits," Schreiber said. "So when I say stress, I'm not saying this in a way of 'we humans fold under crunch, hire people who are tough.' This is a physiological response to stress that you cannot get around with just your toughness and bootstraps."

"[Extended crunch is] just not supported by reality, because humans aren't machines. We don't have a constant output per hour. We get tired."

For skeptics who may believe that crunch is an essential tool to making some of gaming's most successful products, Schreiber actually cited a 2016 study on Metacritic scores in relation to reported crunch published on Game Developer. Schreiber noted that the data was "all over the place," showing that there's no clear correlation between a game's critical performance and the amount of crunch that went into making it.

If you're working hard and spending extra hours in the office, those hours have to come from somewhere, Schreiber noted, and that means your sleep. He cited a study showing that people who work 55 hours a week versus those who work 35 to 40 are twice as likely to experience shortened sleep hours, almost four times as difficult to fall asleep, and twice as likely to wake up feeling unrefreshed. Repeated exposure to long work hours reportedly increased those likelihoods.

Schreiber also compared a lack of sleep to drunkenness, reducing motor function, reaction times, the ability to think and judge, and more.

"So the next time you hear someone talk about pulling an all-nighter or staying up late working on a project, just mentally translate that to drinking alcohol, right?" Schreiber said. "You know, you'd say, 'oh [that guy] came in and rebalanced our entire game economy overnight last night. He's such a hero. He does those all-nighters a lot.' Right. Just mentally translate that to 'oh, that Ian, last night. He got totally drunk, then he balanced our game economy. He's a hero. He does that a lot, right?' That sounds crazy when I say it like that."

If you're wondering about the universal cheat code known as caffeine, Schreiber notes that the impact of caffeine comes with lots and lots of caveats. Notably, people reach a caffeine tolerance shockingly quickly; within a week. One week of regular caffeine usage then means that that amount of caffeine no longer gives you the same boost, it just brings you back to the baseline you were at prior to ingesting caffeine.

Overall, Schreiber's suggestions for developers and project managers is to exercise basic wellness programs (even if the company you work for is the cause of your stress), and to properly manage project scope.

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