Blood, Sweat, and Pixels and the Cult of the Crunch

There is nothing that makes me happier than some good, high-quality journalism. It also makes me extremely jealous in a professional sense. Once you experience that kind of journalism, you can’t help but feel, “Ugh, how I wish I had written that! But I’m also so glad that someone did.”

That basically explains my feelings for Jason Schreier’s Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, which is about his journey into “the triumphant, turbulent stories behind how video games are made.”

From the get go, it’s very clear that Schreier – who is a veteran video game journalist – is on a mission. He wants to demystify this weird industry that is still in its infancy, despite the fact that it has been around for a few decades.

The ten games that Schreier chronicles all face similar if not identical hurdles. The overarching enemy for the companies that produced these games is the crunch, which is the unhealthy habit of overworking to make sure the game gets finished.

According to the people that Schreier has interviewed, all video game developers are part of the Cult of the Crunch. (Sidenote, Schreier doesn’t use this phrase ever. I just like the way it sounds.) This is mainly because they are perfectionists who are passionate about the things they create. As such, they want to make sure that there is absolutely nothing wrong with their end products.

Jason Schreier, the man, the legend.

The best example to this perfectionism is Eric Barone, who created Stardew Valley all by himself. Apparently it all started as a personal project – to see if he had what it takes to make a game like Harvest Moon. Soon, however, that snowballed out of his control and consumed his entire life.

“For four years, […] Barone had sat by himself at a computer, rarely talking to anyone but Amber Hageman [his significant other],” Schreier writes. While it might have been better if he Barone been working as part of a team, that wouldn’t necessarily have taken away much from his workload.

It doesn’t matter whether the developers are tiny like Barone’s one-man team or gigantic like Blizzard, Schreier shows that all video game companies are function around this intense “work ethic.” He even invokes the image of a room full of game developers literally setting themselves on fire because of how hard they’re working.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is some really impressive and high-quality journalism, but I personally feel like it could’ve gone a step further. It exposes the fact that video game development revolves around the crunch and that the developers spend ungodly hours trying to perfect their creations. But, Schreier doesn’t really ask if this is good or bad. It even seems like the people who work at these companies don’t ask that question either.

The Cult of the Crunch

To me, this is a real good opportunity to talk about late capitalism and its tendency to glorify overwork. (And, also my time to do my own #journalism.) If you have been on the Internet over the past six months or so, it’s very likely that you have seen an ad by the freelance company Fiverr circling around.

The ad features a somewhat tired looking woman with the following caption:

You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer. Fiverr. In doers we trust.

Keep in mind that this is coming from a company that’s profiting from people selling their own labour. Of course, Fiverr is not alone in this glorification business. Just remember Lyft’s proud story about Mary, who was nine-months pregnant, but still working.

The reverence for the crunch is becoming an ever-present part of everyone’s lives. You must have talked to some colleague at some point about just how much work you have to do, almost bragging that you’re just so busy all the time.

And to think that this had to have passed by some sort of approval stage.

Everything we do is becoming work. At this point, the question one must ask is, “Who am I working for? Is all this effort I’m putting into this, all my labour, all my time worth my while?”

This is why I really like Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, because it provides a glimpse into an industry that really epitomizes the Cult of the Crunch. For almost everyone mentioned in the book, it is worth their while to do this. While it does look like video game production is a nightmare job that feels ridiculously demanding, this is what these people wanted.

I think that’s fascinating, but it’s also very isolated. After all, working on a video game is like working on a piece of art – because, video games are art. (Barring the bajillion pay-to-win mobile games that are out there.) As such, those who work on one really connect with it. I mean, if you like doing something, then by all means, do it forever.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t read Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, and use it as an excuse to continue glorifying the Cult of the Crunch. We need to stop setting unreasonable expectations, after all. Everybody needs a job to survive – although, maybe they shouldn’t – but a job shouldn’t be the whole of one’s existence.

Don’t normalize overwork people. Normalize the fact that it’s okay to not work when you don’t have to work. You shouldn’t feel bad when you’re not working until you literally set yourself on fire. Just ask yourself, “What am I really getting out of this?”

SPOILERS!!!! While most of the stories in the book end on a positive note, the chapter on Star Wars 1313 made me FURIOUS after I finished reading it.

Thanks Jason Schreier

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is an amazing feat of journalism, because it sheds light on one of the more illusive industries out there. Plus, if you love video games, then it’s a great opportunity to get some behind-the-scenes information about some of the most beloved and popular games out there!

Moreover, if you’re like me, you also get to do some anti-capitalist thinking, so it’s doubleplusgood! Read it today.

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