TwitchCon 2018: Take This' Dr. B interview on crunch culture and mental health

With the subject of crunch culture becoming so prominent these past few weeks, Shacknews went to TwitchCon to chat with Take This Clinical Director Dr. Raffael Boccamazzo on the harmful effects of crunch, the importance of maintaining mental health, and how the industry can approach this issue.

2

Over the past few weeks, one of the hot button topics in gaming has been labor practices. In particular, there's been a renewed focus on crunch culture. Dozens of mainstream blockbuster games release throughout the year, during the fall season in particular, but in getting those games out the door and onto store shelves, how often to publishers and developers resort to overworking their labor force?

Over the past month, there's been much discussion regarding 100-hour work weeks from Rockstar Games, in particular. However, this is not the only instance where something like this happens. Take This, the nonprofit dedicated to mental issues from across the gaming landscape, issued a full statement on crunch and the negative effects that it can have on the labor force, calling for steps to be taken towards culture change.

Over the weekend, Shacknews attended TwitchCon and took some time to check back in with Dr. Raffael Boccamazzo (a.k.a. Dr. B) about the complex issue of crunch, taking time to discuss the negative effects on worker health and also discussing how to go about moving towards a cultural change.

Shacknews: Just to break the ice a little bit, what brings Take This to TwitchCon?

Dr. Raffael Boccamazzo, PsyD, Take This Clinical Director: Mental health concerns are universal, so given we go where the gamers are, gamers are streaming. So here we are! It's quite as simple as that!

Plus, I'm happy to say this year we're able to announce and launch our first team of streaming ambassadors, which we launched last month, announced that at PAX West, the first team of 14. Some of our streaming ambassadors are here at TwitchCon, so we were able to do a couple of panels with them and, thus far, it's been great. Love seeing what Twitch is doing.

Shacknews: I'm glad to hear you have a presence, because I wanted to touch on a hot button topic of conversation right now. It's regarding overtime and the intensity of crunch schedules. Take This issued a statement on this subject last week. Before going any further, can you reiterate the organization's stance on crunch?

Dr. B: There's something you said just right now: overtime and crunch. One of the things I want to make really clear, they're not the same. They're really not the same. Because in any industry, emergencies happen. You're going to have to put in extra hours, no matter what industry you're in. I had to do it in grad school. Retail employees I know do it.

But what our stance is, is that the culturally-accepted, systematic belief that you have to put in massive overtime hours regularly, that is problematic, unhealthy, and ultimately leads to poorer-quality games and companies.

Shacknews: A majority of game developers are young people under 40. They're programmers, low-level QA workers, etc. For people at those younger ages, what are the short and long-term effects of working repeated crunch schedules?

Dr. B: Well, let's just talk about cognition: your ability to think. There was a study that we cited in our Crunch Hurts white paper that looked at the cognitive capabilities of people at certain hourly threshholds and over the 60 hour mark per work, the cognitive capabilities of people were actually worse than people who weren't working at all. Once you get over 40 hours a week regularly, you start looking at cognitive declines, you start looking at sleep problems, you start looking at vulnerabilities to physical and mental illness. Really, balancing work and life... it's the way to ensure long-term productivity in your career and your personal life.

In my circumloquacious way of answering questions: over 40 hours a week... baaad when it's regular. It impacts your thinking, it impacts your feelings, it impacts your physical health. That's really what it comes down to.

Shacknews: Are those symptoms that can last beyond, after the crunch schedule is over? Do people still experience those symptoms?

Dr. B: It depends. Some people do. Especially if they don't take the time to recognize what's going on and to actually contribute to their own physical and emotional health after a period of overwork occurs. Then absolutely, if you don't do that, the symptoms can last longer.

Shacknews: What can the gaming industry do to reduce the need for that crunch culture? What can younger people do to make that kind of living without that steady overtime paycheck? I don't expect that to be an easy solution, but what's a good starting point?

Dr. B: You mention overtime. I think last year's development satisfaction survey with the IGDA noted that only 11 percent of tech employees made overtime wages. Most don't. And so this is uncompensated overtime. So even that feeds into what you're saying.

The change needs to start at the top, quite frankly. Systemic interventions. We need managers and we need the bosses, the founders, we need those folks to be on board with this idea that less is more. You get more focused employees when they're regularly scheduled. You get less burnout when they're regularly scheduled. And you get better games! There is a correlation between lower Metacritic scores and regular crunch usage.

Shacknews: There's a grander issue where the average consumer may not be sympathetic to the plight of the normal worker. What's an effective way to convey the human cost of crunch culture?

Dr. B: I like to think the average gamer is sympathetic. I think anybody can gravitate towards the idea of what it's like to feel overworked. Students can, they have finals, man. Cramming for finals is terrible. People understand that. Retail employees understand what it means to work holiday hours. I don't think the idea of being overworked is such a nebulous concept to the average gamer and I think most average gamers would be sympathetic to the idea of "You're going to get a better game. We just need to take a little longer."

Shacknews: In the [Crunch Hurts] paper, you've cited the effects of crunch and that includes the reduction in cognitive faculties, declining healthy habits, increased stress, insomnia, onsets of depression. I want to ask as both a member of the gaming press and also as somebody who has personally worked crunch schedules in the past and might be experiencing some of these symptoms myself, what do you recommend to those workers who are experiencing these issues?

Dr. B: First of all, recognize that you're experiencing it. There is still a stigma surrounding mental health. Regardless of whether it raises to the level of a diagnosis or not, there is a stigma surrounding mental health, which is why Take This exists. We want to help eliminate that stigma and educate people.

The first step is recognize that a problem is a problem is a problem. If you are experiencing something, be honest about that. Because it's only once you're being honest about that, that you can start to take the next steps to rectify that problem. And maybe that's talking to a friend, maybe that's taking a day off if you can, maybe that's eating a nice meal, maybe that's taking a day on a Saturday to literally do nothing. I did that last week. It was great. I played Minecraft all day. I just decided I'm doing nothing, it was wonderful. Maybe it's going so far as to seek mental health treatment. Whatever it is, it starts with recognizing that you're experiencing something.

Shacknews: Let's just say that due to economic factors or due to just plain stubbornness from people at the top that the crunch situation stays the way it is for the foreseeable future. Developers continue to put in lengthy crunch sessions. Are there positive ways to help maintain the employment force's health in those situations?

Dr. B: There's two parts to this. One, I want to address the idea that... I think people are paying attention. I really do. I think this is an issue that's been really in the public sphere since 2014 and if you look at some of the data that the development satisfaction survey that the IGDA puts out over the last couple of years, it looks like regular crunch use is on the decline. So I want to really point that out that this is on people's minds and we're seeing some companies make great strides.

That said, to address the second part of your questions, what if it still goes on? After crunch time, give your employees time to relax. Maybe let them work remotely. Maybe let them more flex hours. Maybe give them some days off. They just put in so many extra days of work, give them that time to bounce back and recover.

Shacknews: What are examples of positive workplaces in gaming that you've seen that maybe crunch-intensive companies can see as a model?

Dr. B: Really specifically? (pauses)

We've got some wonderful board members at Take This who are examples of people who care about crunch practices. Six Foot Games, they take a really active stance on positive workplace environments. Really, just about any one of our partners who has reached out to us, who said, "Hey, we care." Just off the top of my head, I would go to any of the board members at Take This. Those are great examples of people who care very directly about this issue. That's a great place to start.

Watch TwitchCon 2017 - It's Dangerous to Go Alone, Take us! - HeyGuys Theater from HeyGuys Theater on www.twitch.tv

Shacknews: Lastly, to circle back around to TwitchCon, what advice do you have for streamers who work excessively long hours, who feel like they constantly need to be "on?"

Dr. B: Well, I'll tell you what. I moderated a panel yesterday with a bunch of fantastic Twitch streamers. They have some great advice and it's the idea that it is a toxic myth that you have to be streaming all the time.

The takeaway point I got from these very fantastic streamers was the idea that consistency and authenticity are far more important than quantity. One of the streamers on there, Kate Stark, mentioned that she made Partner streaming two hours a day consistently. Her audience knew what to expect. They were there, she cultivated a great audience, she still does, she does an amazing job of cultivating a fantastic audience. So it's the idea that setting limits on yourself, even if your passion is your career. And I understand that. I work in the game industry. I teach people how to play D&D therapeutically. I love D&D! It's so easy to go overboard, but set your own limits. Set a time limit. Say I'm going to do this for "X" hours and no more. It's always better to want more than burn out.

Shacknews: I know one of the fears that streamers have had, they've said it in the past, is that if you miss a day, you lose "X" amount of subscribers. What would you tell streamers with that fear?

Dr. B: This was something addressed in the panel. Anybody reading this, I cannot emphasize this enough. Go watch the video-on-demand of that panel. It's a reality that viewership is something that is affected, but a temporary loss doesn't mean long-term doom. Just because you lose a few subscribers doesn't mean you're going to be financially destitute. The subscribers who are loyal are going to remain.

You know who's a good example of this? JackSepticEye [Sean William McLoughlin], not a streamer, but a YouTube personality. Two months ago, JackSepticEye was really upfront about his emotional burnout and his need to take a break. First of all, massive respect to him for putting that out there, something that so many people care about. To have somebody with his level of viewership, 20 million people, to put that out there and say, "This is what I need in order to be the best broadcaster I can be. I need to take time for me so I can give to you." That's such a powerful message in itself. As far as I know, he's still doing okay.


Take This is a 503(c) nonprofit charity focused on mental health and removing the stigmas surrounding it. Find more information on this organization on the Take This website.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

From The Chatty