This weekend on Venturebeat, game industry veteran Alex St. John published a hot new contender for worst article of the decade, arguing that today’s game developers should stop whining about nonsensical ideas like, oh, “fair wages.”
St. John, who co-created DirectX for Microsoft and founded the game company WildTangent, writes that “making games is not a job—it’s an art.” Because of that ideology, he argues, game developers should stop worrying about whether their salaries are decent or their hours are standard. After all, St. John writes, all they’re doing is “pushing a mouse.”
“You need to get an actual job producing productivity software if you want to be paid ‘fairly’ and go home at 5 pm,” St. John writes. “Anybody good enough to get hired to write games can get paid more to work on something else. If working on a game for 80 hours a week for months at a time seems ‘strenuous’ to you … practice more until you’re better at it. Making games is not a job, pushing a mouse is not a hardship, it’s the most amazing opportunity you can possibly get paid to pursue … start believing it, and you’ll discover that you are even better at it.”
For years now, game industry veterans and observers have criticized the ubiquitous practice of “crunch,” or mandatory unpaid overtime. Just about every game developer has a story about the time they had to sleep in the office or that year they missed countless family dinners because of a seemingly endless gauntlet of 80-hour work weeks. It’s a practice that has led to burnout, poor living conditions, and tough questions about the game industry’s ability to retain talented people. (Read Kotaku’s report from last year for an in-depth look at how crunch affects the people who make games.)
Some have called on game developers to unionize; others argue that smart scheduling and good project management can help protect the quality of game-makers’ lives. St. John, on the other hand, says it’s all part of the fun, writing that he tells people who are unhappy with crunch to go make their own games.
“To my great shock and disappointment, they never respond to this feedback with any sort of enlightenment or gratitude for my generous attempt at setting them free — usually, I just get rage,” he writes, in a paragraph that might read like satire if it weren’t written with such candor.
“Being a victim of their employers has somehow managed to become a deeply cherished part of their core identities and any suggestion that they are far better equipped to rekindle their sheer passion for making games, do a Kickstarter startup with their other talented friends and crank out an original hit game, than a bunch of amateur kids working in Flash, is greeted with a lot of anger,” St. John writes.“They rant about the value of ‘work-life-balance,’ how hit games can be delivered on a schedule with ‘proper management’ and how they can’t produce their best work when their creative energies are tapped after a long forty-hour work week … sitting … at a desk…. Apparently people can even ‘burn out’ working too hard to make … video games….”
St. John had even greater impact as a game evangelist. With Direct X, he convinced clients once derisive of Microsoft technology to build their games exclusively on Windows platforms. His huge, elaborate launch parties were wildly successful. But St. John started to burn out. He would pass out at his keyboard and straggle into morning meetings with key marks on his face. Worked sucked everything out of him; his marriage disintegrated. In 1997, he succeeded in getting himself fired, as he tells it, “and walked out of Microsoft feeling 100 lbs. lighter.”
The VentureBeat article is tough to read. But as remarkably bad an argument as it makes, it’s also an insightful peek into the ethos that’s led to systemic problems like frequent crunch and unfair pay. Twisted arguments like “This is art, not work” and “You should just feel lucky to be here” have been used for decades to deny game developers of their right not just to living wages, but to have lives outside of their workplaces.
To argue that a game-maker should just suck up and deal with 80-hour work weeks because she is creating art is to diminish her right to be treated like a human being. One ray of light here: since St. John’s article was published, I’ve watched it get wide ridicule and condemnation from game developers both AAA and indie. There’s a growing belief that this sort of attitude just isn’t OK anymore, and in the coming years, maybe that will translate to meaningful change.
UPDATE - 4/18, 10:30am: Not long after the publication of St. John’s VentureBeat article, popular indie developer Rami Ismail wrote a line-by-line takedown that’s worth reading.
The game developer community also uncovered this recruitment slideshow that’s full of gems—a highlight: “Be on the look out for the holy-grail… the undiscovered Asperger’s engineer.”—and also quite revealing.
Meanwhile, St. John has doubled down. In a series of posts on his website, St. John acknowledged the widespread backlash and defended the views he’d voiced. “It’s really interesting how IMPORTANT it is to these folks to pretend that making successful games isn’t ALWAYS hard work and that the people who do it professionally are still SURPRISED that the expectation of hard work is already priced into their salaries when they took the job,” he wrote.