Game Industry Veteran Writes Horrifying Article In Defence Of Poor Working Conditions

Game Industry Veteran Writes Horrifying Article In Defence Of Poor Working Conditions

Paris Games Week photo by Chesnot/Getty Images Today 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 criticised 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….”

It’s worth noting at this point that St. John himself burnt out while working on video games. (h/t Ian Williams)

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 45kg. 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.


  • The ideologies being fought over here aside, the most interesting event in the ‘biz’ at the moment would surely have to be the one where video game voice actors are using *their* union and numbers to take game publishers to task.

    Both parties in that discussion are at least savvy enough to leave the media out of the picture so far it seems.

    There was a demand at one point for VAs to have a cut of a game’s profits I believe. Now it’s a whole other discussion entirely, but if we see that happen before the rank and file, then I’d say that’s a step backwards.

    • The problem with the “X shouldn’t happen before Y” arguments is that they are quite effective at making sure neither X or Y happens. In this case, by tying the two issues together you’ve got some game developers advocating against giving voice actors residuals because they don’t get them.

      But if voice actors believe they should be entitled to residuals, why should they delay negotiation until another group goes first? Isn’t it just as likely that if the voice actors are successful, it will make it easier for other groups to follow suit?

      • No argument there, but then we’re making the discussion about one region and one region only – the US. Can’t simply transpose what’s happening there onto another country that is heavily into game design, but some will try.

    • That royalties for Voice Actors thing was just to bring it in line with other animation industries- pretty much a bargaining chip

    • It’s not necessarily a bad thing. If one faction can get better treatment, it might set precedent that other devs can work from. Not much chance of the rest of the industry forming a union, but it’ll be something at least

    • I’m a big fan of the MMO Star Trek Online, and that showed me a side of the voice actor debate I hadn’t heard before- several of the developers of the game provided voices for inconsequential characters in it, but now legally they’re not allowed to do that anymore without applying for actor’s guild membership etc which runs into the hundreds of dollars. If they didn’t do that, they wouldn’t be allowed to hire “real” actors anymore for the more important parts, so they would shoot themselves in the foot.They provided the voices as much because they wanted to be a part of their own game as to save money so it’s really disappointing for them (and players) that they can’t continue on these minor characters without having to pay a ton of cash to do it.

  • How refreshing to have some controversy that doesn’t involve the words “feminism”, “harassment”, “Gamergate” or “SJW” 😛

    • “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.”

      Jason Schreier: inserting women into the games industry, one paragraph at a time.

        • I have a problem with it as well, but only because it’s bad writing. When speaking in generalities one should always use the non gender specific “their” and “they” unless the topic in question has a focus on a specific gender or person.

          If I were his high school English teacher I’d be underlining the shit out of that sentence.

        • What problem? I just found it amusing that Jason wrote the whole article in a gender-neutral way, only to suddenly use female pronouns in the last paragraph. I found it particularly amusing given that a lot of people have worked very hard to increase female representation in the games industry workforce. Call me cynical, but I would have thought that Jason had to consciously write that paragraph using female pronouns. Ah, I thought, at least he’s doing his bit 😉

          So yeah, no problem, but I pointed that out in response to @mrtaco ‘s comment as a tongue-in-cheek way of showing that although there was no feminism in the controversy, there was feminism in the article on the controversy 🙂

  • Suffering for your art is a logical arguement… if game development wasnt a multi billion dollar entertainment industry.

  • I’m not going to defend the article itself because the overall point is obnoxious, but I am of mixed minds about this. Game developers are skilled labour – they have other options. Gaming gets away with shitty work-life balance because its seen as a passion project. Its a different type of exploitation to fields like logging where losing your job can leave you with no options. Unionising probably won’t do much for this sort of work force. In fact, even if you look at unions in other creative fields, the rules they’ve set are arguably detrimental for the 99% of artists/actors/writers who don’t make it to the big time.. They only really help people with ongoing gigs.

    • I got the same impression, especially reading the part about his own burn out. Sounds like his own hardship has made him bitter and unsympathetic.

  • But presumably he’s not okay with pirates using the same logic of “it’s an art project, so you shouldn’t care how much I pay for the end result”.

  • This is just like that time Gina Rinehart had a whinge about how poor people just need to ‘work harder’ or that other time where she said that people who commit ‘white collar crimes’ (such as embezzlement or defrauding thousands out their rightfully earned super) be able to ‘pay their way out of prison’.

    ie: absolute bullsh*t.

  • The game industry seems to behave in an identical manner, for the most part, to the world of start-up tech companies. I myself work for a start-up, and have just been basically forced to resign. The reasons given pretty much contradict themselves; The venture I am partly running will likely be shut down, and I won’t be able to handle the workload, as it’s about to get really busy. I’m not sure how both things can occur.

    Regardless, I have been told I don’t ‘fit in’ after two years because I don’t do enough extra hours, or “crunch time”. My boss said that I shouldn’t have time for things like watching sport, or having a girlfriend. When I asked; “If I want to fit in, I basically have to have no life outside of work?” He responded with “Exactly”. According to him, I am not to do anything that doesn’t involve work, if I do, I don’t want success enough.

    I don’t understand how people still believe that it’s healthy to work such long hours, without extra pay (or other incentives)? How can it be healthy to potentially ruin personal and familial relationships? How can it not be understood that it is normal for people to mentally burn out, especially after things like 80 hour weeks? I find that I am more or less the same in terms of productivity during an 8 hour day, as I am during a 14 or 15 hour day.

    I love games, but hate the idea that the people creating them are going through what I am currently going through. I hate the idea that, what gives me some escapism and freedom, can be torturous and painstaking for the developers.

    Voice acting aside, I regard game devs as heroes, and would like to see them treated accordingly.

  • As a former game developer and still husband, father, and sole provider: piss off, Alex St. John.

    If you’re a startup or going through a rough patch then fine, expect some grind.

    But if you’re working in an established studio and they’ve decided that this is the way games should be made? Get stuffed. I’m not going to both not see my family and not be able to pay my mortgage just because you can’t manage a business.

    • And that’s pretty much it. Former game developer here too. St John’s attitude is endemic to management in most game studios – outright denial that their management skills suck, deflecting the blame onto the workers for not being dedicated enough.

      Companies can operate just fine and produce great products with normal hours and normal work conditions, provided the project is properly managed. Unfortunately real project management skills seem to be uncommon in the game industry. Business software fares a little better, but not much.

      Technical industries like software development tend to have higher percentages of terrible managers because the hirers usually aren’t skilled enough to know the difference between talent and silver-tongued bullshit. For example, a company I contracted for briefly about a year ago went under recently, because their lead architect was completely ego-driven and talentless, and insisted all the in-house libraries that had been working flawlessly for years should be rewritten from scratch under his guidance. We all tried to warn the company owner that this would happen, but the architect was a good liar and the owner wasn’t technically minded enough to filter out his bullshit.

  • Ah, the whole petty “because I killed myself doing it back in my time, you kids should not expect differently” kind of argument that usually perpetuates horrible behaviours and systems long beyond the conditions that raised them have disappeared.

    Also for someone who sounds so passionate about killing yourself for the love of developing a game, the games produced by his company is a list of mobile shovelware, mostly based on mediocre movie franchises. If he makes his money squeezing that drivel out of his arse, it’s no wonder that he has a poor appreciation of the hired hands that develop it and the compensation and work conditions they deserve.

  • So basically what this jackass wants (and other like him) is some form of return to the Master and Servant Act from the 18th and 19th century.

    They long for the good old days where you could inflict corporal punishment and incarceration upon disgruntled employees who were ungrateful for the opportunity you gave them.

  • Read the source article.
    Is he trying to inspire people? (throw off the mental shackles as it were) because he goes on to say they could make more with productivity software. Are you inspired yet? Quit the industry, you don’t DESERVE it?

    You shouldn’t have to suffer for your employer, you are selling your services and they are buying. At a minimum, there should be no expectation of freebies, If they want torturous hours they can pay the torturous costs associated with it. Except…not because ART!

    Spade is spade and all that. It doesn’t strike me something inclusive with everyone pitching in. It’s about using peer group pressure and other coercive tactics, to ‘encourage’ people to provide labour for free. It is nothing but cynicism that exploits the eagerness of the people within.

  • Man, when I first heard about this I assumed it was a satirical joke piece. God damn, someone give this boy a glass of water, say the words “are you ok” then slap him over the head for being so rediculous.

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