Game industry vet draws ire from developers for defense of 80-hour workweeks

Alex St. John believes game development employees are “wage-slaves” who have “embraced a culture of victimology.”

In an opinion piece on VentureBeat over the weekend, the former head of WildTangent wrote that developers should quit whining about fair wages and long hours and get down to doing what they love because, after all, “pushing a mouse around for a paycheck” isn’t really hard work.

St. John was responding to a new initiative by the International Game Developers Association to tackle unpaid overtime and long hours. He claimed that “making games is not a job, it’s an art” and that “there’s no amount of money that anybody can pay people with a wage-slave attitude.”

St. John has been the boss of many people working in games and tech. He was a senior figure at Microsoft in the 1990s and was instrumental in the DirectX initiative, which sought to increase the number of games being released for Windows. DirectX formed some of the technology running the Xbox.

Later, St. John launched online gaming company WildTangent and was president of hi5, a game-related social network.

In a follow-up blog post he stated his belief that “any woman entering the tech industry has it made,” and that women in tech are often “fatally compromised with victimology psychosis.”

Baby boomer stereotype

Not surprisingly, these ideas have drawn some fervently negative comments from people who work in gaming, an industry where long, unpaid hours are not uncommon. Rami Ismail, head of Vlambeer posted a scalding reaction.

“‘[Employees] that work on each AAA title deserve not just our utmost respect, but also reasonable wages and working hours,” wrote Ismail, in an in-line rebuttal.

Game developer Joe Valeen tweeted, “This guy manages to check off every conservative baby boomer stereotype there is. Please ignore Alex St. John’s advice. People are more important than the labor they offer other, richer people.”

Producer Jessica Price tweeted, “Alex St. John’s presentation endorses everything that’s wrong with the game industry, especially the misogyny.”

“Kids conforming to the Asperger nerd stereotype are ripe for exploitation.”

St. John’s opinion piece, its follow-up and a presentation posted to his website features a litany of complaints about “fragile, lazy millennials” while advising employers to hire engineers who confirm to an “Asperger nerd stereotype” and are “ripe for exploitation.”

“I can’t begin to imagine how sheltered the lives of modern technology employees must be to think that any amount of hours they spend pushing a mouse around for a paycheck is really demanding strenuous work,” he writes.

He advises employees who are unhappy with their wages or their working conditions to quit and launch a startup. “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,” he adds.

“It’s a simple process,” responds Ismail, sarcastically. “Step 1: Quit your job. Step 2: Move your family of four to your parents’ basement. Step 3: make a multi-million dollar game. Step 4: done.”

Inflated sense of value

At one point, St. John compares the offices of big employers to “concentration camps,” designed to keep the “wives and girlfriends” of coders happy, with amenities like gyms.

Employees, he says, “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.”

In a presentation on his website, St. John mocks “kids” who “enter the workforce with spoon-fed educations, prestigious degrees, an inflated sense of their own value and a disastrous work ethic.”

“Don’t be in the game industry if you can’t love all 80 hours a week of it.”

He advises employers to “churn and burn to find an ‘optimal’ team,” and not to “waste time managing the weak.”

Response on social media has been overwhelmingly negative. “Let’s not forget the fact that his attitude permeates the games industry,” tweeted game writer Anna Megill. “Much of our industry is built on the idea that workers are disposable. Wring as much as you can from them in a game cycle, then lay them off.”

Izzy Gramp, developer of Intergalactic Space Princess tweeted, “I’m one of those youngsters making games on my own dime. I used to work nights and not go home. It’s really unhealthy.”

The game industry is notorious for demanding unpaid overtime from workers, most especially when projects near deadline. Notoriously, this so-called “crunch” has been in issue at several leading companies including Electronic Arts, Rockstar and THQ, where workers or their spouses went public with vociferous complaints.

In the past decade, many game companies have sought to reclassify some employee levels as hourly workers eligible for overtime pay, but unpaid long hours are still the norm for developers. Surveys in recent years showed that nearly half of game industry respondents work more than 60 hours per week, and 17 percent work more than 70 hours. Of these, in 2014, 38 percent said their employer did not offer additional compensation for overtime. The same figure held at 37 percent in 2015.

“Poor working conditions are the second-leading factor contributing toward society’s negative perception of the game industry,” the IGDA said in a statement. “It also remains a major factor why game developers would choose to leave the industry in favor of non-game related technology jobs.”

“There’s no amount of money that anybody can pay people with a wage-slave attitude.”

St. John is not the first boss to sing the praises of unpaid work. Earlier this year, former Lionhead chief Peter Molyneux raised eyebrows with his assertion that, “crunch is energy,” and “a wonderful thing that happens to human beings when they’re faced with the impossible.”

Talkgamer ran a story a few years back on the tortured development of Homefront, during which the game’s executive vice president of Danny Bilson boasted on Twitter that the team were pulling seven-day weeks for months.

In our Homefront report, one developer said of the experience: “You can’t put in all that overtime and not have it wear on you physically and emotionally. It’s a very traumatic experience. And really anybody that has put in a 90-hour work week is familiar with how traumatic an experience that is, and then imagine doing that for a solid year. It wears on your body.”

In that case, the developer preferred anonymity. Developers are often afraid to go on the record, for fear that they will be punished. Most of the developers commenting on St. John’s opinions on Twitter today are no longer working for large companies.

In the opinion article, St. John acknowledges that his opinions are likely to “offend a lot of people.” He also says he makes his presentations “controversial and thought-provoking,” in order to make them more memorable. Talkgamer contacted St. John for further comment.

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