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Alex St. John: Shut up and be grateful for your 80 hour weeks

[Update] By now you've probably all read Alex St. John's awful post about crunch in the games industry, but you may not be aware that Amilia St. John (his daughter who also got into tech) has replied with a lengthy post of her own. While the entire thing clearly has an air of family drama about it (she and her father have been estranged for years), it's well worth your time to read her rebuttal, which not only slams her father's "toxic waste trash fire," but more importantly talks about why getting more women involved in tech is vital.

"Women make up 29.1 percent of the tech industry, but only 16.6 percent of technical jobs. Women in technology is personal to me, and I feel it is my responsibility to share my experiences with other women," she says. "In a world where so many women are finally gaining the opportunity for a voice, the tech industry is quiet. And what my father seems to so fundamentally misunderstand is that this is NOT, as he insinuates, a result of women "claiming victimhood."

If you're in the games industry and you've been on the internet in the last 48 hours, you've probably already caught the whiff of the fire ignited by Alex St. John's guest post on VentureBeat last Saturday: a virulent, aggressive and oddly self-aggrandising screed from a well known and hugely successful industry figure which bemoans the privilege and laziness of any developer who isn't willing to work 80 hour+ weeks in order to further their art.

Whilst we won't link to the original piece here, if you've not read it already it's worth doing so via the lens of Rami Ismail, who penned a response to the post which seethed with barely restrained ire and disbelief.

In his frank assessment of St John's views, Ismail repeatedly questions the core assumptions of the original: that games development "is not a job, it's an art" and therefore anyone performing it has no right to regular hours or fair pay; that "pushing a mouse around" can never be considered hard work; and that anyone who doesn't want to put at least 80 hours a week into it is "taking a job from somebody who would really value it".

A few of Ismail's choice responses (in italics) to St. John's VentureBeat article follow, inline with St. John's original wording in bold.

"Many modern game developers have embraced a culture of victimology and a bad attitude toward their chosen vocations. They complain that the long hours and personal sacrifices great games require are a consequence of poor management."

"And rightfully so, structural crunch is a horrible attitude and can really damage someone's ability to function and enjoy their dream job."

"They want to pretend that they can turn an inherently entrepreneurial endeavor like game development into a 9-to-5 job."

"Wait, only entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial. People that are employed aren't entrepreneurs. The whole definition of entrepreneur is that if you mess up, the risks are for you. The definition of employee is that you work the hours assigned to you for a wage".

"Somehow, these people have managed to adopt a wage-slave attitude toward one of the most remarkable and privileged careers in the world."

"I'll give you that game development is a remarkable job, and I'll give you that it's a generally privileged career, but 'wage-slave'? Isn't that a tiny bit hyperbolic?"

It goes on, and it's very much worth a read, whichever side of that yawning divide you decide you're on. In it St. John also expresses disbelief that anyone could ever burn out whilst working in games, despite his ignominious exit from Microsoft; as well as "shock and disappointment" that his advice to developers to work insane hours for little reward so that their art can make millions for multinational publishers is so often met with rage.

Since publishing, the VB piece has attracted almost universal disdain, prompting St. John to follow up on his personal blog with a few more choice opinions.

"I just wrote a guest column for VentureBeat that apparently... can't figure out why... has caused shock and outrage among lazy millennial hipster game developers who think that long hours weren't priced into their paychecks when EA hired them," he writes. "They're really upset at the suggestion that 'Thinking' isn't really hard work.

"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. It's also interesting that everybody insists on pretending that big companies like EA and Activision don't give all of their employees stock option packages as incentives to make hit games that drive up the companies [sic] share price. EA used to have a lot of unhappy employees who hated the work conditions, they left and founded Zynga. That's how we roll in the game industry!"

"I made my first millions along with thousands of other kids at Microsoft working 120hrs/wk for years. It was a big sacrifice. None of the people I knew from that era regretted the incredible experience and skills they developed in that environment or the attitudes they cultivated towards hard work. It paid off for most of them. What's sad is that all of these successful people don't talk about the values that got them there because they don't need the hassle of being screamed down for being 'wealthy beyond good taste'. When did it become gouache [sic] for successful people to talk about what they really did and valued to achieve success?

"I never graduated from high-school, many of Silicon Valleys legendary founders never graduated from college. There's a reason for that phenomena that is worth understanding. Is it interesting how enraged so many people get when somebody successful talks about how their attitudes towards work hold them back? They really WANT to be identified as victims for some reason."

Whilst St. John's comments haven't attracted a great deal of sympathy, he's making explicit a culture which still persists at an intrinsic level in many parts of the industry, with a recent IGDA survey suggesting that up to two thirds of developers are still working massive amounts of unpaid overtime, with 70 hour weeks far from rare. Since, the association has followed up by publishing a list of the best companies to work for should doubling your work week for free not appeal.

All the same, big firms still defend the practice. Back in 2009, Rod Fergusson gave a GDC talk claiming it a necessary part of development, comments which were later defended by then Epic president Mike Capps. More recently, Crytek attracted criticism when it proudly announced that it had fed 11,500 dinners to its team during the development of Ryse, thanks to the evenings they'd spent at the studio. Then, several figures came to the defence of the company, including Warren Spector, Fergus Urquhart and Jason Rubin, although to a lesser degree of vehemence than St. John. Others, like Failbetter's Alexis Kennedy, have expressed different opinions, claiming that "Crunch is Bullshit" and a "a slippery steep-sided pit."

Have you been on the sharp end of crunch? Have you imposed it on your team? Is it a necessary evil, the result of poor management, or merely a chance to revel in joyful culture of development for twice as long as you might normally expect to? Have your say below.

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