Alex St. John thoughts on game development: Art vs Labor

By | April 20, 2016

There was a controversial article by Alex St. John last week where he went on saying that game developers should be prepared to work 80 hours per week, presumably not compensated for those extra 40 hours. This article was mentioned in my CodeProject subscription – that`s how I happened to find it. But here is a link in case you have not seen it yet:

http://venturebeat.com/2016/04/16/game-developers-must-avoid-the-wage-slave-attitude/

With all due respect to the people involved in game development (and to all other IT people working unpaid overtime), I feel the problem is deeper than simply counting the hours we get paid for.

Did you ever want to finish something so badly that you had to stay through the night to get it done? I am not talking about paid work only – it could be anything.. might as well be a hobby project. That happened to me quite a few times, and I have to say it does feel different when you keep pushing till it’s finally done. It is, probably, somewhat similar to how athletes approach their competitions – there is no way a long-distance runner can take a break having run half the distance. It is all or nothing, and it is now or never.

If you succeed, you get that great feeling of accomplishment, and you actually become proud of yourself. But those positive feelings only happen if you do want to do what you are doing – if, instead, you are just “made” to work late.. nothing but frustration happens as a result.

So, getting back to St. John’s article. He calls game development an art. That’s probably his way of saying that one comes to work to stay there for a number of hours, but one has to treat art in a totally different way – that’s not something that can be properly scheduled and delivered. It’s more like something that consumes the artist, and that’s the only way to create something that stands out.

Yes, I see why it does not work well being presented like that. Historically, art has never been the most profitable occupation for somebody willing to make a decent living. Yet it can difficult on one’s personal life. However, also historically, art has always been something people were fascinated with.

Hence, I am wondering if the reason why that article produced such a strong negative response is simply that, in our extremely politically correct world, it is dragging everyone back to the inconvenient basics: really great computer games are works of art. However, as it has always been, those involved in art making are, usually, underpaid. So it is, basically, you take it or leave it, since you can’t convert art into labor and expect the same results.

PS. Outside of the game development, the same idea may lead to a lot of interesting implications. Basically, what would have happened if all software development were treated as art?

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