Saturday, April 23, 2016

Another game industry controversy

Well, it looks like the Internet is about to burst into fire again.

The video-gaming industry is immense and is an extremely important part of the overall tech industry, but they have also been a problem-plagued part of the industry. The well-publicized "GamerGate" is only the most well-known of a number of serious problems dating back for decades.

Anyway, this week comes this spark in a very dry forest: Game developers must avoid the ‘wage-slave’ attitude

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. They want to pretend that they can turn an inherently entrepreneurial endeavor like game development into a 9-to-5 job. Somehow, these people have managed to adopt a wage-slave attitude toward one of the most remarkable and privileged careers in the world.

Who knows why VentureBeat thought this screed was worth hosting on their site, but up it went last weekend.

It wasn't long before it was noticed, and people started to react.

One of the first to react was Jason Schreier at Kotaku: Game Industry Veteran Writes Horrifying Article In Defence Of Poor Working Conditions

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.

The discussion in the comments is fascinating for a glimpse into the emotions and passion behind the issue.

For a slightly-more-distanced view, here's Vox with one of their great explainers: Everything wrong with Silicon Valley culture in one gross presentation, including a thorough and insightful deconstruction of the language of St. John's writings:

In many ways, St. John's attitude toward recruiting is typical: He advises employers to present both their current and potential engineers with tangible goals, meaningful challenges, and lucrative rewards. What's not typical is the way he advises selecting those engineers, especially with regard to the skills and character traits he believes employers should prioritize.

For starters, with few exceptions St. John believes they should focus almost exclusively on men. We know this because he emphasizes recruiting and retaining engineers' "wives and girlfriends," because they are the key to whether an engineer stays at a company or quits. Oy.

So much, so video-gaming-industry.

But then things took a very interesting turn late last week when St. John's own daughter took to the airwaves to comment: I am Alex St. John’s Daughter, and He is Wrong About Women in Tech

But as a woman, to enter this privileged position in the first place I had to face a lot of difficult situations(And no, none of those situations involved a wrestle with my “victim complex”). The experience has left me with more than a few opinions about my father’s views on this subject (which are exceptionally vile and wrong).

Her entire essay is fascinating, but I was particularly struck by her analysis of the complex social implications of certain organizational practices that appear to be gaining some ground, such as Alex St. John's recommendation to route female employees into positions in technical writing, QA, and technical support:

Widely held beliefs like these are playing a huge role in hindering women from continuing as engineers. While many of these “more social” roles may be high paying, they remove truly technical women from technical jobs, furthering the imbalance. This directly impacts women later in their careers as it has been shown that technical positions are more likely to lead to senior roles in the industry. My Father’s suggestion to continue the practice of “promoting” women out of engineering roles will only further reinforce gender norms in the workplace and ultimately harm the supply of senior female technical executives.

Sadly, it's impossible to overlook how St. John reacted to this, starting first with his defensive follow-up: Enslaving the Masses, in which he doubles down:

Today it seems that instead of training the defeatist and unprofessional attitudes out of young technology professionals they are being deliberately conditioned IN to them. I know that a lot of those new generation technologists in the valley think that their brand of permissive lassitude is some form of progress, but it’s not, it’s just a lot of wealth and success in the Valley enabling a generation of people to grow up thinking that success is easy, that they are entitled to it and that there will be no consequences for embracing bad attitudes towards work. It’s a sad condition, I actually don’t think it’s curable once they’ve reached the valley and found a community of people who actively reinforce the behaviors but I’m still determined to at least try to make sure that it’s called out and characterized as clearly as possible for the tiny few who maybe eventually mange to save themselves from it.

If that wasn't bad enough, he continued yesterday, with perhaps the most bizarre "apology" you'll read in a long time: I Apologize

I shrugged, Sharon already worked late anyway, why not? A few days later our HR manager informed me that all of the goth QA team also only wanted to work late at night because they ALSO suffered from sensitivity to day light. I pointed out that we kind of needed them around during some portion of the regular work-day to communicate with the engineering teams and product teams. We tried to figure out if there was any part of the regular work day when it was dark out but of course there was none.

Oh, dear.

The tech industry is changing, in some ways, but the change is coming slowly, and unevenly.

There are enormous, decades-old, very hard-to-solve problems here, but scorn, ridicule, and disdain are not the answer.

None of this stuff is easy to read, and I don't have any simple answers of my own.

But I think it starts with paying attention, thinking about it, and being willing to talk about it.

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