Work, Life, Balance

There is an embedded and endemic problem that is rooted in the upper echelons of game development production and management. It is not a new one: unrealistic expectations are set upon shifting sands, time frames are squeezed, deliver at all costs is the mentality. Typically, this will manifest itself as a team meeting or an apologetic email, followed by a “we’re all in this together” rally cry and a promise of free dinner if you work after 9pm (Need to leave at 8.30? Sorry mate, sort yourself out, your time isn’t worth dinner).

Employees are then expected to reorganise their own lives to accommodate their newly produced goalposts. Those who don’t “pull their weight” in this regard are passively ostracised as “not being team players”. But, as the craft of game development matures, so do those who practice it. With that we cease to be a population of devil-may-care 20 somethings with no strings attached. We grow up.

It seems many considered this issue archaic and one that had largely been solved. It was, however, brought to the fore again in this article by Alex St John. The article is crass, short-sighted and outmoded, and unsettlingly disconnected from reality. I highly recommend reading it. And if you haven’t yet, I also recommend you read Rami Ismail’s incisive take down.

St John’s beliefs revolve around the following: game development is art and therefore you should suffer for it. Accordingly, if you’re not working 80 hour weeks, how can you expect to succeed? Furthermore, it’s not even work, really, so what are you complaining about anyway?

There are a number of subtle issues at play here, but the problem is that at his core, Alex St John works, exists even, quite simply to get as rich as possible. He’s said as much on a number of occasions. Game development is a tool to make him money “so [he] doesn’t have to make games any more.” This is not unique to him; our society reinforces this attitude. We are taught that material wealth and success go hand in hand. And, of course, if this is your metric for success, few other things can measure up (family, relationships, hobbies, health, balance). Indeed, almost everything that doesn’t directly contribute to this material success (family, relationships, hobbies, health, balance) only serve to get in the way.

Alex St John loves to talk about wage slaves and the “inherently entrepreneurial” nature of game development. These are two notions that Rami Ismail summarily dismisses, pointing out that “only entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial… The definition of employee is that you work the hours assigned to you for a wage.

But what about those of us that actually are entrepreneurs? Is it somehow deemed acceptable or even desirable for us to work these 80 hour weeks in pursuit of success at any cost?

Let me give you a little bit of my background. I’m currently, for want of a better term, being entrepreneurial. Recently I co-founded the startup Glowmade with a couple of friends, Adam and Mike. Previously I have worked at places like Lionhead, Media Molecule and I’ve run a startup before. I’ve been on the bottom rung of teams, the middle bit where you have a say and a fair bit of autonomy, I’ve run a company and I’ve run multiple projects and teams. I have a wife and an 18 month old daughter. Mike has two daughters, and Adam has four boys (he is a madman). We want to build a business and keep our families healthy and prioritised. I feel that we are atypical founders in this regard.

I think we should disregard Alex St John’s attitude towards the employee who wants to work 40 hour weeks; it is eye-wash and folly. But there still seems (to me) a tacit resignation, even acceptance, that entrepreneurs should be sacrificing everything in pursuit of their goal (family, relationships, hobbies, health, balance). Again, this stems from the idea that success is derived solely from material wealth, and is exacerbated by how tangled up our own identities have become with success and failure.

And that’s the real problem, right there. We need a shift in mindset, from the top; from the entrepreneurs, the managers, the leaders. This kind of sea change in attitude doesn’t happen, doesn’t truly, deep-down-in-your-gut happen just because the employees get upset.

To be clear, I want to run a business and I want to make it successful. I also want to work 40 hours a week and hang out with my family and see my friends and live life. And I want, expect even, everyone who works at Glowmade to do the same. I don’t want robots, I want people with experiences and joys and hopes from outside their day job, because that makes them better people and that makes us all better people. Get away from the screen, read a book, learn an instrument, do some gardening or go to a gallery, or play with your kid. Recover your creative energies by doing the other things.

Does that mean I don’t want passion? Absolutely not. I want people to be passionate and joyful about life as a whole, and work is part of life, and the cool thing is that when I’m having a great time outside of work, I do better work. I don’t think that’s such a bonkers idea.

Now, I’m going to end this thing with a piece of advice, because that is how you end these things.

Material success is nice and all, but when all’s said and done, a fat bank account can’t hug you when your mum dies and it can’t answer the phone when your car gets pranged. We are made to be in relationship with others. This concept of relationship is important. It is what makes us people. Inhuman working hours and a slave-like devotion to some nebulous cause cuts relationship off, and this diminishes every one of us.

If you’re just starting out in this industry, you will ignore this advice now because it’s schmaltzy and sentimental and working really late seems kind of romantic and cool. But you’ll agree with it in a decade, when you’ve been through the mill, and actually you’d like to be in the garden right now. And if you’re running a team then you need to take this onboard immediately and maybe make some changes. And this might be scary, because perhaps you’ll have to push back on someone breathing down your neck to Get Things Done.

The only way this can change is from the top.

How do you want to remember the next ten years?