This is not about Alex St John. It's not even about people like him. It's about systems, and how they trick and affect us all. Let's start with some context.
Wait what's going on?
Yesterday saw Gamedev twitter explode in outrage after the publication of a VentureBeat article. The article in question is basically the usual rant against privileged lazybums who don't realize how good they've got it. Except this time it seems to come from one of our own, and it caught fire. Rami Ismail wrote an excellent first-level takedown, which should be mandatory reading for every young game developer out there. Kotaku wrote an article, everyone got very angry on social media, the usual.
But the story doesn't stop there. Thanks to a friend, I happened to have heard the guy's name before. It turns out that he wrote some hiring advice a good while back, that is surprisingly honest in how disgusting it is. "Recruiting Giants" is a masterclass in hiring for maximal exploitativity. It's a fascinating piece of writing, because of how brutally honest it is about not caring about people, diversity, health or any of those boring things.
A quick aside on ad hominem
I am still relatively new to the game industry. As such, I did not know much of Alex St John's reputation, which is apparently horrendous. It looks like he's known as a clown, a joke, and more. But if you use that to dismiss the article, you're missing the point. He's not alone in his thinking: look at how he mentioned the "Recruiting Giants" presentation was being given to other CEOs! Whether he's a joke or not, he's influential, and representative of a type of thinking. So let's dig into that thinking instead of getting distracted with gossip.
The hypocrisy of leaders
On one hand, we have a piece designed to make us stop whining. The whole point of the VentureBeat article is to make us feel guilty, and thankful that we even have a job in this privileged field. He frames this as a moral argument: don't we realize how lucky we are? how good we have it? Laziness, entitlement, dismissing the value of intellectual work over physical labor... It's all there. That is what he's telling US. Now let's look at what he tells LEADERSHIP instead.
"Recruiting Giants" is about recruiting people you can exploit. Note how it frames "real engineers" are people who can be fully dedicated to your company, and how it encourages breaking youngsters, especially if they're undiagnosed Asperger (!). It hates people who know their market value and perform to it: of course, that's bad business from the hiring end. It mentions passion, again and again, forgetting as always that the word comes from "suffering" - learn Latin and you too get to be an etymological killjoy.
This two-face discourse is the interesting thing here. On one hand, he wants us feeling guilty we're not passionate. On the other, he explain why passionate people are better for exploiting. This is propaganda and manipulation, nothing less. The only thing unique about St John here though is how honest he's being about the whole thing, because this mindset is by no means unique, neither to him, nor to games, nor even to tech.
Loving your job
One of modern capitalism's greatest successes is tying personal worth to the job market. "You should love your job, be dedicated, be happy you work in such a great place. If you don't love your job, be grateful you even have one, because have you seen the economy these days? Stop complaining. You're so entitled. Back in the days it was much harder so clearly you're whining over nothing."
I hate this line of thought. It pretends that progress has to stop somewhere. That since we have it better than people before us, we need to stop striving for more. That because the economy is bad, we need to relinquish quality of life as people. That because we have fancy smartphones these days, clearly alienation isn't a thing anymore. This ties into the basic income discussion, into French protests to preserve our social care, into boomers bashing millenials, into the banks bailouts, into what we should aspire for as a species. But let's focus on alienation.
A job is the exchange of labor for compensation. Period. That is what your work contract says after all. Does that mean you can't be dedicated, love your job and more? Of course not! But it does mean you should keep in mind that relationship is contractual, and there should be a fair trade-off. A company is not a person. It has no heart, no morals, no ethics, except those that are imposed onto it by regulation or its leadership. A company is generally profit-driven. Therefore making you dedicated to your job is an easy way to squeeze more out of you. No need to tell you to stay late, you'll do it yourself because you care. No need to ask you to monitor your emails late at night, you'll do it yourself because you can't turn off the work brain. No need to ask you to do free marketing on social media, you'll do it because you're proud of your work, and it'll look more honest to boot. I'm not saying you're a bad person for doing any of that: I'm saying understanding the mechanics behind it is important. Otherwise you'll just pin it on "bad management" and do it all over again next time.
Another aspect of that trick is how employement and self-worth become linked. You're unemployed? That has nothing to do with your worth as a person. The job market's fucked. Your skills might be misaligned. Bad luck. Bad time. Shitty passport making you hard to hire. Discriminations. So much more. It's not your fault but it becomes your fault. It becomes a failure of your very self, and does a number on your mental health. Especially in a messy field like games, unemployement is to be expected. But we always internalize it as a failure on our part, instead of a product of the circumstances.
There's a French economist called Frédéric Lordon. His book, "Capitalisme, Désir et Servitude" has a concept of the angle between two vectors: your will and that of your employer. Your productivity is the dot product of those two vectors. The higher the angle, the less productive you are. So it's in the company's interest to align your desires with theirs, ideally without your awareness. This is exactly what St John is trying for in the VentureBeat piece.
Resistance and perspective
It is important to remain aware of how good we have it. That is absolutely orthogonal to striving for better still. Yes, game development is a "fun" field compared to many out there. Yes, our labor is pretty low on the physical side. Yes, we get to be creative, sometimes. Yes, it could be a whole lot worse. None of that means we shouldn't strive for more.
The project of the 20th century was to work less. Mechanization was going to free us, not become the scapegoat of chronic unemployement. Increased production efficiency meant more time for other things, creation, enjoying life. But somehow, somewhere, that was taken away. Bulltshit Jobs is a good read on that.
As we face a 21st century with a different job market that leaves many people stuck, it is worth asking: how did we end up striving for "a good economy" rather than a world where work isn't even needed anymore? Why would it be such a bad thing to not need to work, if systems are in place to keep the world running? Is it laziness to aspire to a society where hard work is genuinely not necessary anymore? I'm all for respecting our elders' and our peers' efforts, trials and hardships. But maybe aiming to avoid them ourselves is not such a bad thing.
No but seriously can we just burn him?
No. No burning. No pitchforks. It doesn't help anything and the ash is a mess to clean. Dogpiles are not good. Harassment is not good. So cut that crap. Take down ideas, not people.
As explained above, understanding how systems shape us is important. They mold our worldview, how we analyze and understand things, how we see ourselves and our self-worth, what we aspire to. That ALSO applies to those flinging shit from up above. For whatever reason they've had it good and become convinced the system is good, and therefore have an interest in maintaining it. Alex St John seems to genuinely believe his version of "real engineers" is the best way to get stuff done. He's painfully wrong, but that's not entirely his fault. The system does reward his version of things, to a point. How do we resist that system? How do we change it? Those are the questions worth asking.
My solution to this was to go freelance and do things on my own terms. I can afford to do so because I'm a French citizen in Sweden and therefore have full healthcare no matter what. I can afford to do so because I'm a programmer and work is easy to come by. I can afford to do so because my partner has a stable job, my parents have a stable job, and I have three or four safety nets below me. I can afford to do so because my mental healths needs last year were covered and I am now functional again.
Others do not have this. How can I help them? How can I get them to a place where they too can do things on their own terms? I'm still looking for answers. Writing things like this to help fix manufactured guilt is hopefully a start. Don't fall for this bullshit. Complain. Unionize. Reflect and respect, but don't let them guilt you into inaction. You deserve better.