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Ask the Experts: Religious Observance in the Game Industry

A reader recently wrote to ask whether his religious lifestyle -- which requires observing the weekly Sabbath and not working about a dozen days a year -- will actually be doable in the game industry, where working weekends and overtime is standard.

Jill Duffy, Blogger

October 20, 2008

8 Min Read

In the latest advice column from GameCareerGuide, a reader asks whether his religious lifestyle -- which requires observing the weekly Sabbath and not working about a dozen days a year -- will actually be doable in the overtime-laden game industry. Jill Duffy, editor of GameCareerGuide, spoke with the employer of an Orthodox Jewish programmer to find out how the company handles the employee’s needs. She shares the details of that arrangement, as well as some HR advice on how to raise sensitive personal or religious issues with a company before being hired. Gamasutra, which is affiliated with GameCareerGuide, is running this exclusive game industry career advice column in full. For more advice about breaking into the game development industry, visit GameCareerGuide’s Getting Started section. Dear Experts, For years I have dreamed about working in the game industry, and for years I’ve been frightened by the stories of long hours and crunch time. I’m not afraid of working hard and putting in long hours; my fear lies in the possibility that these long hours will put me in conflict with what I feel are my religious obligations. I am an Orthodox Jew, and observing the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays are responsibilities that I can’t see myself shirking for any reason. This steadfastness is likely to cause problems, especially since the appearance of crunch time can be unpredictable. Taking into account the summary about me provided, do you think my goal of being involved in the development of a game (as a game designer, programmer, etc.) is possible, or do you think I should focus on other specific areas inside the industry? I’m a rising sophomore in college, so I really appreciate your input, as it will surely help put me on the right path, both as a student and as a professional. Sincerely, N Dear N, I asked around, and believe it or not, I found someone who has hired and currently has on his team an Orthodox Jew. He agreed to talk to me about the situation and explain how the company handles it. Wade Tinney is one of the founders of Large Animal Games, based in New York. About five or six years ago, when the company was still in its early days, Tinney and the two other developers who were running the company decided to hire their first intern, a programmer. After a year or so, they decided to take him on full time, as he quickly became a valuable member of the team. All that, Tinney says, was so long ago that he doesn’t really remember how the discussion ever came up, but it was no big secret that the intern was Jewish Orthodox. While the employee was still an intern, it was easy to excuse him from work, give him the days off that he needed. But when he became a full-time team member, they needed to workout a more formal way to manage the time off. “He has 12 days of the year that he has off that are different from what we have,” Tinney explains. The employee makes up six of those days by working overtime when he can, and the other six days are pro-rated from his salary. Still, Tinney says, it’s not easy. “This [the end of September through October] is the most frustrating time of the year for an employer of a religious Jew… it’s tough on the team that he works as a part of. It’s tough to schedule around.” “To be perfectly honest, if I had been looking at two equivalent programmers and one of them had to take off 12 additional days and another who didn’t, naturally, I would take the path of least resistance. But because he started as an intern, we had an opportunity for us to see what he could do and how he could fit into the team,” Tinney says. “Once you’ve gotten over the hump with someone, you’ve gotten used to them, they’ve gotten used to you… it represents an expense to have to hire someone new.” In other words, because the employee, whom Tinney describes as an “excellent expert programmer,” has been with the company for so long, there is a greater value for Large Animal Games to keep him and work around these issues than to find someone new, integrate him or her into the team, get her up to speed on the project, and so forth. The good news is that everyone knows ahead of time exactly which days the employee will need off, unlike, for example, someone who has an unplanned medical leave, or needs unexpected days off for childcare, or has to take maternity leave several weeks earlier than originally intended. Tinney’s advice for anyone who has “unique restrictions that might impact an employer” (another example is someone who requires a work visa) is to be an intern at a company that tends to offer its interns full-time positions. It’s also helpful if the employer has dealt with the same kinds of restrictions before, as she or he knows generally what to expect. “I love the fact that this employee is here and brings another angle to the mix of people. There are people who join the company and learn about what keeping Kosher means. They learn more than they ever knew about Jewish holidays. He’s not outspoken about it, but he’s happy to talk about it around the lunch table,” Tinney says. Bringing Up the Issue When first interviewing for jobs, it is important to talk discuss any commitments or restrictions you have that could affect your job. Especially if you’re interviewing at a large company, I suggest raising these concerns with human resources before you talk to anyone on the development team. HR reps -- and especially the ones at very large companies -- know the rules and legalities, while a game design lead may not, and you in fact might not either. Use HR to your advantage here. You can even ask the HR person something so specific as, “What words should I use to explain my religious commitments to the hiring manager?” There’s a difference between, “I can’t work Saturdays for personal reasons, but I’m almost always available on Sundays,” versus, “I have some religious obligations that might affect my work schedule -- is now a good time to discuss them?,” versus, “Yeah… I’m going to need you to not let any other employees use the same microwave that I use.” In searching for an answer to your questions, N, I also exchange a few emails with Paula Fellbaum, vice president of human resources at game publisher Nexon, NA. “I agree with you about speaking to HR openly if this is a deal breaker,” she wrote. “Ethics are critically important, and we all have ones that we need to hold close to our hearts with no compromise, be they family or personal time, religious convictions, social or community involvement, etc.” She adds, “In today’s gaming recruitment climate, the interview process is truly a two-way street, with the interviewees able to consider personal criteria when deciding on their next place of employment as much as the company is considering whether the employee’s critical skill sets fit the company’s needs. “The employee has a fundamental responsibility to contribute at the highest level of their technical competency and in return the employer should provide an atmosphere that is conducive to strong work-life balance -- but your advice seeker needs to ask his questions up front and ensure he has clarity on his deal breakers so that there are no surprises down the road -- on either side, for either party,” Fellbaum said. “Knowing that employers are not legally able to (and ethical employers would not) make decisions based on issues such as religion may [make the employer] feel very uncomfortable talking about [it],” Fellbaum said. “Employer may decline to discuss it.” No matter how we are legally protected, there is always the chance that an employer will fire an employee for ostensibly illegal reason but ones that are not stated -- in other words, without getting caught. You can be let go during the first few months of employment, by and large, if things “just aren’t working out.” Your position can be “made redundant” more or less at any time with fairly little explanation (or a bunch of hooey). And in any of these very common circumstances, you might never know if there was some deeper political or personal issue that drove the stake through the heart. If no one ever says or writes, “she fell too far out of the loop when she took that maternity leave,” or, “his observance of the Sabbath leaves us one overtime programmer short once a week,” there is no recourse for the employee. But by and large, it’s not in the company’s interest to not be sensitive your religious time commitments. If you are a really great game developer (and especially, if you are a really great programmer, seeing as that job is still in huge demand), most game development studios will be perfectly happy to work with you. Still, it never hurts to have a back-up plan… Good luck, N! Jill Duffy is editor-in-chief of GameCareerGuide.com and senior contributing editor of Game Developer magazine. If you have a question you would like to see answered in this bi-weekly column, email it to [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Jill Duffy


Jill Duffy is the departments editor at Game Developer magazine. Contact her at [email protected].

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