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From Crunch to Globalism: a swan dive out of the frying pan.

Eric Hardman, Blogger

May 21, 2009

5 Min Read

Last week I was surprised that my personal story of crunch time turned out to be somewhat controversial. In fact, I figured people would blast me for calling ten hour days crunch time at all -- weekends and all-nighters: that's real crunch.

Further, by illustrating the topic with a real-world example, I've probably drawn the Eye of Sauron to our little serious games studio. So, in the little time I have left of freedom, before being dragged away by the labor police to some bourgeois hoosegow, I'd like to broaden (and depersonalize) the topic, because it really has me thinking...

Are Americans getting lazy? 

Since we have an international readership here, I'd love to hear some perspectives from outside the US especially! Legal issues aside with regards to the weekly number of hours and compensation (these vary state to state and country to country), and assuming all other factors are equal, such as education level and experience, are game developers from outside the US willing to work harder and longer than their American counterparts?

Sometime within the last few months I heard a radio article that relayed a Chinese adage about wealth and human nature that has been bouncing around in my head ever since. The main idea was that the first generation of wealth works very hard to achieve it, and passes that ethic down to the second generation. However, by the third generation that gets squandered by a sense of entitlement and plain old being spoiled (both the wealth and the work ethic.) 

This seems to be a generally true statement about human nature, and I wonder to what extent it can be applied to the US at large? Could we be playing Guitar Hero while Rome burns? While we rail about overtime and demonize any crunch as a deathmarch, is someone else drinking our collective milkshake? Are union organizations, once so vital to worker safety and counterbalancing capitalist exploitation, today biting the hands that feed them? I am thinking more broadly than our industry here since it is not widely unionized, but labor/management relations is one place this line of thought will inevitably lead. 

Before tossing me into the fire, I have some examples (dang, I wasn't going to personalize this...) of different perspectives that might relate: 

  • A Chinese friend who now lives and studies in the US gained this opportunity (her words) by leaving the village to work in a factory. Hard work, long hours? Yes. And she was delighted to do it, as were many of her coworkers because it led to a tangibly better life. 

  • Two graduates of a highly respected US game development school (not a cheap one) are hired and last less than a year in real development. Too hard, too far from Mom, getting into something less stressful and/or more prestigious. 

  • A business associate from the UK moves to the US to start a company because opportunities there are not equally available to all social classes (his words.) Comes to the US to compete with the "hard working Americans."  Really, is that how we are perceived abroad? 

My own experience was forged in the crucible of Los Angeles, deep in the entertainment mines where light is seldom seen and the angry rants of auteur film directors lash with nine-tails of pure salt crystal. We, the workers, did whatever it took and liked it! There was an implicit sense that there was a line of people behind us ready to take our jobs. The pay was merely adequate, and it was tough on a young and growing family in every way.

It was a given that, because we worked in an industry where there was more available and eager labor than jobs, we were fortunate to have even the chance to pay our dues. In retrospect, we were exploited, albeit legally. We chose to march up hamburger hill, but eventually found rewards at the summit. Given this, I am loath to take advantage of production staff, yet yearn for a greater sense of urgency from many younger Americans.

In saying that, I don't believe there is anything inherently special about the US. I assume there are bright, hard working, innovative, well-intentioned people everywhere. I harbor no particular competitive desire to outperform other nations in the global market. It's just that, well, Americans are the people around me that I see and work with every day. I like them and it saddens me to see a good life slipping away for many.

Having moved from LA to the rust belt a number of years ago, I have seen firsthand what it looks like when an industry collapses and thousands of jobs are lost to competition. Instead of redoubling efforts, however, I often see blame, fear, and xenophobia as a result.

Is the games industry headed down the same path as the steel industry? I see studios closing, jobs being lost in the thousands, and quality oversees competition breaking new ground with products people like being delivered through business models that are innovative. Are they willing to sacrifice more to succeed? Is there a difference in governance or culture that facilitates this success? Is this a mis-perception to begin with, with the current situation is simply being linked with the overall economic climate?

Am I just a GenX guy who doesn't get Generation Y mores and sensibilities? Is there a hidden treasure in the attitude of "I need constant praise, but can totally multitask" that is ideally suited to the information age? 

Has the US reached a critical mass of third generation wealth? 

Have I earned the curmudgeon achievement yet?

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