Penny Arcade’s Robert Khoo – the (facetiously) evil genius behind monetizing all of the dick jokes – recently put up a job posting for a job as a systems administrator. OK, that’s not accurate; it was a job posting for four jobs in one:
We are quite literally looking for a person that can do four jobs: Web Development, Software Development, Sys Admin, and the (dreaded) GENERAL IT for us here that need help configuring a firewall for a dev kit, etc. Sorry, I know that’s the WORST, but it’s absolutely part of the gig.
Oh, and did I say job? Well, yes and no. A job involves being paid a living wage to do work. I guess that yes, whoever ends up getting this job will technically have a job, but in all honesty, this is less a job than it is a form of hero worship. Literally no one qualified for this job should dream of taking it, the way it’s been written up.
I have to give Khoo credit: he didn’t bullshit anyone. People who apply for this job know what they are getting into, and know that they are probably kissing goodbye a lot of the video games that they like to play that brought them to Penny Arcade in the first place. Even knowing that, there’s something blatantly disingenuous about what’s going on here, despite the honest words being used. In reality, this job posting is really a microcosm of the entire games industry that Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins have taken to task repeatedly in the past for doing what they themselves are doing themselves.
The those who wonder why anyone would take such a leap of faith like this, one needs to look at one extremely successful entrepreneur who did something similar: Robert Khoo himself. The following comes from his 2011 interview with Dean Takahashi:
I was a pretty hardcore gamer growing up and had been reading PA religiously since 1999. The long story short was that I had a chance run-in with Mike and Jerry, and after discovering they really had no direction with the business, I took a shot and quit my job to work for them for free for two months. What got me in the door was (they tell me) a clear direction and plan and apparently my ability to pitch them on my execution of said plan.
Re-read that: He met two random yahoos who had nothing going for them except having a popular website, and decided to take a chance by quitting his job (!) and working for these two knuckleheads for free for two months (!!!!!!). In terms of blind leaps of faith, this ranks about a slot below Abraham. The fact that it worked is due in no small part to luck, but it’s mostly due to his legendary work ethic. From the same piece, in response to a question of what advice he would give anyone who wanted to build a “Penny Arcade-like empire”:
Prepare to make sacrifices. There are many things that are completely out of your control that will contribute to your success, but something that is very much in your sphere is the ability to work harder than the next guy. That means giving up some things that are dear to you. Your social life. Your desire to finish two games every month (mine in college). Your sleep. I know it’s unfair, but if you’re not willing… I can assure you that the next guy is.
In reality, Robert comes off sounding like any other entrepreneur who’s ever made it big: basically, work the other guy to death and then take his lunch. That’s hard. I’m a driven individual with two massively successful careers and a third I wasn’t bad in, and I look at someone like Khoo and think he’s insane. I look at someone like my own father1, and think he’s not balanced. But think about it: when you’ve taken the ultimate leap of faith, where failure means possibly living out of a box in a street, you have little patience for someone who carps because they’re slightly underpaid. Robert must be looking at some of the online criticism of his job posting and laughing; I mean, shit, they relocate and pay medical, what more do these people want? What have they done? Did they take a decent webcomic and turn it into not only the industry’s leading comic, but also a merchandise peddler who has put out their own video games and runs the second largest video game related convention in the world, a webcomic that, if not for this one individual, would probably be closer to VGCats and Ctrl-Alt-Del than people want to admit? I can imagine Robert asking people, why aren’t you me? What have you sacrificed? What risks have you taken? What price have you paid where you can criticize me!?
Here’s the problem that people like Robert Khoo don’t understand: they are exceptional individuals. They are a rare breed – maybe one in every fifty thousand – but because they’re consumed during every moment of their day by success, they don’t have the empathy to understand those who want a little more “life” to their work/life balance; in fact, empathy is a job detriment to someone like this because it serves as a distraction. These are driven individuals, pushing themselves to a level that they know not many can attain, and they don’t have the time to placate those that don’t have their drive. Stragglers to the back, ride or die.
This explains the criticism of the job posting, which is really just Robert Khoo looking for another Robert Khoo, in a way that will weed out those who would otherwise be pretending to the proverbial throne. Is Robert asking for the hypothetical unicorn with his ridiculous list of requirements and jobs? Absolutely! Of course he is! He is a smart, savvy individual; he knows how rare someone is that not only has those qualifications, but is willing to take them at a below-market rate in an expensive city (Seattle). When he sees people mocking him and his company for their setbacks such as the Dickwolves saga, or whatever other ridiculous crap comes out of Mike Krahulik’s mouth because he’s too immature to exercise some impulse control, or laughing at the demands he has laid out, he probably just smiles; he didn’t need them anyway. He’s chasing a unicorn, after all; you can’t just buy them in a farm.
Mr. Khoo, being a very smart businessman who knows his industry inside and out, also knows that the things that don’t make sense to others, either to “normal” sysadmins or to partisans who are still upset over Dickwolves, will drive the kind of person he wants. Simply put, he knows that just being Penny Arcade, with a fanbase that insulates them from most criticism, means he could ask for anything he wants and get it. This is a company that had a very successful Kickstarter to effectively pay their bills for years, and then some, because of the devotion that some have to the brand. That kind of devotion gives very select perks to the company that enjoys them, and the video game industry, along with other universally popular entertainment mediums is loaded with people wanting to give perks. Sports teams, musical acts, video game developers, all of these people hire their help at below market value simply so these people can have the opportunity of “breaking in” and being a part of the medium they love so much.
Therefore, Robert Khoo wasn’t just justified in wording his posting the way he did, it was a brilliant stroke of marketing. The people who want this job, weather they know it sucks or not, are perfectly fine with that because HOLY SHIT DUDE I WORK FOR PENNY ARCADE! I SEE JERRY EVERY DAY, BRO! These are the same people who get into games writing, not so they can score free games – let’s face it, no one really wants that free copy of the latest Dora the Explorer game – but so they can tell their friends they got those free games. “Dude, I got a huge game two weeks early!” “Which one!?!?” “Well, I can’t talk about it, you know? We get embargoes in the business.” “Oooooooh!”
Of course, the youthful naivety of working in games quickly evaporates in the mist of 20 hour crunch periods for months at a time, the insipid lack of job security, and the expectation – both at the executive level, and among peers in an environment that mimics Lord of the Flies – that anyone who doesn’t participate in this dangerous, fallacious Kabuki play is weak, or doesn’t want it. They are dismissed, washed out. It’s an industry that eats its young, which Penny Arcade itself has noted before. The industry’s graveyard is loaded to the brim with people who have gone to the end of their ropes, trying to get games out, only to find out that their love for the industry was not only not appreciated, it was abused, exploited by money men who have no such impediments. It’s not much different than a rock star or famous athlete taking advantage of a female fan of their work to get a quick night in bed before leaving them and moving onto the next fan, though it does involve less bodily fluid.
That’s what brings this from just a cheeky job posting into something insidious. The people at Penny Arcade are intimately aware that this is an industry loaded with people who put themselves through horrific conditions “for the love”, and have mocked that idiotic mindset, and yet here they are, perpetuating it. I’ve defended PA frequently in years past – Dickwolves in particular comes to mind – but there is no defending what serves on its face to be bald-faced hypocrisy. The man perpetuating it might not be the one writing the strips, but Jerry and Mike have signed off on it. They will hire someone with either laughable naivety, or inhuman drive to turn this into a net positive, very likely will burn them out until they find something better, and then hire the next one. The cycle they have derided in their work continues, and it makes me wonder about their sincerity.
I think that’s a major reason why we’re not hearing a whole lot from people in games media about this, with the exception of a few low-level workers and a few women who will never forgive Dickwolves. Ignore Ben Kuchera, who would almost surely be weighing in were he not actually writing for Penny Arcade; the real issue is that the people who write professionally, and full time, are just as driven by things that can’t be quantified as those who work in QA. IGN, Game Informer, GameSpot, Giant Bomb, Destructoid, the real thing holding them all together is the fact that they have all taken very poor paying work, with no job security and less appreciation, for people exploiting their love of video games and desire to be closer to them for their own gain. There’s really nothing that someone working for those places can – or will – say, because in reality, they’re just like that person who will eventually get this job. They are, themselves, unicorns, only with far less sellable skillsets.
To me, what the PA job posting really does is tear away, once and for all, any notion that there are any genuinely sincere people in this, or really any, industry. At the end of the day, everything has a business purpose. PAX wasn’t noble; it was a business venture. Child’s Play isn’t just a wonderful charity; it’s a happy accident for people who want to increase their public relations and Q score. Ultimately, we can say or even do all of these wonderful things, but at the end of the day, they don’t matter, because none of them would be said or done if they didn’t ultimately bring home the bacon.
I’d say I would feel sorry for anyone who takes the Penny Arcade 4-in-1-for-peanuts job, but at best, my sympathy would fall on deaf ears. Unicorns don’t have time for that shit.
1 – This deserves a footnote. A quick note on my father: he came from a rural village in Greece, and basically worked as a deckhand on a ship, looking for the opportunity to emigrate to America. When the opportunity finally came, he jumped ashore, punched out a Philadelphia cop trying to stop him, hid out in a ghetto (because he got the wrong address from a friend), and eventually found his way up the eastern shoreline. When he got to America, he knew NO English; he had to order eggs by cracking pretend eggs together. He eventually got a job as a dishwasher. That was in 1973; 40 years later, he’s naturalized, and owns two businesses that employ about 60 people. But yes, please tell me that illegal immigrants are taking our jobs and hurting America.