After Destroying Lives For Decades, Gaming Is Finally Talking Unionization
A concern-trolling panel at the Game Developers Conference was the catalyst that led workers to start organizing in a way they never have before.
Photo courtesy Emma/Game Workers Unite
At this point, you already know the facts: Game workers crunch too much. They’re underpaid compared to comparable positions in other industries. They burn out fast and young. We’ve had, for years upon years, stories and statistics proving all of this, decades of anonymous interviews with artists and coders desperate for something to change, from EA Spouse to the Rockstar Spouses, from The Guardian to Kotaku to here at Waypoint.
We are all aware. Awareness alone has changed nothing.
A little over a week ago, a blip came over the feed of a small Facebook chat group dedicated to discussing games and their creation. It was a link to a roundtable announcement at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. On March 21st, Jen MacLean, executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), was heading up a talk on games industry unionization.
The IGDA is an organization which advocates on behalf of games industry workers, with special attention to anti-censorship efforts and raising awareness of poor worker conditions, but the practical effect of their panels on censorship and quality of life surveys is an endless spinning of tires. The board of the IGDA is regularly made up of studio CEOs and the like, with a few token board appointments from programmers, artists, indie developers, and the like to hide the organization’s true purpose of blunting any real change which could possibly be affected by workers. They have a big presence at the GDC every year, where they do a lot of panels with appeals to education, raising awareness, and such, but there’s invariably something blandly controversial, like casually equating governments regulating loot boxes with mass Chinese censorship of games. Because of that, things like this year’s union roundtable announcement pass by without much more than a rolling of the eyes.
But in this case, the panel was clearly skewed toward blunting union sentiment. It was right there in the title. “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization for Game Devs Roundtable.” (My emphasis). Perhaps it was the contradictions layered one on top of another which made the union roundtable too much for some to bear this time. Whatever the spark was, it tindered a flame.
The small Facebook group became a bigger one on Twitter, which then became an even bigger movement across multiple channels. What had been six odd people became dozens, a hundred, and suddenly a direct action was in place. Handout literature was printed, as were as buttons designed by Scott Benson, co-creator of Night in the Woods. A website was quickly set up under the group’s name, Game Workers Unite. But most of all, the core was people from all corners of the industry—artists, coders, writers, AAA, indie, and everything in between—in an enthusiastic virtual salon, talking tactics, strategy, and theory to figure out how we get from what was and is to what can be.
(Full disclosure here: Quotes from my prior work for Jacobin and Giant Bomb feature prominently in the GDC action’s literature, so while I didn’t contribute to their organizing efforts and conducted myself in a hands-off fashion, I’m neither neutral nor strictly an observer to the proceedings.)
The rash of annoyance wasn’t something I’d seen before, because this was just what the IGDA does. There was nothing outwardly different, not from the days of board member Mike Capps saying working at Epic meant 60 hours a week, nor from when Darius Kazemi stepped down in protest of their ineffectiveness. You wouldn’t know it from the IGDA’s approach, but union support in the industry is growing.
"There’s a realization that, politically, everything is getting worse.” -Tim Colwill, Trade Unionist
“I’ve known people who have been blacklisted or fired, and there’s been so little recourse for people,” says Carolyn Jong, a Montreal-based organizer. For a long time, these stories were only told privately among friends, Jong says. But now that was changing, and the small groups were networking. “We were able to mobilize fairly quickly because we communicate with one another.”
“I think the title and language around the meeting seemed particularly like a red flag to me,” explains Emma, an organizer with GWU. “And the fact it was a roundtable, not a panel or lecture. It felt like more of an opportunity where we could arrive and get something out of it.”
What was so striking watching it unfold was the international flavor of the conversation. What had been strictly American and Canadian became transatlantic, as members of the Finnish and French games unions offered support, then transpacific as Australian organizers offered aid.
“I think things are just at a really bad place right now. There’s a realization that, politically, everything is getting worse,” says Tim Colwill, an Australian trade unionist. “Because of that, we’ve now got real talk of inequality and a need for change, for justice. For video game developers, it’s finally starting to push through.”
“People talk about unions like they’re impossible, but it’s just not true,." -Liz Ryerson, Game Designer & Critic
The French presence seemed most portentous. For the past three weeks, workers at Eugen Systems in Paris have been striking for nearly a month over unpaid wages, an action which comes on the heels of Quantic Dreams’ toxic workplace scandal. To have representatives of STJV, the recognized and registered French games union on board with the nascent efforts of Game Workers Unite was a recognition of the international predicament game developers are in.
“We want to share our experiences,” a STJV member, who requested anonymity for fear of studio reprisal in France, explains. “We came from a similar start, just a small group of workers talking about the struggle, but we want to make games better for everyone, not just the workers in France.”
It was a start, but only that. There was, however, an energy I’d never seen around questions of games industry unionization before. I watched organizers and dabblers alike put in hours of debate and work into the preparations. Theory was quickly translating to praxis, with the main thrust that if the IGDA was going to host a roundtable about unions, the room was going to skew pro-union because every piece of data we have suggests that the industry skews pro-union.
“People talk about unions like they’re impossible, but it’s just not true,” says Liz Ryerson, an independent game designer, critic, and GWU organizer. (Disclosure: Ryerson has previously written for Waypoint). “You can ask for more, you know? You don’t have to accept how things are because things are messed up, and most people know that.”
Annoyance, even fury, doesn’t mean much if it’s not translated to action on the ground. Aesthetics don’t win rights.
I couldn’t attend, so I’m relying on audio recordings from attendants and social media recaps, but it went well for the pro-union attendees and predictably for the IGDA. No photos were allowed due to privacy concerns, but the room filled up quickly to standing room only. Union representatives from the STJV were present, as were SAG-AFTRA (who supported a voice actors’ strike last year). The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) gave a primer on US labor law to attendees.
This is not incidental to the proceedings. One of the underlying tensions of the voice actors’ strike was developer frustration that the strikers were demanding benefits they felt they also deserved. In my interviews with SAG-AFTRA reps, voice actors conveyed a desire to lend their help in any broader unionization efforts. Their presence at the GDC roundtable offered follow-through on that expression of solidarity.
When Wednesday afternoon’s roundtable finally began, it was hard to know how things would proceed. To her credit, MacLean used her role as moderator to keep discourse at the event open and fast-moving, at least at the start. At the packed event, MacLean offered the audience ample opportunity to speak about what they thought unions could do for them. And it was packed; what was initially a 50 seat event moved to standing room only, a fact which was kept comfortable by the ample size of the conference room. MacLean offered a healthy dose of devil’s advocacy, at one point asking the room if there were problems a union couldn’t solve. This question was met with silence.
Most of the audience participation emphasized the need for unions, and attendees told stories familiar to anyone who's been following games. One speaker burned out of the industry. Another felt intimidated by his employer. The speakers came from union and non-union backgrounds, and crossed gender, race, and nationality. And every single one told some variation of those old, worn stories, before expressing hope a union can help what has become a grossly inequitable industry.
"If you’re making indie work? You’re not secure. You’re just not. You’re one recession away, right?" -Scott Benson, Night in the Woods
There was applause, too. An Australian woman, part of the French game union, was cheered when she called out unpaid internships. The next speaker spoke about the ability of a union to make a difference in the lives of marginalized people of color, LGBTQ, and others.
It was there MacLean’s responses took a telling turn.
“Wait,” MacLean asked, “How do you see unions helping protect marginalized people?”
The question had already been answered prior, when the speaker brought up equal pay, and further answered when they mentioned their grad student union helping trans bathroom rights at their university, but MacLean’s question wasn’t looking for an answer. It was a wedge, designed to create an imaginary rift between the class concerns typically associated with union questions and the cultural questions of identity.
As the evening wore on, her interruptions became more frequent, the politeness more forced. The audience began to become more restive, as well. It was tense because it mattered.
It wasn't hard to see this coming; MacLean’s sotto voce anti-unionism took an increasingly tactless turn leading up to the event. In an interview with Matt Kim over at USGamer, she stated “a lot of studios out there that crunch are very well known for crunching. When you go to work there, it's not a surprise when you're asked to work 60-70 hour weeks.” This not only states that the employee should’ve known better than going to that crunchy studio if they end up unhappy, but it is expressly a defense of crunch. It’s just how some studios operate.
An interview with Kotaku saw an expression of similar sentiments, with the addition that a dream of owning your own studio is a better end reward for putting up with the nonsense of the industry than a union aimed at preventing the nonsense in the first place.
There were multiple references in both interviews to big bonuses making it even out; I was told by multiple people insisting on anonymity, due to fears of industry retribution, about the clauses in their AAA bonuses, most of which were so arcane that the bonuses were either much smaller than expected or never arrived at all.
The own-your-own-studio appeal also felt jarring and unreal, deeply at odds with lived experience.
“We’re all going to be in this position again,” says Benson, the indie dev and indie studio co-owner whose Night in the Woods came away with the 2018 IGF Sheamus McNally Grand Prize later that evening. “If you’re making indie work? You’re not secure. You’re just not. You’re one recession away, right? No matter how good you are, unless you make millions. For like a week maybe, or a year? Yeah, maybe, you’re in charge.”
When your funding comes from studios, you can’t then advocate for a necessarily adversarial relationship with those same studios.
MacLean’s defensive posture amounted to anti-union rhetoric, but worse, it’s rhetoric for a status quo which the IGDA exists only in opposition to. You cannot expect the tension between labor and bosses to be resolved when you skew towards the bosses. When your funding comes from studios, you can’t then advocate for a necessarily adversarial relationship with those same studios. You can’t have executives from Epic, Kongregate, and 38 Studios on the board and get anywhere.
A short, but necessary, digression on 38 Studios and Jen MacLean. MacLean was the CEO of that studio, which ended up involved in one of the biggest scandals in video game history when it closed abruptly without paying $75 million in loans to the Rhode Island government. Putting the CEO of a company which so grossly mishandled its finances and the ambitions of its project, flaws in judgment which led to hundreds of layoffs, at the top of the IGDA seems odd only until you realize that the “CEO” in a person’s title means more than the studio name and history which follows it.
Ultimately, this is the root of why the roundtable set this off. It came at a time and place ready for the discussion, but sponsored by a creaky organization which just can’t do what’s needed. As one member of the GWU chat room put it, they’re well-meaning people with no imagination stuck in a mindset which says there’s no alternative to what we have.
"It feels sustainable and like something we can grow into something important." - Emma, GWU Organizer
“Speaking only for myself, there must be a replacement for the IGDA which is a union,” explains Ryerson. “It has to do what the IGDA claims to do, but actually does it. We’re not in a position to make demands now, but I think we want to push for an organization which does have that power.”
On Thursday evening, with criticism coming from multiple outlets, MacLean softened her stance in an interview with ZAM, stating “If you have a studio where, as Steve [Kaplan of the IATSE] mentioned [at the roundtable], the overwhelming majority of employees wants to unionise–and that was the union representative’s clear description of what has to happen [in order] to unionise–if that’s what our members want, that’s what we’ll support.”
There’s still a lot of room for skepticism. An awful lot of the ZAM interview still dwells within the IGDA’s established enthusiasm for talking about talking, and the criticism demanded some damage control. What matters is what the IGDA does from here, not what’s said.
Regardless, everyone I spoke to was buoyant after the roundtable. Some, like Emma, were charitable toward MacLean. Others less so. But not a one didn’t think there wasn’t more to come, even the more cautious among them.
“I’m optimistic,” says Emma. “I’ve done unionizing work in the past, I’ve worked in local politics. I’ve seen a real, tangible change happen for people’s lives, and I feel the same kind of cooperation, spirit, and energy here, the same as elsewhere. It feels sustainable and like something we can grow into something important. Even though we’re so young, and we need to be careful about growing sustainably and anonymity, we’re already talking with SAG, with the Writer’s Guild, with all these organizations. I think that’s a sign that this can be something real, not just at GDC, but something lasting and meaningful for everyone.”