Header photo courtesy of Scott Benson

In 2018, Video Game Developers Took Unionization Seriously

In a year filled with debate about work-life balance, crunch culture, and "passion," the first steps towards developer organization are finally being taken.

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Dec 17 2018, 8:30pm

Header photo courtesy of Scott Benson

Welcome to Waypoint's End of Year celebration! This year, we're digging deep into our favorite games with dedicated podcasts, interviewing each other about our personal top 10 lists, and reflecting on the year with essays from the staff and some of our favorite freelance contributors. Check out the entire package right here!

At the Game Developers Conference in March of this year, International Game Developers Association chair Jen McLean—along with other representatives of the IGDA—were met at a roundtable with a standing-room-only crowd eager to speak loudly about issues that had been too often relegated to whispered asides and quiet addendums. Crunch. Gendered pay parity. Workplace culture. Frustrations that had been long considered untouchable by game development culture.

The conversation felt vital. Partially because it had taken so long to happen, and partially because it was on the heels of a rare developer’s strike in France by workers at Eugen Systems—a strike that would end in a frustrating halt weeks later. This group of game developers, union representatives, labor advocates, and members of the nascent Game Workers Unite organization knew that if things were going to change, they had to start somewhere.

It had long been considered that organization for game developers was an unattainable dream.

The games industry has a tumultuous relationship with labor, passion, and organization around these issues. The largest organization of game developers worldwide, the IGDA, has declined to take a stance on whether or not the organization supports unionization efforts in the industry, despite mountains of evidence suggesting that doing so would lead to better conditions for workers.

Video games have, by and large, avoided or brushed past the question of labor rights for years, yet somehow, 2018 was the year where the nucleus of change began to form. Between strikes like those at Eugen Systems, the formation of labor organizations like Game Workers Unite, and with discussions of game developer labor abuse making headlines on mainstream gaming websites, we saw the smallest cracks in the armor of gaming’s behemoth structures—the same institutions that saw any challenge to their labor practices as deadly to the medium itself. This idea is, of course, false.

GWU zine
Photo courtesy of Game Workers Unite

It always is. When they aren’t co-opting pro-labor language (as in “right to work” rhetoric), companies faced with organization from a workerbase and politicians who oppose organization often claim that if workers are treated more fairly, the product or output of the work will itself be damaged. “Our business model,” says a leaked, anti-labor video that Amazon circulates to “Team Leaders” at its Whole Foods grocery store chain, ”is built upon speed, innovation, and customer obsession—things that are generally not associated with union.” Their case is clear: Unions lead to worse output. But this wasn’t true during the early labor struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries, and it is no more true now.

It had long been considered that organization for game developers was an unattainable dream. There were simply too many developers, working too disparately, and each one too individually replaceable, to ever make a dent in the national conversation around game dev labor. Crunch, while regrettable, was only ever spoken about in whispers, or shrugged off after a month of discussion of a notable example. “It’s a part of the industry,” the conversation would go, “Nothing we can do about it, unfortunately.”

Game Workers Unite, formed in the months prior to 2018’s GDC and continuing work afterward, now has twenty-four chapters across the United States, Canada, and multiple countries in Europe. The group supports unionization efforts in the industry and offer communication, resources, and networking for developers looking to change their workplaces to become more cooperative and organized. Representatives from the organization hosted panels at multiple games events including PAX and EGX, lead organizer Emma Kinema has moved onto working on GWU full-time, and Game Workers Unite UK announced their official union status within the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain in early December.

Dead Cells
Dead Cells screenshot courtesy of Motion Twin

GWU wasn’t the only headline catching organization dedicated to economic equality in the games industry this year, though.

The winner of The Game Awards’ “Best Action Game” category went to Dead Cells, the creation of French game studio Motion Twin. Profiled in June at Kotaku, Motion Twin is notable for being, in their own words, an “anarcho-syndical workers cooperative”, where no member is paid more than any other. For a game made in those conditions to win an award at one of the largest and most ostentatious events in the games industry is nothing less than groundbreaking.

Not everything this year was rosy, however. The shuttering of many notable studios (Telltale, Boss Key, Motiga, Capcom Vancouver, just to name a small handful) led to discussions about how worker organization could possibly soften the blow of these dramatic closures, or even avoid them altogether. Conversations that usually were swept under the rug or shooed away with weak explanations of “the games just weren’t that good” became deeper ruminations on how studio mismanagement can lead to ruin.

After the bankruptcy and closure of Telltale games, ex-employees flooded social media with stories of overwork, underpay, and mismanagement. A class-action lawsuit was filed, alleging that the company violated California labor laws by refusing to notify employees prior to studio closure.The event was a microcosm of a larger industry-wide frustration: workers did not feel valued, listened to, or respected.

While many of the Telltale employees previously working on Telltale’s adaptation of The Walking Dead were hired by Skybound Studios (producers of The Walking Dead comic series), the layoffs nonetheless raised some important questions Unlike some other industries, games had few to no safety nets or reliable methods of confrontation for workers unjustly laid off or abused on the job, and the possibility of striking without union protection left their jobs vulnerable to scab labor rushing in to fill the vacuum of unworked jobs.

In the wake of sexual abuse allegations leveled at the founders of Midboss (creators of Read Only Memories), I wrote about how unionization and labor organization would be important not just for traditional large studios, but for smaller independent studios as well. Labor organization shouldn’t be a commodity available only to those who work in larger, more interconnected studios.

The balance is not even.

And, of course, the spectre looming over all of this year was the grand western spectacle of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, the game where studio lead Dan Houser spoke of working 100-hour weeks on in preparation of launch. Rockstar, a studio with a history of overwork and crunch that dates back to the launch of the first Red Dead Redemption, is no stranger to the “passion” argument. Even in a clarification offered to Kotaku, Houser reiterated that those hours were indicative of a few key higher-up employees choosing to work those hours because they are “very passionate” about their work.

Passion is a strange thing. It’s venerable, understandable, to be passionate about something that you care about—to work on it too much, to spend time thinking about it, to care about its future success or failure. But the passion of laboring over one’s own work is a very different passion than that of the zealous employee, whose livelihood may depend on how “passionate” they can appear to higher-up management. The balance is not even.

So when we look back on this year in 2019 (or 2025 or 2040), I would hope that we look back on it and see the seeds of a better world germinating. I would hope that when we think about 2018, we think about our setbacks just as much as much as our unrelenting hope for an industry that cares about its workers as much as it fawns over their work.

At the very least, I hope that when we look back at this year, we can remember twelve angry months of not shutting up about a dream of a more equitable games industry, and that’s something that can never be taken away from us.