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Game Workers Unite: The Fight To Unionize The Video Game Industry

by David Milner on Dec 21, 2018 at 03:30 PM

In 2018, at expos across the world – from San Francisco to Melbourne, Montreal to Seattle, London to Tokyo – the first overt signs of an organized game developer pushback emerged from the shadows.

You could see it in the protest badges strewn across indie game booths at PAX. Developers handing out pamphlets in crowded hallways at GDC. Stickers with slogans like "Press X to form union" and "Fight bosses not devs" scattered across convention centers the world over. It's small but growing, tentative but tangible, a whisper bursting to scream.

At the heart of it all stands Game Workers Unite (GWU), a collective of largely anonymous activists that coordinate on platforms like Discord and Facebook. Comprised of both indie and triple-A developers, the GWU operates under a horizontal, democratic structure – everyone I speak to is reluctant to claim the mantle of "leader."

The time has come, they say, to form a trade union, to wrestle power back from exploitative bosses and owners and place it into the hands of the people who actually make the games we play: the developers.

"Game developers have such poor working conditions and pay compared to the rest of the tech industry, we're just here because we love it," says Emma Kinema (not her real name – more on that later), a key organizer in the United States and co-founder of the GWU.

"We're passionate about games; we're passionate about the things we make. And frankly, people shouldn't have to go bankrupt or bust because of their passion. People should be able to have consistent stable employment, safe working conditions, and fair union representation. That's why it's so important. That's why we're doing the work we're doing."

At this point it's no great revelation that developers are made to suffer for their craft. In the lead up to Red Dead Redemption II's launch, Rockstar Games vice president and lead writer Dan Houser boasted that employees had been working "100 hour weeks" to finish the game. Before going bankrupt, Telltale Games fired its entire staff without providing any form of severance support – all after months of making developers work extended hours without overtime pay.

Although these high-profile examples make the headlines, the problem runs far deeper. It's systemic. It's cultural. The 2015 International Game Developers’ Association (IGDA) survey found that 62-percent of developers experience crunch at work, a figure likely on the conservative side. As I wrote in our lengthy investigation earlier this year: crunch is the rule, not the exception.

Thus far attempts to improve working conditions and pay within the existing frameworks have yielded insignificant (and often temporary) results. Asking for change hasn't worked – The GWU believes it's time to start demanding it.

A GWU pamphlet handed out to game developers at expos across the world

Who Are They?

I first spoke with Kinema after the Game Developers' Conference (GDC) in March 2018. San Francisco's annual gathering is usually a hub for discussions on development tools, design ideas, and monetizing games. The industry celebrates its successes and dissects its failures together. This year was different.

Following a poorly received panel on the pros and cons of unionization – which the overwhelmingly pro-union crowd felt far too heavily stressed the cons – the development Twittershphere erupted with calls for a developers' union. The backlash towards the panel, which was chaired by IGDA executive director Jen MacLean, raised the GWU's profile dramatically.

The GWU, essentially half-a-dozen people up to this point, morphed into something formidable. A few weeks after GDC Kinema tells me GWU membership had grown to around 300 people. In late November, when I ask for an update, she puts that figure closer to 600. The GWU's Twitter account has ballooned as well, now with 13,400 followers.

"Our membership is extremely diverse," she says. "We have folks in triple-A and larger studio contacts, but we also have folks from smaller mid-size mobile game studios, people from indie studios, small five-people teams... all wanting to come together to form a proper coalition to actually get unionization underway in our industry."

The ultimate goal, she says, is one big union for every developer, large and small, uniting coders and artists, designers and producers: "One umbrella game or software worker union, and then, if necessary, caucuses or guilds that represent the different disciplines. One type of workforce, triple-A or indie or what have you, doesn't exist independently of the others. And so we're all very committed to working together, regardless of the size of your studio or project."

As the games industry is a global beast, so too is the GWU. Tim Colwill, a former games journalist and current union representative in an unrelated industry, is helping the GWU set up in Australia. Though the smaller size of the Australian industry will necessitate structural differences (for example GWU Australia is looking to include all workers in the sector, from esports pros to marketing staff, not just developers), the philosophy remains the same. Colwill believes history shows that studio managers and owners will never improve working conditions unless their hand is forced.

"If your deadline is so unrealistic that you are destroying people's careers to make it happen, you need to morally reconsider how you operate. Because you have done something wrong," he says. "I know it sounds trite and everyone's got bills to pay and they've got bosses they've got to answer to, but the reality is if you unionize all the way up the chain you get results.

"We cannot wait for the boss to be better with hiring and firing. We cannot wait for the boss to make realistic deadlines. We cannot wait for the boss to come around, because if you wait for your employer to give you something, they will just take it away again when it's convenient for them. They'll always do that. You have to fight and win your own victories."

What's Next?

As the GWU attempts to evolve from an activist group into a legally recognized trade union, a considerable hurdle lies ahead: to be effective its members will need to step beyond the veil of anonymity.

As mentioned earlier, Emma Kinema is not her real name. It's an alias that allows her to continue advocating while being employed as a developer. In the United States, where she works, labor laws known as "at-will employment" mean that anyone can be fired for just about anything, as long as it's not for legally discriminatory grounds like race or gender. Although unionizing is legally protected, at-will laws make it easy for employers to concoct other reasons to lay off rabble-rousers.

"There's no doubt in my mind that my employment is at risk because of the work I do," she says. "I've taken pretty extreme lengths to separate all my engagement with the organization from any of my actual work, whether it's through my accounts or my personal websites, or my Twitter.

"In the United States, where I live, union organizing can be an extremely risky thing to be a part of. It's incredibly common for people to have their employers make repercussions against them, depending on their organizing work. Often people get fired if they are caught talking about things like unionizing and improving working conditions.

"We're very keen on making sure people are aware of the risks involved with labor organizing and also encourage people to only involve themselves at an anonymous level, if they're concerned about that stuff."

A handful of high-profile developers have publicly thrown their support behind the GWU, notably Night in the Woods co-creator Scott Benson, who designed the group's logo. But nearly all of these people tend to be self-employed, and therefore not at great risk of retaliation.

Colwill says that before going public it's wise for a workplace to reach the point where enough members have agreed to join the union privately so that immediate action could be taken in the face of employer retribution.

"You want to get to the point where if someone picks up the ring-leader, enough people are also ready and willing to quit on the spot to make picking off the ring-leader too costly," he says.

"And that's hard, basically saying, 'Are you committed enough to this that you will resign if this happens?' And most people aren't. And I respect that. I totally empathize with that. Of course they aren't, they've got bills to pay, they've got kids, whatever, I respect it. But that's how it's done.

"It is being willing to put everything on the line and say, 'You sacked this person so all 20 of us in this team are going.' And that makes the bosses reconsider. That works. And if you all go through with that, you usually get what you want. Because the boss can afford to sack one person. They can't afford to lose 20 people in one go. That will stall the whole project. They have to just make nice with that."

In the UK, where labor protection laws are considerably stronger than in the US, the GWU has already made that transition into a legally recognized trade union. Game Workers Unite UK has become a branch of the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), a union that describes itself as "representing sections of the workforce which have traditionally been non-unionized and under-represented."

With that official recognition, unionized game developers in the UK now have the legal right to go on strike for the first time. 

Karn Bianco, the recently elected chair of the GWU UK, says the new union is comprised of "members from a broad range of studios" and that "all of them are connected by the feeling that they need to stand together with each other, regardless of employer, to ensure better working conditions."

Their first priority, he says, will be campaigning on four key pillars: "Ending the institutionalised practice of excessive/unpaid overtime. Improving diversity and inclusion at all levels. Informing workers of their rights and supporting those who are abused, harassed, or in need of representation. And securing a steady and fair wage for all."


At What Cost?

There are, of course, numerous people and organizations with concerns about what a unionized development sector could do to the games industry. At PAX Aus in late October, I asked Jen MacLean, the host of the aforementioned controversial panel, for further comment on her position on unionization. She maintains that the IGDA's position is one of neutrality on the issue, but did outline some concerns.

"To clarify, I didn't run that panel as an IGDA panel. UBM [the GDC organizers – ed.] asked me to run it [as an individual], so it was not meant to be an IGDA panel. That said, I look at unionization from the perspective of someone who leads a global organization, and it's a very complicated issue."

"If it's an imperfect [union] model in that it means that you need to have a third-party sign off on any hours worked above 40 a week and you have to get it done in advance, that's not how game development works.

"I'm glad we're having conversations about unionization because the more visibility we bring to the issues game developers face, the better. But I think that conversation also has to look at what unions can and can't fix, how they would be fixed, and also the unintended consequences. If you were running a major publisher and the cost of labor suddenly goes up 25-percent outside of San Francisco, where are you going to invest your money?"

Union members do typically get paid more than equivalent non-union counterparts. A 2018 report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that across all sectors, non-union workers earn on average 80-percent of what union workers earn – $829 per week versus $1,041.

This means that a unionized workforce would cost game publishers more. However, Colwill disputes the notion that any cost increase needs to be passed on to consumers or offset by outsourcing to non-union labor elsewhere. This is, after all, one of the most profitable industries in the world. recently reported that global industry revenue was $134.9 billion in 2018. There's enough money – the problem is how it is distributed.

"I've seen gamers themselves say, 'I don't want developers to unionize because the price of my games will go up.' That's garbage," Colwill says. "If developers' wages go up that does not have to be passed on to the consumer – in fact it could very easily be absorbed by the profit of the company or by the CEO reducing their wages. Very easily.

"Bobby Kotick [Activision Blizzard CEO] earns 300 times what the average Activision employee earns. That's their actual data from their SCC filings. He made $28.69 million. So you cannot tell me that if we raise the wages of workers by a little bit that Bobby Kotick could not take that hit personally and still be okay. He makes 28 million a year. He's going to be fine."

Hearts And Minds

Kinema admits all the gains made this year are but the first small steps of thousands. For any of this to yield concrete results, ultimately, winning gamers over to the GWU's cause is crucial. "I think we can win the support of the gamer community. And I think we absolutely have to," she says.

"We can get the support of consumers on our side because we're not just against exploitative labor practices, but also exploitative business practices. A lot of things that gamers are currently concerned about, things like exploitative DLC, things like gambling mechanics being implemented into the industry on a wide scale – I think we can find common ground with people who play games, not just those who make games."

Common ground on its own might not be enough, though. Shortly after Telltale Games fired its workforce and prior to declaring bankruptcy, the company revealed it was speaking to external "development partners" to finish The Walking Dead. The reaction from fans was generally positive; the reaction from developers was overwhelmingly negative. How could this be considered a continuation of the same series when people, not logos, make games, after all?

More than anything it served as a reminder that as gamers we tend to fall in love with characters, not their creators. As an audience we are loyal to products, not the people behind them. For Bianco, common ground isn't enough – a common sense of humanity is what's required.

"We want to make sure that gamers understand the realities of how games are made and the fact that they're made by real people, not faceless, amorphous corporate entities," he says.

"This misunderstanding is one of the things that allows companies to overwork or mistreat employees. If someone gets burnt out and leaves a company, they can often be replaced without gamers or the wider world even noticing, let alone caring. By showing gamers that developers are real people, with real lives inside and outside of our work, we hope to increase empathy and reduce toxicity aimed at them. That makes it harder for companies to mistreat them, too."

Colwill echoes this sentiment, and points out that the PR hype machine (and by extension the games press) has a role to play in this equation.

"We need to start humanizing our devs," he says. "And that means breaking out of the PR mold that they are forced to be in, because they're not allowed to talk about this stuff when they're going on interview tours. You could never, with a PR handler in the room, with all respect to PR handlers, have a dev go on record and say, 'Yes, working conditions are terrible.'

"Devs need to be humanizing themselves and saying, 'Look, we deserve a fair pay for a fair day's work.' And that's something everyone can get behind. Any gamer that has a job should be able to understand that they want to get paid fairly at that job, and it's no different. It's about bridging that gap. And it's going to be hard because it is counter to what everyone who buys games has been taught for decades.

"It is going to be a case of appealing to the human need for basic decency and putting a face on exploited workers rather than allowing publishers to dictate the terms... The reality is that organizing and unionizing is the only way. So the question is how long until we figure it out? It's not a question of if, it's a question of when. There are no other options."

This is a fight that has just begun.