In a meeting room on the second floor of the newly renovated Moscone South exhibition complex, a wide-ranging and diverse group of game developers came together on Wednesday to voice interest in unionizing their industry. The discussion was billed as a roundtable event to be held during the Game Developers Conference this week in San Francisco. It was coordinated by the International Game Developers Association (IDGA), a nonprofit membership group that formed in the ‘90s amid conversations about violence in video games, and it was moderated by IGDA president Jen MacLean with the pointed title, “Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization.”
From start to finish, it was a tense affair, filled with passionate voices but punctuated at times by MacLean’s pronounced skepticism — mirrored in a telling interview she gave to Kotaku earlier this week — toward the benefits of unionization. It is the first of many promised discussions on the topic to be held by the IGDA, which does not in fact have leverage over game studios or publishers and is aimed only partly at advocacy issues. The IGDA has been called anti-union, and former members accuse it of acting as scapegoat for the game industry’s biggest players, which are able to point to the IGDA as a representative force for developers despite its lack of concrete bargaining power.
The topic of labor organizing is top of mind for game makers at GDC 2018
The topic of game industry labor organizing has flared up as a flashpoint between developers and the studios and publishers they work for here at GDC. Unionization is now top of mind for many industry employees who, for years and behind closed doors, have discussed exploitative and toxic working conditions up and down the industry ladder. Now, that conversation is moving into the light — the first step in a likely protracted, painful, yet important battle to improve the working conditions of the game industry.
Video games are incredibly difficult to make. It is no longer a secret that game studios, beholden to the logistic whims and financial resources of large sales-focused publishers, work their employees aggressively in pursuit of creating lavish virtual simulations for an industry now estimated to be worth $36 billion. Yet unlike Hollywood, which has had powerful California-based unions for decades that protect workers across fields like screenwriting and voice acting, the game industry is largely decentralized. Studios exist all over the world, subject to disparate labor laws, and game designers work often in wildly different contexts and conditions. Circumstances can change depending on the type of game being made, the length of the employment contract, and the variety of work being done.
As Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, who’s written at length on the subject of game industry working conditions, has often pointed out, it may be impossible to produce big-budget video games without driving the human beings tasked with doing the day-to-day work to the point of mental, physical, and emotional collapse. The most visible and lucrative blockbuster video games are simply too big, complicated, and expensive to create without requiring large amounts of talented and passionate human beings working mind-boggling hours across dozens of disciplines, all to meet ship dates and management-imposed quality bars.
Work weeks in the game industry can stretch to as long as 100 hours during what are known as crunch periods — in which entire studios race to meet crucial deadlines — sometimes with no overtime or time-off compensation and often with little to no regard for employees’ long-term well-being. Earlier this week, The Verge published an in-depth investigation into Telltale Games, the creator of popular narrative titles based on big tentpole TV franchises like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, and how the studio’s working conditions and accelerated growth pushed it to the breaking point in ways that echo the experience of many in the industry. “Everything [was] always on fire,” one source told The Verge of Telltale’s crunch culture. “What happens is the people who give a fuck the most are the people who pay the price,” said another.
Attendees spoke of grueling working hours and little to no job stability in games
The mood at the GDC roundtable reflected this somber reality. Many attendees spoke of grueling working hours, little to no job stability, lack of overtime compensation, burn out and aggressive employee churn, and various other physical and emotional tolls of modern game development. There was no question from the people who make games for a living that unionization could provide a clear path toward finding solutions to these endemic issues.
“Every company I’ve ever worked for has required an insane mandatory crunch. A lot of the problems I see are tremendous abuse from overworking their employees, burning people out, giving inadequate compensation,” Jean-Philippe Steinmetz, a veteran engineer in the game industry, told attendees of the roundtable. “For me, the problem is inherently in how studios and publishers across the board will abuse us as developers who are passionate about our work, who are willing to commit to the product, to work us insane hours without compensation and without respect for our personal lives.”
Other attendees, some of whom wished to remain anonymous for fear of workplace retaliation, pointed out a number of other concerns at the request of MacLean, who prodded speakers to concisely verbalize issues they think unions could help with. Those included more inclusive policies for minority and LGBT employees like gender-neutral bathrooms, more transparent and proactive policies around workplace harassment aimed at holding management accountable, and improved industry-wide standards around benefits like internship compensation, severance, and healthcare.
“It’s really important to unionize because workers have literally no representation or rights when it comes to negotiating with their companies or negotiating with their employer,” a game developer who goes by the name Emma told The Verge ahead of the IGDA roundtable. Emma, who said she fears harassment and retaliation and so is choosing not to share her last name or the name of her employer, helped organize an advocacy group called Game Workers Unite. The group, which Emma said is largely leaderless and operates horizontally, has been handing out zines and fliers at GDC this week with information on the topic, hoping to further the conversation.
The effort, which started small within the last month but has grown rapidly in popularity, is aimed at building a grassroots movement around industry unionization and finding a viable path toward making it a reality. “We’re looking at models like guilds and the examples led by a lot of digital media companies who are working with writers guilds to develop local unions,” Emma added. “If you’re working in games, there’s a 99 percent chance you’re being exploited as a worker. We’re trying to start that conversation because it’s really taboo.” (Employees of The Verge parent company Vox Media are among those in the digital media industry currently in the process of trying to unionize.)
Emma said that she feared the IGDA roundtable event was going to be an anti-union affair, with the IGDA using the opportunity to dissuade developers from organizing. And MacLean’s comments and questions did in fact veer toward anti-union rhetoric. Her questions and response were often aimed at interrogating attendees’ knowledge of unions and trying to poke holes in the concept that unions are bulletproof protections against the game industry’s many perils. MacLean stressed that unions may control which jobs its members take and which projects their employers pursue, and that they could be used to prevent studios from staffing up adequately. She also raised concerns about union abuses in unrelated industries like construction as evidence that unions can abuse their power.
Steve Kaplan, a labor organizer from Los Angeles who works with the labor union IATSE, also feared the event would be anti-union. He told The Verge he came to GDC specifically because he was made aware the roundtable may be skewed toward anti-union rhetoric. Kaplan, who’s spent eight years working with labor unions and got involved with the game industry through the year-long SAG-AFTRA voice actor strike, was often an informed, pro-union voice to counteract MacLean’s antagonistic moderation. “It goes back to getting yourself a seat at the table. Our brothers and sisters in France are striking because it took a year and a half to reach agreement that their employers didn’t take in good faith, so they had to take the nuclear option,” Kaplan told the crowd, referencing the ongoing game developer strike at French studio Eugen Systems. “Negotiations rarely are one-sided, both parties have to agree.”
“It goes back to getting yourself a seat at the table.”
Kaplan, easily one of the most experienced and knowledgeable in the room on the subject of unionization, had reasoned and pragmatic advice for developers. “It’s a big thing to unionize the industry, but it starts with a small step,” Kaplan said, adding it was very unlikely the entire industry would be unionized without first starting at specific studios. “It becomes this rising tide. The only reason that a lot of non-union commercials or episodic television or movies mirror working conditions is because those working conditions unions set become standard.” Kaplan stressed that first contracts are rarely “home runs” for workers, but that they form the basis for further bargaining and help workers build better projections over time through renegotiations.
While the discussion left many attendees with more questions than answers, what’s clear is that the rising tide Kaplan references is indeed underway. We don’t know if it’s possible for the game industry — which isn’t centralized in a city like Los Angeles, but instead spread across multiple continents — to replicate unionization models that have protected workers in the US for decades. It also feels painfully unlikely that companies as large as Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Take-Two Interactive will be supportive of any attempt of its employees to unionize. But developers are eager to figure out how to improve their lives and the working conditions of thousands of other workers, whether or not the IGDA or the Electronic Software Association, which has kept quiet on the subject this week during GDC, want to participate in good faith.
“We want to be the pro-worker IGDA, and we really do want to go in and have a conversation. We’re not going in to protest or fight or yell,” said Emma of the Game Workers Unite movement. “We want to see if there is a path to go forward where we work on these things, negotiate, and talk about first steps.”