IGDA head pledges to support growing unionization movement

Responding to criticism, the head of the biggest developers’ advocacy group says video game workers have the right to unionize – and she won’t stand in the way of those who do.

Labor abuses have been a major bone of contention in the game industry for decades, with many developers citing long sustained periods of unpaid overtime ("crunch"), routine massive layoffs, toxic workplace culture, and reprisal and blacklisting should they speak up about these issues. Though there have been periodic calls for unionization over the years, a labor movement within games has never quite taken shape, with the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) serving as the closest analog to a developers union.

But change is in the air. This year's Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco has witnessed the emergence of a new union advocacy movement, Game Workers Unite, who have throughout the week been distributing buttons, zines, and pamphlets arguing the benefits of unionization. Things came to a head following recent pieces in Kotaku and USGamer where the current head of the IGDA, Jen MacLean, offered mixed messages about the current unionization push.

After a packed roundtable meeting on Wednesday night in which speaker after speaker denounced the game industry’s poor working conditions, Zam sat down with Jen MacLean, the IGDA’s new director, to grill her on her stance. She stood by her concern that unions could have negative consequences – but she also unambiguously backed developers’ right to unionize, and said the IGDA would support those who choose to do so.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jen MacLean, current executive director of the IGDA. Jen MacLean, current executive director of the IGDA.

ZAM: How do you think the roundtable discussion yesterday went?

Jen MacLean: I was invited by GDC to moderate the roundtable, so this wasn’t actually a roundtable the IGDA organized. And I was really glad to have the union representatives [from IATSE and STJV] there – I’m not sure who invited them, but I’m glad that they did, because I think they were able to bring a lot of really constructive information to the conversation. We are all game developers, [but] we are not union experts, so to have union organizers there made the roundtable significantly more productive.

How representative would you say the sentiment in that room was of the wider industry?

That’s really hard to say. You heard from many students in that room, younger developers, people in the United States. [But the IGDA is] a global game development community and we have to move away from the perception of games and the challenges game developers face being driven by what is happening in the United States. I think it was fantastic to have STJV [the French videogame workers’ union] there talking about their experience in France.

I wish we had been able to hear more from people from other parts of the world. [But] I think the audience was generally extraordinary respectful; I really appreciated how they snapped [their fingers] to show approval in a constructive and non-disruptive way.

One of the things that I think is really important to note is that the IGDA is not a union, it was never meant to be a union, we legally cannot be a union. The IGDA and unions are not mutually exclusive, and in many ways I think there is an opportunity for the IGDA to work with a union, should game developers decide to unionize. But I also think there need to be a lot of discussions amongst the game community on what unionization can accomplish, what form it should take, what it can accomplish and where other organizations, other companies and other individuals might be able to support individuals. 

So you don’t see the IGDA as being in competition with a union?

Not at all. 

So does the IGDA have a stance for or against unionization?

We don’t, and we see our role in the conversation as facilitating discussion and helping game developers collect as much information as possible.

Night in the Woods, which won the Grand Prize at Wednesday night's Independent Games Festival award ceremony, have been vocal about workers' rights and labour abuses in the industry. Scott Benson, one of the key creatives behind IGF Grand Prize winner Night in the Woods (pictured), has been vocal about workers' rights and labor abuses in the industry.

In the Kotaku podcast, you told Jason Schreier that you couldn’t say whether the IGDA would support a union because there were so many hypotheticals involved. Are there circumstances in which you would support developers who were unionising?

Here’s what I think the IGDA should support. The IGDA should support having discussions about unionization. There are so many hypotheticals about what form unionization could take, and you heard that yesterday in the roundtable. Is it a studio model, is it a guild model, is it a regional model; where is it happening, who’s covered, who isn’t covered, what is the union going to try to do, what aren’t they going to try to do? There are so many hypotheticals. To me, the role of the IGDA is to support the discussion.

"If you have a studio where... the overwhelming majority of employees want to unionize... that's what we'll support."

But if a union were to form along one of these models, for example in a specific sector or in a specific studio, would the IGDA not have a stance on that? Would it stay out of that, or would you say ‘good on you’?

Too many hypotheticals! I could see situations where we would say ‘great,' I could see situations where we would be more concerned. At the end of the day, though, our role is to support our members. If you have a studio where, as Steve [Kaplan of the IATSE] mentioned [at the roundtable], the overwhelming majority of employees wants to unionize – and that was the union representative’s clear description of what has to happen [in order] to unionize – if that’s what our members want, that’s what we’ll support.

So there are circumstances in which you would say, hey, our members want to do this, and this is a good idea?

Mm-hmm. And again it goes back to this not being an either/or conversation. There are things a union could do that the IGDA simply could not do and would never do because of our structure, our mission, and our goals. There are [also] things the IGDA couldn’t do that a union couldn’t do or wouldn’t do [either]. We should all be focused together on working together to drive as much benefit for game developers as possible. 

So you also said there are circumstances in which you’d have concerns about unionization. What are those circumstances?

You heard this a little bit in the dialogue in the roundtable yesterday. One person suggested that unions could provide candidates for job openings. Another person suggested that unions could review project plans to evaluate them. I think in both of those cases those aren’t roles that unions are suited for and that doesn’t benefit developers. And I think unions would actually agree on that: When you look for example at the Hollywood model, unions establish safe working conditions and fair compensation, they don’t weigh in on which director should be hired or whether or not the plan for the movie has merit.

What are the things you think a union should not do in game development?

[Laughs] At the end of the day I think creative game development decisions should be left to game developers.

So where a proposed union structure would have control or influence over creative decisions, that’s something you would oppose?

That’s something that would make me very uneasy, because I think it would make it harder to make successful games and to have successful game development careers. 

What about the size of unions? There was discussion yesterday about whether it’s appropriate for union provisions to apply to smaller studios. Is that something you’re concerned about?

It is. I think it’s a great example of why more discussion is needed. You can absolutely say that different provisions should apply differently, but the devil is in the details. To me, if we agree, and I think we all do, that asking your employees to work 80 hour weeks is untenable and shouldn’t happen, then it shouldn’t happen whether you’re a two-person studio or a 2,000-person studio.

IGF nominee Tacoma focuses on worker exploitation aboard a remote space station. IGF nominee Tacoma discusses worker disenfranchisement aboard a remote space station.

Are you concerned that provisions mandated by unions would make it more difficult for small developers to fund their games?

I think this is one of the questions where we talk about unions but there are so many hypotheticals. If it is a studio-based union, small developers may just decide not to unionize and it’s a moot point. If it’s a guild-based union that may stop a small developer from being able to hire a union worker, and I think that would be a real shame. But there are so many potential variables here, particularly where you consider that we are a global development community and many studios have distributed workforces that it’s hard to make a blanket generalization.

So talking about crunch: there was obviously a sentiment in that room that crunch happens because labor doesn’t have enough bargaining power. Why do you think crunch happens?

One of the big problems I see in the games industry is that we push people into management positions without preparing them to be good managers or good leaders, and that perpetuates terrible behavior. So many times you see an outstanding individual contributor targeted for promotion but given absolutely no support from their employer, no education, no tools to learn how to be a good manager, and it doesn’t follow that someone is great as an individual contributor is therefore a good manager.

When you promote someone without giving them the education and support they need to be great at their job you’re unfairly penalising them and you’re also unfairly penalising everyone who works with them. That practice is far too common and it needs to change.

Is burnout part of that problem, if people who get to a certain level of seniority think ‘I can’t do this anymore’?

Absolutely. We don’t talk enough about turnover in our industry. Turnover has direct and indirect costs. And the Society for Human Resource Management cites as a direct cost anywhere between six months or twelve months of an experienced employee’s annual salary to replace them. That’s huge, especially for small companies. The indirect cost is that you lose out on the benefits of all the painful experience that someone has learned in their 5-7 years in game development. You don’t have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes they’ve made because they’ve left the industry.

We as a game development community absolutely need to do a better job of retaining our resource, and also of bringing people back into the games industry. I don’t think that will happen unless we focus on making game development a better career choice and a better place to work.

Some of the printed materials unionisation advocates have been distributing over the past week at GDC. Some of the printed materials that unionization advocacy group Game Workers Unite have distributed at GDC over the past week.

There is a pattern of studios bulking up when they have a success and then laying everyone off at the end. You’ve expressed scepticism that unions can help solve this. Can you elaborate on that?

In my experience, when people bulk up and [then] lay people off, it’s a smaller studio. They generally do it because of cashflow reasons. There are also large studios that hire towards the end of the project deliberately with a plan to lay people off and that’s different.

I don’t see how a union could address a studio running out of money. And if I’m missing something I’d love to have somebody pointing it out. So there is more than one problem contributing to the challenges that game developers face and there’s more than one solution that needs to be put in place. 

I have to say I haven’t heard anyone saying that is a problem that unions can solve. I don’t think any advocates for unions have told me ‘we think unions can solve cashflow problems.’

I asked that question very deliberately: what are the problems unions can solve, and how can they solve them? So if you have someone say that one problem is studios staffing up and laying off, the follow-on is: How can unions solve them? If the root of the problem is bad management practices, then unions can absolutely step in. If the root is that you planned for a game to be successful and it wasn’t, I don’t think it is reasonable for a union to address that. It’s unfortunately beyond their impact.

If we don’t have conversations about the root cause and the way any organization can impact it then we’re not going to put anything in place that can solve the problem in a permanent way.

"Game developers don’t feel like their companies are investing in them. They feel like they are being treated as a disposable, throwaway resource."

Do you think that issues which cannot be solved by unions contribute more to crunch and bad working conditions than issues which can be solved by unions?

One of the things I heard very clearly in the roundtable is that unions may not be able to stop crunch from happening entirely, but they can ensure that employees are fairly compensated for it. That was a very perceptive and important point. If you are working on a live game that goes down at 5pm on a Friday, and your customers can’t play, you will have to stay at work to fix it. A union is not going to stop the game from going down. What they could do is make sure that your company has to pay you fairly for the time that you have to spend to fix it.

And I think that’s a really important distinction to make and I’m glad it came up in the roundtable. Because of the nature of running live services, sometimes you will be asked to step in when you would rather not be working. The follow-up question there is, how does the company make sure its employees are valued and treated fairly?

There was another really important point made at the roundtable: Game developers don’t feel like their companies are investing in them. They feel like they are being treated as a disposable, throwaway resource. I hope companies hear that loud and clear, because if they want to make the best possible games with the best possible people, they need to not only deliberately invest in their employees but make sure that employees feel that they are valued, being heard, and being listened to.

That’s something that companies can act on today with or without a union in place. unionization is going to be a long discussion; it’s going to be a long process. Because of the laws around the world it will never happen everywhere. But companies can be proactive in valuing their employees, which translates into better games, which translates into happier employees, which translates into lower costs fundamentally because you don’t have to deal with turnover, with losing the talent, with repeating the same mistakes because you’ve lost your experienced developers who already know so much. That’s something they can and should do today. 

Tim Schafer, shown here accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award at last night's Game Developer Choice Awards ceremony, has been vocal about studios reducing crunch. (Photo: Official GDC photo stream.) Double Fine's Tim Schafer, shown here accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award at last night's Game Developer Choice Awards ceremony, has been vocal about studios reducing crunch. (Photo: Official GDC photo stream.)

Do you think it’s possible or likely that we’ll have a broad move away from crunch without unions being part of the game? How would that happen?

There are some companies that have already moved away from crunch. There are some companies that will never move away from crunch.

What should game developers do about the latter?

I think that’s a great question. The problem is that if you were to say “well, just don’t work for that company,” that’s extraordinarily privileged and that’s not realistic. Sometimes people cannot leave a job that they have; they may not be able to find another job in the area, they may not be able to move their family across the country or across the world.

As much as possible, we need collectively to talk about the consequences of bad management decisions like crunch, and I think also to highlight people and studios like Double Fine that talk explicitly about their philosophy about crunch and why they do their best to avoid it. I’m sure you’ve read Tim Schafer’s post about the lessons he has learned over his career in game development. It is in many ways far more effective to have your peer or have somebody you admire tell you about what they’ve learned and how they’ve made changes and how they are able to still deliver world class games than to have someone from the outside from any organization say “you shouldn’t do this, this is bad.” Even when it’s true – it is bad, unquestionably.

Do you think change driven by persuasion, by the carrot, is preferable to change driven by unionization or the threat of unionization?

I don’t think it has to be an either/or conversation. If we can have somebody change today because they hear from somebody they admire and from their team that this change has to be made, that’s better than having them change in three years because the studio organized. If they won’t change today, then absolutely move forward with other ways to force the change.

"No one should be penalised for discussing unions. Absolutely, unequivocally not."

In the roundtable yesterday you asked to have no photos because of fears of reprisal from employers. Is that a matter of concern to you, that people don’t feel they can discuss this completely legal topic, one you think is legitimate to discuss, without facing reprisals from their employers?

Oh, absolutely. You asked earlier about the IGDA’s stance on unionization. Our stance is that discussions need to happen. No one should be penalised for discussing unions. Absolutely, unequivocally not. And the reason I asked that there not be pictures is that I understand people do have that concern. I think it’s really important people do have that concern and to protect them. But also, to be absolutely adamant, there should never be reprisals for talking about unionization. 

What can the IGDA do to stop reprisals? Apart from obscuring people’s identities.

Certainly, if that happens, supporting bringing it to light. Making sure people understand that that’s illegal. And supporting union organizers who call that out. There are a lot of areas of common ground here. And we believe that game developers should never be penalised for trying to improve their working conditions, no matter what, and we’ll support anybody who challenges those kinds of reprisals if they occur.

Night in the Woods Night in the Woods.

So even though you have concerns about what forms unions will take, it sounds like you support the right of game workers to unionize.

Absolutely. Completely. And to me that fundamentally gets to the right of someone to improve their life, it gets to free speech, it gets to so many of the things that we should value in our life. 

People have spoken to me about the idea that there are blacklists of pro-union developers. Is that something you’ve heard of happening?

I’ve never seen a blacklist. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, but I’ve never heard of one and I’ve never seen one. 

One thing that I’m slightly unclear on in this conversation is that you say the IGDA is not a lobbying organization, and it’s not for you to lobby one way or the other on unionization. But you’re also expressing opinions about what kind of unionization would be appropriate, when it would be appropriate and when it wouldn’t. That feels inconsistent for me.

Fundamentally I believe the IGDA’s role is to help game developers gather information. So when I ask questions about what can unions do and how would they do it, I think that is something that is an important question to ask. And if I push back on an answer to a question, for example the answer where somebody suggested that unions could provide candidates for job openings, it’s because I think that’s something which wouldn’t accomplish the change someone is suggesting.

That’s an example of the kind of discussions we need to have about unionization because it is such an extraordinary complicated topic. And at the end of the day the IGDA’s role is to facilitate those discussions.

"It sounds like you support the right of game workers to unionize."

"Absolutely. Completely."

Which you’ve certainly one. But what I mean is you do have a stance that there are certain functions you don’t think a union should fulfil, and I’m not sure how that dovetails with you not being a lobbying organization.

From my perspective, I’m not going out saying “unions should not do X, unions should not do y.” I’m happy to offer my opinion if asked! But at the end of the day it is up to our members. And my focus is consistently on what is best for our members and how the IGDA can support our members and the global game development community.

Unions obviously arose from this particular political moment, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. They tend to make a distinction between workers and bosses. Whose side are you on in that?

We’re on the game developers’ side. And the truth is that “game developers” includes individual contributors, and it includes bosses, and it includes the one person indie studio and it includes the thousand person AAA studio. And I think all those communities have far more commonalities than differences.

Do you think there’s a danger in seeing game development through that prism, of workers versus bosses?

Having been both a worker and a boss, I do. Because I think it sets up a conflict that doesn’t always happen. And this gets back to the point I made earlier about making sure that when someone becomes a manager they are well prepared to succeed. Because if they’re not supported, if they’re not given education, if they’re not given training, it not only impacts them, it impacts everyone who works with them, either directly under them or as peers or even as bosses.

Helping to make that education possible, helping to make sure that we are doing everything we can, both as the IGDA, as companies, as individuals, as an industry, to position individuals for success is really, really important.

So you see yourself as equally representing developers, in whatever position of power within a studio?

Yes.

You said there are circumstances in which the IGDA would give its blessing to a union…

Mm-hmm.

Are there circumstances in which the IGDA would oppose the formation of a union along a certain pattern?

At the end of the day, it’s the members’ decision. We have opinions of areas where we think unions could potentially be harmful, but if our members decide that’s what we want to do, that’s what the IGDA would support.

I think an important role for the IGDA is empowering its chapters to have these discussions with its members. We have more chapters than any other organization in the world and I see our chapters’ roles because they are very specifically regional and they understand the needs of the local community as helping to facilitate these discussions. They are better positioned than anyone else to get good information into the hands of game developers.

Please stay tuned for our complete coverage of the IGDA unionization roundtable.