The struggle to unionize video games

As the game industry's largest conference comes to a close, the fight for better working conditions has only just begun.

When I meet Emma at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, she is already being doxxed. As well as her phone constantly going off, she’s getting emails from all kinds of services asking if it’s really her logging in (it isn’t). The attacks, she suspects, have something to do with the fact that she is one of the more visible members of Game Workers Unite – a group fighting for unionization in the games industry which has already completely changed the conversation about developers’ labor rights.

For decades, game makers have endured brutal “crunch” periods of near-constant work, usually with no extra pay. They have been hired in bulk to finish difficult projects and then fired as soon as they are no longer needed. Their wages are far below those of other tech workers; they face harassment in the workplace and online (such as Emma) with little support from their employers. They have been subject to everything from stress-driven memory-loss through alleged anti-competitive salary-fixing to firing as punishment for asking about better working conditions. And yet there is nothing in North America resembling a game developers’ union.

For decades, game makers have endured brutal “crunch” periods of near-constant work, usually with no extra pay.

Instead, those who complain are often told that this is the life they chose – and if they don't like it, there are countless others ready to take their place.

Game Workers Unite wants to change that. It is a very new organization, catalyzed by the announcement of a GDC roundtable session which promised to discuss the problems that unions “might (and might not) solve,” as well as “outcomes both good and bad” and “intended and unintended consequences of a push towards unionization.” To Emma and Liz Ryerson, an indie game developer and digital artist, this language was alarming: it sounded like code for union-busting. And so, in the week before GDC, they began to organize.

Ryerson started a Twitter chat and then a Discord channel. They gathered sympathetic developers including Night in the Woods co-creator Scott Benson, veteran indie developer Dietrich Squinkifer, and video game agitprop-maker Paolo Pedercini. They contacted existing unions in the film and tech industries for advice; they produced buttons, flyers, and a zine promising “tips for beating all the bosses.” In particular, they wanted to make sure the roundtable wasn’t dominated by anti-union voices. They succeeded.

IGDA executive director Jen MacLean, speaking recently at Boston Post Mortem. IGDA executive director Jen MacLean, speaking recently at Boston Post Mortem.

Jen MacLean, the new executive director of the International Game Developers’ Association, moderated the roundtable. She had previously been the CEO of 38 Studios, which infamously collapsed in 2012, taking hundreds of employees and millions of dollars in Rhode Island state loans with it. How much of this MacLean personally oversaw is unclear: she is one of the defendants named in the state's lawsuit, but she was on maternity leave at the time of the studio's collapse. She took to social media to help 38 Studios employees find work and she has called her inclusion in the resulting lawsuit "baseless," but ultimately agreed to a $2.5 million settlement in 2016.

Interviewed before the panel, MacLean, despite her organization’s commitment to “advocate on behalf of [its] membership to ensure quality of life,” refused to say whether she would support a game workers’ union or even whether a union would improve labor rights. She insisted that there were too many complicated hypotheticals about how it might work to say whether it could.

But when 200-odd people crowded into the roundtable room on Wednesday, that was not the mood. First, reps from Hollywood unions had unexpectedly shown up to talk attendees through the process of unionizing a workplace. Then, speaker after speaker denounced working conditions in the game industry and proposed ways a union could improve their lives, often to loud applause and finger snapping.

It felt like a long-closed valve had been opened, letting off enormous pressure. One developer said he had crunched for nine months and received one single week of paid time off. Another talked about the terror of reporting workplace harassment to their HR manager, whose job is ultimately to protect the company, and how a union could serve as an impartial agent. Squinkifer proposed that unions could make life better for marginalized people by pushing for their interests. It was left to MacLean, the head of the world’s biggest developer advocacy organization, to fight the union-skeptic corner. At one point, she asked attendees to propose problems unionization would not solve. Everyone was silent.

The next day, in an interview with Zam, MacLean walked back her position. She still expressed skepticism about the role of unions, drawing a red line around the idea of unions “influencing creative decisions,” and called on game companies to change their working conditions without unionization being necessary. But if companies refused to change, she agreed that developers should unionize and said that if IGDA members wanted to do so, the IGDA would support them.

The scene outside the GDC unionization roundtable on Wednesday night. Faces have been blurred because game developers risk reprisal and backlisting for participating in union discussions. The scene outside the GDC unionization roundtable on Wednesday night. Faces have been blurred because game developers fear reprisal and backlisting if employers learn they've participated in union discussions.

For Emma, a studio developer in LA and former IGDA scholar who asked for her surname not to be used, all this is a vindication of GWU’s campaign. “We’re not going in and protesting the IGDA, we’re not going in for a fight,” she told me. “Jen does a lot of good work. But just shutting down the concept of unions will not function. When an organization is dependent on corporate sponsors [like the IGDA], inherently that is where their focus will be. We need a pro-worker organization, and right now we are the ones who are willing to step up and be that voice, be that shield.”

"When an organization is dependent on corporate sponsors [like the IGDA], inherently that is where their focus will be. We need a pro-worker organization."

At the core of this issue is whether the industry can reform without unionization. “Over the years I’ve witnessed multiple scandals,” said Katherine Neil, an Australian GWU member with years of triple-A experience. “Lots of handwringing but no significant changes. Advocacy, lobbying, complaining, public shaming, and improvements to production methods have failed. We need to come from a place of real bargaining power. I want to get on with my work with the security of a collective organization that has my back when I need it.”

To make that happen, GWU has to build itself into a sustainable professional organization. “Step number one is getting workers talking to each other, sharing resources and discussing,” said Emma. “So expect to see us at all major conventions and conferences. We’re in this for the long haul.”

In the future, Ryerson told me she would like to see the IGDA replaced by a national federation of unions which can pool their bargaining powers. “This is not a radical idea, it really isn’t,” she said. “Our current landscape has made these things seem more radical than they really are. But people deserve to have reasonable hours in their work and they deserve to have an organization that represents them.”

Independent developer and Game Workers Unite organizer Liz Ryerson holds up one of the group's information zines outside GDC. Independent developer and Game Workers Unite organizer Liz Ryerson holds up one of the group's information zines outside the conference center.

In this task, GWU is getting help from several existing unions. In 2017 French workers formed STJV, the Syndicate of Video Game Workers, to push for their rights. “STJV is only six months old, but has already disrupted many things in France,” said Emmanuel Corno, a member. The union has raised 10,000 euros for strikers at Eugen Systems, who say their payslips were delayed until they finished their next DLC, and provoked discussions in the French National Assembly. In a group statement, STJV told me bluntly: “We think that the video game industry is a mess. Nothing else than unionization can solve this on a large scale.”

Meanwhile in Scandinavia there is Game Makers of Finland, a subdivision of the Union of Professional Engineers which provides lawyers, salary counsellors, an unemployment fund, and insurance as well as a "Collective Agreement" setting working hours and sick pay in the largest game companies. “I know that things are different in the North America than here, but we support unionizing and cooperation in all over the world,” said founder and coordinator Milla Pennanen.

American unions would probably start smaller. Activists expect individual workplaces to form unions first, which might only later federate into a larger body. Many also think unions will be specific to particular crafts, like those which already exist for writers and technicians in Hollywood. “It’s putting the cart before the horse to say ‘let’s form a national union right now’,” said Steve Kaplan, sent to GDC by the IATSE motion picture union to advise GWU. “It starts with one, and with one comes many.”

Kaplan thinks games unions could be customized to the specific requirements of the industry: they could insist on proper compensation for crunch rather than a total end to it, or set up a pooled health insurance system to make sure recently laid-off employees are still covered until their next job – as in TV advertising, where short-term gigs are the norm. “If you tell me crunch has to happen, I’ll say brother, I come from motion picture television, where our film gets rewritten and rewritten and people still go home after 14 hours.” Why? Because unions make it “ghastly expensive if you don’t.”

Steve Kaplan Steve Kaplan, a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) who attended the Wednesday roundtable at the invitation of GWU, offered his perspective to game workers considering unionization.

The question now is whether this momentum will continue. Unionization is not a new topic in games. It’s hard to know how wide support extends. In the 2014 IGDA developer wellbeing survey, only one third of respondents wanted to unionize in their own workplaces, but 55 percent said they’d vote for a national union. The next survey is due in 2019. The greater problem is that almost nobody wants to go on the record about bad studio culture, because of the threat of reprisal.

Even in the GDC roundable, MacLean proposed – and it was agreed – that no photos should be taken. “People are afraid of being blacklisted,” said Liz. “I know some people in the French union have said they are blacklisted in parts of the USA.” Emma spoke of “really insidious” social exclusion, in which developers who speak, especially if they are queer or non-white, are systematically pushed out of their companies by a series of subtle, often disguised reprisals.

"The video game sector is small, most of the workers are young, blacklisting is common, and it is difficult not to give in to pressure. Alone it is difficult to be heard. Video game workers must therefore federate and defend their interests."

The most chilling conversation I had this week was with a former worker at Quantic Dream, the French studio behind Detroit and Heavy Rain, who asked not to be named. In January, Quantic Dream was accused by multiple French press outlets of having a “toxic” culture of threats and harassment. A dossier of 600 images allegedly mass-emailed to employees was leaked, containing images of workers’ faces photoshopped onto porn models and Nazis.

“I have seen people being insulted, belittled by management,” the former employee said. “I saw people crying for a simple mistake. I saw a boss fired and then re-employed to receive compensation, which he invested in the capital of the company. The video game sector is small, most of the workers are young, blacklisting is common, and it is difficult not to give in to pressure. Alone it is difficult to be heard. Video game workers must therefore federate and defend their interests, compel their employers to respect the law.” Quantic Dream has denied the allegations.

Some of the materials Game Workers Unite distributed throughout GDC. Some of the materials Game Workers Unite distributed throughout the conference.

I’ll put my cards on the table: everyone has the right to a union, and very few industries don’t need one. Even when things are fine, they are crucial institutions. But things in the games industry are not fine. The industry is, in fact, on fire. It chews up young, passionate new entrants, burns them up and spits them out as disillusioned refugees before their first decade is up. The average career in game development lasts just five to seven years, after which many workers burn out and switch industries. And while MacLean is probably right that some companies will change voluntarily, I see no realistic way to make sure that others do except through unionization. The idea that this be solved through pure consensus seems, to me, a fantasy – one which fails to acknowledge the very basic power inequality at the root of this crisis.

If GWU can keep going, though, Emma expects pushback. “In the entire history of the world, any time lower classes have gained any ground, it’s never been through easy communication,” she said. “It is just not in the interests of corporations to freely let their workers unionize. So we’ll be ready for that.”

When game voice actors went on strike in 2016, union negotiator Phil LaMarr described "fundamentalist resistance" from his opponents. Video game companies tried to set voice actors against other developers, arguing that it wasn’t fair for one set of employees to receive handsome compensation while others do not. To a certain extent, it worked: some developers and gamers castigated the voice actors as greedy and entitled. If GWU’s campaign is to succeed, developers will have to resist similar attempts to divide them and insist on their equal right to fair and safe working conditions. But I believe it has to happen, and it has to happen soon.