Mounting tensions reached a fever pitch Wednesday, as a Game Developers Conference roundtable sparked fierce debate on whether the games industry should unionize. Moderated by Independent Game Developer Association director Jen MacLean, whose public reservations about unions generated pushback ahead of the discussion, “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization for Game Devs” ended with a room firmly divided when the hour was up.
“I believe that we all share the same goal,” said MacLean at the top of the hour, “that anyone with the desire and aptitude to be a game developer have a rewarding and fulfilling career.”
The discussion that followed went a long way to disprove or dismantle any mutual understanding between the pro- and anti-union fronts, however. And those fronts have only increasingly solidified during this year’s GDC, as a grassroots unionization campaign called Game Workers Unite gained major public support. But the event made it more apparent just how ready industry workers are to have conversations about the need for more protections, right alongside other media sectors and industries that are doing the same.
The roundtable began as a discussion between the IGDA director and the myriad participants that filled the room, many of whom work in development studios throughout the country. But passionate answers to MacLean’s broad questions, like “How do you see unions as helping [fix the industry’s major problems]?”, soon led to passionate debate.
At first, the room was the stage for personal stories. A veteran developer shared a story about how his father’s union helped get him back on his feet after being laid off, while another participant, who’s since exited game development, argued that unions could protect workers like them from commonplace industry intimidation.
“Unions can help protect the most marginalized game developers,” said artist Dietrich “Squinky” Squinkifer, who cited experience with their graduate student union as a big influence on their support for the Game Workers Unite campaign. “Women, people of color, trans people, queer people, disabled people, non-binary people — unions can help fight for equal pay, regardless of your ability to participate in the process.”
Squinky’s argument won praise from both MacLean and the room, suggesting that there was truth to her belief that everyone was on the same page. But UC Davis professor Josh McCoy’s immediate follow-up — and MacLean’s contentious response — sparked a shift toward a more combative atmosphere.
“I have a lot of first-generation students and students of color, and I would like them to get fair shots when they’re looking for jobs,” said McCoy. “Other unions I have been part of, there have been people joining even before they get into the job itself.”
“So you’re saying that unions are going to vet potential hires for game studios?” MacLean responded, a solution McCoy said he was “not comfortable” with. But she honed in on the suggestion that unions take an active role in the hiring process, setting off the pro-union crowd in the process.
“What you’re advocating for is that unions would queue up for potential hires, as this happens in other industries, and unions would have to sign off on these potential hires,” she said.
“We all agree that we want to give more members of marginalized communities opportunities, but what does that mean, and how do unions help that?”
From there, pro-union sentiment dominated the conversation. The dialogue moved toward arguments on the ability of a union to help protect teams from losing their jobs if a game failed — solving the common problem of financial loss largely affecting workers, instead of primarily the companies that invest in projects with low returns. And a union’s potential direct involvement in how employers hire and dismiss their employees further grew the divide between MacLean and the rest of the table.
“A union could enforce a lot of severance laws and negotiate for better severance, but they can’t necessarily save the team,” she said, placing the blame more on the saturation of the games market and the difficulty of discovering smaller projects.
“It’s not about the union requiring companies to sign off on projects or who’s being employed,” said one British-based developer in response. “It’s about unions talking to people in the workforce ... a union being able to respond and say, ‘You can’t hire 40 people based on the probability of this game succeeding,’ and having that conversation.
“I don’t think boiling it down to signing off and this idea you keep bringing up about ‘the union needs to have complete control’ is helpful in these discussions,” he said, to wide applause.
From then on, MacLean’s reiteration of “aptitude” and studios’ privileging of capital gains — a sentiment she expressed in an interview this week with USGamer — bred further and further dissent between her and the crowd. Her suggestion that “no one has ever said that money is an indication of aptitude” set off huge laughter from a crowd playing the other side. MacLean then argued that “everybody has a disability, some visible, some not,” in response to how unions could protect those with mental health challenges whose “aptitude” may be lesser than able-bodied workers who can keep up with the exhaustion of unpaid overtime.
The immediate response from a participant: “What you said is extremely ableist. Please apologize.”
Finding common ground may have been the ostensible premise of the panel. But with how contentious it was days before it even started — begetting an entire grassroots unionization campaign almost immediately after the Game Developers Conference announced that it would hold a skeptical discussion of the topic — it seemed like finding that balance would be an uphill battle from the get-go. And based on the tepid applause offered at the end of the hourlong conversation, it seems as though game workers’ fight for the IGDA’s — and industry at large’s — approval will be hard won.
“This is an open and respectful conversation,” said MacLean as the room thinned out. Whether that is the best description of the roundtable, this first open discussion will likely not be the last.