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Game developers need to unionize

A union can work in this business, and other industries have proven it

You’re already familiar with the work of unions if you’re thankful for things like the weekend, the eight-hour workday, equal pay for women, sick leave, parental leave, and laws preventing children from being sent to work in coal mines. These rights and many more were won by labor unions, whose members fought — and in many cases died — to turn these dreams into reality.

Now the video game industry is having its own internal debates and arguments about unionizing. Most players may not pay attention to, or understand, how their games are made, but this is a topic that’s important to anyone who works in the video game industry or plays the games it produces.

If you care about the quality of the games you play, you should also care about the health and safety of the people who create them. Which means you should care about unions.

Why so many game developers are talking about unionizing

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) is the industry group founded to advance the cause of game developers across the world. Each year, the IGDA runs its Developer Satisfaction Survey to track how well game development is going as a career, and to highlight problem areas to focus on for the future of the industry.

The most recent of these surveys, published in January 2018 and covering 2017, showed that over half of game developers are still crunching for at least 60 hours per week more than once per year. Another industry group, the Game Developers’ Association of Australia, revealed data showing that only 1 in 4 game developers would recommend the industry to a friend.

The warning signs are real. The red flags are real. The health issues that come with professional game development, including depression, anxiety, and burnout — are very, very real. And these are all issues that unions have helped to alleviate, or eliminate, in other industries.

Unions deliver higher wages for workers again and again across the board, whether you’re in the U.S., Australia, the U.K., or Canada. In fact, the effect of unions on wages is so strong that a decline in overall union membership even lowers the wages of people who aren’t in a union. Strong unions benefit everyone, it seems, similar to the idea of herd immunity offered by vaccines.

But it’s not just an issue of pay. Video game developers often face health problems that become more of a challenge due to health care or other benefits not being offered to contract workers. Game development is much like the work done in the movie industry in this way: A large percentage of the creative workforce isn’t full time, but instead hired on a per-contract basis to work on a specific project.

A union can help. Steve Kaplan is an international representative with IATSE, a labor union representing workers in the theater, film, television, and trade show businesses. He says that health insurance coverage is one of the biggest reasons that animators, technicians, and stage workers of all kinds have unionized.

“As a visual effects artist, I did unpaid overtime, because I was that geek who enjoyed the esoteric nature of the work,” he tells Polygon. “I needed to write code, to understand physics, to work through the technicalities of animating a thing. [...] Sometimes I needed to hand-animate how wind would react with a cloth instead of being able to use a physics engine. So there’s an art form there.”

While the game industry likes to present itself as a singular business, with challenges and rules that are very different from those of creative industries that are protected by unions, that claim doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. With IATSE spending so much time organizing creative workers at places like Nickelodeon, and at the studios of popular cartoons such as Rick and Morty, Kaplan says he cannot understand the idea that game developers are somehow experiencing unique issues for which there is no solution.

“We’ve had to tackle exactly the same workplace issues that I see the games industry having,” he says. “There’s a ton of crunch. There’s a lot of work time spent on days past 15 or 16 hours. This is something we continue to struggle with in the development of motion picture and episodic television. It’s all the same thing.”

The tech industry does not want unions

Management has fought for decades to keep unions out of the technology sector, and unfortunately for the game developers of 2019, the game industry is no different.

Intel co-founder Robert Noyce, the “Mayor of Silicon Valley,” famously said that “remaining non-union is essential for survival for most of our companies. If we had the work rules that unionized companies have, we’d all go out of business.”

Noyce’s vision of a post-union tech industry has since been fully realized. Unions are struggling to even gain a foothold in Silicon Valley, and their rights as a whole are constantly under legal attack across the U.S. and most parts of the world. There’s a reason why tech companies are some of the biggest donors to the Republican Party — it has advocated for and implemented union-weakening legislation in more than half of U.S. states.

Game publishers, particularly the massive AAA companies who dominate the industry’s holiday seasons, have taken many of their culture cues from Silicon Valley and the tech industry.

Speaking to the Associated Press in 1983, an Activision employee named Mike Ayers attributed the lack of union presence in Silicon Valley — something that has remained unchanged in the 35 years since — to “a mental attitude against unions.”

“[Silicon Valley workers] don’t go in for mobilization, they find no haven in numbers,” Ayers said. “No satisfaction in paying somebody else to negotiate.”

It surely doesn’t hurt, as the same article also mentions, that Activision kept its workers happy with fresh fruit on Mondays, Hewlett Packard spent $7 million a year (in 1983 dollars) on free coffee and doughnuts, and companies like Convergent Technologies (later acquired by Unisys) handed out free T-shirts and sweatshirts to “foster team spirit.”

Those freebies have evolved into more modern enticements: bean bags, gym passes, frozen yogurt machines, and ping-pong tables. However, the core strategies to discourage, stall, and ultimately prevent unionizing remain unchanged.

The fight to help game developers unionize is, ultimately, the fight to recognize that 80-hour workweeks don’t suddenly become a good deal if you get free sodas and catered lunches. But the psychological weapons that game studios use to discourage unions are likely to be just as effective as catered lunches.

game developers unionize art - boss facing bunch of employees

One big, happy family

I have encountered, and fought against, these anti-union strategies often in my work as a game developer, a writer, and a union officer. It will always be cheaper for an employer to pay for ongoing anti-union incentives than to pay for union-negotiated salary increases ... or at least, many will see it that way.

The anti-union culture in game development begins from the first day on the job. Developers are told that they are working on something “special,” something that has what the 1983 AP article calls a “mystique.”

One need look no further than a Fortune article from 2018, where Blizzard’s Nate Nanzer says that “you are [at Blizzard] because you’re great, and you’re expected to do great things,” to see that this attitude of exceptionalism is alive and well in the gaming industry. You are one of the chosen few. You don’t need another group to negotiate for you. You are singular, in your skills and drive.

Exceptionalism — like the swords that Blizzard famously gives out as employee milestones — has two edges, and both of them are dangerous for the worker. Not only are you more likely to work harder and put in unpaid overtime if you feel special and chosen, but you’re also less likely to feel deep solidarity with your co-workers. Unlike you, those who are laid off weren’t good enough. You won’t have much time to socialize with the co-workers you lost if you’re spending all your time in the office anyway. Many developers and publishers aren’t just hiring you so you can have a career; they expect the company to become your life.

Above all else, game workers have been told, and continue to be told, some variation of the argument that their industry needs to be agile, competitive, and highly flexible, and that introducing a “slow, plodding, bureaucratic” union into the mix is likely to only slow things down or make them worse.

And yet, despite these reassurances, despite the company dinners and the family fun days, many game developers continue to be unhappy with their careers and continue to make their grievances known.

The relationship is often one-way: Developers are meant to feel allegiance for the company that pays them, but that company is all too willing to lay them off if everything doesn’t go according to plan. Indeed, layoffs sometimes are the plan. Industry veterans have seen the rhythm that comes with publishers and developers who hire up for a big project and then slim down the workforce after shipping the game.

But do the workers themselves want to unionize?

More developers want a union than ever before

Support for a game developers union has been growing steadily over time.

In a 2009 IGDA survey, 32 percent of game developers said they would support a union; that figure increased to 56 percent just five years later in 2014. In a separate study published in 2017 by French-Canadian researchers Johanna Weststar and Marie-Josée Legault, 66 percent of game developers said they’d endorse a union at their studio, and an incredible 82 percent said they’d endorse an industrywide game development union.

The cries for a unionized industry grow stronger with every new scandal. 2018 felt particularly rough, with the industry seemingly racing to pack as many disasters as it could into the last few weeks of the year.

With the sudden and messy collapse of Telltale Games and Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser casually admitting that he and some members of his team had pulled 100-hour weeks, game developers are increasingly looking for solutions to help push back against being overworked and underpaid. Houser himself couldn’t even walk back his own statements without adding to the social pressure to overwork yourself.

Game developers are discovering what workers around the world have discovered for hundreds of years: that together, they have the power to tackle these problems.

And they’re taking inspiration from another kindred industry — a mature, creative industry that has already faced those exact same problems, fought against them, and won by taking collective action and standing together.

That industry? TV and film.

The “original gig economy”

The idea of a full-time, salaried job making games is a dream that many game developers will chase for years. It’s all too common for developers to move from contract to contract, rarely finding full-time work with the associated benefits. They’ll be hired on to support a big push, and then let go again once the game has been released.

Getting noticed during one of these big pushes is a challenge, and it can be hard to impress management enough to hire you permanently. Imagine putting in ridiculous hours to prove yourself during crunch, only to be let go when the game is launched.

Developers are used to working long hours without benefits in the hope of full-time employment, not the promise of it. Why stick your neck out for a union when you’re so easily replaced at the end of a project?

Even pro-union game developers and workers admit that the nature of game development contract work is a barrier that needs to be crossed. New Blood Interactive CEO Dave Oshry, who is on record as supporting a union in game development, says, “We’re all just looking for our next byline, our next credit, a paycheck.”

”It’s hard,” Oshry says. “Throughout the entire history of the world, and especially in the United States, getting unions off the ground has not been easy. I wish I could do it [...] it’s a scary concept to a lot of people.”

It’s certainly true that the gig-to-gig nature of game development offers barriers that don’t exist in what might be called “traditional” unions in blue-collar fields, which can rely on regular hours and income.

The data support this concern, with figures showing that game developers currently change employers an average of 2.2 times in just five years. The industry requires flexibility from its workers, and it would require the same kind of flexibility from a union.

SAG-AFTRA, the union representing actors and performers who have always worked from gig to gig, argues that not only is it possible for a union to protect workers as they move from job to job, but that Hollywood has already made it work.

“We have been protecting the ‘original gig economy’ of Hollywood for decades,” Katie Watson, the national voiceover director for SAG-AFTRA in the U.S., tells me. “We see our role as protecting that gig economy, and by paying these performers their wages, they are able to grow and maintain their career.”

The industries aren’t as different as anti-union voices like to argue, either, according to Watson.

“Whether it’s movies, TV or games — these are all industries based on creativity and passion,” Watson says. “And as much as that is a fulfilling personal experience for everyone involved, those kind of industries are often also subject to worker exploitation. And so our union was really established on that fact: that as beautiful as the old movies were, and the old studio systems were, it was really imperative for the union to be created so that everyone on set was paid fairly and treated with respect.”

Union membership, says Watson, is the ultimate “signifier of professionalism.”

“Having your SAG card in and of itself opens doors for you that aren’t available if you’re trying to get cast outside of union membership. It also provides a community; we have a lot of education experience that [is] available to our membership.”

It’s not a perfect system, but performers are given peace of mind on union jobs, knowing that they’ll be paid a certain minimum and will have rights that the production team can’t take away.

“[SAG-AFTRA members] know that any job they get cast for, it takes a lot of stress away from trying to nickel-and-dime, trying to negotiate on every single gig [...] they know when they walk on a set, they’re going to be treated fairly and they’re going to have decent hours,” Watson says. “They’re going to have the opportunity to qualify for health insurance and a pension that will help them in retirement.”

Recalling the SAG-AFTRA video game voice actors’ strike of 2016-17, Watson says that the performers were just trying to fight for “something that we think everyone deserves, at all levels [of game development].”

The industry knows how to fight back against collective action, however.

“Somehow the narrative was that the performers were trying to take something from the developers, or that our union was trying to say that our members were entitled to something that the rest of the games industry wasn’t,” Watson says. “That wasn’t at all what our motivations were. It was not how we were trying to position ourselves. Our members are very aware of the collaborative nature of what they’re lending their talents to. They really feel passionately that everyone in the industry deserves the same treatment and the same fair representation.”

Think of how that argument against the voice actors was framed: Game publishers often brought up the question of why voice actors should have rights that game developers don’t have. It was rare for anyone to ask why the game developers themselves didn’t also strike. Two creative fields — not the companies and executives who control these policies — were pitted against each other.

But that could be changing, thanks to a Game Developers Conference panel that went off the rails.

“They are mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it anymore”

The grassroots movement Game Workers Unite, which is now expanding internationally, was in many ways a product of the now-infamous “Union Now? Pros, Cons and Consequences” panel at GDC 2018.

The fearmongering tone of the panel’s description became a rallying point for pro-union developers. Hundreds of them packed the small room to demand answers as to why the organization that was supposed to represent their interests, the IGDA, wasn’t willing to stand up and support them. IATSE’s Steve Kaplan, who was there on the day, laughs with amazement as he recalls the unprecedented event.

“I was blown away by how Game Workers Unite was able to gather enough people at the event, having worked completely under the radar and off the grid, and to pack that room,” says Kaplan. “I’m telling you, there were 200 people in that room, and none of them, none of them, supported the IGDA or [Jen MacLean, executive director of the IGDA].”

Kaplan was not expecting that level of support for the cause.

“I thought that room would be packed with employers,” he says. “I walked in branded with my IATSE gear. I wanted it to be glaringly obvious that I was a union representative. I went into that room expecting to walk into a lion’s den and be torn apart ... but what I found was 200 games workers absolutely ready to attack the IGDA.”

Kaplan, who has worked in many hostile situations and tense negotiations before, says he still found himself taken aback by the way these developers “let Jen have it” in ways that he “could not have possibly imagined.”

game developers unionize art - boss facing bunch of employees

“I think it’s really important to say, as well, that the GWU is really mainly comprised, in the groups that I’ve met in the U.S., of the trans and queer community in the game development sector,” Kaplan said. “These folks have reached a boiling point. On a union organizer scale, these are your activists at the highest level,” Kaplan says.

“They have been so subjugated and so persecuted that this is their Network moment,” he adds. “This is their primal scream: They are mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it anymore.”

Change takes time

It takes time to build a union in a traditionally non-organized workplace. This won’t happen overnight, despite the enthusiasm and passion of pro-union developers.

Game developers are reaching out to existing unions for help, in some cases. Game Workers Unite’s U.K. branch has just finished the transition into a legal trade union, with the assistance of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. Other GWU branches report that they are working with the global Industrial Workers of the World union to begin training on organizing.

In other situations, game developers are organizing via regular offsite meetings, using local libraries, community halls, and meeting rooms to begin sharing their experiences and talking about what they need to change.

While the current IGDA head still refuses to endorse a game development union, other industry figures are beginning to come around to the idea that collective bargaining is the right way forward.

Former IGDA executive director Kate Edwards, who spent five years heading up the association, has urged the game development industry to unionize. In a recent interview, Edwards said that “a union seems to be the only viable tool that’s been proven in the past to help with some of these issues.”

But it’s one thing to realize that collective action is the way forward, and it’s another to put your job on the line by speaking out. Some passionate game developers may be ready to take action, but just as many may be scared of putting their careers, or chances of a career, at risk.

“I think that the danger for game workers is that they might believe that cynicism, that they might believe the naysayers, that they might believe nothing can be done,” says Adam Portelli, a regional director for the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), which represents workers in creative industries in Australia.

“But we need to remember that the games industry is also in a fairly early stage in its development,” he continues. “It is not a mature industry. It is still a fairly young industry, and like most young industries, the culture is going to take some time to develop.”

Portelli says that workers need to start focusing on that culture change now if they want a better industry for everyone moving forward — and that means taking themselves seriously as skilled professionals, and believing that they are entitled to real, livable wages and conditions.

“The reality is that whether people are voice-over actors, games workers, or what have you, they are workers,” he explains. “They are allocating time in their lives for pay. They are more often than not going days or weeks between gigs. The fact that they are doing something that they love shouldn’t detract from the fact that they are working long hours, longer hours than would otherwise be seen as appropriate.”

“The creative industries have long had that stigma that what they do is a hobby, but when you devote your life to a field, whether you can pay the rent or not is determined by how much work you can get in your field. It’s not a hobby, it’s not a joke, it’s real work and as real as any other.”

Portelli says that the MEAA’s work in Australia, and SAG-AFTRA’s and IATSE’s work across the U.S. and Canada, proves that workers in creative fields can negotiate and enforce terms and conditions.

“We cover screen and theater actors, voice over actors, and film crews,” he says of the MEAA. “All of those three groups have, over a period of years, organized into a collective group, negotiated with the union’s assistance over their terms and conditions. [...] In screen and theater, we have national agreements that set benchmarks for those workers. There is a rates card for voice-over actors, which is respected by and large throughout the industry. And we’re in the midst of negotiating our new film crew agreement right now.”

And that’s the only big secret: It takes time, hard work, and a willingness to negotiate as a collective.

“I certainly don’t think it’s impossible for any worker to have a say over their terms and conditions, but the key is that it doesn’t just happen,” says Portelli. “It takes work and it takes time. These are workers that weren’t always organized, and didn’t always have the ability to sit down with the boss on an equal footing, because they weren’t acting as a collective. Now, together, they have some say in their terms and conditions. That collective element is the part that’s missing now in so many creative fields, and certainly in the games industry.”

How does this affect me?

Game developers need the support of the people who play games if they’re going to successfully unionize.

Many consumers try to purchase products that they know are ethically sourced, because they expect that the quality of the final product will be better for the love and care that went into it. It’s hard to enjoy something if you know that the people who made it suffered, and video games should be no different.

If there are more protections in place against post-launch layoffs, talented developers who would otherwise burn out and leave the game industry will have a chance to be fostered and trained, bringing their contributions to the table and pushing the medium forward for us all. Game developers deserve health benefits and reasonable work hours. If creative people can have a life outside of their job, the amount of energy they can put toward our games will only increase.

In 2017, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick pocketed a salary 300 times greater than that of the average Activision employee, and now-former EA executive Patrick Söderlund made $48.3 million. The industry’s biggest players can no longer claim that a union has nothing to offer game developers, or try to tell the average gamer that the industry would suffer if game workers unionized.

It’s time for game developers to start having real, open, and honest conversations about what they need from their workplaces, and what they’re going to do if they don’t start getting it. And it’s time for them to work together to make sure it happens.

Tim Colwill is an Australian trade union officer and organizer with the Australian chapter of Game Workers Unite. He is also the founder and editor of satirical gaming outlet Point & Clickbait. You must not, under any circumstances, @ him on Twitter.