clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The effort to unionize the video game industry just got a shot of adrenaline

Game Workers Unite co-founder joins established, 700,000-member union for a new campaign

A stylize graphic of six fists raised in solidarity. One holds a pencil, another a mouse, still another a video game controller. Image: CWA
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Emma Kinema, co-founder of Game Workers Unite — a grassroots organization eager to unionize the video game industry — has joined the Communications Workers of America, one of the nation’s largest and most influential labor unions. Together with Wes McEnany, who has experience in fighting to raise the minimum wage in Boston and St. Louis, they will lead a new initiative to organize workers in the gaming and technology sectors. Called Campaign to Organize Digital Employees, its goal is to support unionization efforts in both the gaming and the technology sectors.

The Communications Workers of America, or CWA, represents more than 700,000 public and private workers in diverse industries, including education, law enforcement, and manufacturing. At its core, the CWA is a group of workers in the telecommunications, internet technology, media, and entertainment industries whose interests and expertise align well with the video game and technology sectors.

“The infrastructure that those union members laid in the seventies and eighties and nineties is the foundation on which the internet infrastructure was built on top of,” Kinema told Polygon. “That idea of coming together with their brothers, sisters, and siblings in labor to unionize and modernize that infrastructure as well is really cool.”

Kinema says that the support of the CWA will give game momentum to developers looking to form unions and work to improve working conditions at their studios. The issues plaguing game workers are well-documented. Talking points include issues like crunch, the practice of working long hours for weeks and months at a time. They also include layoffs, which happen at an alarming rate. But, Kinema says, workplace ethics are an even bigger issue.

Flyers for a local chapter of Game Workers Unite in Montreal, September 2018.
Flyers for a local chapter of Game Workers Unite in Montreal, September 2018.
Image: Game Workers Unite on Twitter

“Values are working conditions,” she stressed. “I have so many friends who come to work at places in the games and tech industry where they come to work for a reason; because they want to leave a good impact on the world and they want to build things that help people, that connect people and make life easier for people. Those are working conditions.”

She pointed to the efforts of employees at Riot Games, who in 2019 took action against their employer with a walkout over its efforts to prevent employees from filing lawsuits against it. Another standout effort occurred at Blizzard, when workers there spoke out against the company’s actions surrounding the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Those kinds of ethical concerns, Kinema said, also align with similar effort by employees at Amazon, Google, and Microsoft to demand more ethical business practices from their employers.

“I think a lot of people really want to make sure that those technologies are being used for good and that we’re enacting our values when we use these products,” Kinema said. “I think you see that in the way in which tech workers have organized recently around things like climate change and ending contracts with ICE and for AI ethics and security and data privacy concerns.”

Of course, Kinema told Polygon in 2018 that we would begin to see the first video game unions in North America go public with their efforts in 2019. That didn’t come to pass, but she says it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“I’ve been personally involved with pretty much every single effort to organize [video game workers] in North America,” Kinema said. “Labor organizing takes a long time, because we’re not just talking about big public actions and signing petitions and waving banners where everyone rallies around. Labor organizing genuinely is [...] personal one-on-one conversations.”

The additional resources of the CWA, she says, will help to energize and expand those efforts. More information is available at the official CODE website, where you can sign up for the newsletter and text notifications.