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Video game industry layoffs, AI ethics are top concerns for workers, new survey says

Though times are tough, there are some bright spots — like an increase in accessibility

People entering a building in San Francisco. A sign above the glass doors says “Game Developers Conference.” Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Each year, the Game Developers Conference publishes its State of the Game Industry report — a survey that asks thousands of game developers about the industry and their own work. It’s no secret that 2023 was a challenging year for the video game industry, even after major bestselling game releases, like The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and Baldur’s Gate 3. Independent, community-driven estimates suggest that more than 10,000 game developers may have been laid off last year, up from more than 8,500 workers in 2022. Thousands of workers across video game companies and adjacent workplaces have already been let go in 2024 as the industry grapples with how to move forward.

The GDC survey covered much, much more than layoffs; in the 37-page report, GDC researchers analyzed data related to generative AI, accessibility, demographics, and return-to-office mandates, as well as other topics.

Video game industry layoffs

GDC researchers found that one-third of respondents had been impacted by layoffs in 2023, and half of the more than 3,000 respondents were worried that more were to come. The reasons cited by workers included “post-pandemic course correction, studio conglomeration, and economic uncertainty,” according to the report. Though 2024 seems to be already outpacing 2023 in terms of the rate of job losses, Omdia research director Dom Tait said in the report that industry forecasts suggest “steady growth” through 2027, meaning employment should stabilize.

“The most striking observation derived from job losses in the industry – naturally a pressing concern for many,” Tait said. “Among the insightful developer comments on the subject was the following: ‘Studios grew too quickly during the pandemic.’ This statement is borne out by games industry data, which shows a COVID driven hump of extra revenue in 2020 and 2021, collectively totalling about $50bn over expected figures. But 2022 and 2023 showed a reversion to the spend trendline seen prior to 2020, thus this reduction in headcount is partly caused by companies belatedly adjusting to the new, less positive market reality.”

He continued: “However, with the forecast returning to steady growth to 2027, this ought to present a more stable picture for employment levels in future.”

Generative AI

Last year, generative AI entered the conversation in a major way — and it’s clear that companies are already using the tool in the game development process. Nearly half (49%) of survey respondents reported that their company is using generative AI in some way; 31% of people said they personally used it. Twenty-three percent of people said their studio wasn’t interested in generative AI at all.

Most often, generative AI is being used in business and finance departments, as well as community, marketing, and public relations. Quality assurance, art, audio, and narrative departments reported the least AI use, under 16% at its highest. Workers at indie studios, however, were the most likely to report using AI; people interested in AI said they want to use it for “coding assistance and speeding up the content creation process,” as well as doing repetitive tasks.

Despite that interest, four out of five game developers are worried about AI ethics, albeit to varying degrees. Here’s what the survey said:

Although developers seem to be uncertain about the industry impact of Generative AI, they are quite certain about the ethical impact. A large majority (84%) of developers indicated they were somewhat or very concerned about the ethics of using Generative AI, while 12% stated they had no concerns.

Developers shared a range of potential issues regarding the technology. Some were worried about whether Generative AI usage could lead to more layoffs at game companies. Others expressed concerns about how the tools could supercharge copyright infringement of intellectual property, and whether AI toolmakers would train their models using data obtained without the creator’s consent.

Games adapted for TV and movies

A whole bunch of games were turned into movies or TV shows in 2023 — The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Five Nights at Freddy’s, The Last of Us, and Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves are just a few. Ten percent of respondents said their studios’ games are being adapted into other media, while 20% have talked about the idea. Six percent of respondents had been approached. On the flip side, 44% of developers said they’re not considering it.

Many game developers think the rise of adaptations is a good thing for the industry — 63%. Twenty-six percent weren’t sure, and 4% said no. Seven percent had no opinion on the matter.

“Hopefully, it brings more audience to games and thus more money for better development,” one developer said. “I also hope that developers learn from the unionization efforts in the film industry and adopts those practices to make the industry more lucrative for developers.”

Accessibility

More good news for video game accessibility: 48%, almost half, of the video game developers surveyed said their companies have made accessibility changes to their current games — up from 38% in this category last year. The portion of people who answered no, too, went down to 27% from 32%. Some of the options that game studios are adding, listed from highest percentage to lowest, are closed captioning, a colorblind mode, control remapping, custom audio settings, adjustable difficulty levels, content warnings, a high-contrast mode, audio narration, aim assist, text to speech, accessible hardware/controllers, dyslexia-friendly fonts, screen magnification, various game speeds, phobia accommodations, and quick-time event toggles.

Union support

Support for unions continues to grow, with 57% of respondents saying that game workers should unionize. (That’s up from 53% last year.) Twelve percent said no, while 22% were unsure. “Narrative designers were most likely to be in favor of unionization, while those working in business and finance were least likely to support it,” according to the report.

Younger workers were more likely to support unionization efforts, too. Here’s what the report says:

Regarding overall union support, one of the most notable factors we found was the age of developers: 72% of 18-24-year-olds said they support unionization, compared to 28% of developers 55 years and older. The trend aligns consistently across all age groups: Starting from oldest to youngest, each group was more in favor of unionization than the last.

When asked to share their thoughts, many respondents cited the rise in layoffs, crunch, and large-scale media acquisitions as evidence that the game industry should unionize. Those who were opposed expressed frustration at the idea of forced participation, as well as how collective units could impact the individual employer/employee relationship.

Diversity efforts

GDC researchers asked game developers about their experience in the industry as a way to analyze how diverse the workforce is. The data is bleak: White men make up 92% of the people working in the video game industry, and they make up 87% of the workers who have more than 21 years of industry experience. The survey had no non-male respondents who met that experience threshold and were also Black, Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish-origin, it said.

Here’s more:

This year, we wanted to take a closer look at the demographic makeup of who’s been in the industry the longest—the decision-makers who have been part of the game industry for decades. Based on the survey, we found that men make up a large majority (87%) of game developers with 21 years or more experience in the game industry, and white men are the biggest demographic overall (92%).

When we looked at individual groups (by race and gender), we found a small percentage of Asian men (15%), Hispanic, Latino or Spanish-origin men (8%), Black men (6%), and white and Asian women (5% each) reported having 20 years or more experience in game development. There were zero Black women or Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish-origin women in the survey who reported the same.

Overall, across years in the industry, white game developers make up 65% of the respondents; Hispanic and Latino game developers are represented with 9%, followed by East Asian game developers, South or Southeast Asian developers, and then Black, African, or Caribbean developers. The industry survey found that two-thirds of game developers surveyed are men, while 23% are women and 5% are nonbinary.

Relatedly, GDC researchers asked about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at companies and found mixed results:

About 90% of respondents reported their company’s DEI efforts were at least slightly successful, down from 96% in 2023. Specifically, the number of developers who said those DEI efforts weren’t successful at all increased to 11% (from 4% in 2023).

Developers were asked to elaborate on the successes or failures of their company DEI policies: Most discussed the shortcomings. According to an analysis of open responses conducted by our partners at Omdia, some [of] the most pressing concerns include the lack of resources and training, an increase in mandatory return-to-office policies, and an inability to attract qualified diverse candidates.

There’s much more to the GDC survey, which can be found in full on the GDC website.

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