Featured image by Game Workers Unite
The latest Game Developers’ Conference, the largest and most significant international industry event of the year, happened two weeks ago, as developers from all over the world made their way to San Francisco. While the event hosted plenty of interesting talks, panels and roundtables, one stood out among the rest.
Titled ‘Union Now? Pros, Cons and Consequences of Unionization for Game Devs’, the roundtable was helmed by Jennifer MacLean, the Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association, a non-profit organisation with the aim of ‘serving all individuals who create games’.
This roundtable will not pave the way for a union – if the excellent reporting from Michelle Ehrhardt and others is any indication, MacLean seemed to have misjudged the situation in her attempts to “both-sides” unionisation (although she did come out in favour of unions in a later interview). Instead, it will be remembered as a catalyst for action that eventually led to the unionisation of the industry.
The aim of this post is to take stock of the current situation, briefly explore the history of unionisation in games and adjacent industries, identify the lessons that could be learned from this history, and propose a set of goals that the movement should aspire to.
I come at this issue from a specifically academic perspective as an historian of international communism (among other things) – not an industry insider or employee. In turn, this is not a manifesto or a five point plan for victory – instead, this is an outline of today’s situation and an exploration of previous efforts, conducted in the hope that it can present useful lessons to those searching for possible paths towards successful unionisation.
This conversation was brewing for a while – a culture of crunch, a culture of post-launch layoffs, a culture of ignoring harassment, a culture of precarious and short-term employment – frankly I am surprised that this movement has not started earlier, despite being aware of the proactively anti-union stance of most AAA companies. Hence, when the first murmurings of this roundtable started permeating #gamedev twitter, I was happy to see not merely words, but action: Game Workers Unite.
A new advocacy organisation that was set up specifically in response to the MacLean roundtable, GWU distributed informative literature, FAQs about unions and more, making its presence at GDC 2018 felt. While this is an important step, GWU itself does not aim to become a union, rather a pro-union advocacy group. So, how can the games industry organise?
Here is the simple truth – unorganised workers is the dream of those who make their money off the backs of labour. Your labour is worth fighting for, worth protecting, whether you work on the assembly line, field calls at a call centre or design games.
This post is not about the advantages of unionisation. If you are unsure, on the fence, then read, get informed about the problems in the industry, about the academic work on the industry’s relationship with unions, about the massive wage disparities in the industry and the value of collective bargaining in general. Instead this is about contextualising the road ahead for those employed in the industry – one that is making more money than ever before.
Despite its uniqueness, this industry is just like any other – the reality is that the games industry exists in today’s global neo-liberal economy and it is not immune to its forces.
Outsourcing and contracting, for instance, is now a widespread practice, which has the potential of upsetting any collective bargaining effort at its inception – unless it also heavily involves the pool of contractors, and is informed by the increasing internationalisation of the AAA industry.
Project-based work, more and more a standard in the industry, inherently disassociates workers from their labour, instead associates the performance of projects in the consumer market with their self-worth and their perceived value in the labour market.
As a result, the reality is that the AAA games industry often creates a working environment that discourages any possible discussions of collective bargaining, on top of the inherent discouragement created by the employer-employee relationship embedded in a global capitalist system.
There is no sugar-coating this: the effort will require a lot of sacrifice, because the obstacles to unionisation are monumental, if the history – previous attempts in the games industry and the experience of workers in the tech sector – is anything to go by.
The early days of Silicon Valley are well documented by Kevin Roose, as he highlighted not only the fact that the industry was anti-union, but also that its workers, originally, were well paid and pampered with legitimately good benefits, precisely to discourage them from unionisation. As he put it:
‘Tech workers have been so coddled that they simply don’t feel the need to unionize.’
That is, of course, until their jobs are threatened, the companies bankrupt, the winds shift and companies decide to layoff sizeable percentages of the workforce, outsource it internationally or to short-term contractors on precarious contracts. At this point, it is not even about losing money – look at the recent case of Vox media, a company that was over-performing yet still sacked 50 staffers because it could be over-performing better.
At least Vox managed to unionise mere weeks before this decision, hopefully helping those who were laid off. Unfortunately, this was not the situation for workers in Infinity Ward, Beenox and others who were laid off by Activision Publishing in 2017 even after surpassing 2016 revenue targets. The overwhelming point here is that even if your job feels secure and your company is on an upward trajectory that does not mean you are safe.
In the US, Atari represents one of the only examples of an attempt at unionisation in the games industry. Atari workers attempted to unionise in 1982-83, but, according to Kevin Roose, the movement was “muddled and ill-organized”, shrinking to an insignificant number by the time it acquired the rights to vote on collective bargaining, just in time for the video game crash of 1983 to wipe away any potential protections unionisation could have brought.
Sierra On-Line was no more successful. No public information is available about this attempt at the moment but we know about it via Laine Nooney’s work. During her research, to be published in an upcoming academic project, she was told that a segment of employees attempted to organise during the late 1980s – early 1990s. The information is conflicting, however, and it is too early in the research process to make any conclusive statements.
Historically these are the only two examples of attempted unionisation in the US games industry that I was able to find, which presents an issue – who do we learn from?
Other countries, perhaps?
In France, the recently formed Syndicate of Video Game Workers is already supporting the developers striking at Eugene Systems, while the Game Makers of Finland has a set of established practices. In both these cases, however, the broader national legal systems and cultural attitudes ensure that fledgling unions will at least not be immediately starved of support. Specifically for the US we have to look elsewhere.
Other industries, then?
In Silicon Valley, the Versatronex and the Janitors Union examples stand out. Both highlight the potential risks involved in unionisation – I can preach about its benefits all day long from my academic position, but real action entails real consequences that must not be ignored in favour of ideals. On the other hand both examples also show the importance of a broad community support network.
In 1992, 55 female workers, almost all immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Philippines, went on strike to protest the deplorable working conditions, low pay and unavailability of health services at the Versatronex electric circuit manufacturing plant.
The strike was informed by the Mexican workers’ cultural experiences – some workers performed a 4-day fast and others created a tent area outside the offices of DMC, a company that contracted the factory with work, all common strategies in Mexico. Their conviction led them to fight until the end – until the factory was forced to close, a common response to isolated strikes in the tech industry.
Versatronex strikers were preceded by the organisation of janitors working at Shine Maintenance Company contracted by Apple to clean the Cupertino headquarters. Shine used the immigration status of striking janitors to fire them, but due to the broader support of community organisers who continued picketing and bringing attention to the case, the Janitors Union was recognised, a process that took a year to complete – and is described in more detail by David Bacon.
After achieving recognition, the Janitors Union spearheaded the broader Campaign for Justice in the 1990s. It aimed at organising workers in multiple industries – janitors, teamsters, hotel, restaurant and clothing workers – across multiple countries in an effort to stop employers from closing a specific plant/location, i.e. the Versatronex case, or firing workers who are attempting to organise just to hire others in their place, i.e. the janitors strike.
The idea was commendable, but it was not to be – David Bacon writes that ‘pressure for immediate results led unions other than the janitors to pull out’ of the campaign. Ultimately, the main lesson to take from this history of unionisation in the tech industry is that sustained success is only possible with a broad, united front.
The lessons from Versatronex, the Campaign for Justice, as well as the Atari and Sierra cases provide a roadmap for the games industry. In order for unionisation efforts to be successful in the long term, they have to involve a broad base of international cooperation among workers at various levels of the industry, and in its various pockets – writers, narrative designers, concept artists, 3D artists, level designers, engineers, voice actors, composers, community organisers and more.
Capturing the broadest possible base will limit employers’ options – firing or blacklisting a few noisy pro-union workers would no longer be an easy decision, not only because the pool of potential hires will dwindle, but also because direct action can be taken in response to attempted union busting. Pro-union workers will be able to present their arguments more effectively, stepping out of the shadows that their companies are keeping them in.
Organised workers in the French studio Eugene Systems, for example, are afraid of giving their name to the media when giving interviews – despite the fact that they are already striking, for over a month at the time of writing. These workers, and the new union that is supporting them, need the help of a broader base, one that is unafraid of joining their strike, publicising its cause and sharing its resources, mirroring the success of the Janitors Union.
GDC roundtable attendees heard Steve Kaplan from the IATSE motion picture union point out that creating a national union in the US is inadvisable in the current situation and developers have to begin small. It seems inescapable that the current material conditions that define the US industry may confine it to this approach, at least in the short-term.
As an historian of communism and internationalism, however, I want to emphasise the power of transnational movements. We all exist within our nation-states – an inevitability of the modern age – and the state will always define the boundaries of our lives, the material context in which we exist.
But – we are not alone in our struggle, in pushing against these boundaries. Others can help us push from within, or help by pulling on the outside. Grassroots transnational movements, something that Game Workers Unite should aim to become, can provide solidarity, information and resource exchange at the transnational level, can help us to push.
International and supranational normative or legal networks such as the UN, EU, ILO or the Universal Periodic Review process, on the other hand, provide mechanisms that can pull. They will not do so by themselves, however – direct, knowledgable, sustained, transnational action, action that begins within our nation-states, action that seeks to change national systems first and foremost, but action that is aware of what lies beyond them, supported by transnational structures, is required.
Ultimately, the international nature of the games industry can be the strength of its unionisation efforts – it creates the networks that can help overcome national obstacles.
So, these are the overall goals that I would be looking at:
1. Start locally
In-person meetings with likeminded individuals can only benefit the upcoming movement. Small groups growing around specific companies or urban/rural locations need be established before connecting across larger distances. Direct action can only take place if people meet and plan together face-to-face and build on this trust. The first sprouts will inevitably have to be local. Limited results can be achieved this way – but full unionisation will require more wide-scale efforts, and more sacrifices.
2. Broaden the coalition within the industry
With time, workers must reach across the groups they are immediately in contact with. Every type of role must be considered, and all workers should feel welcome, whether they create games, create marketing plans for games, organise communities of players around games and more. Every single corner of the employed industry must be included in this process.
3. Include contractors
More and more workers are employed on precarious, short term, easy-to-terminate contracts. Not only does this mean that these workers must be protected, it also means that efforts at organising will be met by employers who are, more than ever, flexible in their hiring and firing policies, leading, naturally, to hesitation and fear even before any action takes place. Only broad, sustained action that includes contracting labour can succeed in the industry today.
4. Include voices outside of the industry
The Campaign for Justice had the right idea – collective action has more chances of success the broader the coalition. Create ties with other organised labour, even if only for the purposes of sharing information and experience, but, hopefully and with time, also for the purposes of coordinating action across industries. The strength of labour is in its numbers, and it must be ambitious in its plans in order to achieve true success.
5. Go international
National action will only work up to a certain point. With the realities of AAA game development increasingly turning into multi-studio, multi-country projects, the ease of outsourcing jobs in a particularly active country to one where labour is not as organised is real, and presents a considerable challenge. As a result, any successful action must also take into account the international realities of modern game development.
Transnational grassroots networks, international organisations and supranational structures can all provide different types of assistance required for the success of national and international unionisation. Leaning into these opportunities as early as possible will facilitate the process.
6. Stay intersectional
While collective action will require sacrifices from all, and will be difficult for all, minorities, women, immigrants, persons with mental disorders, persons with disabilities and LGBTQ+ individuals are likely to be impacted more severely. Any collective action must be intersectional, it must protect not only the broader idea of the workforce and its labour, but also recognise its diversity, the varying degrees with which its members are impacted, and base its activity on this understanding.