Toxic Workplaces Are Driving Video Game Developers to Unionize

Grim stories of unpaid overtime and sexism have workers organizing for change

Photo: Tom Eversley/EyeEm/Getty Images

FFor those of us who grew up swapping Pokémon with classmates and strategizing how to defeat bosses late into the night with friends, making video games is a dream job. But the reality of working in the industry is different. Careers in the video game industry can be very rewarding, but there’s also a dark side that’s finally getting the attention it deserves — and workers are organizing to change it.

In the past few years, journalists have reported shocking stories about the work environments at game studios around the world. Crunch is an industry term that refers to a 40-hour workweek spiraling into 60, 80, or even 100 hours without extra pay. This can happen not just in the final weeks before release, but throughout the development cycle. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier wrote that many producers, “see mandatory overtime not as a contingency plan but as a natural part of game development, to be regularly used as a way to cut costs and make the most ambitious games on the shortest schedules.” Crunch isn’t just an overtime problem; it eats into workers’ ability to enjoy their lives, spend time with their families, and can even lead to severe health issues when they’re overworked for extended periods of time.

Ahead of the release of Red Dead Redemption 2 in October 2018, a game which made $725 million in its first three days, Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser told Vulture the team had worked “100-hour weeks” to finish it — that would be seven 14-hour days. Soon after, Kotaku published an exposé on the endemic culture of crunch at Rockstar and how workers were struggling under the pressure — but Rockstar isn’t the only company working its employees to the bone. After Bioware’s much-anticipated cooperative shooter Anthem flopped earlier this year, Schreier revealed how bad planning and a series of last-minute changes led to such extreme crunch and exhaustion that one worker told him, “Depression and anxiety are an epidemic within Bioware.”

This is not the image that many players have of how their favorite games get made. Yet it gets worse. In addition to crunch, game workers can face instability from unexpected studio closures and mass layoffs even when their employers are reporting their best-ever earnings; hostile environments for women and minorities; and misclassification as freelance workers. The good news is that more and more of these workers are fed up, and they’re working together to demand their employers address their concerns.

Challenging the status quo

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA), a nonprofit dedicated to representing developers, has over 12,000 members, but many feel it hasn’t done enough to address workplace issues. IGDA head Jen MacLean is firmly opposed to unionization, despite a 2014 survey of members finding 56% in favor. She says that the organization’s role is to “give game developers information to make good and smart decisions for themselves,” instead of collectively working for change. The divide between the IGDA and game workers came to the fore at the 2018 Game Developers Conference, when MacLean led a roundtable on unionization and was the only person in the room to make the case against unions as attendees recounted workplace horror stories.

That event helped launch Game Workers Unite (GWU), a grassroots advocacy organization leading the charge to unionize game workers. Despite its short existence, it already has 29 chapters in 12 countries, including registered trade unions in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Workers have also formed unions independent of GWU in South Korea and France, illustrating that the challenges faced by workers in the industry are not localized, but systemic.

Le Syndicat des Travailleurs du Jeu Vidéo (STJV), which translates to the union of video game workers, is the first union in France fully dedicated to the games industry. It was founded before the showdown at GDC, but organizers told me they faced similar challenges with existing organizations that didn’t truly advocate for workers. Just as the IGDA tried to turn developers away from unions, the dominant games organization in France, le Syndicat National du Jeu Vidéo (SNJV), or the national video game union, is a bosses’ union which STJV organizers explained means it “claims to represent all parts of the industry, including workers, whereas in reality, their very rules state that only companies get a voice in their organization.” In 2017, it became clear that workers needed an organization of their own.

Giving workers more power could result in better games.

Both unions like STJV and advocacy groups like GWU play crucial roles. GWU International spokesperson Marijam Didžgalvytė explained that the industry is full of ambitious people whose mindsets “may veer toward individualism” in the hope they’ll one day “be the heads of studios,” while STJV organizers said that existing professional organizations “try, and partly succeed, in convincing everyone, including workers themselves, that we are all just one big family, working by passion, towards the same goal.” But this is “totally untrue,” and part of their job is “deconstructing this belief” and “explaining why and how workers’ and bosses’ interests diverge.”

To this end, STJV says its main success has been “publicizing workers’ rights and structural problems in the game industry” — things that are “almost never talked about publicly.” Didžgalvytė said GWU International does the same, providing organizational training and organizing public relations campaigns to put pressure on studios. Branches also spread the message to players. In October, GWU Australia organizer Claire Hosking gave a public presentation at PAX Australia, a gaming culture convention, on the challenges faced by game workers and why it matters to players: Not just because they should care about the conditions of those making their games, but because giving workers more power could result in better games.

And that’s in addition to the more traditional functions of these organizations. Despite not being an official union, organizers at GWU Australia explained that they provided “workshops around IP, starting small businesses, and converting from company to co-op structures,” in addition to “looking over contracts, and offering advice and guidance to members having trouble in the workplace.” Meanwhile, STJV organizers have “helped countless workers on a huge variety of subjects, be it psychological support, legal advice and/or representation, negotiations, gender discrimination,” and more. Game unionization has made immense progress in a short period of time, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t also faced its share of challenges.

Progress and setbacks of a growing movement

Unionization does not work the same way in every country or jurisdiction. Not only do rules differ, but workers at studios large and small can have different motivations to unionize, while studio heads take different tactics to oppose them. Unionization may seem more relevant to large studios like EA and Ubisoft, but some of the biggest unionization stories — good and bad — have actually come from small teams.

At the major studios, employee walkouts to protest the actions of their bosses have become more common, mirroring a broader trend in the tech industry. In May, over 150 employees at Riot Games in Los Angeles walked out to protest forced arbitration and a sexist workplace culture; around 600 workers at Nexon Korea, the first unionized game company in South Korea, followed in September to demand job security after a corporate reorganization; and Activision Blizzard workers walked out in October over the company’s decision to ban the winner of a gaming tournament and revoke his prize money for expressing support for protesters in Hong Kong. Worker militancy is increasing, but that doesn’t mean it can easily be translated into unionization.

In the United States, the general rule on forming a union is for 30% of workers in a bargaining unit to sign authorization cards to get the National Labor Relations Board to hold a secret ballot election in which more than half of workers need to support it. However, other countries have different rules. For example, the mechanism in Canada, which has the third-largest games industry by employment numbers, is similar to that in the United States, but there are different standards in every province, whereas in Australia and the United Kingdom, workers don’t need to get a majority to have union representation; an individual worker can join a union at any time and doesn’t need to tell their employer until they want a union rep to get involved.

Organizers at GWU Montréal told me that the city’s status as a global hub of game development “works to our benefit, as there’s already an established community and support network” and the large talent pool “gives workers here a lot of potential power to improve conditions in the industry.” However, employers can also “exploit legal loopholes or break the law under the assumption that workers don’t know their rights and won’t or can’t fight back.” This point was backed up by organizers at STJV, who said that big companies “have extensive legal and HR departments, they know how to get around laws and hide problems, and are much harder to fight.” While it may seem that smaller companies would be better toward their workers, that’s not always the case. As STJV organizers put it, the smaller studios “tend to abuse their workers by erasing the barriers between workers and bosses,” but that doesn’t mean workers aren’t starting to see through it.

In France, every company with more than 11 employees must hold elections for worker representatives, and while some major companies like Blizzard France have had representatives from union confederations representing IT and tech workers, there has never been one represented by a dedicated video game union. That changed last month when workers at Ankama Games elected STJV members to a majority of its representative seats, giving it a consultative role to advocate for workers within the company. STJV said the workers want to push back on the company’s public presence, which has silenced workers’ voices and involved “public remarks that smeared and disparaged the workers,” and to force the company to negotiate on a number of key areas, including “salaries, remote working, lunch vouchers, [and] equality between men and women.” The win at Ankama is not just a win for workers and STJV, but for the broader unionization movement. It shows their goal is within reach.

Australia’s games industry is much smaller, by comparison, with no major studios and between 900 and 1,600 total workers. However, GWU Australia has already made significant progress. While not a union itself, it’s developed relationships with Professionals Australia and Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the two unions that game workers could join if they want union representation. GWU Australia organizers told me their “current course of action is to become a branch of an existing union,” and they’ve signed up 250 members to their organization in the meantime, many of whom have also gone on to become “card-carrying unionists.”

However, not every development has been positive. At the beginning of October, Austin Kelmore, who serves as chair of GWU UK, was fired by Ustwo Games weeks after a senior manager asked about his union activities, leaving his family without its main income and placing them at risk of being forced to leave the United Kingdom since he was on a work visa. According to internal emails, executives felt he was “spending too much time on diversity programmes” and “always putting leadership figures on the spot.” Echoing what STJV organizers said about blurring lines, Ustwo called itself a “fampany,” combining company and family, but that’s hard to defend if it won’t let its workers organize and collectively bargain. Didžgalvytė is surprised there hasn’t been more pushback from bosses, but expects it will become a more widespread issue as unionization becomes a larger movement.

Winning power for workers

At its core, the push for unionization of the games industry is about giving more power to workers, not just to improve their working conditions, but so they can have a greater voice in the decisions made in their workplaces. All of the organizers I spoke with — in France, in Australia, and in Montréal — echoed this sentiment.

In the United States, more people went on strike in 2018 than in any year since the mid-1980s.

Organizers at STJV were explicit that the “job insecurity, low pay, harassment, physical and mental exhaustion, [and] burnout” that game workers experience “are inherently tied to the structures and power dynamics found in capitalist company models.” GWU Australia, in particular, has placed a focus on promoting worker cooperatives because its industry is primarily small studios, and organizers feel that’s how they can make the biggest impact in the short term. Motion Twin in Bordeaux, France, and Ghost Pattern in Melbourne, Australia have already embraced a cooperative model. But GWU Montréal organizers “also think worker ownership should be pursued for large studios” — it will just take a lot more work to get to that point.

The effort to expand workers’ power in the games industry is not happening in a vacuum. Didžgalvytė said GWU International is building alliances with workers in tech, the service industry, and human resources, along with the players themselves. There’s also a broader political movement to give workers more of a voice in their workplaces, with the U.K. Labour Party promising to create “inclusive ownership funds” to give workers up to 10% ownership in private companies and U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pledging a similar system with an ownership stake up to 20%, worker control of 45% of corporate board seats, and the expansion of union rights.

In the United States, more people went on strike in 2018 than in any year since the mid-1980s. Whether in games, tech, media, or the service industry, it’s clear that a shift is taking place and workers will no longer stay silent about workplace mistreatment. They want the power to make positive change at work instead of accepting whatever decisions their bosses make, and that means collectively organizing. As Didžgalvytė put it: “Unions are here to stay, whether bosses like it or not, and they might as well get with the program.”

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