Labor creates games

April 3, 2018

The spirit of solidarity was in the air at the main annual conference for game developers. Sisi Jiang, a game developer in Chicago, looks at the reasons why.

THE GAME Developers Conference (GDC), held in San Francisco each year, is the largest gathering of its kind in the world. From large publishers to independent developers, anyone who could afford the hefty price of admission was there.

It was my first year attending, but all of the veteran attendees could tell that something was different this year. The conference was ablaze with talk about unionization.

Senior programmers mentioned it in hushed tones. Students and younger developers passed out pins with messages such as "#GameWorkersUnite" and "Labor Creates Games." They were very popular among younger conference attendees, and I was not the only person who collected them.

Game development is one of the most precarious white-collar tech jobs. Hire-and-fire cycles plague the industry, from big publishers to smaller, independent teams. While it's true that salaries are comparatively higher than some industries, and somewhat reflect the cost of living in some of the most expensive areas country, unpaid overtime remains an industry standard.

The 2018 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco
The 2018 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco

I WAS extremely lucky to get into the "Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization for Game Devs" roundtable at the conference. It was moderated by Jen MacLean, executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA)--a non-profit professional association that claims to support and empower game developers around the world in "achieving fulfilling and sustainable careers." Before she rose to executive prominence, MacLean had already been the CEO of several game studios.

I had only been at the conference for two days, but I had already heard considerable controversy about the IGDA. There were accusations that it represented management interests, and not the interests of its dues-paying members. Some members of the union advocacy group had been warned that the room would be filled with anti-union voices from the IGDA. It turns out, they were wrong.

The roundtable was overwhelmingly pro-union, and the stories recounted during it showed exactly why. One developer stood and talked about how his first industry job mandated 100-hour workweeks.

Another described working nine months of overtime, followed by just a week of time off. He returned to another six months of overtime, followed by another week off. I didn't have the opportunity to ask whether he had quit after his studio had demanded three more weeks of overtime, but everyone had agreed that his story was entirely normal. These developer-activists are hoping to change the meaning of "normal" in the industry.

Steve Kaplan, one of the panelists explained that these exploitative practices don't have to exist. Kaplan, a representative from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), pointed out that, despite the project-based nature of film workers' labor, there is a long history of union campaigns and organizing in the film industry.

Kaplan spoke about some film history that none of us ever learned in media classes: Individual films used to be unionized separately, but thanks to campaigns and organizing, unions helped to standardize the working conditions in television and film projects.

Some people had questions about how unions could work for independent game studios, and Kaplan explained that Los Angeles has labor standards for indie film projects. Unlike with video games, a failed movie doesn't necessarily result in closures and mass layoffs. The company loses value, not the employees.

In other words, film unions may be a pre-existing model for game developers' unions. Developers don't have to reinvent the wheel--an important consideration in an industry where the average developer burns out after three to ten years on the job.

During the roundtable, MacLean established herself as an impartial facilitator, but her involvement became less neutral as enthusiasm for unions ballooned.

She asked, "Are there any negative aspects of unionizing?" No one rose to the bait, however, and attendees continued to speak about the benefits of unionization.

At that point, MacLean raised her voice. "Are you saying that employees should have vetting powers over new hires?" she asked.

She then pressed harder, saying, "There was once a case of unionized plumbers who wanted to be paid the full wages for the operation of half the pipes." It was an utterly bizarre interjection. Bizarre, that is, until you realize the number of corner offices that MacLean must has enjoyed during her prolific career.

MacLean seemed to imply that unions were more trouble than they were worth. She later affirmed in an interview that unions wouldn't prevent layoffs, but access to capital would.

This was a bad argument. Video games make more money than the film industry, yet movies aren't hemorrhaging workers. Games took in $36 billion last year in the U.S. market alone, more than triple the $11 billion North American revenue for film. Factor in the $90 billion in global revenue for video games, and one must ask: Why can't this industry "afford" to give workers basic job security?

It's true that not every project succeeds--but unions don't exist to protect studios, they exist to protect workers. Kaplan summed up a union's value rather succinctly: "If you're not at the table, then you're on the menu. Unions give workers a seat at the table."

WHAT COULD game development unions potentially give workers in the industry? The roundtable attendees already had many ideas.

"Desperate college interns depreciate the value of a senior developer's work. Game internships should be paid!" said one. That suggestion was met with roaring enthusiasm.

Not all unions have historically been kind to marginalized workers, but it felt like something special could emerge from that meeting.

While there was talk of the potential economic benefits of unionization, such as extended health insurance for laid-off workers, there were also many who argued that unions could protect marginalized workers in the industry, including people of color, LGBTQ people and those with disabilities.

MacLean, however, wasn't done, chiming in at this point: "Everybody in this room has a disability."

An attendee challenged her, saying, "What you just said was extremely ableist. Please apologize." It was a sign that these developers were not simply a passive audience before experienced organizers--they were feeling empowered to fight for themselves and their coworkers.

Conversations spilled into the hallways after the roundtable. Some were more cynical about unionization, despite their own support for it. "Unionization has been a popular topic in this industry in five year cycles," said one person. Every time, their efforts fizzle out due to a lack of clarity."

That wasn't the only fatigued developer with a horror story to tell about industry reprisals against attempts to unionize. But there are also inspiring struggles happening in the industry--like the current strike of workers at Eugen Systems in France over unpaid wages and contracts.

Victories for the marginalized often come after a string of defeats--but what's clear is that unless we organize, the industry won't reform itself.

We can learn from past unionization failures. If there are enthusiastic college students who will work for low pay, then older developers can teach them about their rights. There also should be more discussion with the wider public about the human costs of game development, rather than cynicism about "entitled fans."

We can organize to support inclusive policies like gender-neutral bathrooms and domestic partnership recognition for benefits. We can fight for immigrant rights and anti-racism that will benefit international developers--like those denied visas to attend this year's GDC. We can also encourage people to donate to the strike fund for Eugen Systems workers--and remember that games are an international industry while supporting struggles across borders.

Developers would benefit greatly from unionized workplaces, and they're ready to fight for it. Solidarity both within the industry and from the gaming public could mean the difference between past defeat and future victory.

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