GDC 2018: Game developers push for unionization in Game Workers Unite

    
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Back in 2016, we covered the voice actors guild strike against multiple game companies in its an attempt to secure better compensation and working conditions. The drawn-out saga renewed calls among game developers themselves to unionize. As we wrote about last fall, such a trade union would ideally protect developers from discrimination as well as game industry “crunch” and its concomitant 100-hour weeks and poor compensation – the kind that has literally caused game developers to drop dead (never mind makes them burn out or abandon the industry).

Apparently, such an organization is finally in the works. As Kotaku reports, Game Workers Unite is using this year’s GDC to raise awareness and collect accounts of labor exploitation.

“Game Workers Unite is a broad-reaching organization that seeks to connect pro-union activists, exploited workers, and allies across borders and across ideologies in the name of building a unionized game industry. We are building pro-union solidarity across disciplines, classes, and countries.”

Don’t expect it to go unchallenged; in spite of companies like Riot and Blizzard expressing support for pro e-sports unions, some game corporations have already proven they’re willing to resort to disgusting tactics to fight unions.

Source: Game Workers Unite via Kotaku
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Veldara
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Veldara

Bout damn time, the people creating your favorite and cherished titles shouldn’t be treated like disposable cattle.

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Bryan Dixon

Think it’s a great idea as long as nobody is forced to join and pay dues.

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Utakata

My proletariat pigtails approve of this! <3

Edit/PS: Also /feature please!

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Ssiard

I’d only be for unions if the following were changed

1) It was voluntary to join.

2) Union dues were only required if you joined.

3) They were required to have open financials.

4) They were prevented from lobbying politicians.

Until these are implemented then unions are just adding to the cespool.

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Cosmic Cleric

For #4, just unions can’t, or nobody can lobby?

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Ssiard

No organizations should be able to lobby but unions should definitely not because it is a misappropriation of union dues and forcing members to promote a certain political stance.

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Utakata

It’s not the unions that need to change though.

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Ssiard

I disagree that unions do not need to change.

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Utakata

I am sure you do. :)

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haishao

They definitely need to change. Unions are nothing less than organized crime. All they do is extortion and bullying. They force you to pay them so you get the right to work and if you do more work than they allow you, they start bullying you to stop.
And forget showing up to work if they decide everyone is on strike even if you don’t agree with it because then they show up to your house and start braking stuff.

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Utakata

If you think they’re organized crime, then we simply having nothing to discuss. /shrug

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Ssiard

How else do you describe being forced to pay money so that someone else can provide you with protection that you need nor want? It’s like straight out of The Godfather.

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Bhima Jenkins

You are forced to pay federal and state taxes, pay for car insurance, pay for property tax to send someone else’s kid to school. If we were not forced to pay for these things, they wouldn’t exist and our little experiment in civil society would come crashing to the ground.

This is why Union dues are mandatory, because if they weren’t, not enough would pay for it to keep the Union solvent. I have quite a few issues with the way some Unions conduct business (ie: nigh on impossible to fire a sub-par employee), but the mandatory charge is just not a big deal.

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Ssiard

There are a whole lot of laws preventing corruption in politicians. There is also balance of power. However, laws protect bad unions and make it difficult to even prove the union is bad. That is the difference.

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Utakata

And if you think that, then I have nothing to discuss with you further either. /shrugs again

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Utakata

Edit/PS: To clarify my position a bit, as one or 2 folks seems confused what I mean. I am looking at the practise of how private and public sector treats and deals with it’s labor force. That is, if workers rights where fully protected and fully supported, as opposed to treating them like an expendable force in the name of padding the bottom line, then there would really be no need for unions. This clearly isn’t the case. And that’s what needs to change. Or we need unions. /deal

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Ssiard

The confusion is with “protection”. You believe companies are only bad. You also believe that individual workers are incapable of protecting themselves. Neither are true. This is the fundamental assumption of unions and it is not correct.

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Utakata

That’s a lot of stawmen you are constructing there. You must have fine hands to do needle work. o.O

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mysecretid

My extended family works on both the union and management sides of the issue, often in very highly-placed positions.

The reality is that, while the operational details change (often significantly) from location to location, both management and unions are equally susceptible to abuses of power whenever they become the only dominant power in the equation.

Neither side has a lock on virtue or vice in all situations, because these organizations are made up of individuals, who are various unknown quantities of good and evil — unknown, until they are given the power to unilaterally enforce their will.

Overly-strong management can be just as tyrannical and detrimental in business as an overly-strong union.

The ideal situation is one of balance, where neither labor nor management holds the authoritative power, but must negotiate with one another to go forward, with all parties in relative agreement.

Hammering out such agreements can be hellishly difficult, yes, but when neither management nor labor holds absolute power, the two sides become an ongoing check-and-balance on one another’s behavior, and both sides are motivated to find a workable compromise for their business to move forward.

Rather than striving to destroy unions or to eradicate management, it’s more useful (and typically more profitable) to create a balance of power, where each side’s power serves to keep potential abuses by the other side in check, and both sides must work together to keep their mutual business interest thriving.

As the old saying goes, “A compromise is an agreement everybody hates, but everyone can live with”.

Overweening power on either side leads to abuses — given that management in the gaming industry has demonstrably held most of the power for most of game industry’s existence, the abuses (also documented and demonstrable) have proliferated.

I’m not at all surprised that those on the labor side of the equation seek a more balanced relationship, going forward. I fully expect they will ultimately get this, if they continue to fight for it.

This is my final comment on this issue here. This is what I know. Take it or leave it, as you prefer. I’m not interested in having any sort of argument.

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Sally Bowls

If you are getting your cleaning crew or seamstresses to work 80 hours, that is just a sweatshop. Shame on you.

OTOH
1) IMO, a very, very tiny % of the people who work 60+ hours a week do so in the games industry. It is a rare startup that is founded by 40 hours a week people. It is a rare associate who makes partner without working 60ish hours a week for 7-11 years. Not “crunch”; business as usual. Wiki article on Karōshi said “In 1988, the Labor Force Survey reported that almost one fourth of the male working employees worked over 60 hours per week” So in that one country, that was IDK say ten million people working, not just crunch, 60 hours a week which is about idk 100,000%? 1,000,000%? the number of game devs who do.

2) I am not sure if all those people working hard were compelled (some were) but some, especially of the older generation, were impelled. Just because you need to be compelled to work hard does not mean that all do. As we say here in old folks land, I suspect that a number of the people working that much may be happier than some of the Millenials standing around complaining the new espresso machine produces too much/little crema.

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Bruno Brito

Not getting your point. Are you saying if someone works too much, and you can see their untimely end because of it, you shouldn’t step in?

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Sally Bowls

Not getting your point. We can say it is a risk factor (at least at the high end) but we certainly can not “see their untimely end” – ethics and law and medicine have a much harder time with probabilities than certainties. But IMO, that is just a red herring; this is about money, not saving lives. I.e. not stopping the 90 or 100 hour, clearly-dangerous, should-be-prohibited, rare bingers but the 50 or 60 hour work weeks that millions have worked for centuries. (The extreme case is that if we were truly about public safety, which would save more lives, reducing by 10 or 20 hours a week that a few thousand developers work or outlawing video games; people spent 10 billion hours in a quarter just playing Blizzard games. I like video games but have seen few claiming they are a force for better physical or mental health, especially among the young.) If this were primarily about the lives/health of developers, then I am sure that things like required exercise and diet changes would raise their life expectancy far, far more than working ten fewer hours a week.)

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haishao

I’d work in a game studio for minimum wage and happily do overtime every day.

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Utakata

Sure, whatever…more power to you I guess.

Line
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Line

Sadly, that’s what most of the workforce is like in the industry.
And after a couple of years, they leave away screaming and find out how much more they could have made for less work hours at the non video game software company next door.

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haishao

That’s their problem. I have no interest in the software company next door. Unless they make video games.

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Leontes

Alright – just give me a sec to set up shop in Cape Town, and I’ll take you up on that offer…

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Leontes

This is kind of surreal…

Forget nukes – if you want to wreak havoc in the US, go found a union! ;)

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Bryan Correll

/peeks into the room.
/quietly shuts the door and tiptoes off to avoid getting caught in politics.

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Cosmic Cleric

/peeks into the room.
/quietly shuts the door and tiptoes off to avoid getting caught in politics.

Release the hounds!!!

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Utakata

Kinda sad when something is needed, they argue about instead. /sigh

PurpleCopper
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PurpleCopper

Surprised that this has’t happened already. The video game industry is like what, 40 years old?

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A Dad Supreme

The salary and benefits were far better than any average person made so why would they strike for those 40 years?

In the US, people are/were raised it was about money first and foremost. Generally the more you got, you’d look around and compare and see you had little to complain about vs the vast majority of other folks and their actual “working conditions”.

PurpleCopper
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PurpleCopper

Really? From what people tell me, working in the video game industry is stressful and not as rewarding as other jobs for the same effort you put into it. Seems like due to the volatile nature of the video game industry, you put in alot of unpaid hours coding all day. Not to mention, boatloads of people are instantly laid off if a game doesn’t sell well.

Now, I’m just generalizing, but I’m pretty sure there are a few game companies are absolutely killing it (Blizzard and Valve comes to mind), but I think they’re the exception and not the rule.

I wonder, if you have the skills to program video games, why not be a web dev or go into app development? Seems like you’d get paid more and deal with less stress.

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A Dad Supreme

All jobs are stressful. Even jobs that people love can give them stress so let’s dispense with that. Stress is in everyone’s work to some degree.

“Rewarding” as a job function isn’t in most people’s priority set. Ability to eat, have a house, pay for kid’s college is pretty important; that they feel “fulfilled” isn’t up there usually. People would love that but it’s not the main factor, at least with most of the people I’ve met in my life.

This is why I said for as long as videogames were being made, the money was the important factor and people tended to put up with the complaints because they saw what their Cousin Billy’s family had to do for less money and how his kids grew up vs theirs.

The reason (I assume) a lot of devs don’t go into web or app development, or something in the wonderful fun world of insurance, finance or accounting is because by and large those jobs don’t have any freedom whatsoever and all employees generally have the same set of shitty health benefits, whether you’re a janitor, a receptionist or a programmer. You’re on an even bigger clock but with shorter deadlines for project after project after project from a never-ending stream of projects for customers. So pretty boring work.

In those jobs there is no such thing as ‘delays’ or ‘cost overruns’ or redoing the spreadsheet after a year of work. You have customers so you have to produce and that means working overtime when you have to at no extra pay in an accounting cubicle. The funny thing is those jobs aren’t unionized either.

So you could work for a non-unionized accounting firm developing software where there aren’t videogame breakrooms to blow off stress, allowances for employees to sport huge beards, earlobe plates and piercings, teenage-level branded T-shirts and catered Friday lunches while in your JCPenny suit or you could work for a non-unionized videogame maker in a far better “working environment” with much more lax conditional requirements instead.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

“Rewarding” as a job function isn’t in most people’s priority set. Ability to eat, have a house, pay for kid’s college is pretty important; that they feel “fulfilled” isn’t up there usually. People would love that but it’s not the main factor, at least with most of the people I’ve met in my life.

Money isn’t everything. I make a decent amount but I could make 3x as much if I went to work in NYC. I’ll never do that commute again. I’ll never join another company that bounced from crisis to crisis.

The interview ends when companies boast about paid dinner and their sleeping amenities. It’s just not worth the stress.

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Sally Bowls

There is an agenda in describing no-incremental-pay hours as “unpaid hours.” Who is being treated better in a high tech company, someone who is paid $10 per hour with overtime or someone who works the same hours without overtime pay but is paid a salary of $150,000 a year? Back in the day, you would read about founders of a startup who took zero salaries just for the stock (i.e. chance at being multimillionaires.) Initially, all their hours were unpaid hours.

Where this breaks down for gaming, is that while a lot of high tech workers have a big upside (cook at Google got $10M), [almost] all employees got nearly a million from IPO,) game devs get less salary and without the entrepreneurs’ upside. (Although IDK, but I bet if CSE does well, CU devs will get something.)

Re your “I wonder, if you have the skills to program video games, why not be a web dev or go into app development?”

Freakanomics:

Why do prostitutes earn more than architects?

As the supply-demand theory says when there are a lot of people willing and able to do a job, that job generally doesn’t pay well. Other factors that determine the wage are the specialized skills a job requires, the unpleasantness of a job, and the demand for services. The delicate balance between these factors can explain why the typical prostitute earns more than the typical architect although it may not seem as though she should.

The architect would appear more skilled and better educated (as the words are usually defined). But the girls don’t grow up dreaming of becoming prostitutes, making the supply of potential prostitutes relatively small. Their skills, while not necessarily “specialized,” are practices in a very specialized context. And their job is unpleasant and forbidding in at least two ways: the likelihood of violence and the lost opportunity of having a family life. And as for the demand, an architect is more likely to hire a prostitute than vice versa, let’s just say.

There is a huge demand to program for game companies. If there was not, the supply would decline and compensation would rise. At a SWTOR cantina, one of the devs talked about leaving a programming job in Australia and moving to Austin without first getting a job because he really wanted to work in gaming. Also, the skill barrier did not use to be that high. Instead of hiring expensive programmers with CS degrees, the path was forum commenter, to unpaid moderator, to CM, to SQA, to development.

So highly desirable jobs without excessive skill requirements are not going to pay as well. As the employee knew when they applied. It is a personal choice whether you would prefer to work in a field you love or make more money.

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Sally Bowls

While there are a lot of visual and audio artists involved now (and probably more than I think,) game development grew out of software development. While I am sure there are counterexamples, I have never encountered unionized software developers nor can I think of a company with unionized software developers.

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Bhima Jenkins

Software devs make more money than their gaming counterparts except for the lead devs with bigger gaming studios and certainly work less hours overall. Its the nature of the industry because people love games, so there is a huge pool of people that will work in the industry for less than they could writing small automation scripts for Kaiser, etc. Same goes for video production artists in Hollywood. They can make a killing doing what they do for PR/Ad Agencies, but instead they choose to make movies and get the shaft.

rafael12104
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rafael12104

Let me gingerly weigh in here. I’ll be brief, I promise.

So, I’m not a fan of unions. I understand the benefits, I really do. But they are also a detriment.

The biggest issue, IMO at the moment, is that unions lead to offshoring labor. Setting artificial wages and other demands on top of what is already a lucrative solution to cut costs will do that. You can’t force a company to build things in the US when there are cheaper solutions outside of the US, right? It is a global marketplace.

Besides, devs aren’t mfg workers. They are, usually, highly educated and skilled professionals. They should take advantage of that and negotiate their contract of employment individually. And many do just that because it is beneficial and not a rubber stamp to be another widget in the workplace.

BTW, crunch isn’t a reason to unionize. Many studious have already established anti-crunch policies as a way to attract talent. That will continue. Why? Because a good dev is not easily replaced, especially if they can negotiate their own contract.

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Alex Willis

The biggest issue, IMO at the moment, is that unions lead to offshoring labor. Setting artificial wages and other demands on top of what is already a lucrative solution to cut costs will do that. You can’t force a company to build things in the US when there are cheaper solutions outside of the US, right? It is a global marketplace.

This is the “workers as hostage” argument. It puts the burden for the profitability of the company on the shoulders of the workers, rather than on management. But as most non-management workers tend to have a narrow mandate, “profitability” writ large tends to fall outside their purview. Explaining to a janitor why he can’t have a dental plan because widgets are cheaper in Mongolia puts an undue and unethical burden on that person.

It IS a global marketplace. That is probably the most challenging argument against a union from a macro-finance point of view. But citizens and politicians should demand more of companies so that they’re not being extorted by these companies “give us a deal or we’ll do business onshore!”. Tax relief, special deals, legal exemptions, and all the incredible ways corporations skirt their civic obligations should come with a price tag: if they want to do business in your country, and get deals, they need to pay your citizens’ workers a fair wage. The entire economy benefits from that.

Besides, devs aren’t mfg workers. They are, usually, highly educated and skilled professionals. They should take advantage of that and negotiate their contract of employment individually. And many do just that because it is beneficial and not a rubber stamp to be another widget in the workplace.

Some devs ARE “workers”. In larger studios, you get a templated work contract and slotted into an HR-formatted job. I know lots of people who work at Ubisoft Montreal and Toronto, and many of them have zero latitude in their contracts, because they’re filling a role. The person in that role can easily be replaced. Most devs have no leverage: the marketplace is saturated with talent. Typically, negotiated contracts are only available if a person is a) moving into management or b) a content expert that cannot easily be found elsewhere. Do you know anybody working in QA? Ask them about when they got started, and if they had ANY leverage or security.

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Utakata

Mr. Willis, I am glad you are around to explain the finer details. As I have little or no patience to do so. Please keep up the good work. Thank you. /bows

Mr. rafael, please think of the Lyn Gunners available tomorrow for B&S instead. I know I will. So let’s be happy together for this! Thank you. /bows <3