GDC Summer 2020: Unionizing the video games industry

    
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GDC Summer 2020: Unionizing the video games industry

Just in time for Blizzard’s latest labor crisis, Game Workers Unite UK treasurer Kevin Agwaze held an Ask Me Anything at GDC Summer 2020 earlier today. While obviously not all of our readers are developers, many of the sub-topics in the presentation will still be useful in terms of understanding the industry for outsiders and also for readers who also aren’t part of a union but wish to change that.

Let’s start with the most relevant question we could ask: What can press and players do to help industry workers organize and unionize?

While the developers in attendance were supportive of our question, Agwaze made it seem like our options are limited. Sadly, he confirmed the suspicion that boycotts just aren’t really viable for helping the workers, at least in his perspective. I’d wager it’s because there’s so many people who are either unaware or don’t care, as it’s not like with a grocery store strike where you can see employees that help you and your community angry and asking for fair treatment.

Agwaze also noted that repeated reporting on labor conditions can be helpful, but people in the industry often already know the problems. Press brings this to the forefront, and that can be useful, but only until readers and watchers grow numb to it. Still, when people are upset and there’s bad press, it hurts brand imaging (and more importantly, threatens profit margins). No company wants that.

When poor working conditions are seen as baseline by people outside the industry, Agwaze worries they’ll stop caring. What he did suggest is that press and fans keep talking about specific attempts to unionize and strike in order to support people actually trying to make changes. Boycotting obviously helps this and actually can hit those profit margins companies worry about, but again, Agwaze doesn’t seem to think gamers are capable of pulling these off.

In terms of unionizing in general, work conditions, reporting incidents, and overtime concerns, Agwaze seems pretty practical. Most situations simply called for talking to current or potential future coworkers: Ask about conditions and pay, make note of department trends, ask people of different genders and backgrounds. You don’t have to be an organizer or take charge if it’s not your thing, but if you want a union, just join one. The money you give helps get the ball rolling. As Agwaze noted, union leaders he spoke to in Sweden have a big enough war chest to allow their people to strike for years without pay, while the UK unions he’s more familiar with may only have months. The sooner you can start growing that war chest, the better.

He also suggested focusing on local unions. While there’s obviously fear of a company outsourcing its work, Agwaze also felt that companies who may recently open expensive offices in high-cost areas such as San Francisco may be less willing or able to close shop and move elsewhere, so use that to your advantage where applicable.

In a related vein, Agwaze also noted that it’s easier to unionize new companies. Having stakes in the company motivates employees – plus, if it’s successful, the union can help with scaling corporate monetary compensation.

Obviously people from pre-established backgrounds not traditionally associated with games, such as voice actors and motion-capture specialists, already had unions before getting into games. Developers will also need consider whom they’re helping and how. Unions can enforce societal norms that marginalize people, but they can also help boost them up. That goes beyond gender and race; for example, QA testers are numerous and often paid about minimum wage, and especially these days, their jobs are in jeopardy as more and more studios push QA testing onto consumers, some of whom pay the studios for the privilege. If QA people are in the same union as higher-paid employees like effects artists, that gives the artists more people to support a walkout and pressure the company while also helping the QA people have a chance to make a living wage. That’s pure solidarity.

Finally, for anyone, games industry, future lawyers, or really anyone curious about all this, who wants some further reading, Agwaze recommends Secrets of a Successful Organizer as a good resource.

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angrakhan

Unionizing won’t work in places like Texas which is a right to work state. That means unions can’t legally force employees to join nor are businesses legally required to limit hiring to union workers. Thus, given the choice of hiring a union worker who is typically over paid and gives you a bunch of “not my job” or ” My shift is over” lip or someone willing to be competitive with their salary and realize occasional overtime is part of the job, who would you hire?

Before you go off on Texas and right to work, I live in Texas and work as a software developer. I have for 20+ years. I make a 6 figure salary and can’t remember the last time I worked overtime. Thing is in Texas the tech market has way more jobs than employees, so employers have learned sometimes the hard way,to take care of their employees.

Case in point 8 years ago I was working for a company and they started demanding 12 hour days to meet an arbitrary time line. During a staff meeting I asked what the payout was going to be for all this effort. We were told we got to keep our jobs. Ha! That doesn’t fly in Texas. Within 3 weeks the entire development team had new jobs and turned in their resignation. All without a union.

Crazy thing is that same company asked me to come back for more money and I haven’t worked any overtime for them since. I’ve been there 7 years.

This left wing idea that unions are the only way to go is a bunch of bullshit. You just need to have a spine and be willing to say no and walk out. That’s why the gaming industry has issues is because the developers who work in that space are willing to tolerate the treatment. Stop being a doormat. Also get the hell out of game development. I guarantee I make more money and work a half or a quarter as hard to get it, and I’m not part of some mob boss run union.

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styopa

Anyone who wants to should be able to unionize.
Anyone who wants nothing to do with a union should not be compelled to join one.

Seems fair to me.

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Dro Gul

Unions can be good (especially if membership is voluntary). Unions can be bad. What I found astonishing is this claim though: As Agwaze noted, union leaders he spoke to in Sweden have a big enough war chest to allow their people to strike for years without pay.

Think about what that means. About how much money a Union has collected in dues that they can afford to strike for “years without pay”.

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jealouspirate

I have had bad experiences as a union member in the past, but something has to be done. I would never work in the games industry. Low pay, high expectations, lots of overtime and crunch, no job security, etc. It sounds awful.

blazbluecore
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blazbluecore

Unionizing is the way to go. The only way to stop most companies from abusing and under paying their employees.

We’ve seen what the game work industry looks like without unionization, its awful. Game developers need to unionize.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

Here we go again…

The gamedev niche is in the state it’s in because there are 10’s of 1000’s of starry-eyed hopefuls for every available position. Put your outrage aside for a hot second and think about the implications of that factoid.

Unionization works if and only if the union has a monopoly on the workers. Besides worker buy-in they also need a way to discourage scabs from providing their services. As C19 has taught the world, knowledge workers really don’t need to be tied to a physical location.

Yes, the working conditions are an atrocity but unions. are. not. the. answer. I’m not saying that because I’m anti-union (I am). I’m saying that because not only are unions are a wholly ineffective solution for this problem they come with their own set of abuses.

Games developers are deathly afraid of regulation. Just the threat of new laws have them shaking in their boots. If you want real change then you need to convince your Congress-critters that the situation needs fixing. Sadly I think that’ll require an Administration change.

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alancode

I don’t think unionizing is a good idea. Many will lose their jobs, and they will start to out source even more.

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Greaterdivinity

Because the status quo now is…good?

It can lead to companies aggressively fighting back, but I imagine when big names in development come out in support of unions and it becomes a “Creatives vs. The Suits” fight, public sentiment will side with the creators of the games they enjoy.

Not to mention, if they start replacing experienced developers with non-union scabs, the quality of work is very likely to drop considerably.

Despite the decades of work to neuter the power of unions in the US, and issues with some unions (they’re subject to corruption like any organization is), they’re still an immensely important part of the labor movement and protecting workers. There’s a reason that worker pay and conditions have deteriorated over the decades, in line with the constant attacks and limitations placed on unions.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

> but I imagine when big names in development

lol. The days of rock star gamesdevs died over a decade ago.

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Bruno Brito

The days of rock star gamesdevs died over a decade ago.

Tell that to Star Citizen.

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Greaterdivinity

Not in the slightest. Almost every major studio has 2-3 big, very public names.

If Cory Balrog suddenly leaves Sony and comes out against the company for anti-worker practices, and says that new leadership/devs who have no experience at Sony or with the God of War franchise are working on the sequel, do you think fans won’t take note?