Former ArenaNet co-founder Jeff Strain calls for game dev unionization

    
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Jeff Strain, a former employee of Blizzard, former co-founder of ArenaNet, and current founder of Undead Labs, is joining the cavalcade of voices condemning Activision-Blizzard’s culture. In a letter sent to his employees that he invited them to publish to the public, Strain is calling on the video game industry to unionize and inviting his studio to join a union with his full endorsement.

“If this week does not show us that our industry colleagues — even the most entry-level QA tester — need true support and baseline protection, I can’t imagine how much worse it will have to get,” he writes in the letter. “We need unionization.”

Strain’s tenure at Blizzard saw him join the company in 1996, working as a programmer for some of the studio’s biggest titles including StarCraft and Diablo, and as a lead programmer and team lead on World of Warcraft. According to his letter, he elected to leave Blizzard in 1998 after a “cataclysmic meeting with one of the founders” about issues with a dismembered female body in the beta version of Diablo — a meeting that ultimately saw him leave the studio and found ArenaNet as well as an event that left a mark on his career as an entrepreneur in the games industry going forward.

“My time at Blizzard left an indelible mark on my life and career that continues to this day. Most importantly, it showed me how abusive cultures can propagate and self-amplify over time; how ‘hardcore gamers only’ is a smokescreen for ‘bro culture’; how fostering a sense of exceptionalism inhibits people from speaking up because they should just deal with it if they love the company and its games; and how passive leadership that turns a blind eye can ultimately be the most abusive thing of all.”

Strain further writes that his 25 years in the games industry has been littered with “hundreds of profoundly disturbing stories [from devs] about their industry experiences,” which ultimately is leading him to join the call for developer representation via unions. “I’m an entrepreneur, and a veteran of three successful independent studio start ups. I’m highly familiar with the financial, legal, contractual, and organizational aspects of game development. I also know that I have nothing to fear from unionization,” he writes. “The giants of this industry have shown us this week that we cannot trust them to moderate and manage the wealth and power that players and fans have given them.”

Strain’s call to action is the latest development after the state of California filed a massive sexual discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit against ActiBlizz following a two year-long investigation. Since then, numerous victims and former Blizzard devs have stepped forward with horror stories of their own, and revelations of events within the company, from a literal Cosby Suite to an employee’s arrest for peeping in a bathroom, have spilled out in the days after the story broke. The entire matter has since led to an employee walkout but otherwise there have been no major attempts at change within the studio beyond empty platitudes from CEO Bobby Kotick.

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source: IGN
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Unnar Thor Thorisson

I’ve certainly seen unions go wrong. I’m sure anyone here could bring up an example if they cared enough to Google it, and some wouldn’t even have to. That said: The corpos need a counterweight. We cannot leave peoples’ wellbeing in the hands of those who are incentivized to abuse them.

Any house can crumble. That doesn’t mean we all live in tents. Build better houses and they won’t fall as often. It’ll happen – can’t prevent every case – but if you go from a hundred houses falling every year to fifty, and then to twenty, and then to ten, you’ve saved a lot of lives. Same applies here. Build better union structures.

And whatever the evils of a corrupt union, it’s still lesser by far than the evils of a corporation.

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TheDarthStomper

The cure is accountability. If that comes from unions, or from something else, all that matters is that someone is holding people responsible for their actions. I’ve seen unions work both ways in these situations, but given the circumstances, it may be the best option, either as a genuine counter or as a needed shock to the system (or both).

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Lots of people are leery about unions and are quick to point out how corrupt they can be. What have unions done for us? Well, here’s a list of a few things unions brought to the U.S.

1. The weekend. In the 187os, the American workweek averaged 61 hours. Massive strikes, organized by unions, led in 1938 to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and ushered in the concept of the weekend for working Americans.

2. Fair Wages and Income Equality. When most Americans belonged to a union, in the 1940s and 50s, income inequality was at its lowest point in U.S. history.

3. Ending Child Labor. The same union-driven FLSA of 1938 that brought the weekend allowed the federal government to regulate child labor for the first time.

4. Health Benefits. It was the unions that grouped employees together and pushed for employer/employee health plans, which came about after WWII. Until then? Good luck.

5. FMLA. The Family and Medical Leave Act that gives Americans the right to take time off for their own illness or a family members illness or need did not come into existence until 1993. Until then you were SOL. It was the AFL-CIO that led the campaign for FMLA.

In every regard, huge monied interests fought strenuous against all these things. It was only the organized collaboration of working people across the country that brought these benefits into being.

I hope they do unionize. It’s the only way to fight back.

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Bruno Brito

Isn’t Labor Day/Worker’s Day basically a memorial day for people who were killed for striking?

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Ashfyn Ninegold

I don’t know about that, Bruno. Here’s what the U.S. Department of Labor says about Labor Day:

https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history

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Bruno Brito

Yeah, i was right, just took a look. The protests got out of hand, and the four leaders were condemned to death for wanting better work conditions, without evidence.

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Bruno Brito

Unions aren’t perfect but any employee is better with them than without them.

Just putting my own experience here: My father works for several unions and for employees to have access to a FREE lawyer that has 30 years of experience in labor laws shows how good it is to be part of one. Word of mouth is not good for a lawyer to make business, but unions have better way of spreading business.

Also, i can’t speak for other countries, but here in Brazil, a lot of cases about either labor laws or smaller cases tend to be default wins for the customer/worker because you can throw a stone inside a company and find a blatant irregularity. Companies tend to abuse fear and rumour ( “You’ll never work in this town/kind of job again” ), but when push comes to shove, they just don’t even keep litigating because of how much money they spend. It’s better to just settle.

I had a gf’s whose mom used to enter all kinds of phone plans just waiting for the first screw-up by the side of the company so she could sue them to the “small cases” courts. She basically financed her whole flower shop with that kind of money. Going after your rights works, and it works well.

The hardest part was to convince clients to not fear retaliation or lack of opportunity after the suing. My father being the extremely impatient person he was, just told me to say “Ok then” and put the phone down, but i always liked to go the extra step to convince the person. Got him like three or four clients on that alone.

It begs me to remember thought, that a lot of our cases were people retiring. They went on the office with their work cards, we would review them, and get all the payments they were due from the company. A lot of these people would have worked unpaid overtime, or were “promoted” into completely unrelated functions that didn’t change their pay ( which is also against labor laws in Brazil ).

Almost all of them retired with good money expecting them. Again, going after your rights pay off extremely well. The fact that companies tend to also fight against paying their worker’s rights only contribute to judges giving the workers a extra for the entire debacle.

It ain’t perfect, but it gets the job done. Unionize, people. Don’t trust your employers. Don’t delegate the responsability over your life to someone who doesn’t even have a single iota of an idea what it is to live on your shoes.

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Stefan

As an European all i can say is Unions are worth it.

Nation wide unions for an entire sector is one of the best things we as workers ever got, it is something my parents, grand parents fought hard for so that i have rights.

Want me to work more than 40 hours per week which my contract states? Pay me over time and ask not demand it.

Do i fall sick with illness i am entitled to pay and they cannot fire me, do i fall sick under the 3 to 4 weeks summer holiday period, that is paid leave. I can call in sick and those days turn into sick days and not paid leave days, i can then later use those leave days, days which i can if i am not mistaken up to 200 hours carry over to the next work year. Do you fire me? You are still paying those holiday days out as employer upon my exit in addition to paying me one month pay per year i worked for you, do i feel i have legal grounds to fight their call to fire me on? The union will provide me with legal support.

And so on that is things you are missing out on by not having a worker union backing you.

So yes unions are worth it, especially how he phrases it an union for the entire sector, as i believe in the states most bad experiences with unions are smaller localized ones?

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Philip Armstrong

How do you get rid of Bro Culture. How you get rid of the Bros? Do we not hire Bros? Do we ask people if they are Bros? How do we reeducate Bros? What fills the Vacuum? What do we do with all the Bros we have fired and gotten rid of?

What happens to all the people who have to be fired so they can be replaced with better people.

I’m retired, I have no skin in this, no potential job loss or loss of opportunities. I just want to know what is supposed happen to the problem population.

Fisty
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Fisty

Shame works well.

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Philip Armstrong

Sure, shame worked really well for the Puritans, and cultural shunning is a tactic used by many Theocratic societies, but what are you really going to do to this population that needs to put in check?

Most of the Bro’s I know won’t care about shaming from a group they already probably don’t don’t care about anyway based on their past behavior.

Even if Acti-Blizz and every game studio cut out all of the caner, the cancer has to go somewhere. Do they create their own studios and try to cater to a smaller focused audience? Are they allowed to do that?

Fisty
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Fisty

I’ve seen it work today too. Doesn’t always, but it is a great place to start. No idea what to do with the others.

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Brazen Bondar

Looking at the problem as one of just getting rid of “bro culture” puts the focus on the wrong point of the spectrum. Misogyny is a much larger part of society than just in gaming, or Hollywood, or the restaurant industry. The bigger question is how to we create a culture of normative behavior where abusing people is not acceptable?

Shame might work for some individuals who otherwise went along with bad behavior because they could hide among those who were the big players. But, one thing that has worked in other corporate environments is to create REAL consequences when bad behavior is discovered or reported. That can and should include job loss for individuals, but it should also include substantial fines and penalties for the corporation. Tolerating abuse of employees has to have financial consequences in order for a “bad actor” company to accept the fact they must foster and protect a work environment free from abuse.

A huge international conglomerate used to be a huge law violator. I mean they did everything any law prohibited. Finally the government regulators went after them and ALL their subsidiaries. There was an eye popping record fine imposed and restrictions on what the business could do until the regulating agency saw real change. Today, that corporation sends representatives to anti-corruption programs all across the globe, and offers itself as an example of both what not to do, as well as what can be done to effectively create change.

Change can be created but the shareholders and the leadership of the organization have to understand that it is not in their financial interest to allow rampant bad behavior in the work place.

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Unnar Thor Thorisson

In so many words: Yes, they are. And if it turns out that those studios are full of harassment and toxicity, then the hammer comes down on them too. That’s the thing about having laws: If someone offends twice, you punish him twice. Don’t let him think “I can take the risk.” Make him realize it isn’t a risk, it’s a certainty.

Now I realize that coming up with solutions for an imperfect world isn’t as fun as asking leading questions and then making passive-aggressive references to the worst regime you can think of that might potentially have had a similar answer, but before you respond here, try to remember that we can see what you’re doing and it mostly just makes you look like an ass.

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rk70534

I don’t think you have to worry about the Bros. The Bros have taken care of Bros until now, and probably will in the future. Sadly. Bluntly speaking, it’s hard to see the full game industry ostracizing anyone for long, assuming they don’t go to prison and even then some studio might welcome them back.

And to be frank – I’m afraid that most Bros who would fail to drop on their feet as employees could just put up their own small studio, and even if investors wouldn’t touch it at first, there is likely enough Gamergate etc scum to see them as martyrs to the cause and crowdfund their projects.

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Ken from Chicago

Nothing.

You can have all the Bro Culture you want–at home. The office is different. We used to have an extremely explicit racist culture at work and after a century of effort it’s much more on the down low.

Think what you want but actions have consequences. Jobs are not democracies. You don’t have a 1st amendment right to speak, as shown by various NDAs you are forced to sign to even have access to corporate communications. You speak or act out of line you can get “promoted” to consumer toot sweet.

Most states are At Will meaning, unless it’s for one of the EEOC protected class reasons, you can be fired “at will” for pert near any reason or no reason at all.

So if they can learn to confirm to HIPAA laws, corporate security laws, legal privacy laws, military secrecy laws, academic privacy laws, etc., then they can learn to follow anti-sexual harassment laws–or be fired.

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Utakata

What a ridiculous straw man. So no, it does not mean not hiring and firing all “Bros” as you call ’em. That would likely be illegal in some jurisdiction, lol. Rather making certain behaviors are actually remained in checked while others are simply not tolerated. It also means hiring from a more diverse field of genders that actually can do the work. I mean this stuff should go without saying and further explanation…

But of course, it does not guarantee protection for your privilege at the expense of others, if that’s what you here to complain about. Sorry, bub. /shrug

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Witches

Prison? I hear wonders about their bro culture.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

We actually have all the tools to hand, we just don’t use them. There are laws, there are regulations, and there are norms.

The problem is that the powerless are exploited by the powerful. A single mom being harassed at work isn’t going to report it when she knows that other women have and have subsequently left. She can’t lose her job. She’s powerless to change her situation.

What it takes is what it has always taken. Peer pressure. When other men see harassment and call the men doing it out. Remember, this culture is largely the result of peer pressure in one direction, so those who are disgusted by it need to speak out and push the peer pressure in the other direction. Silence is agreement. Silence is condoning.

The other thing it will take is power pressure. Those who can reward employees with promotions, money and benefits need to be the ones who tell ‘bros’ that they need to clean up their act or they are never getting ahead in their company.

As long as those in charge turn a blind eye to this behavior, it will never end. Rewarding anyone participating in such ugliness (as Blizzard repeatedly has) will only reinforce that a healthy workplace is not important to the power players, but being one of the in crowd is.

Courage to speak out shouldn’t rest solely on women who have been harassed or abused. Men need to make it clear that such behavior is outside the accepted norms and only men can effectively do this.

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Vincent Clark

I’m also retired (although I’m not sure why that is relevant), but…and I’m assuming you are being genuine here…after all that has been revealed this past week, your take away from all of it is “but what about the ‘bros’?”

The “bros” need to be better men. That’s it.

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Philip Armstrong

It is not a “what about” them, it is a “what to do with them”. I know they exist. I grew up with, I served with them, I worked with in every industry I was in. They have been in all levels of every industry I have worked in, and they work together. Some of them even pose as allies as a form of camo.

Mention my retirement was a means to distance my self from what is actually happening. I am no longer in the work force and am no longer subjected to workplace toxicity.

I am not worried about the Bros, I want to know what the plan is.

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IronSalamander8 .

I’ve been in a union shop for almost 11 years now and as others have pointed out, it isn’t a perfect solution, but it has more good than bad. I’ve worked at both union and non-union manufacturers over the years and some of the crap I’ve seen in particular non-union places would make you want a union for sure. I’ve seen drunk owners throw tool holders at people, people fired for not getting along with the owner’s ***hole son while someone who came to work literally drunk is allowed to run a machine and then after complaints, TO DRIVE THEMSELVES HOME, when they’re obviously inebriated to an extreme degree.

Unions can carry the worst elements further than they should, but we did get rid of one of those more parasitic members a couple years ago, and overall we have a good relationship with our management, and things go smoothly the vast majority of the time.

It’s important to note that when I was in my teens and 20s I was strongly anti-union, but they can do real good for folks, especially for minorities and women in circumstances just like we read about here lately. They don’t make everything suddenly wonderful but they certainly can help a lot.

MariedeGournay
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MariedeGournay

Any human organization will come with human problems. The explicit benefit of a union is that they are fundamentally working for you. The company, particularly a publicly traded company, is as an entity that no matter how good or well intentioned its leaders is fundamentally not. It’s like the difference between democracy and monarchy. Sure citizens can suck and vote for representatives or laws that are bad and daft, but in the end it’s better than living in a system where sovereignty is invested in a family whose sole real interest is the maintenance of its own power.

Unions can fuck up, because workers can be dumb, and they demand high engagement to work well, like democracy. And when they work well they force companies to look beyond their immediate interests to see the larger monetary and intangible benefits of a happy and safe workforce. To see those benefits, they something with real power to be able to punch them in the dick.

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Brazen Bondar

Agree with this discussion on unions. Union leadership can be corrupted by power and greed. We’ve seen unions where the same kind of “bro culture” exists. However, where union members are proactive and keep their leadership accountable, union representation can be the best thing going. Young people tend to be settle more on the anti-union side because they haven’t yet had enough work experience to appreciate the kind of work protections unions provide. Many middle age folks have lost touch with the fact their own grandfathers or great grandfathers rose up out of poverty through union protection and benefits.
I’ve been part of management during a labor strike and I’ve been a union member, as a professional even, and I now work in a state where unions are almost non-existent. Unions work and employees are better off with them them without them.

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Sarah Cushaway

Husband is in a union shop and agree– definitely not perfect, but without the union he’d be working 7 days (instead of 6) and wouldn’t have even gotten the small raise he did in the past 10 years, and would be running 6 machines (yep, they actually asked him to do this a few times) instead of running the two that the union deemed safe for an employee to run without risk of harm to himself/herself.

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bahramnima

i think you should put undead labs logo picture instead of anet, considering dude is founder of undead labs and former anet dev.

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Toy Clown

It lightens my heart to see that the Blizzard/Activision scandal has ended up being a catalyst for change. It would be a dream to get away from “bro culture” in the gaming industry, which trickles all the way down to the players.

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Life_Isnt_Just_Dank_Memes

Yup

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