Jen MacLean, the newly appointed executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), hosted a round-table discussion at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco on March 21 entitled “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization for Game Devs.” The general thrust of the roundtable’s description gave the impression that it was meant to discourage unionization, and MacLean further showed her hand in an interview with USGamer, in which she said that unionization won’t address many of the biggest challenges facing video game developers.
MacLean, perhaps without realizing it, touched a nerve. Particularly in what’s referred to as “triple-A” development– the high-profile, multi-million-dollar blockbusters that are the most visible products in the business — the video game industry has become infamous for poor labor practices. As Jason Schreier wrote last year in the New York Times, “Video Games Are Destroying The People Who Make Them.”
Inasmuch as there’s a single starting point for the controversy, it’s likely the “EA Spouse” incident. Back in 2004, the Spouse, later identified as blogger and mobile developer Erin Hoffman-John, wrote an anonymous open letter on Livejournal, which went about as viral as something could be expected to go at the time. In the letter, Hoffman-John wrote that her husband, a programmer at Electronic Arts, was working in conditions that amounted to permanent “crunch time.” Employees at EA could expect to work 13-hour days, seven days a week, without any additional compensation for the extra hours or even any particular reason for doing so; it was not in order to hit specific release dates, but instead, was simply considered the normal state of affairs. T
his eventually led to two class-action lawsuits which cost EA almost $30 million, as well as a wider awareness and acknowledgement of poor labor practices in the video game industry. (For example, a similar letter would follow six years later from a group on Gamasutra that called itself the “Rockstar Spouses.”)
However, that awareness and acknowledgement did not actually lead to any lasting change. (EA, to its credit, subsequently saw a management shakeup and reorganization.) In 2015, the Guardian conducted an investigation to see what, if anything, had changed in the industry 10 years after the EA Spouse controversy, and found that the same labor practices were still in effect. They were simply a bit less intense and somewhat more passive-aggressive; instead of mandatory overtime, there was now a cultural soft pressure to stay late and grind.
Working in the games industry is also notoriously volatile. Larger companies are particularly prone to big hire-and-fire cycles, where they’ll bring on extra personnel in order to hit a ship date, then downsize abruptly once their product is on shelves. The most notorious recent example is likely the story of Telltale Games, but if you talk to enough professional game developers, you’ll hear about dozens more. It’s become an industry cliché for a games developer to get hired for a job across the country, move to a new city for it, and proceed to get laid off after a year or less, or for a large number of workers on a given project to be contractors, doing the same work as their peers with much less certainty concerning their employment.
This year, the argument over these working conditions went loud. Under the name Game Workers Unite, a number of game industry professionals organized via Discord, printed stickers, and distributed a ‘zine (downloadable here) at the show, arguing in favor of unionization in the video game industry and against the IGDA’s position. When their members attended MacLean’s roundtable, they were accompanied by representatives from several labor unions serving the film and TV industry. All in all, the roundtable was attended by some 200 people, and by some accounts (such as Michelle Ehrhardt’s piece in Unwinnable), MacLean ended up as the one person in that room who wasn’t vocally pro-union. Hilarity ensued.
By the evening of the March 21, the story had gone viral, and fallout from the panel had blown up on social media, with numerous websites (such as Kotaku and Waypoint) writing op-eds in favor of GWU’s position. MacLean herself bowed to public pressure on the evening of March 22, saying in an interview with ZAM that the IGDA would support a developers’ union, were one to arise.
Since then, Game Workers Unite has been actively seeking out volunteers via social media. As of this writing, chapters of GWU have opened in Los Angeles, Austin, Toronto, Chicago, Orlando, South Carolina’s Research Triangle, the San Francisco Bay Area, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Brazil. There are currently chapters in the making in Seattle and Vancouver.
Representatives of MacLean and IDGA did not respond to requests for comment. We contacted GWU for comment, and one of its leaders, Emma, a pseudonymous indie games developer working out of California, agreed to a short phone interview. Continue reading for excerpts.
Thomas Wilde: So Jen MacLean kind of accidentally got this whole thing started, right?
Emma: Frankly, not actually. We used the IDGA union roundtable as a point of action and something for people to rally around, but I wouldn’t attribute the creation of this to her by any means.
TW: I thought it was funny, because a lot of the pieces that covered that roundtable made it sound like she showed up to shut the whole thing down, and instead got exactly the opposite reaction.
E: Yeah. It’s kind of one of those events where the IGDA will be kind of like, “Oh, well, sure, let’s talk about this thing,” but their hope is that it flows under the water, and we move on and forget about it until next year… We wanted to make sure that when she walked into that room, there was a room full of pro-union voices that are ready to actually talk about this subject, not just kind of… paddle in the river about it.
TW: It’s been a little over a month since that. I saw that you’ve been opening chapters—well, that volunteers have been opening chapters [of GWU]?
E: Yeah, members of our organization have been opening chapters in their local cities.
TW: So what else has been going on behind the scenes? What’s the reaction been like on your end?
E: A lot of our reaction has been really positive. We’ve had a lot of really good support from people both in press, and in the industry, and from consumers of games as well.
Some of the things we’ve been doing since GDC… we’ve had three points of action. One, like you said, we’ve been forming a lot of local chapters, and we are still actively forming many. As they get established, we’ll be sharing that on our Twitter and on our website. We really believe in distributed organizing, and giving the tools and connections and power to people on a local scale, to work within their communities and actually build real solidarity and unionization efforts there.
Number two, we’re doing a lot of educational campaigning. The [games] industry isn’t the most educated on the subject of unions, [including] what they actually are. We’re having to do a lot of anti-union myth-busting, and teaching people… what their legal rights are, in terms of fighting for a better workplace, but also the actual steps of unionizing.
And then third, we’ve been working very closely with several unions and labor orgs and advocacy orgs to talk about first steps in this fight, and best practices, and things to know going into this kind of organizing work. We’ve been working particularly with… SAG-AFTRA [the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] and the Writers’ Guild [of America]. We’ve been working with and talking with people from organizations throughout the world.
Those are our main three points of action right now.
TW: Beyond that, do you have any kind of roadmap for the future? Do you know where you’d like to go with this, or are you just kind of making it up as you go?
E: It’s really important to start seeding these local pro-union organizing groups that can actually interface with their peers, with their communities, and with their studios. Empowering those people to actually take the first steps towards unionizing… that’s definitely our long-term goal right there. We’re doing that through things like setting up the chapters, educational work, and giving them connections with unionizing representatives, or organizers from other organizations where they’re at.
In a little more long-term, a couple of our projects include… we’re setting up a secure and verifiable whistle-blowing site for poor labor practices in the industry, and also for things like exploitative or abusive workplace stories, for people to share those.
We’re also setting up the groundwork of a legal defense fund, for game workers who might need a fund to help fight legal battles, and to give a little financial support to people doing this unionizing work.
TW: You’re gonna need a hell of a lot of financial support for that. Most of the companies I’ve seen that have the most flagrant labor practices are multi-million-dollar corporations.
E: Absolutely. It’s very “David and Goliath.” That’s kind of the nature of the fight.
One thing that workers can do is ally themselves with existing unions, [which have] legal, financial, and organizing support already in place. That’s one tool people can use, if they want more actual teeth behind their organizing work. In the meantime, we’re also setting up other things to help support people in this.