Game developers look to unions to fix the industry’s exploitative workplace culture

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In a meeting room on the second floor of the recently renovated Moscone South exhibition complex, a large and diverse group of game developers gathered on Wednesday to express their interest in organizing their industry. The discussion was announced as a round table that will be held during the Game Developers Conference this week in San Francisco. It was coordinated by the International Game Developers Association (IDGA), a non-profit membership group that was formed in the 1990s amid conversations about videogame violence, and was moderated by the president of IGDA, Jen MacLean, with the title "Pros, Cons, and Consequences of the Union".
From beginning to end, it was a tense affair, full of passionate voices, but punctuated sometimes by MacLean's pronounced skepticism, reflected in a revealing interview he gave Kotaku earlier this week, about the benefits of unionization. It is the first of many promised discussions on the subject that will be conducted by the IGDA, which in fact has no influence on the studies of games or editorials and is directed only in part to advocacy issues. The IGDA has been called anti-union and the former members accuse it of acting as a scapegoat for the main players in the gaming industry, which can point to the IGDA as a representative force for developers despite their lack of concrete bargaining power.
The issue of work organization is the most important for the creators of games in GDC 2018
The issue of the union organization of the gaming industry has become a hot spot among developers and studios and publishers for those who work here at GDC. Unionization is now a priority for many industry employees who, for years and behind closed doors, have discussed the toxic and exploitative working conditions along the scale of the industry. Now, that conversation is moving towards the light, the first step in a battle probably prolonged, painful but important to improve the working conditions of the gaming industry.
Video games are incredibly difficult to do. It is no longer a secret that game studios, in debt to the logistical whims and financial resources of large sales-focused publishers, are aggressively working with their employees to create luxurious virtual simulations for an industry that is now estimated at $ 36 one billion However, unlike Hollywood, which for decades has had powerful California-based unions that protect workers in fields such as screenwriting and voice acting, the gaming industry is largely decentralized. Studies exist around the world, subject to disparate labor laws, and game designers often work in very different contexts and conditions. Circumstances may change depending on the type of game that is played, the duration of the work contract and the variety of work that is being done.
As Jason Schreier of Kotaku, who has written extensively on the issue of working conditions in the gaming industry, has often pointed out, it can be impossible to produce big-budget video games without propelling the human beings in charge of doing the daily work. to the point of mental, physical and emotional collapse. The most visible and lucrative video games are simply too big, complicated and expensive to create without requiring large numbers of talented and passionate human beings to work amazing hours in dozens of disciplines, all to meet the shipping dates and quality bars imposed by the administration. .
Weeks of work in the gaming industry can last up to 100 hours during what are known as periods of crisis, in which complete studies compete to meet crucial deadlines, sometimes without compensation for overtime or free time and with little or no no consideration for employees & # 39; long-term welfare. Earlier this week, The Verge published an in-depth investigation of Telltale Games, the creator of popular narrative titles based on major television franchises such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, and how the studio's working conditions and accelerated growth pushed it to the breaking point in ways that echo the experience of many in the industry. "Everything [was] is always on fire," a source told The Verge of Telltale's crunch culture. "What happens is that the people who care the most about shit are the people who pay the price," said another.
Attendees talked about strenuous work hours and little or no job stability in the games
The atmosphere in the round table of the GDC reflected this grim reality. Many attendees spoke of strenuous work hours, little or no stability at work, lack of compensation for overtime, exhaustion and aggressive abandonment of employees, and various other physical and emotional tolls in the development of modern games. There was no doubt about the people who make games to make a living that unionization could provide a clear path towards finding solutions to these endemic problems.
"All the companies I have worked for have required an insane compulsory crisis, and many of the problems I see are tremendous abuses by overworking their employees, burning people, giving inadequate compensation," said Jean-Philippe Steinmetz, veteran engineer in the videogame industry, to those attending the round table. "For me, the problem lies in the way that studios and publishers in general will abuse us as passionate developers for our work, willing to commit to the product, to work crazy hours without compensation and without respect for our staff. "
Other attendees, some of whom wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals in the workplace, pointed to several other concerns at the request of MacLean, who urged speakers to verbalize concisely the issues that unions could help . These include more inclusive policies for minority and LGBT employees, such as men's restrooms, more transparent and proactive policies on harassment in the workplace to hold management accountable, and improved standards for the entire industry on benefits such as workers' compensation, compensation and medical attention.
"It's really important to unionize because workers literally have no representation or rights when it comes to negotiating with their companies or negotiating with their employer," a game developer known as Emma told The Verge before the table. round of IGDA. Emma, ​​who said she fears harassment and retaliation, and therefore decides not to share her last name or the name of her employer, helped organize a defense group called Game Workers Unite. The group, which Emma said is largely leaderless and operates horizontally, has been distributing magazines and leaflets at GDC this week with information on the subject, hoping to encourage conversation.

Photo of Allegra Frank / Polygon

The effort, which began small in the last month but grew rapidly in popularity, aims to build a grassroots movement around the unionization of the industry and find a viable way to make it a reality. "We are seeing models as guilds and examples led by many digital media companies that are working with writers' guilds to develop local unions," Emma added. "If you work in games, there is a 99 percent chance of being exploited as a worker." We're trying to start that conversation because it's really taboo. "(Employees of The Verge's parent company, Vox Media, are among those in the digital media industry who are currently trying to unionize).
Emma said she feared that the IGDA roundtable event was going to be an anti-union issue, with the IGDA taking advantage of the opportunity to dissuade the developers from organizing. And MacLean's comments and questions actually turned to anti-union rhetoric. Their questions and answers were often aimed at questioning the knowledge of attendees about unions and trying to open holes in the concept that unions are bulletproof protections against the many dangers of the gaming industry. MacLean emphasized that unions can control which jobs their members take and what projects their employers are pursuing, and that they could be used to prevent studios from having adequate staff. He also expressed concern about union abuses in unrelated industries, such as construction, as evidence that unions can abuse their power.
Steve Kaplan, a Los Angeles labor organizer who works with the IATSE union, also feared the event was anti-union. He told The Verge that he came to GDC specifically because he was informed that the roundtable could be biased towards anti-union rhetoric. Kaplan, who spent eight years working with unions and became involved in the video game industry through the SAG-AFTRA voice actor strike for a year, used to be an informed and pro-union voice to counter MacLean's antagonistic moderation. "Everything returns to get you a seat at the table." Our brothers and sisters in France are amazing because it took a year and a half to reach an agreement that their employers did not accept in good faith, so they had to take the nuclear option, "he said. Kaplan to the crowd, referring to the developer of games in progress. strike at the French studio Eugen Systems. "Negotiations are rarely unilateral, both sides have to agree."
"It's about getting a seat at the table."
Kaplan, easily one of the most experienced and knowledgeable of the room on the subject of unionization, had reasonable and pragmatic advice for the developers. "It's a great thing to unionize the industry, but it starts with a small step," Kaplan said, adding that it was very unlikely that the entire industry would unionize without first starting specific studies. "It becomes this rising tide." The only reason why many non-union ads or television or episodic movies reflect working conditions is because those working conditions set by the unions are standardized. "Kaplan emphasized that the first contracts are rarely" home runs "for workers, but that form the basis for further negotiation and help workers build better projections over time through renegotiations.
While the discussion left many attendees with more questions than answers, what is clear is that Kaplan's bottom-up references are underway. We do not know if it is possible for the videogame industry, which is not centralized in a city like Los Angeles, but extends to several continents, replicating unionization models that have protected workers in the US. UU During decades. It is also very unlikely that companies as big as Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Take-Two Interactive will support any attempt to organize their employees. But the developers are eager to discover how to improve their lives and the working conditions of thousands of other workers, whether the IGDA or the Electronic Software Association, which has remained silent on the issue this week during the GDC, want to participate in good faith
"We want to be the pro-worker IGDA, and we really want to go in and have a conversation, we're not going to protest, fight or scream," said the Emma movement of the gaming workers. "We want to see if there is a way to move forward where we work on these things, we negotiate and we talk about the first steps."


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