A union is an organization of workers dedicated to improving wages, hours, and working conditions within their workplace or industry through collective bargaining. Unions leverage the collective power of workers to balance out the power held by bosses and shareholders.
As workers, all of us benefit from past unionizing efforts. Here are some things unions have fought for and won in the past:
Safety regulations • Health care insurance • Ending unpaid overtime • Unemployment insurance • Protection from mass layoffs and unfair firings • Anti-harassment policies • Closing the wage gap • Paid sick leave • Paid parental leave • Annual leave • Pensions • Week-ends • Meal breaks • Abolishing child labour
In the sections that follow we'll break down some of the specific ways that unions can help workers in the game industry.
Most game work is contract or "project"-based, meaning that many game workers may find themselves out of a job when projects (even very successful ones) are launched. This is already an unhealthy way to work, but on top of that sometimes workers are laid off without any warning whatsoever.
If you've never participated in or been represented by a union, you might be wondering how it can help with something like mass layoffs; cuts are cuts, right? Well — not quite. One of the most important things a union can achieve for a workplace or industry is a collective agreement (sometimes called a collective bargaining agreement, CBA, or collective labour agreement; the term varies by country). A collective agreement is not the only way of organizing or making demands — but it's a common and battle-tested one, and most collective agreements include some form of protection from layoffs by employers:
Some CBAs don't allow layoffs even when the employer claims that it doesn't have enough money to pay everyone on payroll… Similarly, many CBAs bar employers from laying off union workers and subcontracting out their jobs.
Many CBAs require employers to "recall" or rehire laid-off workers once the need for the layoff subsides (for example, when work picks up again). (Source)
In an industry that often experiences cycles of hirings and layoffs as projects ramp up to full production, go gold, get cancelled, or change in scope, it's pretty obvious that even a weaker "right to recall" could still help buy workers extra stability and peace of mind.
Employers often treat the skilled labour force of game workers in a given region as a "talent pool" that they can sponge people from when they need them, and wring people back into when they're no longer needed. But we know that precarity doesn't have to be a condition of working in the industry.
In those days, Miyamoto would come to us at 11 PM, after he finished all of his board-member work, and say, "It's Mario time." At that point, we'd start a planning meeting that would run until 2 AM.
Last October, with the release of Red Dead Redemption 2 imminent, Rockstar Games co-founder and boss Dan Houser proudly declared to New York Magazine that workers were regularly putting in 100-hour work weeks getting the game ready to ship. Hang on — if you sleep around 8 hours a night there's only 112 hours in a week! Factor in transit (presuming people weren't sleeping under their desks, which is not a given), time to eat, etc., and that works out to Rockstar labourers spending almost every waking moment at their job.
Houser later retracted the statement, saying only the writing team was working those hours, and only during a period of a few weeks. But that only prompted backlash from current and former workers: some called out the obvious falsehood of the retraction and told stories of the immense pressure placed on them (one former worker noted "during the GTA IV era, it was like working with a gun to your head, 7 days a week") while others were just unhappy to have their backbreaking labour downplayed and denied by a studio head.
Houser and others seem to think that crunch is a sign of dedication and passion and speaks to the quality of their game. But crunch is abusive. It can go on for months — even years — and it has very real long-term mental and physical health impacts for developers. In 2015, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory creative director Clint Hocking recalled the effects prolonged crunch had on his health during development of that game a decade prior:
[My friend] had spent a week living in my house. I had curtailed my work week down from 70-80 hours to a normal 40 in order to spend time with him. We had eaten great meals, gone to great bars, seen movies, played games, and talked about our careers and the industry and our pasts and our futures, and all of it was simply fucking gone. I could not remember any of it.
To be clear — I do not mean I didn't remember what we did or what we talked about. I mean that I literally had no memory of the events. To me it was like it never happened. It was like he never visited. There was just an empty space in my brain that had been overwritten by the stress and anxiety of Splinter Cell. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory gave me brain damage. (Source)
Maybe Hocking got off easy. In 2016, a game developer at South Korean company Netmarble was acknowledged to have "died from a work-related cause" after putting in months of intense overtime.
Many in the game industry try to paint crunch as unavoidable, but we believe it is ultimately a story of poor planning and unreachable deadlines — and more importantly, of putting profits above the human beings whose labour makes games. Concretely, unions can discourage crunch by ensuring that employees are paid for overtime, by increasing overtime rates, and by putting a hard limit on how many hours of overtime can be required in a given day or week. This helps those already in the industry, but it also makes it more likely that employers will hire more people instead of cheating prospective workers out of a job by forcing too much work on existing employees.
When in Bioware they said they had a three-month crunch, we laughed. During the Witcher 3, a lot of people crunched for over a year — some of them for three years.
Witcher 3 development kept getting worse by the month. The morale got very low and everyone ended up complaining during crunch supper. Some of us were still looking forward to being moved to Cyberpunk and having a fresh start with a "new" project. When we finally started switching to Cyberpunk… things got even wilder, even more chaotic. At that time, almost everybody in my team wanted to leave.
Harassment has been a well-known problem in the game industry for years now, but so far bosses have done little to actually address the issue apart from releasing boilerplate statements about how the company "condemns harassment." When harassment happens inside the workplace, workers often have nowhere to turn. HR departments are supposed to be the first port of call, but too often they're more concerned with protecting the company's public image than they are with protecting the employees.
Unions can help by providing workers with a place they can go to make sure their concerns are heard, and unlike HR, they are directly answerable to the workers they represent. While an individual worker could be ignored or even fired for talking about their experiences with harassment (especially if the harasser is in a position of power within the company), they are much more likely to be taken seriously when they have the backing of other employees. Unions can also push for systemic changes, such as the introduction of anti-harassment policies or training programs, that help prevent harassment from happening in the first place.
Harassment is more likely to happen in situations where employers or managers have unilateral power to make or break an employee's career, and therefore anything that tips the balance of power in favour of employees also helps reduce harassment. Since harassment is often tied to discrimination and a lack of diversity in the workplace, measures that increase diversity such as fairer hiring practices, wage equity, or more comprehensive health benefits, can also be a way to curb harassment.
Marginalized workers, who are more likely to be the targets of harassment, are already organizing in many workplaces through whisper networks and informal support groups. These efforts often form the foundations for wider organizing campaigns, and help build solidarity, trust, and mutual respect between workers. While businesses push workers to compete with one another for jobs or raises, creating a hostile and toxic work culture, the process of unionizing encourages workers to come together to solve their problems collectively. Solidarity is key to building a successful union campaign, and once workers realize this, they are more likely to change views and behaviours that ultimately just serve to divide and disempower us.
You might believe your employers' motivation is to create great games, and in some cases that may be true. But at the end of the day they're here to make money, and that has a direct influence on creative decisions. Executives don't necessarily care that the development team is aiming to make, say, a great single-player game, but they do care about how Battle Royale games are outselling everything else right now and how microtransactions are a major driver of revenue for large publishers. So the order comes from above to add those things to the project, even if they are creatively incompatible.
The pursuit of profit is what drives bosses to prioritize one project over another, to think about ad placement, to change design based on market research, and make other kinds of creative compromises. This is also what leads companies to cancel more experimental projects in favour of the "safe bet," or force workers to meet unrealistic deadlines in order to release before the holiday season.
If you work in the industry, how often have you had to implement or cut features following a decision by an executive, which ended up being detrimental to the quality of the game? Don't you wish you'd had the power to negotiate in that kind of situation? Don't you wish you'd at least been asked for your input, instead of having to work silently in a direction only to have to start again from scratch a month later because higher-ups decided a new trend needed to be worked into the project somehow?
Workers in the game industry are passionate about what they do — that's why companies get away with exploiting them! — so it is particularly hurtful when they're forced to create things that they don't believe in. Whether workers ultimately agree with management's decisions or not, at least in a unionized workplace, their opinion gets to be voiced and heard.
A strong unionized workforce or a worker co-op doesn't just help improve conditions in the workplace! It also allows the people who actually make the games to exercise more creative control and put their efforts towards something they believe in.
In games, credits are one of the most important ways your efforts as a worker get noticed. If you're new to the games industry, you might believe that getting credited for your work on a game is a straightforward process. But that's not always the case. Rockstar, for example, is known for holding credits over workers' heads as a reward for finishing work on a game. As journalist Richard Moss wrote last year:
For studios, crediting can be a tool for leverage … [Rockstar] has long maintained a policy of not crediting people who worked on a game unless they were present when it shipped, to encourage the team "to get to the finish line."
This form of "encouragement" is not just manipulative, it hurts workers' ability to find future employment.
Workers in other industries (such as film) have fought for and won the right to proper crediting through unions. Unions can do the same for the games industry.
Here's an easy one: unionized workers have higher wages on average than workers who are not unionized — often between 15 to 25% more. With the leverage of an organized workforce, collective bargaining is a very effective way to make sure you're paid what you're worth. But unions also benefit workers who are not unionized by raising the bar for everyone. For example, a high school graduate whose workplace is not unionized but who works in an industry that's 25% unionized overall can still expect to be paid more than similar workers in less unionized industries.
Unions can also help reduce inequality. While all workers benefit from having unions, those who benefit the most are typically the people who are the most disempowered or in the most precarious positions. On top of improving general working conditions for these folks, it also turns out solidarity is a great way to cut down the gendered pay gap.