Throughout 2018, labor conditions in game development have been a subject of much discussion, fueled by a steady parade of scandals courtesy of Riot, Telltale, Rockstar, Quantic Dream, and others.
Most of these stories have been discouraging, disheartening, and even depressing, but there was at least one group offering the potential of a silver lining to the year's dark clouds: Game Workers Unite. The group's stated mission is "to connect pro-union activists, exploited workers, and allies across disciplines, classes, and countries in the name of building a unionized game industry." But in a year where we repeatedly saw developers let down by their employers through malice or negligence, arguably GWU's biggest contribution was simply to offer some hope that the sort of fiascoes we saw play out in 2018 could be avoided in the future, or at least mitigated.
We recently spoke with one of the core organizers of GWU, Emma Kinema, who said the group's original members had pushed individually for better working conditions for some time, but decided to coordinate their efforts in the lead-up to this year's Game Development Conference. One session on the GDC schedule caught the organizers' attention in particular: a roundtable discussion on the pros and cons of unionization, hosted by the International Game Developers Association and titled "Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization for Game Devs." They were concerned that the event, which was being moderated by IGDA executive director and union skeptic Jen MacLean, was seeking not so much to generate a discussion as end one.
"It's going to be keep being extremely relevant to game workers until our conditions improve. And without unionization, I really don't think our conditions are going to improve significantly"
"It provided a really good first catalytic event to organize around," Kinema said. "People could pretty tangibly see what was wrong with that 'both sides, pros and cons' framing of the event."
The group set up a Twitter account before the event and had 2,000 followers on the first day. Press inquiries came on the second day, and by the time the roundtable discussion was held on Wednesday of GDC week, unionization was already a key part of discussion at the show.
Much to their credit, GWU was able to take its moment on the industry's radar and parlay it into something that would sustain itself beyond a news cycle or two. They outlined a set of values and goals for the organization. They set boundaries about how employers could help the organization to make sure workers would always be prioritized. Those with media training passed their knowledge on to other organizers in order to spread the message more effectively, and did press leading up to and coming out of the roundtable event.
"We've only grown since then," Kinema said. "We've had more and more press coverage. We've gotten organizer training for hundreds of people. We've got people involved all around the globe and we're only growing further. People are getting more and more involved with this effort, and I can only see a brighter future ahead.
"I find it funny people are thinking, 'When's the point where everyone gets bored of this subject?' It's going to be keep being extremely relevant to game workers until our conditions improve. And without unionization, I really don't think our conditions are going to improve significantly. So I think we're always going to be relevant in that way."
Indeed, Kinema said GWU receives a surge of new members whenever a new studio labor scandal makes headlines. These days, GWU has 13,000 followers on its primary Twitter account, a main membership of 500 to 600 organizers, and 25 local and national chapters with memberships ranging from as few as 10 in rural areas to hundreds, in the case of the UK chapter.
"I think people are starting to become aware of just how common these layoffs are, just how ready the bosses are to cut loose and ditch us while taking their profit," she said. "It's a recurring cycle, and I think as people start to realize just how chronic these issues are in our industry, the more people come our way looking for solutions, looking to unionize, looking to organize in some way and build that better industry we all want to be a part of.
"When it comes to union organizing, it's incredibly important to do that work slowly and cautiously, on a one-on-one growth model, employee-to-employee, slowly growing as quietly and non-publicly as possible in a workplace"
"The most important thing around these layoffs and studio closures is that people need to get organizing before shit hits the fan. It's not enough to just speak out about these issues and show solidarity with workers who are suffering from layoffs and lack of severance and things. People have to do the groundwork of organizing first so we can avoid as many of these situations as possible. So that's our job now, providing the vast majority of people with education, helping them know their rights, providing organizer training so people can start getting organized in their communities and studios so we can lay a better framework from which we can build a better industry."
As for how long that could take, Kinema stressed the need for patience.
"When it comes to union organizing, it's incredibly important to do that work slowly and cautiously, on a one-on-one growth model, employee-to-employee, slowly growing as quietly and non-publicly as possible in a workplace," she said. "Frankly, if you can keep your union organizing efforts non-public and out of the eyes of the employer indefinitely while still making wins, that's a massive success."
Part of that discretion comes from fear of retaliation from employers, particularly against those organizing these efforts. (Kinema said most of GWU's organizers probably wouldn't want to be known publicly as such for this reason.) Right now, her sense is that many employers are just hoping the unionization issue goes away. In some ways, that attitude suits GWU just fine.
"We have multiple campaigns running in various studios all over the place," Kinema said. "As soon as any of those reaches a certain tipping point in terms of majority support in a studio, typically union organizing campaigns become public at that point. When that happens, I imagine we'll get a much stronger backlash... Even though most bosses aren't moustache-twirling evil villains, at the end of the day it often comes down to understanding what their basic needs and drives are, which is to create profit. And often that comes at the expense of paying their workers fairly, having sustainable hiring practices, or writing fair compensation for severance and things.
"Bosses are inherently at odds with the interests and needs of workers, and we have to understand that dynamic and not presume that just because a boss is friendly or isn't openly saying anti-union rhetoric that they'll have our back. Because chances are that most bosses and employers will not have your back."
Ironically, the people leading the push to organize the games industry are largely doing it on the nights and weekends unions fought to give them off in the first place. GWU is self-funded and volunteer driven, with no full-time employees. Kinema herself has a Patreon set up to help pay the bills, but it doesn't bring in enough to cover everything. She admits that isn't the most sustainable way to run the operation, but GWU is planning to file for non-profit status in the future so it can begin accepting donations.
Whether Game Workers Unite ultimately succeeds in its attempt to organize the industry is undetermined, but the group is likely to improve labor conditions in the industry simply by existing. GWU is a clear warning to employers that the industry landscape is changing, that the norms of the past are no longer acceptable. And as Kinema noted, that leaves the industry with two choices: shape up and treat your employees better of your own volition, or continue as is, adding to a parade of horror stories and headlines that eventually lead to unionization and having some of these decisions taken out of your hands.