When we spoke with Kate Edwards at E3 this year, the former executive director of the International Game Developers Association was undecided on the issue of unionization in the industry. She was "convinced that forming some sort of organised mechanism for leverage is necessary," but wasn't ready to say it should definitely include a union.
Since that interview was conducted, ArenaNet fired two employees after an online mob called for their jobs, Riot Games had its sexist workplace culture thoroughly reported on (then fired two employees for defending the company's diversity initiatives), Telltale Games laid off hundreds of developers without severance pay, and Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser boasted about people pulling 100-hour work weeks to get Red Dead Redemption 2 out the door.
Edwards has apparently seen enough. After ex-Telltale narrative designer Emily Grace Buck detailed her experience at the studio earlier this month, Edwards tweeted, "This has been a long time in coming; #gamedev professionals need to WAKE UP and smell the future. Your days of being exploited must end. Protect yourself, and protect the future of the profession. Act collectively. Organize. #Unionize."
"Your days of being exploited must end. Protect yourself, and protect the future of the profession. Act collectively. Organize. #Unionize"
We reached out to Edwards to hear what pushed her over the line from entertaining the idea of a union in the industry to actively calling for it to happen.
"These issues have been continuing," she explained. "This year in particular has just been basically a shit-storm of these issues popping up. These are things we've been consciously, at least intellectually, aware of, [but] it seems that especially the succession and the degree of issues we've seen this year have been like successive gut punches to a lot of the people in the rank and file creating these games."
It's perhaps surprising that these issues would sway the former head of the IGDA. After all, reports of poor working conditions at Rockstar, Riot and Telltale covered the time-frame when she was the lead advocate for the world's largest non-profit organization for game developers. In that position, had she not heard horror stories of these places and others that simply hadn't been picked up by the press?
"When I was running the IGDA, I was aware of these things," Edwards acknowledged. "That's why we were trying to do crunch initiatives, speaking out against sexism, harassment, and all these other issues. But it's one thing to be in a position to speak about it; it's another thing to be in a position to actually do anything about it."
"We need something that's going to be much more of a blunt force response. And it needs to be a widespread, collective response to these activities"
Edwards was clearly reluctant to speak ill of the IGDA, calling it a "well-intentioned, good community of game developers worldwide" that has a positive impact, but after running the IGDA for five years, she said it was "100% clear" that developers needed more leverage. She's been working to that end as well, putting together a legal defense fund for developers that she hopes to properly announce before the end of the year.
"People can judge for themselves the effectiveness of any effort that's been around for 24 years and whether or not things have truly changed in the game industry," she said, adding, "For me, I ultimately realized that I am deeply driven to respond to the widespread desire of game creators to have real leverage against the ongoing, systemic problems in this industry, and I believe that's going to require new mechanisms and approaches in order to address their most pressing concerns."
And those concerns are getting more pressing with every story of developer mistreatment that makes headlines.
"What we're seeing since E3, even these last few months, it basically raises my sense of urgency about why we need a form of collective bargaining, why we need a form of collective representation," Edwards said. "The actions by management from these different companies - from ArenaNet to Riot, Rockstar, Telltale, all these - we need something that's going to be much more of a blunt force response. And it needs to be a widespread, collective response to these activities.
"Honestly, when it comes to what kind of leverage would provide that, if you look across the landscape of available tools, a union seems to be the only viable tool that's been proven in the past to help with some of these issues. That's one of the key things that has changed in my view: the imminence of it, the need for it. There's always been room for a union, but the serious, critical need for it today has increased more in my thinking."
That's not to say Edwards is backing off the idea of a legal defense fund. Unions could be tremendously beneficial, she believes, but a fund can get up and running sooner, and can address a wider ranger of people. It could aid a small indie studio in a contractual fight with a publisher, regardless of whether or not the shop was unionized, she said, or a AAA developer being sexually harassed at work.
"That passion for game development has always been there...in generation after generation, but they see what's going on and they're daunted by it"
While Edwards sees more pro-union sentiment across the industry, she said there remains a marked demographic divide on the issue.
"We have people who are younger and not necessarily in a AAA position or a secure position, and they are in my experience far more supportive of unionization. Because let's face it, these people are the future of the industry. They're the ones hoping and aspiring to be in those jobs in the future, and these horror stories they're hearing... That passion for game development has always been there and it's never going to go away. We're always going to see that in generation after generation, but they see what's going on and they're daunted by it. 'I want to do this, but I don't really want to go through that if that's what it's going to look like.'
"With established developers, veteran developers, I've heard a lot of support but I also run into a lot of people--obviously people in C-level positions who are colleagues of mine tend to be the ones with the sceptical comments. 'Really? Do you really think that's what we need here? Do you really think that's going to solve the problem?' I expect that kind of question from anyone in a C-level position."
As a result, Edwards said the biggest challenge she sees facing unionization in the industry isn't convincing 20-somethings new to the industry why they should join.
"The challenge is convincing a 30- or 40-something in a nice AAA job with good benefits," Edwards said. "Even if they work their ass off, they're in a comfort position. Even though, as we've seen from the stories, pretty much no one should feel like they're in a comfortable position. I'm sure there were many developers at Telltale who felt very comfortable until the day they got their notice. It can blindside anybody."
Edwards still isn't certain what form a union should take, and she doesn't believe the Hollywood model maps well to game development. There's plenty of obstacles between the industry of today and one where unions give developers the leverage they want. But those obstacles are changing, thanks in part to the efforts of groups like Le Syndicat des Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Jeu Vidéo and Game Workers Unite.
"For years now, I think whenever this came up it was shuffled under the table or swept under the rug," Edwards said. "And not in a malicious way, but in a way where it felt like a hopeless direction of conversation. 'It's not going to happen, it's not going to happen.' And I'd been hearing that for years when the topic came up. Yet here we are in 2018 and it has started to happen in France and we're hearing of movements in a lot of other locations."