This year’s Game Developers Conference has provided plenty of news with implications across the industry, but the story with the most long-term implications for the business of making games has been a widespread discussion about unionisation. The focal point of these conversations was a panel called “Union Now?” hosted by IGDA president Jen MacLean.
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The panel was already under scrutiny from pro-union attendees due to comments MacLean made to USGamer earlier this week, where she suggested that more capital investment is a better path to improving the industry for workers than unionising. (She echoed those ideas in a separate interview with Kotaku.) In theory, the panel was meant to explore both the pros and cons of unionisation in the game industry.
In practice, MacLean was the only voice questioning the efficacy of unions. Kotaku describe the tone of the room as overwhelmingly seeking change through unionisation, with repeated arguments in favour of organisation meeting consistent applause.
The game industry tends to be an especially volatile one, with frequent studio shutdowns and layoffs ensuring few positions are stable. According to Glixel, some at the panel noted a common industry practice of hiring people to help conclude work on a game only to fire them once the game’s complete. Other frustrations include workplace harassment, unpaid internships, and failure to protect developers from marginalized groups. Then there’s crunch - the common industry standard of long weeks and late hours during the late stages of development - which one attendee described as both “insane” and “mandatory.”
Few would argue that the industry isn’t in need of change, but the question is how. There’s no currently no clear, specific plan for unionisation, and developers who want to unionise would have to decide whether to push for an industry-wide group, which might be difficult across international laws and differing studio cultures, or to organise locally.
Game Workers Unite is a grassroots organisation which has sprung up around this year’s GDC, hoping to facilitate discussions between pro-union game industry workers. They don’t have a specific path forward, either, but they’re working to help developers anonymously communicate about what the right direction is, and how best to start organising.
An organizer for the group, Emma, has withheld her last name but has spoken to various outlets about the increasing pro-union sentiment in the industry. “It’s been so taboo for so long, but now people are ready to stick their necks out a little bit for this,” she tells Polygon. Of the IGDA director, Emma says “Jen is wonderful and she does good work, and we really think that if we come in there earnestly and honestly wanting to do something good for everyone, that they might be able to work with us. But this is crafted and run by the IGDA, and the people organizing it tend to be employers and not workers.”
Emma says “I’m here to make games. But the thing is, that passion is the perfect medium for employers to exploit us. We’ll do anything to work in games and make games, and they know we’re desperate. [But you] can be passionate about games and also be fairly represented.”