Power plays: the rise of game worker unions

Amid global economic crisis, business is booming in the gaming industry. It's time to step up the fight for worker's rights, Emma Kinema tells Marzena Zukowska

October 6, 2020 · 6 min read
Game Workers Unite

The coronavirus pandemic is driving unionisation in the UK gaming industry – a broad sector riddled with exploitative labour practices. Earlier this year, Marzena Zukowska spoke with Emma Kinema, co-founder of Game Workers Unite (US), about the long-standing, global fight for workers’ rights in an industry set to buck the economic downturn and rake in $159 billion this year.

Marzena Zukowska: What does a typical game industry day look like?

Emma Kinema: For consumers, a video game is just a box that just appears on shelves or something you download. There is little transparency into the people or the process of making a video game. The majority of game development happens in typical office environments with a lot of sitting and working from a computer, and checking on the status of different games. It’s very collaborative. You spend a lot of your time talking to people.

There’s a perception that the video game industry as a whole is very introverted, but it takes many artists, modelers, animators, audio designers, musicians, quality assurance (QA) testers, managers, and writers to make a game work. Increasingly, however, stable studio jobs have been replaced by contractors and freelancers, with scant benefits, low wages, and limited creative control.

MZ: What conditions or most common complaints were you finding in the industry?

EK: When you’re an organiser, you have to learn what the specific material issues people care about are in each workplace, and tailor solutions to each department and on each team. ‘Crunch’ is one of the most common issues: long periods of overtime, sometimes unpaid, mandatory or socially pressured. Pay discrimination is also prevalent, with promotions given to certain in-groups, as well as [in the US] a lack of decent healthcare, respect and transparency in management decisions. Companies like Rockstar Games, actively don’t credit people who have left the industry, even if they worked on a game for six years and left just a few months before release. This is used as an incentive to make people ‘stick it out’ through the awful work conditions and toxic work culture.

While the industry is harsh on everyone, people from marginalised backgrounds tend to get lower wages and less upward mobility in their careers. There is a severe rate of burnout, which is compounded for developers who identify as people of colour, LGBTQ, disabled or low income. Many are also stuck in lower-paid QA jobs that never let them build a career.

It’s important to think holistically not just about people who are in the middle of their careers but also those who have burnt out and left, or who can’t afford to stay in the industry. Everyone has their own struggles, so everyone has a reason to organise. The role of the organiser is to listen, find the things people care about and use that as a motivator to build solidarity and to collaboratively change the workplace for the better.

MZ: What misconceptions do people have about unions in the gaming industry?

EK: Many believe that unions are just for coal miners, factory workers or teachers. But a union is for everyone, and organising one with your coworkers is ultimately a tool to wield more power and influence, and to bring a certain amount of democracy to the workplace. When we are forced to bargain our contracts individually it allows employers to underpay some, while overpaying others. When we bargain a collective agreement we effectively equalize pay and leave little room for discrimination. We need to be thinking about systemic solutions to systemic problems.

That could lead to better working conditions and job stability, but it could also mean that our games are not being used to propagate problematic messages. Values are working conditions, too. Many people come to work because they want to do good in the world. It means that we need to organise when our companies deviate from the values they espouse. As a labour movement, we have a certain level of power to enact change in the world, and we should be using that not just for ourselves as workers, but also to ensure that our communities are better.

MZ: Game Workers Unite has been responsible for some huge victories over the years. In 2018, your UK branch became Britain’s first video game union. What else is on your horizon?

EK: One of my favourites things to happen recently was the 2019 Riot Games walkout, where hundreds of developers protested forced arbitration in their contracts and how that was harming and silencing workers facing harassment or abuse. It was led primarily by workers of various marginalisations – women, people of colour and LGBTQ folks.

We are also seeing an unprecedented level of international collaboration among organised labour in the games industry, from Game Workers Unite UK to Solidaires Informatique and Le Syndicat des Travailleurs du Jeu Vidéo (STJV) in France. This is critical because our companies are international, and able to pit different workforces against each other.

We are also asking: who are the workers who go unseen or aren’t normally talked about in the press? Who are the hidden labour forces that make the game industry tick and are essential to the production process yet no one gives them a second thought?

People think that organising is about massive studios like Activision or Microsoft, but I would argue it’s even more important to focus on freelancers, workers at small shops, and those who are working contract jobs. A lot of these outsourcing studios have become the cornerstone of how this industry’s business model functions. It’s also where we find some of the most energized workers who are ready to organise.

Emma Kinema is the co-founder of Game Workers Unite and campaign lead at the Communications Workers of America union

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