Stability, Support, and Safety: Small Game Studios Need Unions Too
Most of the discussion around games and labor focuses on AAA developers. But indie game developers could also benefit from the added stability and workplace protections offered by organizing.
May 3 2018, 8:30pm
Header photo courtesy of Scott Benson
For years, it felt like “unionization” was a dirty word in the world of video games. Decades of slow but steady glamorization of the job of a game developer has led to frustrations as salaries and working conditions lag behind the ever-growing profits of the industry’s largest game sectors. This year at the 2018 Game Developers Conference, a landmark roundtable was attended by a standing-room-only crowd about what the future of unionization in the industry could look like. For many, it feels like the industry is on the precipice of serious change.
However, the question of how to organize within the more diffuse independent development world is more complicated than in traditional, large-population development studios, but the conversation is just as pressing. According to the 2018 Game Developers Conference State of the Industry report, 15% of responding attendees listed their company size as two-to-five members, compared to only 19% for over-500 member studios. The world of small studios is booming, but protections for workers, often freelance or under informal arrangements, falters behind the growth.
In the wake of the relatively high profile ousting of the company heads of queer games studio Midboss (developers of 2015 adventure game Read Only Memories), I wanted to get an idea of what conditions were on the ground level of small and midsize independent development studios. Over the past three weeks, I exchanged emails with five different people in various roles in labor movements and in the games industry, hoping to get a picture of the future of organized independent development.
Tyler Gausvik, former QA analyst and community manager at Midboss, told me about the frustrating lack of options available for him as a developer facing lack of payment for labor. “If there’d been a union, I don’t feel like I would’ve had to be as concerned because I would’ve had either a standardized wage or else I would’ve been able to go to someone to deal with the problem.”
Because of the size of the company, there was no HR department at Midboss, and Gausvik says that he felt he had no outlet. A union, he believes, could’ve helped with that. “I feel like a union would’ve given me somewhere to turn, sort of a neutral party or someone at least on my side. It didn’t feel right talking to other employees about it because I didn’t know if others were also complicit, but if I knew there was an established group, I’d know where to turn.”
Speaking on the abilities of a union to counteract exploitative behavior in studios, musician and sound designer Matthew “2Mello” Hopkins, also a former Midboss employee (and current Waypoint community moderator), spoke about the importance of making sure that methods of protected communication and reporting would be provided by a union or union-like group, especially in situations that include allegations of sexual harassment.
“The union should be ready to treat sexual harassment especially as a workers' rights issue, guarantee and provide protection against harassment and any retaliation by an employer, be ready to handle member-on-member harassment, and give victims full control over the resolution. Right now, even if there are channels to report this kind of thing, victims are often left adrift or in a worse position than before they reported. Crunch, exploitation, underpayment and harassment are prevalent enough in the game industry that a games union will have failed us if it doesn't prepare to take them on seriously.”
All of the interviewees from within the games industry that I spoke to lamented the lack of a comparable organization to those that are seen in other industries with a sizeable union population, such as film and theatre. Laura Michet, game developer and former Editor-In-Chief of Zam, focused on this frustration from her perspective as a Los Angeles resident. (Disclosure: I wrote for ZAM during Laura’s tenure as Editor-In-Chief.)
“[The film, television and animation] industries in this city are highly unionized and I do know people who are members of these organizations or who are represented by them. I've had a lot of opportunities to see how unionization protects those people and lends their lives stability!”
For Michet, the appeal of a union or guild was the freedom granted by that sort of stability. A union comprised of freelance game programmers, each paying a certain amount of dues, could set salary rates for hiring in game companies and negotiate on behalf of workers—even in studios with only one or two hired team members. Having the ability to lean on a union instead of shouldering the weight of negotiation alone would give indie game workers a much-needed relief in oftentimes tense employer-employee relations.
“When I get older, I eventually want the financial and health stability to pursue a life writing and editing for games as a full-time freelancer, so that I can work on a lot of different projects and have a bunch of different creative experiences! I don't think I'm at the place in my career yet where I've learned enough to do that full time, but the real blocker is that as a person with type 1 diabetes, I couldn't risk doing that without some confidence in the future of my health insurance. Something like a guild or a union could provide me with the ability to take creative risks.”
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I met Michael Marchman while working with him in the Eugene chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, but he’s also an organizer in the Pacific Northwest with the American Federation of Teachers, a multi-million member labor union representing academic laborers through local chapters nationwide. When I asked him about the ongoing efforts by game industry workers looking to organize, Marchman stressed the importance of knowing the terms of engagement before moving forward with unionization efforts.
“It's not so easy when there are lots of small, independent shops with only a few workers at each shop/company, as you describe in the gaming sector, but it is certainly done. How to most effectively organize under these conditions would vary based on the circumstances. For example, if a large (inter)national union—say, the Communications Workers of America (CWA)—decided that they really wanted to work on organizing game developers, they might try to do that by organizing across worksites to bring people all together. If there are enough resources and staff to do this, it is certainly possible.”
In order for a union to be recognized as a negotiating entity, it would have to be endorsed by a majority of employees at a certain company or worksite. This makes unionization always a gamble, as if there is insufficient support for a union within a company, it could end in a frustrating defeat for would-be organizers. Even if a majority of workers voted to organize, in the United States, labor laws require unions to be recognized by an employer before acting as a negotiator for worker compensation.
Listen to Waypoint talk with former Mass Effect developer Manveer Heir about the state of the industry:
“If there is no coordinated campaign with the resources and staff of a large union, this would be much harder for workers to accomplish. It takes a lot of time and effort and resources to try to work your way into a worksite from the outside in order to start organizing them,” said Marchman.
The risks of unionization aren’t limited to just the mechanics of organization. As Marchman points out, there are significant worries about unionization in even “friendly” employment scenarios.
“There are big risks associated with unionizing—especially the risk of getting fired or retaliated against if the company catches wind of an organizing effort. I don't know if these risks are bigger or smaller in a relatively small gaming company—but if you can get your union recognized and force the employer to sit down and bargain a first contract, your in a good place. Almost no boss wants their workers to unionize and even the "nicest" boss can turn nasty at the whiff of it, so its critical to workers to think very strategically about how they go about organizing.”
Isobel James Shasha is the co-founder of indie games studio Sundae Month (developers of 2017’s Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor), and spoke to me about about being a conscientious employer in the indie development field, and how a union could benefit contracted workers at their studio.
“As an employer, I think a union could empower people who work at my company. Right now, the three of us who run Sundae Month have all the agency over what happens to the company and how it's run. We care about our workers, and do our best to stay transparent, accountable, and run things equitably, but at the end of the day there's still a power differential.”
Shasha is optimistic about the prospects of dev unionization on the whole, and believes strongly in the path from strong unions to creative collectives. “A union would mean our workers have a formal way to share some of that agency,” they said, “which could protect all of us and give everyone a more empowered perspective.”
For Shasha, the work of unionization could serve as a precursor to a reorganization of the games publishing model as it currently stands, and may even turn the tide against doomsday predictions in the games industry.
“Access to resources on healthcare, business decisions, or legal situations would be incredibly valuable to folks like us or people just starting out,“ they said. “It could be a network for sharing access to work-for-hire clients. A union like that could also lead to investigating a collective games publishing model, which might be the best chance indies have at standing up against platform holders.”
Quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.