A group of freelance visual novel writers are currently on strike to demand better working conditions, but the company they work for said it's ready to move on without them.
Visual novels are heavily dependent on their writing, and earlier this week, 21 freelance writers for the popular visual novel collection Lovestruck announced they were striking. The writers dubbed themselves Voltage Organized Workers, named after the publisher behind Lovestruck, and publicly demanded “better working conditions, greater transparency,” and "increased protections” after management reportedly declined to engage with the writers.
“We asked the management of Voltage USA to recognize us and meet our demands,” said the group in a blog post last week, “and since management has refused, we will be going on strike.”
Voltage, which is headquartered in Japan but has an office in the U.S., did not respond to a request for comment by VICE Games as of this writing, but instead posted what it called an “official statement about writers” to its website. The hostile response to the strike opens by saying Voltage “values the contractual contributions” before pivoting to declaring the group’s claims are “false” and the company “will not answer them.” It has offered the writers new rates, and is essentially inviting them to take it or leave it.
"Voltage has made all it's attempts in good faith and in a professional manner, however we recognize that with no resolution in sight the company must move forward," Voltage said in its statement. "Our new writers rates are in place, they are the same rate increases we proposed to resolve the issue."
Most people working in the video game industry are currently not unionized, but the idea has gained momentum in recent years, following events like the voice actor strike and the exposure of toxic cultures at many high-profile companies, revealing years of tolerated and encouraged exploitation, crunch, and sexual harassment. Earlier this year, one of the nation’s largest and most powerful unions launched an effort to create more movement towards unionizing game developers. We've also seen some historic labor wins in other parts of the tech industry, but so far, progress in video games has been slow.
The Lovestruck writers, calling themselves Voltage Organized Workers, recently spoke with VICE Games as a group. They asked to keep their individual identities anonymous out of fear it would impact their careers. The group did not have an immediate response to Voltage’s statement that it had found new writers to replace them.
Update: Voltage Organized Workers tell me, as of right now, none of their contracts have been terminated. "We still believe that we can find a reasonable and fair agreement with management and we hope to work with them to raise our completely women, non-binary, and LGBTQ writing team to industry standard wages and conditions," the group said in a statement.
Describing themselves as “members of marginalized genders and/or sexualities,” the workers said they were appreciative to be writing stories for Lovestruck but claim to be “paid less than half the industry standard rate” and are “asked to meet extremely tight deadlines” for “enormous amounts of content without protections or benefits.”
A contract worker is not an employee, and in most cases, that means an employer like Voltage does not provide basic and often expensive benefits like access to health insurance.
“There was no specific incident [that brought on the strike],” said the group in an email. “We have discussed our low pay rate amongst ourselves for a while, along with other complaints. As we spoke, we realized just how low the pay at Voltage is. We also realized that every single writer Voltage contracts is either a woman or nonbinary, and the majority of the writers are also of marginalized sexualities. After these realizations, we came to a unanimous consensus that we should stand up for ourselves.”
In its statement, Voltage claimed it tried to negotiate individual resolutions with the writers on two separate occasions. On July 15, Voltage said the writers rejected this tactic, telling the company that “on the subject of individual negotiations, we respectfully but firmly decline.”
It’s at this point the workers went public with their demands, prompting a delay in releasing new and updated storylines for Lovestruck. The workers knew this would happen, and in announcing their strike, mentioned that “the more they hear from fans, the more likely they are to want to talk to us.” They also encouraged fans to keep playing the game and to “not send anyone any harassment.”
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Voltage claimed it then attempted a second round of negotiations with the workers, but again, Voltage demanded the negotiations happen individually, rather than as a group.
“By stating that they were only interested in ‘collective bargaining,’” said the company, “we can only interpret this as the writers choosing to reply in a manner that willfully chose to ignore our requirement that we negotiate with each individual freelance contract writer, in essence rejecting our offer again.”
The power of organized labor, whether it's a group of workers who are formally unionized and recognized by the company or, as is the case with Lovestruck, as a group of not formally unionized workers who are trying to pressure their employer, is to avoid individual negotiations. They let companies apply pressure on workers in ways that are much harder to do when negotiating collectively.
Because the Voltage writers are not a formally recognized union, however, it makes their situation more precarious; the company is under no obligation to respond to their demands.
A number of writers both in and outside the video game industry have expressed their public support for the striking workers, including narrative designer Wyn Rush, comedian Adam Conover, and games writer, artist, and designer Scott Benson.
At the end of its statement, Voltage said several storylines for Lovestruck would be delayed.