Photo courtesy of author.

Unionization Was Center Stage at the 2019 Game Developers Conference

If last year was a whisper, this year was a shout.

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Mar 28 2019, 6:00pm

Photo courtesy of author.

The 2018 Game Developers Conference marked a flashpoint in labor organization within the game industry. Kick-started by a contentious roundtable on unionization presented by the executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), attendees pushed back against the narratives that labor organization and unionization were things that the industry did not need--leading to, among other things, the formation of Game Workers Unite, an international organization devoted to furthering the efforts of game industry labor interests worldwide.

It’s been one year since then, and this year’s Game Developers Conference had a markedly different tone. Last year’s events were a raucous beginning, but it was during this year at GDC where the focus was on the mechanics and specificities of growing and sustaining a healthier games labor industry. Where in 2018 there was a paltry showing of panels, talks, and roundtables dedicated specifically to labor issues, 2019’s GDC included a sizeable handful, from talks on cooperative studio models, to lessons from other labor unions, to direct unionization.

In addition to the more formal shows of labor organization support this year, many presenters and attendees of the mid-week IGF and GDC Awards ceremony sported buttons advocating for Game Workers Unite or for unionization efforts in general. Double Fine CEO and longtime game developer Tim Schafer, who hosted the GDC Awards in the second half of the night, performed a short humorous bit with the help of the event’s lighting and sound technicians, who were unionized themselves with the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees).

In contrast to the more overtly contentious events of GDC 2018, GDC 2019 felt more united, with a proliferation of pro-unionization materials throughout the event (including some brand-new Game Workers Unite zines) as well as the aforementioned scheduled panels. Speaking to Waypoint about the previous year, GWU organizer Emma Kinema referred to GDC 2018 as “the spark catching tinder.”

“It was the very beginning of a thing, but it really wasn’t a whole comprehensive thing in and of itself. It showed promise, and there were workers all around the world who were getting involved, helping print and distribute literature, having big group conversations outside of the context of the conference about the future of organizing in the industry and how we can work together to build a proper movement,” Kinema explains.

Since GWU was founded officially in the weeks after GDC 2018, it has grown from a few core members to 26 chapters in nine countries worldwide, including GWU-UK, an official union operating in the UK under the Independent Workers Union. According to Kinema, the total number of GWU members are in the “hundreds”, and the organization includes multiple subcommittees for various topics. “People filter in and out, work on a single project and then phase out for a little bit. In terms of core members, each committee probably has a few dozen people who can really help out with organizing meetings and such.”

When asked about the future of GWU and of unionization efforts in the industry, Kinema was optimistic, but declined to provide specifics, citing security concerns. “There are dozens of active campaigns, everywhere, right now. But one of the things that people don’t understand about unionization is that it’s not that you vote on a union and turn it on and everything’s solved.”

The future of game worker unionization may be slow, but Kinema is confident that it is on its way. “[Unionization] is a very long, slow, private process where workers come together and have private conversations about issues in the workplace together and figure out solutions. It can take multiple years for some of these things to get off the ground. But yes, over the next few years, these will inevitably start surfacing.”

Labor organization and unionization is one of the efforts of GWU, but another one is seeking a transformation of the way that game studios operate. One of those methods is to encourage and support the formation of cooperatives to challenge traditional top-down game studio models. As explained on GWU’s Worker Co-op Resource page added to their website shortly before GDC, the worker cooperative structure is an alternative to the traditional boss-worker relationship seen in the vast majority of international companies. In a cooperative, each worker is treated as a worker-owner, both a laborer within the structure of the company and an equal stakeholder in whatever profits or losses the company may encounter.

Top Down vs Co-Op structure
Image courtesy Game Workers Unite

Cooperatives were a hot topic this year at GDC, and the recent public accolades of Dead Cells and its creators, French game cooperative Motion Twin, thrust the idea into the spotlight. As Steve Filby, Marketing Manager of Motion Twin, put it during a talk, “We had a pretty classic startup story, but we were all communists.”

Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry, both developers on 2017’s Night In The Woods, recently started a game development worker cooperative with fellow artist Wren Farren, called Glory Society. According to Hockenberry, the idea came naturally. “We pretty much assumed we were going to be working together, and we needed people to work with us, but we didn’t want to be bosses… so we’ll do a co-op.”

Benson argued that many of the problems that are associated with arguments against cooperative structures come from a tradition of labor inequality. “The things in a lot of people’s minds that fight against starting cooperatives is the idea that you are exploited by someone, for a long time, and then if you do really well then you can get to a point where you can exploit others. That’s just them paying their dues. We decided that, no, we don’t want to do that. That’s just bad.”

Whether cooperatives or unions, it was clear this year at GDC that the efforts of those within the games industry were being heard by groups outside of games entirely. Earlier this year, Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO (The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest federation of unions within the United States) published an open letter to game developers on Kotaku, pledging support to unionization efforts within the industry.

GWU Zines
A collection of zines distributed by Game Workers Unite during GDC 2019. Photo courtesy Game Workers Unite.

A roundtable late in the week, titled “Lessons from Labor Union Organizers”, brought Liz Shuler and five other labor organizers from within the games industry together to discuss the challenges of labor organization within the games industry as well as take audience questions. Alongside Shuler, the panel included representatives from Game Workers Unite, Writers Guild of America East, and SAG-AFTRA.

Justin Molito, organizer with the Writers Guild of America East, looked at the organization happening in games now as reminiscent of previous eras of labor struggle. “There are a few people that are taking everybody’s money and making people work sixty or seventy hours a week and giving them just enough for them to survive to continue producing wealth for them.”

Molito related the work of game labor organization with that of the online journalism sector, another hub of modern labor organization. He stressed that the work being done now was not without historical precedent, and that we can look to history to see our way forward. “That’s the moment that this country has been in in the past, and the solution to that situation is mass organizing into militant, strong, labor unions. It is happening. People are doing that and it’s up to institutions to figure out how to interact with that and provide the necessary resources to people that are on the front lines fighting.”

When asked for comment by Waypoint, Liz Shuler was similarly supportive of the efforts in the games industry. “We’re in a moment in this country where workers are ready to stand up and exercise their rights and their voice to get what they deserve in the economy. The games industry is a prime example of how that organizing is so sorely needed, and the labor movement stands ready to fight back with them.”

This year at GDC, labor advocates and the industry proved that what happened last year was not an isolated occurrence. In the wake of increased job instability and industry opaqueness regarding major layoffs in the early months of 2019, the young movement of games industry worker organization stood strong at GDC 2019.

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