Organizing in the Game Industry

Woodcock, J. (2019) 'Organizing in the Game Industry: the story of Game Workers Unite UK', New Labor Forum. OnlineFirst.

The videogames industry is often talked about as a “new” or “young”  industry. Compared to many existing industries it is, of course,  comparatively new. However, the first videogame—the Nimatron—was  made in 1940 and briefly featured at the World’s Fair. Programmers  working for the military were hacking games onto computers in the 1950s;  Spacewar!, made by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)  student Steve Russell, was being distributed across a predecessor of the  internet in the 1960s, and arcade games were being launched by  companies like Atari in the 1970s. Even if the latter date is the point  from which videogames were really commercialized, the earlier examples  demonstrate that the industry originated almost half a century ago.  Following a brief overview of the videogames industry, this article  focuses on workplace issues that have spurred organizing efforts among  some workers in the industry.

In 2018, the global videogames  market value was $134.9 billion, an increase of +10 percent from the  previous year. One of the big game releases in 2018, Red Dead Redemption II, made $725 million in sales revenue in the first three days after its launch.1 Rockstar, the company behind that game, also made Grand Theft Auto 5, which has sold 110 million copies and made over $6 billion in revenue.2 Videogames are clearly now a mainstream cultural phenomenon, making  huge profits. Nevertheless, the processes of production remain  relatively hidden. In part, this is due to the global scope of  production, taking place across many sites. There is also widespread use  of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) that workers sign so companies can  control information ahead of game launches.

. . . [M]any countries have attempted to create favorable environments  for videogame manufacturers, including . . . tax breaks, specialized  visa rules, and funding for independent studios.

The  videogames industry has become the subject of much attention from both  capital and governments, particularly as a sector that is growing  year-on-year, unlike many others that have declined since the 2008  financial crisis. As a result, many countries have attempted to create  favorable environments for videogame manufacturers, including offering  tax breaks, specialized visa rules, and funding for independent studios.  Rockstar, for example, was able to take advantage of significant tax  breaks in the United Kingdom for its Edinburgh-based Rockstar North  studio. It received £42 million in tax credits, while paying no  corporation tax between 2009 and 2018, with an estimated operating  profit of £4 billion between 2013 and 2019.3

As documented in Marx at the Arcade,4 the videogames industry represents many larger trends that are taking  place in contemporary capitalism across different countries. This  includes shifts in production across national borders, divisions between  digital and material work, and the blurring of boundaries between work  and play.

A global North-South divide in the nature of  production—a trend that cuts across industrial sectors—is a primary  characteristic of the videogames industry. Behind the screen, videogames  rely upon what can be called the “immaterial labor” of workers in the  Global North—that is work that relies upon creative and mental, rather  than manual, labor.5 In development studios, this involves the work of programmers,  designers, artists, sound engineers, and others to make the games. It  also involves the low-paid quality assurance (QA) testers, community  managers, and marketers to ensure a polished game that gets to  consumers.6 All of this “immaterial work,” however, relies upon material labor,  predominantly in the factories of the Global South, that produce the  hardware as well as the logistics chains to ship products across the  world. This material labor also provides the infrastructural work that  the internet relies upon, including the laying and maintenance of fiber  optic cables.

A global North-South divide in the nature of production . . . is a primary characteristic of the videogames industry.

Within  the games industry, there are long- running workplace issues. Here, I  focus on the work of videogame studios in the Global North—specifically  in the United Kingdom—where the digital game is made, the typical  video-game worker in the Global North would be a white, straight,  non-disabled man, around the age of thirty five according to a recent  survey.7 In the United Kingdom, 80 percent were under twenty five, with only 4.7  percent identifying as Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) and 14 percent  identifying as women.8 For some game workers, including programmers, salaries and benefits are  comparatively good—particularly when compared to far-lower wages in the  Global South. However, roles like quality and assurance testing are  often poorly paid and highly precarious. For these studio workers, the  two main concerns are “crunch” and diversity, particularly relating to  sexism.9 Crunch is the process of overwork that often accompanies the later  stages of videogame development cycles. Much like Hollywood  blockbusters, videogames have tight release schedules tied to expensive  and time-sensitive marketing plans. Workers are often expected to work  unpaid overtime as the release date approaches, ensuring that a game is  ready to launch. While this could be blamed on mismanagement, given how  hard it is for managers to predict how long software development will  take, the widespread incidents of crunch demonstrate that many managers  are likely budgeting the additional hours of crunch into the development  cycle.

Overcoming the Challenges of Organizing

When  I first wrote about unions in the game industry, I noted that both  institutional sexism and crunch “could be converted into organisable  demands in a workplace, yet the lack of traditions and rejection of  collective organisation were significant obstacles to doing this.”10 Moreover, the establishment trade union movement had shown little or no  interest in organizing videogame workers, whose profile did not match  that of traditional union members. These workers are predominantly  young, likely to have no history of trade unionism, and are engaged in  (and often passionate about) the production of a cultural activity that  many existing trade unionists may struggle to relate to.

By 2018,  however, workers in the industry began taking things into their own  hands, embarking on a wave of organizing. As in other “new” industries,  game workers experimented with ways to shape their own work and came  into conflict with managers.

Before exploring this wave of  organizing, however, it is important to stress that, while it represents  a watershed moment, there is a long history of resistance in the  videogames industry. Failure to note this would give the false  impression that these workplaces were placid, without workers resisting  in different ways. The early videogames, including Spacewar! and  others, were often acts of resistance themselves. Military workers made  the games while they should have been programming missile trajectories  and other logistical tools for the military. This form of creative  workplace resistance tied in with the early hacker cultures that  provided the basis for the videogames industry.11 There have also been strikes in parts of the videogames industry in the  past. For example, in 2016, voice actors went on strike in the United  States. They were represented by the SAG-AFTRA union and took strike  action at eleven major videogame companies. Similarly, in France, there  was a strike at Eugen Systems, supported by Le Syndicat des Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Jeu Vidéo (STJV, the Videogame Workers Union).

.  . . [T]here is a long history of resistance in the videogames industry .  . . Military workers made the games while they should have been  programming missile trajectories . . .

There are no  doubt countless stories of individual resistance from workers in the  industry or of nascent attempts to bring people together that did not  quite make it. There are many challenges to organizing in the videogames  industry, and they are not necessarily unique to that sector. As in the  tech industry, for example, there are few links with existing union  organizations and no traditions of organizing in the industry. And, as  in so many industries with creative or intellectual workers, companies  try to mobilize the passion their employees have for their work,  convincing them that their job is not a typical job but a highly  desirable one, given the surplus of people wanting to work in the  industry. There are similarities across the media industries, as well as  in universities, which have seen waves of graduate student organizing  in recent years. An elite vision of the videogames industry became more  pronounced after universities began cashing in by offering specialized  videogames production courses, often with the promise of a career route.  But, as the late political economist Harry Braverman has argued,  resistance at work can exist as a “subterranean stream” particularly  within conditions like overwork and increased division of labor found  within large videogames studios. As Braverman pointed out, resistance  can make “its way to the surface when employment conditions permit, or  when the capitalist drive for a greater intensity of labor oversteps the  bounds of physical and mental capacity.”12

What  started with a small Facebook group became a bigger one on Twitter,  which then became an even bigger movement across multiple channels . . .  and suddenly a direct action was in place.

Resistance  broke the surface at The Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San  Francisco, in March 2018. At this industry conference, the International  Game Developers Association (IGDA) proposed a roundtable discussion on  “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization for Game Devs.”  It was to be chaired by the executive director of the IGDA, which,  despite its name, is a group that is hostile to any kind of worker  organizing in the industry. In response to IGDA’s proposal, a group of  videogame workers started planning an intervention. What started with a  “small Facebook group became a bigger one on Twitter, which then became  an even bigger movement across multiple channels . . . and suddenly a  direct action was in place.”13 The IGDA roundtable became a confrontation between pro- and anti-union  voices. An attempt to shut down the discussion about unions—led by the  IGDA—had the opposite effect. Suddenly, a network emerged. It had a  name—Game Workers Unite (GWU)—and a logo—a raised fist holding a game  controller—and also plenty of publicity. News of GWU traveled quickly  through the social media network of videogame workers. It spread like a  global social movement, including videogame workers who had been sent to  the conference from companies across the world. GDC delegates (both  those who had witnessed the roundtable and those who had just heard  about it) went back to their respective cities and countries, sowing the  seeds of unionization. A zine designed for the GDC spelled out the  objectives of GWU:

Game Workers Unite is a  broad-reaching organization that seeks to connect pro-union activists,  exploited workers, and allies across borders and across ideologies in  the name of building a unionized game industry. We are building  pro-union solidarity across disciplines, classes, and countries. The  organization is run exclusively by workers (non-employers), but we  actively encourage employers, academics, and others to engage in the  community and help support the organization’s direct-action efforts both  materially and through their visibility.14

The Birth of a New Trade Union

I  had heard about the events at GDC through a friend involved in the  industry, who suggested that I reach out to the workers involved. My  intention was to provide material support to workers in the United  Kingdom, following the method of workers’ inquiry.15 This method involves a process of co-research between academics and  workers that is directly connected to organizing, as well as to the  production of knowledge. In my case, it meant providing resources and  advice to the workers who were starting to organize, as well as  conducting interviews and encouraging workers to write and talk about  their own experiences. (I am therefore writing here both as an academic  and organizer.)

I was quickly introduced to Declan, the first  videogame worker in the United Kingdom to start organizing. In an  interview, Declan explained,

I think someone  finally just took the initiative. As soon as someone did, everyone  jumped on it, because I think everyone who is involved right now has  just been expecting some people to start it, and then they can jump on  it, I know I was. It reached that critical point.16

I  supported Delcan in organizing the first meeting in Manchester, which  had five people attend. From this, a U.K. website and a social media  platform was established, along with a Discord server (an instant  message and voice communication platform popular in the videogames  community). As news of GDC spread, so did interest in the union. We  organized more meetings in London which grew in size. While these  started as organizing meetings, they tended to focus on establishing  common ground on what being in a trade union would involve, as well as  legal rights in the workplace. At first, many workers would not say  their names or where they worked, preferring instead to test the waters  anonymously. These early meetings were part of a process of collectively  working through what trade unionism would mean in the videogames  industry in the United Kingdom, with help from organizers like myself.

These  meetings established the basic principles of organizing, including that  any organization should be democratic, participatory, and led by  workers. In the U.K. context, this left three options for formally  unionizing: first, joining a mainstream trade union affiliated with the  Trades Union Congress (TUC); second, joining an independent union; or  third, forming a new trade union by registering with the certification  officer. The first option was briefly explored, with one mainstream  trade union attempting to recruit the videogame workers. However, this  effort failed, as the union official told the workers they would lose  their GWU branding (which made them feel like they were cutting  themselves off from a growing global network). The union then proceeded  to pressure sell them—if they did not make a decision rapidly, they  would have to pay a higher union dues. The third option—starting a new  union—was deemed to be too much of an administrative burden,  particularly for a group of workers who had only recently started  learning what trade unionism involved.

The GWU branch in the  United Kingdom therefore entered into discussions with the Independent  Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). This union started as a breakaway  from the mainstream public-sector union Unison, organizing mainly  Spanish-speaking Latin American cleaners in universities. The union now  organizes a range of precarious workers, including security guards,  bicycle couriers, foster-care workers, electricians, Uber and other  app-based transport workers, and workers at Deliveroo (a food platform).  Unlike the mainstream TUC-affiliated unions, IWGB is growing quickly  among workers who are either new to organizing or have been badly  organized in other unions. The IWGB has won a series of high-profile  campaigns and become known as a union that readily takes action,  including lively strikes, protests, and boycotts. Each IWGB branch is  autonomous from the central union and some, like the branch of Uber  drivers, keep their existing name.

In  under a year, many videogame workers had gone from not knowing what a  union was—but knowing that managers did not want them to join one—to  forming their own union.

By the end of 2018, the  U.K. branch of GWU had established a network across the country and  formed a branch of the IWGB. This affiliation provided GWU with the  structural legal protections of a union, access to case work and legal  support, and experienced organizers to advise on campaigns. Through the  national network, a committee was elected, and the network began to  develop formal regional sections that meet regularly. In under a year,  many videogame workers had gone from not knowing what a union was—but  knowing that managers did not want them to join one—to forming their own  union. Joining the IWGB provided the opportunity for them to preserve  aspects of their own organization and the branding they had developed,  while establishing a legal trade union structure.

Learning Lessons from GWU

There  are three main lessons that can be drawn out of the experience of GWU  organizing in the United Kingdom. The first is the importance of  different approaches to building forms of worker power in new ways. The  GWU network was established in a different way than that of mainstream  trade union organizing. It started outside of the workplace, albeit at a  work-related conference. This provided the opportunity to build a  network outside of the control of managers in the workplace, opening up a  space where workers could discuss, plan, and begin organizing. This is  particularly important for workers who are new to organizing. However,  this does mean that GWU is a network outside of the workplace. Workers  who have joined GWU have a common connection through the industry they  are working in, but many have not yet joined because they do not have a  shared experience in a particular workplace. This means that the GWU  network is one of potential for building workplace power, but it needs  to be translated into workplace organizing to develop that. This means  taking the network of GWU back into workplaces and recruiting  colleagues.

This different starting point for organizing draws out  an important lesson for the mainstream trade union movement. In the  U.K. context, the overwhelming majority of workers are not members of  trade unions, and many young workers may never have been in a union or  know anyone who has been. This creates significant cultural barriers to  building connections with trade unions, as workers may not understand  the terminology, processes, or expectations of existing unions. However,  as GWU shows, there are shared workplace concerns that are expressed in  different forms. For example, many workers (both in the videogames  industry and more broadly) have concerns or come into conflict over  issues of control at work. Too often, trade unions are seen as fighting  only on economic issues—pay and pensions, for example. The second lesson  is that the possibility of contesting control at work—whether “crunch”  and how long to work, what kind of videogames to make, diversity and  sexism within the industry, its impact on culture and so on—are powerful  motivators for organizing.

The third lesson is the importance of  relating to workers where they already are. The growth of GWU has relied  on online communication tools like Discord. While online communication  has its limitations, this medium was a tool for making the first steps  toward getting organized. Without it, many of the workers would likely  not have developed the confidence to come to face-to-face meetings.  However, many existing trade unions would not have thought to utilize  these tools. Similarly, workers in GWU have developed their own ways of  talking about unions—for example, framing organizing in gameplay terms  and using creative propaganda, like the GWU zine about organizing in the  style of a videogame magazine17—which  may appear as unusual to those outside the industry. However, these  have provided powerful ways to translate organizing strategies to  videogame workers.

If the established  trade union movement wants to engage with new workers . . . unions will  have to develop a capacity for communicating . . . and supporting them  on their own terms.

The game workers’ experience of  organizing in the United Kingdom provides another powerful example of  why no workers are “unorganizable”—just “yet-to-organize.” There are  many similarities (and indeed connections) between the game workers and  software developers, workers in a relatively new industry who are  beginning to organize with the U.S.-based Tech Workers Coalition. Like  the game workers, these workers were generally assumed to be  disinterested in unionizing. Yet, they and other new workers are finding  new routes to organizing. If the established trade union movement wants  to engage with new workers who want to build power at work, unions will  have to develop a capacity for communicating with these workers and  supporting them on their own terms. While these workers have much to  learn from the experience of established unions, the union movement, in  turn, has much to learn from these workers, especially if working-class  power is to be built today.

Notes

1. James Batchelor, “GamesIndustry.biz Presents . . . The Year in Numbers 2018,” gamesindustry.biz, December 17, 2018, available at https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2018-12-17-gamesindustry-biz-presents-the-year-in-numbers-2018.

2. Fraser Brown, “GTA 5 Has Sold Nearly 110 Million Copies,” PCGamer, May 14, 2019, available at https://www.pcgamer.com/gta-5-has-sold-nearly-110-million-copies.

3. Keza MacDonald, “Grand Theft Auto Maker Has Paid No UK Corporation Tax in 10 Years: Report,” The Guardian, July 29, 2019, available at https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jul/29/grand-theft-auto-maker-uk-corporation-tax-rockstar-north-games.

4. Jamie Woodcock, Marx at the Arcade: Consoles, Controllers, and Class Struggle (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019).

5. Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

6. Régis Renevey, “Creative Skillset Workforce Survey Breakdown,” Ukie, May 20, 2015, available at http://ukie.org.uk/news/2015/05/creative-skillset-workforce-survey-breakdown.

7. Johanna Weststar, Victoria O’Meara, and Marie-Josée Legault, Developer Satisfaction Survey 2017 Summary Report (Toronto: International Game Developers Association, 2018), 20.

8. Régis Renevey, “Creative Skillset Workforce Survey Breakdown,” op. cit.

9. Jamie Woodcock, “The Work of Play: Marx and the Video Games Industry in the United Kingdom,” Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds 8, no. 2 (2016): 131-43.

10. Ibid., 140.

11. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, Games of Empire.

12. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, new edition (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999).

13. Ian Williams, “After Destroying Lives for Decades, Gaming Is Finally Talking Unionization,” Waypoint, March 23, 2018, available at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/7xdv5e/after-destroying-lives-for-decadesgaming-is-finally-talking-unionization.

14. Game Workers Unite, “Game Workers Unite Zine,” Notes from Below, Issue 68, March 30, 2018, available at www.notesfrombelow.org/article/game-workers-unite-zine.

15. For more, see www.notesfrombelow.org.

16. Jamie Woodcock and Declan, “Prospects for Organising the Videogames Industry: Interview with Game Workers Unite UK,” Notes from Below, Issue 3, August 16, 2018, available at https://notesfrombelow.org/article/prospects-for-organizing-the-videogames-industry.

17. Game Workers Unite, “Game Workers Unite Zine.”

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