Game Workers Unite: Unionization among independent developers

Woodcock, J. (2021) 'Game Workers Unite: unionization among independent developers', in P. Ruffino (ed) Independent Videogames: Cultures, Networks, Techniques And Politics, 163-174. Abingdon: Routledge.

Abstract

The rise of GWU has brought the question of unionization to the forefront in the videogames industry. There are many clear grievances that workers have, from the widespread use of crunch, lack of diversity, to precarious contracts. There are experiments underway to unionize large AAA studios, which have been the focus of most attention. However, there are important differences in the way that videogame production is organized, from larger AAA studios to much smaller indies. There are challenges to unionizing in this context, with little in terms of examples to learn from. This article examines union organizing strategies in small businesses, drawing on examples from other sectors. This includes SVEOD, a radical workers assembly of delivery drivers in Greece, exploring how different antagonisms beyond the individual workplace can be organized around. Despite the differences in the way that videogame production is organized across AAA or indie, the article stresses that no videogame is made only by one person. Interrogating the different connections within the industry provides an important way to understand how unionization could be successfully built in indie studios.

Introduction

The Game Workers Unite (GWU) movement started early in 2018, following a panel on unionization at the Game Developers Conference. Since then, local chapters of GWU have sprung up across the world in different countries. What is particularly striking about the example of GWU has been the speed with which a network has been established to promote unionization, outside of the workplaces that activists are based in. While this has contributed to the speed of its development, it also means that there remain important unanswered questions about how this will translate into organizing at a workplace level. The aim of GWU is to build a network to unionize the games industry, rather than being a trade union itself. Only in the UK, South Korea, Ireland, and France (although this precedes GWU), so far, this has converted into the formation of a trade union.

There are clear grievances for workers in the videogames industry, for example, crunch and long working hours, lower pay compared to similar roles outside games, lack of diversity, as well as precarity and project-based employment. There are a series of challenges to unionizing the videogames industry: first, the trade union laws and industrial relations systems differ greatly from country to country; second, there is no history of trade unionism in the videogames industry, meaning that the attempts are breaking new ground; and third, the videogames industry involves a range of different kinds of workplaces, with distinctions between AAA and independent developers, as well as the prevalence of contract and freelance work. However, regardless of the organizational form, no videogames are made solely by an individual, but come out of combinations of formal and informal networks of production.

Rather than focusing on how these can be overcome in practice across the entire industry, this chapter seeks to explore these questions in the context of independent developers. There has been a surprising level of interest amongst smaller and independent studios for unionization. Many independent studios have owners or managers who have experienced the pressures and problems with larger studios and therefore attempted to do something different when going independent. However, independent studios still involve a relationship between capital and workers, albeit one that can be closer and more blurred than within AAA.

The chapter draws on an ongoing empirical and collaborative research project with GWU in the UK to explore how these issues are being addressed in practice. It is part of an ongoing workers’ inquiry with videogame workers and the GWU branch of IWGB in the UK. This is not a traditional academic research project, but rather a form of co-research that has sought to combine research with organizing (see Woodcock, 2017). I have participated in GWU in the UK since the beginning, from when it only had one member. My involvement has included ethnography, interviewing, as well as actively participating in the project of organizing game workers (see, for example, Woodcock, 2019). This is the context from which this chapter has been written. My own position is that of a researcher and organizer, rather than a worker within the videogames industry. The decision to write this chapter was to reflect on the specifics of trying to organize within indie studios. What follows is intended as a discussion that can inform thinking around the challenges and opportunities with indies, not as a closed project, but rather as part of an ongoing movement to unionize the videogames industry.

Understanding the dynamics of unionizing is important because it has the potential to reshape many of the existing relationships of videogame production. Most attention is paid to AAA studios, so this chapter seeks to correct this by exploring and highlighting the implications for independent studios. This chapter will focus on the challenges and opportunities of organizing videogame workers in small workplaces. It first examines the existing literature on videogame production in indie studios. The next part considers the challenges that trade unions have had in organizing at small workplaces, as well as adapting methods to new forms of work. The contribution of the chapter focuses on drawing out the emerging class composition of workers in indie studios, starting with an illustrative example of Greek delivery drivers, then exploring the technical, social, and political composition. It ends with a brief reflection on the potential directions this could develop in.

Videogame work and independent studios

There has been much recent attention on production and the videogames industry, particularly involving critical accounts (see: Kerr, 2006; Deuze et al., 2007; Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2009; Kirkpatrick, 2013; Parker et al., 2014; Woodcock, 2016, 2019). However, these have tended to focus on AAA studios. One of the key organizing challenges on GWU involves making sense of what will work to organize in different workplaces across the industry. Beyond mainstream AAA studio, there is a range of other forms of workplaces in the industry. These other forms involve “a far more diverse range of creators, audience, and modes of videogame production and consumption” that “has emerged with the rise of digital distribution and a proliferation of platforms” (Keogh, 2015: 152). For example, as Simon (2013: 2) has argued, to discuss indie games is “not to speak only of the games themselves or of the experiences of gameplay but rather of the cultures of game development from whence they came”. The problem here is to understand what the common characteristics of indie development might be, in order to think about what sorts of organizing challenges or opportunities they might present for newly organizing workers.

The indie adjective tends to refer to independence from publishers, which may involve – although not always – a smaller workforce that is organizational separate from other parts of the chains of production and circulation. For example, an indie is unlike to be involved in the production of consoles or other hardware, while it may sell a game through digital distribution channels. This can involve smaller teams (maybe as small as one) producing games without the support or involvement of a publisher. However, as Ruffino (2013: 107) argues, “it is also clear that the phenomenon of independent games cannot be explained solely in terms of a business model”. As Ruffino (2013: 109) continues, this would miss the rise of indies rooted within a “complex series of influences coming from contemporary forms of labor that tend to put forward similar arguments in favor of individual emancipation”. This individual emancipation is one response to the “poor working conditions” that await many “in the industry, and the indie community serves as an outlet for people to work closer to their own personal limits and time tables” (Lipkin, 2013: 11). Even on the issue of crunch, it becomes “inherently self-imposed in a way that is different from industry practice” (Lipkin, 2013: 11). As Williams (2013) pointed out:

Many observers pin their hopes on indie studios. But working in a five person shop making small games is no guarantor against the same sorts of abuses the corporate players truck in. The rise of indies must be married to a just and equitable approach to work and employment if they are to serve as a collective counterweight to corporate abuses. Given the size of most indie studios, radical approaches such as cooperatively owned studios and flat hierarchies are within easier reach than most anywhere else in the wider tech sector.

Apart from a few notable examples of worker cooperatives in the videogames industry (for example, Pixel Pushers Union 512), this form of independence does necessarily entail any kind of politics around worker empowerment – let alone ownership. It is also worth noting the potential for self-exploitation of workers engaged in cooperatives (see Mellor et al., 1988). For example, Dovey and Kennedy (2006: 141) have warned that “the notion of independence needs to be interrogated somewhat if it is to have any purchase. As we have seen in the film and music industries, the ‘indy’ tag may not signify much more than ‘wannabe’”. Thus, care needs to be taken not to assume that the independence may be read as something similar to what the “literature on independent, alternative, oppositional, radical, or otherwise non mainstream media tends to suggest or advocate” (Martin and Deuze, 2009: 277). Often, this might be caught up in the increasingly complex process of outsourcing game production to “so-called second and third party studios’ tied into the corporate system” (Martin and Deuze, 2009: 277). As Pedercini (2012) argues:

There’s no absolute independence because you’ll always be constrained by technological platforms, protocols, hardware or infrastructures. Beyond gaming, you’ll be entwined in a web of power, privilege, exploitation, and dependency, as long as the current modes of production persist.

This means that indies should not be considered as independent from the rest of the industry. Instead, as Keogh (2015: 156) suggests, indie is “a carefully cultivated antagonism against the status quo of the mainstream industry”. As Joseph (2013: 100) has rightly pointed out in the context of the indie scene in Toronto, this can involve a “geographic space teeming with activity, filled with artists, organizations, cultures, histories, musicians, and television shows”. These are linkages that tie indies together across different workplaces, as well as a “dynamic situation where exposure to the pressures of the commercial mainstream is a constant” (Crogan, 2018: 680). This means that there are important similarities with the industry as a whole: challenges in clearly identifying or delineating between ‘labor’, ‘management’, and ‘capital’ in the workplace; unstable forms of work, which may not map onto traditional notions of a wage-effort bargain; non-traditional workplaces that may blur work and play, both in terms of the product, as well as its production (O’Doherty and Willmott, 2009: 939–943). While there are differences throughout the industry, “what remains constant, for ‘AAA’ and ‘indies’ alike, is that game development is seldom an individual venture” (Whitson et al., 2018: 3). This means that there remains the potential for collective organizing. While distinctions between labor and capital might be harder to unpick in an indie context, it also begins from a potentially radicalizing context. As Lipkin (2013: 21) noted, the changes discussed could mean that “the possibility of indie developers clearly presenting anti-establishment perspectives by their mere existence is ending”; however, this also opens up new possibilities with what used to be known as industrial relations, as nascent unions begin organizing in both AAA and indie studio. It is to that possibility that the chapter now turns.

Issues for trade union organizing

There is comparatively little research on trade union organizing in small businesses (Rainnie, 1989), with more attention focused on the higher profile organizing at large organizations. Many workers do, in fact, work in small businesses – which are often family business too (Holten and Crouch, 2014). This means that there are similarities with some of the dynamics between small and large business that can be found in the AAA and indie distinction. Eurofound (1999) reported that there are many reasons given for low trade union membership in small and medium enterprises (SMEs), but that common answers involved “the recruitment difficulties faced by trade unions; hostility to unions among employers; and the closer relations between employers and employees in smaller firms”.

Historically, the UK differed from the rest of Europe in that there were no thresholds on the number of employees required for collective representation to be applied (for example, provisions on trade union recognition of workers councils). However, this is not because these were automatically acquired (like, for example, in Norway or Sweden), but rather because there are few regulations that apply within a ‘voluntaristic’ industrial relations framework (Eurofound, 1999). Much of this was changed through EU legislation on employment rights, a situation that remains uncertain to continue at the time of writing. Despite this, there are clear challenges organizing in smaller workplaces than larger ones for trade unions. SMEs may be seen as too small to engage in company-level bargaining, limiting the potential collective gains or rather meaning that more negotiating is necessary to cover the same number of workers. There have been suggestions of ‘territorial’ bargaining, bringing together SMEs within a geographical area (Eurofound, 1999). This is an attempt to circumvent this problem, but there has been little evidence of success. There have also been warning that in ‘new’ – at the time the report was written – “high-skill firms, in information technology, professional services, and media and design, where an entrepreneurial approach predominates. Here, rewards can be high and traditional employer/employee models are inapplicable” (Eurofound, 1999).

There is increasing evidence beyond the videogames industry of successes organizing in new professional industries. The Tech Worker Coalition has had visible successes organizing with tech workers in the USA (see Woodcock, 2019). These have built upon earlier attempts to organize software developers, particularly at Microsoft (Brophy, 2006; Rodino-Colocino, 2012). Similarly, online journalists have seen recent successes too (Cohen, 2016; Salamon, 2016; Cohen and de Peuter, 2018). Coles (2016: 457), writing about the creative industry, has noted that the “prominent features of labour markets and employment relations based on contract, freelance or self-employment, income insecurity, excessive overtime and where risk is both individualized and devolved from the employer to the worker”. There are clear similarities with the videogames industry, as well as early examples of how unions can organize within the creative industry more widely (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2011; Coles, 2016). However, many of these examples have focused on larger workplaces. The story of Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech) at Microsoft is far from the experience of a worker in an SME.

Different ways to identify an antagonism

The differences between AAA and indie, particularly when considered in terms of SMEs and large companies, would seem to lead to a conclusion that indies would be hard to organize. The evidence from other forms of tech worker organizing – so far – appears to be focused around large companies. There is a risk of missing some of the opportunities within indies if only examples are drawn from other sectors. The key to understanding this is the changing class composition of workers within the industry. To explore this, the chapter will briefly divert to outline these dynamics within another sector: food delivery. There have been a series of struggles on food delivery platforms (see Woodcock and Waters, 2017; Cant, 2018, 2019). As I have argued with Callum Cant elsewhere (Cant and Woodcock, 2019), the wave of struggles in platform capitalism are beginning to mature:

What has taken place is a huge attempted decomposition of workers by capital. Taking Uber as an example, drivers who may have previously worked for a local taxi company now find themselves as bogus self-employees engaging with a multinational platform. Along with many other workers drawn onto the platform due to the promise of flexibility - or lack of employment options elsewhere - they are now part of a workforce that is estimated to be around three million. As Uber has sought greater amounts of venture capital, it has also savagely driven down wages and tested and refined new forms of algorithmic management. Unlike the diverse and disconnected taxi companies, these decomposition has also created shared conditions among many workers logging onto the Uber app. These have forged new international connections through which tactics and strategies are being shared, laying the basis for a powerful new recomposition of platform workers.

This would strengthen the argument that union organization is potentially strongest in larger workplaces (whether physical or not) that recompose greater numbers of workers. However, processes of class composition do not follow in linear or stable stages.

In April 2019, Greek delivery drivers held a 24-hour strike (ANA, 2019). However, these were not newly recomposed platform delivery drivers, but rather worked for a large number of restaurants spread across the city. At first glance, these isolated restaurants each employing a small number of delivery drivers would look like a difficult context to organize within. Yet the Driver Workers’ Informal Assembly (SVEOD) had managed to organize an effective and disruptive action. My co-writer Callum Cant and I spent time with the delivery workers on May Day in Athens, following their successful action. There are a number of important lessons that can be drawn out from their example.

The first is the antagonism identified by the drivers. A conventional understanding might be that these were workers with a very large number of SME employers, so the antagonism was between small groups of drivers and restaurant owners. While this antagonism was maintained by SVEOD, they also identified further demands for the April action. They demanded that the motorbike and protective equipment should be provided by the SME employer, but also that the government reclassify the drivers’ profession as hazardous. This, along with a unified job description, would entitle the drivers to higher pay and lower retirement and so on. This provided a national focus to the campaign, that could then be transferred into local bargaining, strengthened by the collective power at a national level.

The second is the form of organizing. SVEOD is a radical workers assembly, much closer to an anarcho-syndicalist network than a mainstream union. Rather than relying on paid staff and collective bargaining regulation, the drivers drew upon the pre-existing networks of delivery drivers. Athens, like London, has subcultures that have developed around couriers and delivery drivers, who share the streets as a workplace with a common set of experiences and grievances of work. In Athens, there is a long history of this kind of political organizing both within the delivery industry as well as with unions more widely (Kretsos, 2011). However, identification with political forms of organizing like this build upon previous histories, as well as being actively fought for. We witnessed the level of networking when we accompanied the drivers on one of their regular organizing rides around the city. A convoy of drivers sets off multiple times a week to tour the small restaurants and talk to other drivers. In between the meetings, workers riding pillion hoped off at traffic lights to staple posters to lampposts. The conversations involved a mixture of on-the-spot case work and political arguments, ensuring that the network is continuously remade across the city. SVEOD then acts as a focal point to bring these workers together for a biweekly meeting, formulating demands, and discussing strategy.

The third is the relationship between employer and consumer. The videogames industry has a close – albeit quite different to delivery – relationship between workers and consumers. This was potential antagonism that the delivery strike could cause, but it was directly addressed by SVEOD. In addition to the posters about the strike demands, they produced propaganda to build support amongst consumers that featured a simple food recipe. The message itself was clear: the strikers were only stopping the delivery of food for one night, using humor to show that consumers did have another option that evening.

These three examples highlight how different forms of class recomposition can take place amongst workers who are employed by ‘independent’ companies within a broader network. The activities of SVEOD provide a powerful example of how methods like workers’ inquiry can make sense of the challenges and opportunities of organizing in particular sectors. This, as Cleaver (1979: 58) argues, starts from the “actual struggles” of workers, “their content, how they have developed, and where they are headed”. Building from Marx’s (1880) early attempts at a postal survey, inquiry has been used to look at more traditional, as well as newer, sectors of work. Although the struggles of workers in the videogames industry tend to be organizing networks beyond the workplace for now, the theories of class composition that have developed from workers’ inquiry can provide an important starting point for making sense of organizing at indie studios.

Class composition provides a framework to make sense of inquiry, understanding the relationships between the form of work and the struggles that emerge. While initially developed by Italian Workerists as a twofold framework, the editors of Notes from Below (2018) have added a third dimension of social composition. This puts forward class composition as:

a material relation with three parts: the first is the organisation of labour-power into a working class (technical composition); the second is the organisation of the working class into a class society (social composition); the third is the self-organisation of the working class into a force for class struggle (political composition).

This framework will now be used for sketching out the challenges and opportunities for organizing indies, drawing on both the literature discussed before, as well as the example of delivery drivers.

Strategies for organizing at indies

The first aspect that requires attention is the technical composition of workers at indie studios. There are many similarities here with the technical composition of AAA studios, involving similar labor processes for individual workers, albeit on a much smaller scale. This involves a similar difficulty to manage “creative labour process”, but rather than in a major studio, taking place in a “marginal position in the global production network, leading to strong pressure on costs and flexibility” (Thompson et al., 2016: 322). This means that there is a different relationship between capital and labor experienced by many workers in indies. There are not the clear lines of managerial control, going first to project leads, then to departments and managers, producers, and so on – and ultimately upward to various agents of capital, shareholders, and corporate investments and profits. Instead, there may be – at a surface level at least – more of a flat structure of authority, with small workplaces having the appearance of either less hierarchy, or that hierarchy being centralized with fewer people. This creates a blurring of the distinctions of labor and capital, as well as work and play – as noted earlier by O’Doherty and Willmott (2009: 939). Thus, there are pressures of the wider videogames industry, both around crunch and overwork, as well as diversity (Woodcock, 2019), that indies cannot escape through formal independence, but rather operate from within the pressures of the existing industry. However, what is important to note is that the identity of indies, as discussed earlier, is “a carefully cultivated antagonism” (Keogh, 2015: 156) against AAAs. This attitude of difference has been one of trying to point out alternatives to mainstream methods of videogame production, which has the potential to change expectations of working conditions.

The smaller workplaces mean that individual workers are more exposed to the risks of organizing. If an individual decides to start unionizing within a workplace of a 1,000 members, they are far less visible than the worker sharing a single office with four people. However, as the Greek delivery workers example showed, the formal boundary of the firm does not need to be considered as the boundary for worker organizing. In the UK, there are clear clusters of videogame production, both for AAA and indie. For example, found in Leamington Spa or Bristol (see: Crogan, 2015), as well as London.

The importance of this potential social composition of workers is particularly sharp within the production of videogames. As a cultural industry, workers are often invested in not only the production but also the consumption of the culture in question. Many videogames workers cite their passion for games as a reason for working within the industry, which comes with shared culture, points of reference, networks, and so on. A powerful example of this can be found with the propaganda produced by GWU, featuring tongue-in-cheek versions of organizing material in the style of videogame walkthrough guides. This social dimension has been an important factor in the rapid growth of GWU as a network. Unlike many forms of greenfield organizing, the international network for unionization preceded the experimentation with organizing in the workplace. This builds a network beyond the small workplace – like that found with the Greek example – that can be then used to strengthen local organizing with the large collective body.

Both the technical and social composition shape – and are then shaped – by the political composition of workers. Similarly, with SVEOD, previous forms of political composition (for example, histories of anarcho-syndicalist organizing) shape future recompositions too. However, with the new organizing in videogames, there are no clear examples of what can succeed with organizing within indie studios. However, there are two potential points of recomposition that are beginning to emerge. The first is the wider movement of GWU. Successes in large studios or different national contexts can be rapidly circulated with other workers. The process of forming GWU has been one of beginning to form a new subjectivity: the game worker. This pushes back on the widespread trope that workers in technology, whether in software development in general or in games, are not the kind of people who need union organization. The popularization of the term ‘game worker’, particularly with the GWU branch joining the IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain), brings the culture of videogames together with an antagonistic worker subject.

Second, the Greek example shows that the antagonism in a small business does not have to be limited to just the immediate owner. Given the role of indie studios within the broader ecosystem of the production of videogames under capitalism, there is a range of other points of antagonism that can be organized around. Like the IWGB organizing at Uber, as well as against TFL (Transport for London – the licensing body) and in the courts, there are multiple points of contestation for workers in smaller firms. For example, the issues of crunch and diversity within the industry are both ones that can be fought within an indie, as well as more broadly across a region or country. In the UK, there are widespread tax breaks and incentives for the videogames industry (Woodcock, 2016), which have often operated while companies have ignored labor laws and regulations.

To conclude, no videogames are made solely by a single individual, but rather they come out of formal and informal networks of other workers – within shared disciplines, communities, geographic spaces, and so on. Highlighting this is an important starting point for understanding how the unionization efforts of GWU can be translated from experiments in AAA studios to an indie context. Emphasizing the connections present within indie videogame production shows how new points of antagonism, as well as solidarity, can be found beyond a small (and increasingly individualized) understanding of the indie workplace. Like all new, greenfield forms of organizing, lessons can be learned from other sectors, but they require adapting to the context – including the technical and social composition – for successful and sustained political recomposition of workers within the sector. There is nothing automatic about the process of organizing, but the experiments of GWU show promising potential for how indie videogame development could be transformed in favor of the people working within it.

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