“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Steve Kaplan was in GDC to take part in a roundtable discussion about the pros and cons of unionisation in the games industry. He works in the entertainment industry and had travelled from Los Angeles, where he organises unions for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, to be the union rep in the room during the talk. He gave the impression he wanted everyone to be at the table, even the one person in a room of between 150 and 200 people who tried to put across anti-union arguments.
The room was noisy, with applause, appreciative clicking of fingers, and some mocking laughter alongside the occasional raised voice, but the corridor outside had been quiet. The roundtable was removed from the expo’s usual bustle but it was one of the most important events of the show.
Only two people in this article are named, partly because the roundtable itself respected anonymity to the extent of photos being forbidden due to attendees expressing fear of reprisals if their presence and contributions were made public. Some attendees did share their names when speaking but I’ve chosen only to use the names of Kaplan and the one person who appeared to be arguing against the very idea of unions representing workers in the games industry. That was Jen Maclean, moderator of the roundtable and executive director of the International Game Developer Association.
She has since said that the organisation would support workers right to unionise but during her moderation of the panel, she responded to several contributions from those in attendance with variations on a theme: to solve the problems raised, unions would need powers of veto or other elements of control over publishers and studios, and that may be harmful.
To which I pose a follow-up question. If the possibility of poor actions by unions of workers, which end up causing harm to workers and the industry, means they should not form at all, does the non-hypothetical existence of companies that exploit their workforce mean we should never have allowed the industry to form in the first place? It’s a patently ridiculous proposition but if the argument against better representation for workers is based on the premise that mistakes and ill intentions may occur alongside change, that seems to be an argument for the already-existing mistakes and ill intentions to take precedence
Nobody in the room, least of all Kaplan who was representing not just the idea but the reality of unions, put forward an argument that unions are incapable of error or bad faith. There was idealism alongside the anger and despair, but nobody spoke of unionisation of workers as a magic bullet that would fix the deep-seated problems within the industry, some of which may be impossible to solve without tearing down existing structures and starting again.
Crunch, up-scaling and down-sizing as projects begin and end, exploitation of creative passion through low pay – these are not problems unique to the games industry. There’s a tendency to talk of them in that way, and one developer I spoke to after the roundtable had finished, referred to the industry’s problems as “unique”.
My sense was that the expertise and experience of a representative like Kaplan are vital, not just as a component of the discussion, but as a foundation for the industry’s future. The wider entertainment industry has unions – most famously the various motion picture guilds – and their members face many of the same problems that workers at game studios and publishers do. A film finishes production and there may be a period of unemployment for those who were involved, and those who are drawn to creative careers are often kept on the periphery, earning low wages and working long hours, until they burn out.
Unions haven’t solved these problems in Los Angeles or elsewhere, but they do mitigate the potential traumas, down-turns and exploitation that occur within and between jobs. Healthcare coverage can be extended beyond the final day of work, giving a safety net while the search for the next job begins or continues. Salaries can be negotiated with backing from representatives who have the time to research wage structures and the confidence to argue for compensation in cases where overtime has been enforced through threats of job loss, or even in cases where corporate (or, indeed, industry-wide) culture creates a pressure to work evenings and weekends for the ‘good’ of a project.
Kaplan, and most of the developers and students who spoke, did not once suggest that unionisation would fix the industry, even when Maclean admitted that parts of the games business are “fundamentally broken”. Instead, he calmly and repeatedly offered variations on his own theme: unions are the connective tissue between employer and employee, and when communication breaks down, and in case of harassment and exploitation, they give workers a voice. And they can make demands on behalf of employees who may not understand labour laws sufficiently to fight for their own rights without support.
We heard from young developers, new to the industry, who were already feeling burnt-out. We heard from industry veterans who expressed solidarity with their younger colleagues for reasons simultaneously humanitarian and pragmatic: “We have an interest in protecting the weak because if we allow them to be exploited, to a company’s benefit, the expectation of how every developer should be treated is lowered.”
“Exploitation starts at the university level,” one speaker said, citing the struggles of students from low-income backgrounds who cannot take on unpaid internships and are therefore immediately disadvantaged given how many career paths expect experience that cannot be gained outside those dire ‘opportunities’. Other contributions came from those who had experienced one-hundred hour work weeks, “bottom of the barrel” healthcare, and nine months of straight crunch with a one week break before the cycle began again.
A developer with twelve years of industry experience said there had been “insane mandatory crunch” at every studio and “tremendous abuse of employees”.
Unions will not fix these problems but for this one part of the entertainment industry to fail its workers by not encouraging – let alone allowing – them to unionise is like refusing to apply a tourniquet because too much blood has already been lost. Change needs to happen and there was absolutely no compelling argument presented as to why unions should not be part of that change. Where companies intimidate their employees, unions can intimidate back. Where education and legal expertise are needed, unions can provide those things. And none of the methods to assist with the problems of this industry need to be invented – they can be borrowed, or at least broadly based, on existing entertainment industry union practices.
There are other issues which unions can fix though. Those who feel marginalised due to their gender, race, sexuality, mental health, physical health, or other aspect of their being, can make changes to their workplace to aid their comfort and wellbeing. They may require support to make those changes though and may not have the confidence to approach their employer about their needs. One speaker shared an example from outside the games industry of the introduction of all-gender bathrooms thanks to union backing.
In these situations, where employees are unhappy and employers may be unaware of that unhappiness or the actions that may help, a union works for the benefit of both sides. The relationship is not necessarily antagonistic and Maclean’s comments and responses often appeared to suggest constant conflict between unions and the industry itself. That was frustrating to many of those present, myself included, and counter-productive to the intended tone of the roundtable, which was apparently intended to open dialogue rather than to chill it.
The dialogue has been opened though and I don’t think it will be closed anytime soon. Certainly not until even more people have been invited to the table, bringing their own expertise and empathy, and making the first steps toward a collective change for the better. It will take time and effort, but a collective change for the better across the industry is coming, and one part of that must be to continue these conversations, and to adopt or adapt existing solutions while creating new ones. The games industry doesn’t stand alone and neither should anyone working within it.
We'll have an interview in the days ahead with the developers organising to support unionisation as the group Game Workers Unite.