Video Game Labor Union

Do we need labor unions for game developers?

Mandatory crunch feels terrible, especially if you crunch for months at a time. I recently spoke with a Bethesda marketing professional and asked him about his experience with the release of Fallout 4. He said that it was miserable. He essentially lived under his desk with a sleeping bag for the 3 months prior to the game’s release. Kotaku reported last year that industry professional Jessica Chavez of XSEED would work 80-hour work weeks for 9 straight months. The work was so overbearing, she had to cut off 18 inches of her own hair to reduce the headaches the weight of her hair caused from not having time to go to the barber.


Where are the labor unions that protect game developers from unethical business practices?


Labor Unions

What are labor unions?

Most people recognize “labor unions” either from studying for their midterms in U.S. history classes or watching House of Cards. Fortunately, both sources are actually fairly accurate.

Labor unions originally formed in the 19th century through the social and economic impact of the industrial revolution. The purpose of labor unions is to legally represent  the  workers, with their primary focus being on bargaining over worker wages, benefits, and working conditions. Labor unions are also heavily involved in representing their members in legal disputes with management, and in some cases they engage in lobbying activities for the benefit of what they represent.

How are labor unions in practice?

In practice, labor unions aren’t nearly as straightforward. I did some digging and conducted interviews with ex-union members in order to better understand the experience working with unions. In some cases, union membership drastically improved their  work experience. Lou Adducci, former member of the Ticket-sellers Union, stated  that “the creation of the union moved the erratic and part-time scheduling, to a more consistent and full time, benefited position.” He also stated  that the creation of the union was “ultimately beneficial for the workers.” However, due to the lack of leadership and vision, “It was a self serving endeavor that unfortunately played into the general stereotype of unions and union leaders.

Not all unions are like the Ticket-sellers Union. Less fortunate members such as Kat Kraus, a former union member and Disney employee, said that at the cost of $5 per paycheck she received absolutely nothing for being a member. She suffered harassment at work regularly; her co-workers would write demeaning remarks on her lunches and name tags, such as “Stupid Girl” or “Ugly Betty.” She received no protection from her management nor her union, despite her constant pleas for help.

In an interview with Jeff Veins, a former operating engineer and an organizational leader in the heavy equipment operating union, he said that there were always very complex advantages and disadvantages in an union. Decades ago when he first joined the union, he received an immediate raise of $5 per hour (going from $15 – $20 per hour). All members received great health care, dental, and pension benefits. The union would also protect and help represent union members in work related accidents and fatalities in the court of law. Veins also claimed that unions get a “very bad rep” in the media, and unfortunately, pretty much all of it is true. Successful unions all rely on padding the pockets of politicians, and as soon as you pad the wrong pocket, you lose all of the protection you had.

Kate Edwards IGDAIGDA Executive Director Kate Edwards speaking at the 2014 Game Developers Conference.

How should the game developers properly build a union?

The closest organization that resembles a labor union for game developers is the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). The IGDA’s mission is “to advance the careers and enhance the lives of game developers by connecting members with their peers, promoting professional development, and advocating on issues that affect the developer community.” IGDA currently has over 90 chapters around the world and many different special interest groups on topics such as legal, production, design, and so on. They host round-table events during industry tradeshows such as the Game Developers Conference (GDC); these round-table  events gather industry professionals to discuss issues in topics such as, support for minority game developer groups, updates on legal battles between gaming giants, and advocacy for best practices in development leadership. Regardless of the support IGDA gives to the industry, the organization specifically identifies that it is not and never will be, a labor union.

I have personally been an IGDA member for many years. The benefits of being an IGDA member include cost savings on game development resources, tickets to events, and indie game marketing support. Personally, I pay the annual membership fee solely to encourage the cause of helping IGDA bring the support to those in need. As time goes on, I definitely see many areas IGDA could improve on for the industry. IGDA could be additional support for connecting local game development communities, help provide certifications for industry professionals in job searches, and perhaps help with worker representation in battles against large corporations.

What should we do instead of unions?

The true solution to this problem should be changing the cultural norm of management in the game development industry. In 2014, I worked to conduct a research study with a group of academic and industry professionals titled The Game Outcomes Project under the leadership of Paul Tozour (Founder of Mothership Entertainment and former Senior Engineer at Retro Studios). In this study, we surveyed nearly 1,000 game development projects with a questionnaire that contained 120 questions that regarded to teamwork, culture, production, and project management. Our goal was to identify statistically significant correlations between these variables and outcomes of a game project. In the end, we found a gold mine of information regarding best practices in team management.

To summarize our results, we found that the best game development teams:

  • Avoided crunch.
  • Minimized turnover.
  • Avoided changing the team’s composition.
  • Resolved interpersonal conflicts.
  • Ensures that individual’s voices are heard.
  • Fosters healthy working conditions.

Among many others. Surprisingly, these are the exact values that labor unions typically practice to help advance work incentives.

VideogameCrunch

Data indicates that crunching exhibits a -0.24 correlation with statistical p-values well below 0.001, indicating strong significance.

This means that it is in the best interest of company managers to exercise these types of healthy workplace conditions. As a result, teams will face greater financial returns, lessen development delays, meet any project specific internal goals, and achieve critical success in the industry.

With the statistics in mind, I urge managers in the industry to work harder in creating happier and more passion-driven management tactics. It would not only benefit your team members, but create a stronger industry as a whole.


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This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. Z, great read and a fascinating topic that I hadn’t considered. I think many of these themes can be expanded to the start-up industry generally. With this analogy in mind, game developers strike me as the same kind of high-demand, educated talent that usually can fend for themselves without a union. While I’m usually supportive of the concept of unions and skeptical of pure “free-market” solutions, I think your final point provides the strongest impetus for change. The dev shops that promote strong and consistent cultural values and protect against employee burn-out should, at least in theory, see better returns in the market and rise to the top. Another caveat worth considering in the forefront is that certain personality types are drawn to work in startups and dev shops, who, through their own personal drive, competitiveness, and ambition, may be affecting the cultural norms in these companies from the bottom-up. You see this very commonly with junior associates at law firms, especially the larger ones, and the numbers show that most leave the profession within 5 years. With this notion in mind, the question then becomes how much responsibility should a company have to police against such destructive behavior.

    In any case, keep the content churning! Love seeing SF posts hitting my RSS feed!

  2. YES we need unions, TOO MANY OF US GET SCREWED BY TOP-DOWN MANAGEMENT FAILURES!!!! Petty, greedy people at high levels whose insecurities and cowardliness cause them to take it out on their TEAM. These management bubbles are TOXIC and those of us on the floor are HELPLESS! If we speak out, we lose our jobs and risk blacklisting!!! Corporate culture is NOT games!!! “Soft crunch” is STILL CRUNCH.

    UNIONIZE NOW

  3. What a surprise, a publisher that writes a cheap and poorly researched article on why the game industry shouldn’t unionize. Go boil your heads.

    1. Hey there Concerned Developer, boil my head? Ouch, sounds like that’d hurt xD

      Anyway, this is Z, founder of Serenity Forge as well as the writer behind these blogs. I definitely understand that the research behind the blog post could be more extensive. Of course, when it comes to these things, there’s really no limit to how much time you can spend on them. This one was a particular topic that another piece of research spurred from when I was working on the Game Outcomes Project (which is here if you’re interested in it http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/PaulTozour/20141216/232023/The_Game_Outcomes_Project_Part_1_The_Best_and_the_Rest.php). Being in the middle of Colorado, there weren’t a lot of folks I could really reach out to, especially since the blog was more or less a passion project to get some personal thoughts out there. Between my research and lining up interviews to understand unions better, the blog post probably took around 2 days to fully complete. In the end, it was definitely something that I had to get off my chest than to have any gains from doing it.

      It’s actually a little bit surprising to me that you think unionizing is a good thing. I think maybe it’s the difference of perspectives. We run an indie team so we always strive through innovation and motivation for work. I think in reality, there are definitely thousands of developers stuck in large corporations who would benefit greatly through better employment cultures. Are you a developer who works in an environment which could benefit from an union? If so, I’d love to heard your thoughts on the issue! That’d actually be a very enlightening experience for me.

      Ultimately, it’s like you said, it takes way too much time to research for these articles and it became so time consuming that I ended up having to stop. I think it’s been more than a year since I wrote one (this was actually the final one I wrote). I remember the Chinese government piece took me a solid week of research going through the Chinese legal documents to dig up info. Plus, sometimes the more you find, the more you realize the big picture and it ends up changing a lot of your mindset. For example, I actually started this piece with the intention to proving that unions are good for game devs, and the more I looked, the more I realized that that’s not necessarily true. It was a great experience working on these pieces last year and I wish I had more time for them. Maybe sometime in the future!

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