Survey Of 4,000 Game Developers Says Half Of Them Want To Unionize

Image: Red Dead Redemption 2

In a survey of nearly 4,000 game developers published today by the Game Developers Conference, half of developers surveyed said they thought game industry workers should unionize.

Unionization has been a hot topic among game developers over the last few years, as anecdotes of 100-hour work weeks and $39 million CEO salaries circulate among game workers.

The idea that unions could insulate game developers from stunning, no-warning layoffs—sometimes without severance—or nine-month-long crunch sprints continues to be popular, although this is the first time the GDC has asked about it in a survey.

Advocacy group Game Workers Unite was active at last year’s GDC and, in the intervening months, has been working to spread information about unionization and dispel misconceptions, which perhaps helped inform the GDC’s polling question.

The numbers are similar to a 2014 Independent Game Developers Association survey in which half of 2,200 polled respondents were in favour of an industry-wide union—up from 35 per cent in 2009. Although the GDC’s survey, first reported by GamesIndustry.biz, reflected significant enthusiasm for unionization, the reality of forming a union appears intimidating to the game developers surveyed. Only 21 per cent of developers said they think games workers will, in fact, unionize, while 24 per cent said that it likely would not happen.

Some of the game developers who are pessimistic about the industry’s ability to organise feel that they are too replaceable. “There is too much supply: too many people want into the industry,” wrote one anonymous game developer in their response to the survey. “Those who unionize will be shoved out of the way as companies hire those with fewer demands.”

Image: Game Workers Unite

“Over the decades I’ve seen crunch turn from a ‘worst case’ part of innovating into an expected part of game development,” wrote another. “As a manager and owner, I see no pressure from studio heads or publishers in AAA to change this. When one executive can get a $20 [$AUD28] million bonus in exchange for crunching hundreds of people, shipping before the game is ready, then laying off those people, the industry is ripe for self-correction. I would welcome our employees unionizing in the current environment.”

The idea that unionizing could mitigate games employees’ concerns about poor labour conditions is not without its detractors. At GDC’s 2018 unionization roundtable titled “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization,” the International Game Developer Association’s Executive Director Jen MacLean, who led and moderated the discussion, said that unions can’t fix all the issues game developers face.

“To assume that suddenly if you unionize, everything will be great, I don’t think that is a reasonable assumption,” she said in an interview with Kotaku at the conference. When Kotaku’s reporter pressed her on what could help games employees muster any leverage at all, MacLean said “I don’t know if there is an answer to that.”

One thing is for sure: Refusing to talk about unionization at all is the surest way to maintain the status quo, or allow the few existing labour protections that games workers do have to atrophy. 


Comments

    Don't really see how this will work world wide, companies in the States will just move development to a studio in another country that doesn't have unions.

    I'm not sure what the answer is but unionising doesn't really feel like the right answer given how dirty and corrupt they are.

      Don't tar all unions with the same brush. Unions have done some great things for workers.

        That have yes, at the start when they were after safer working conditions becuase people were dying on the job, getting a fair wage and not getting fired without cause.

        Now though the bullying tactics from leaders if you don't join or pay your fees, the corruption, taking bribes and giving preferential treatment to friends and associates, it's no better than the big companies that do the same to the employee.

        Some unions are good and still do the right thing, but in this day and age (can only speak about Australia) from my experience there is the Ombudsman which is a bit of a toothless tiger, but that and fair work along with the laws the unions fought for there isn't as much need for them.

          After seeing how hard my union worked to improve my working conditions I became a delegate. In the years I've volunteered at my union I've never seen any of the things you mention, but any institution can have corrupt people in it, that's just a symptom of the human race.

          As for not needing unions any more, if you're in an industry where your employer chooses to give you great working conditions and generous pay rises solely out of the goodness of their hearts then that's fantastic, try and keep that job for life if you can. For the rest of us there's strength in numbers, and my working conditions have demonstrably improved thanks to their efforts.

          Last edited 25/01/19 8:51 pm

          What makes you think everything is perfect now? People are still dying on the job, are still getting paid unfair wages, and are still getting fired without cause.
          Don't believe everything you read in the Murdoch media.

            Yes people are still dying at work (rarely) that has nothing to do with unions, there are investigations that lead to safer work practices in most cases.

            Being fired without cause, not being paid correctly, like I already said Ombudsman and fair work are there for that, the unions won't do any better for you personally, and any advice they give can be found from other sources.

            Considering the fees you have to pay and your might be forced into unpaid strike action that some can't afford your better off not joining them and instead supporting advocacy groups or political parties that suit you and your needs work wise.

            Less than 10% of people are in a union now days they are no longer the same group that sought reform in the 1800s.

          Back when I was around 28 (around summer of 2006), I was employed by a hospital in Brisbane to work their carparks. I won't say which one to avoid libel. I guess it's gonna get out sooner or l(m)ater... The boss there decided he'd sit me in a tiny 2m long by 1.8m wide by 3m high (roughly) plywood booth with only a small opening at the front for a door you could both get in and out of, but also had to serve as the window to which cars would drive up to, get their tickets seen to by the attendant (this was pre-automation of the carpark). The carpark at that time, was undergoing heavy reconstruction and they were building a massive extension, 3x bigger than the current one.

          This would've been fine, except the *only* ventilation was this front door. I demanded some sort of venting for the box I was in, it was 37 degrees outside one night, it reached, no shit, 44 degrees in my booth. I refused to work. My boss came over, the charmer, and told me if I didn't sit my ass in my booth, I'd be fired. He said I could either do my job or someone else would. I was dripping sweat, I had NO ventilation, car exhaust was clogging up the whole booth and each night I was there I felt sick to my stomach.

          I rang the TWU (The Transport Workers Union. The AWU takes most hospital cases, but I edged into the TWU given I technically worked with vehicles, because the AWU at that time at this hospital had a rep for being ineffective).

          The TWU told my boss in no uncertain terms, the carparks would be shut down until he provided adequate fanned ventilation (a fan venting the air out basically) on at least one other window, a proper fan of no less size than 30cm inside the booth, blowing onto us, and a fridge with water inside the booth. None of this was supplied before hand.

          My boss told them in no uncertain terms "Go fuck yourself, the TWU has no say at this hospital."

          The head of the Union rang the head of the hospital, told him that in no uncertain terms, our human rights were being violated, access to the toilets, access to clean air and access to fresh water. We were to be supplied these or he would shut down the trucks coming to the hospitals for a short period of time. Turns out the head of the hospital had *zero* idea of what was being done to us and demanded our boss give us everything the Union requested.

          The Union made no absurd requests, they didn't bully anyone and they looked after our wellbeing. This crap you see on the news is usually spread by those with vested interests in shutting down Unions allowing them to target workers individually. Unions are a great thing for workers, allowing them access to better work conditions, fair pay rates and ethical treatment. All I'm honestly reading in your answer is a lot of rhetoric that I hear in the news, but I'm an 'on the ground' person who's dealt with them most of my life as a blue collar worker and can honestly say, we'd be far, far worse off if we didn't have them.

            I was told that if I didn't join the union back when I worked construction that I was a dog and would be treated like one, so our experience is different.

            The stories in the media arent all crap I've experienced the bulling and intimidation first hand, most of the unions do the right thing but a lot of people in them are corrupt, working for self interest, taking bribes and shutting down sites for petty grievances, which I's no different from the people trying to get rid of them.

            I don't see unions being the answer to things anymore with the structure and policy that's in place now, in regards to the story, unionising would just see Studios moved overseas if the unions themselves end up like some of the ones now days.

            I agree that without the unions we would be worse off, but that's the unions from 20-30 years ago now days not so much, you can also get better/fair pay safer/better working conditions without unions.

            I have found that on a individual level unions can do get little, but on an industry wide scale they can.

      Yeah, not all unions are corrupt just as not all work places are fair.

      Are they any dirtier or more corrupt than the large corporations like EA, Activision, Take Two, etc?

      That said, reading the "points of unity" on the GWU site makes me wonder if that particular organisation is what's actually needed here. It reads like something produced by an undergraduate socialist club during an afternoon session in the on-campus bar. People working in the games industry need decent pay and benefits and working conditions, not to overthrow the filthy capitalist system and usher in a new era of glorious communism.

        Yeah that part pains me. Fight for the workers rights. That's the point of the union.. The other stuff. Wtf.

        not to overthrow the filthy capitalist system and usher in a new era of glorious communism. but that would also be very good, no?

        what of the points of unity are you not clicking with? sure, it's nice and cool to fling pomp about the thing you don't like, but do us the pleasure of articulating why.

        A union for game developers would probably be a good thing.
        I just don't want to have anything to do with one involved with the GWU.
        They're also the ones who did a survey and lumped contractors in with full time workers and then claimed a third of full time australian game devs were being payed less than minimum wage. They twisted the numbers, only asking for how many hours you work per week in their survey, extrapolated it to over a year without taking into account that contractors may not have work every week of the year, and used it to make that claim. Social politics aside I don't trust an organisation that twists statistics to push their agenda.

      Union is such a dirty word these days. Once upon a time the left was interested in workers rights and unionization. Now it's all about identity politics and microagressions. Shame really.

      i mostly agree with this - we should continue to allow and support companies squishing workers into paste because i think a jar of that would be a pretty sick preorder bonus

    Union was the best thing in my workplace. Without them just getting basic fair common sense things was out of reach. It's a lot better for us now, thankfully.
    That said, reading some of the game developers union agendas and proposals make me think wtf is their goal here, not all of it seems as pure as workers rights.

      I've worked in a country where Unions/workers rights are non-existent and seeing the effect on the workers was hugely depressing. We should consider ourselves very lucky (although it can always be better)

    I'm in two minds about it. On the one hand, the conditions are absolutely awful and having a union would be beneficial - a group to advocate for them with some actual power. On the other hand, for this to work, it needs mass adoption. The oversupply issue can easily tip the balance of power away from the union, especially considering how many people just want to get their foot in the door of game development, and the kinds of positions that are lost when projects are completed are those that are easily replaceable. I don't think the union can fix it - especially because the employment laws in the US are fucking horrible.

    I think unionising would be a positive force but I don't know if it'll fix anything. My industry is emergency services and our union simply can't fix most of the problems we have, because it's inherent to the industry. We regularly don't get a break, we face frequent overtime, and fatigue management is extremely difficult to handle - but we can't go on strike or stop responding. Unions aren't a silver bullet for workplace problems - but I still think they're overall a positive influence.

    Except for the CFMEU and the QNU. Fuck them.

      Exactly, if there's one thing I've learnt in my years in the workforce is we wouldn't need unions if businesses weren't always trying to screw people over.
      Sure, some of them are useless and crooked but they are usually up against those who are just as bad.

      Honestly, it won't fix all of their problems but not doing it will change absolutely nothing anyway.

    Well, for my two bits, bring it on. Do it, guys. People deserve a fucking living wage and not having to work 70+ hrs weeks to get it.

    There's too many games for me to buy and play as it is, anyway, I should just give up on that fight. I need to just 'be OK with' spending more on the more expensive union-produced games (what, you think the publishers are going to absorb the cost of people more to do less?) and actually fucking play them.

    As long as the union is pretty benign it could be beneficial in a way. Provided people can choose to be part of the union or not and won't be unfairly disadvantaged or penalized by the union or employer not matter what their status is at any given time.

    uh, yep, that is very cool.

    what's wrong with the other half?

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