One year ago at GDC, Game Workers Unite packed a room with developers from across the industry hoping to take a stand against challenging, sometimes abusive, work conditions. The group has had a significant presence at this year’s event, with unionization even taking center stage during the Game Developers Choice Awards.
The Game Workers Unite movement is still young, so co-founder Emma Kinema pulled together a panel of representatives from other labor movements, including the Writers Guild of America East, SAG-AFTRA, and the AFL-CIO, to discuss best practices. This includes understanding that there are a variety of different forms a labor group might take in the video game industry.
Typically, unions are based on disciplines, like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers or the National Education Association. There are some general trade unions that cover a multi-disciplinary industry like United Steelworkers. There are also groups like the Independent Drivers Guild in New York City that represents self-employed rideshare drivers.
According to Kinema, it’s paramount that a game workers union cover everyone who directly or indirectly supports game creation.
“We buy into the industrial model of organizing,” Kinema says. “It’s about organizing all workers across all disciplines because it’s a little harder to separate people when we’re all banded together in one big group. A part of that absolutely is organizing all the workers. If you have any role to play in the work of our companies, in our studios, making games—I mean genuinely engineers, artists, writers, QA testers, community managers, the folks who work down in the cafeteria or maintain the building—everyone is playing a hand here. Everyone is enabling this medium. It’s essential to include everyone when we’re trying to improve our workplaces.”
The challenge around unionization is supporting the large freelance pool that contributes to development efforts. The Writers Guild of America East has a mechanism for supporting independent creators, even if those people might not technically be union eligible, ensuring that even those who are technically self-employed can access vital benefits, like health insurance.
Healthcare is a key issue in the United States, as many individuals access those benefits through an employer. Freelancers are left to use their partner’s coverage or purchase government programs, some of which have been eroded since 2017.
There are multiple tactics labor organizers can take when trying to get the attention of peers and executives. Education was a key theme of the panel, as was the importance of communicating one-on-one with colleagues in order to best represent their issues and concerns.
“A fellow organizer once told me that organizing is about building a culture of care in your workplace,” Kinema says. “That means listening to people, hearing their problems, genuinely caring. It doesn’t matter what their position is on a union or what role they play in the industry. It’s approaching them with genuine empathy and listen first.”
There is also a need to be firm, according to Writers Guild of America East director of organizing Justin Molito.
“What’s happening is that there’s a massive disparity and wealth inequality in this country,” Molito says. “There are a few people taking everybody’s money and making people work 60 or 70 hours a week and giving them just enough for them to survive and continue producing wealth for them. That’s the moment we’re in. The solution to that situation is mass organizing into militant, strong labor unions.”
Game Workers Unite has tapped into aggressive tactics, running a “#FireBobbyKotick” social media campaign after Activision’s mass layoffs in February. Kotick and a group of investors he coordinated led the buyout from Vivendi in 2013, controlling 24.9 percent of shares. While firing him isn’t impossible, it would face significant challenge.
The group continued its #Fire campaign, adding ArenaNet CEO Mike O’Brien to the list after that studio faced layoffs. GWU retracted its attack after fans and employees pushed back.
“It seems we’ve missed the mark on Mike O’Brien,” GWU posted on Twitter. “For that, we apologize. Mike is held in high regard by both ANet employees and fans.”
AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler suggests it’s important to take a beat before responding to emotionally charged situations. She also says that it’s important to ease into a frontal assault on executives.
“I think there is something to getting all the facts and getting all the information before you react,” she tells Variety. “In a Twitter environment, when everyone wants to react so quickly, it’s difficult to navigate. The notion of a collective voice is the point here and how you use that voice to leverage the power to get what you need in the workplace. Beating up on a bad boss can be a tactic. It needs to be deployed in the context of an overall approach, where you start ramping up pressure. You start small and you work up. That’s what organizers have learned over time. You see how the company reacts and how the company behaves. You ramp it up the next level.”
Shuler utilized a similar tactic when calling out EA CEO Andrew Wilson in an open letter after the Activision layoffs. In the letter, titled “An Open Letter to Game Developers from America’s Largest Labor Organization,” Shuler groups together Wilson with Activision CEO Bobby Kotick.
“My question is this: What have you gotten in return?” she writes “While you’re putting in crunch time, your bosses are ringing the opening bell on Wall Street. While you’re creating some of the most groundbreaking products of our time, they’re pocketing billions. While you’re fighting through exhaustion and putting your soul into a game, Bobby Kotick and Andrew Wilson are toasting to ‘their’ success.”
Shuler tells Variety that she was using Wilson as a symbol of executive greed.
“We have a lot of poster children of greed that we can hold up,” she says. “It was just as a symbol to say that what we’re seeing trending throughout the economy is happening in the game industry. We have bad bosses and greedy people everywhere. What is the solution? It’s to come together and fight back. We want to make sure that people are treated fairly, with respect, and get their share of the wealth that they create. We’re not trying to restrict [companies’] to make profits. It’s just looking at how you’re treating your employees … the risks they’re taking, putting everything into this game is not being rewarded appropriately.”
The AFL-CIO advocates for responsible treatment of workers in the event of layoffs, including reasonable severance and job placement programs (practices that publishers like EA routinely employ). She also suggests that a union can help with placement efforts. During every layoff, the video game industry floods social media with job opportunities for those affected. This practice could be formalized with a labor organization.
Shuler also believes that a union can help avoid the need for layoffs altogether. Feedback can come in the form of collective bargaining, but also through informal labor-management structures. Shuler hopes to see workers have a more prominent voice in setting studio and publisher strategy in hopes of reducing the need for job loss.
“If you had a union, the workers are actually partners and can help you make business decisions in a smarter way,” she says. “It can prevent them from going down a path that seems unsustainable. The workers are on the line and they know best, front-and-center what’s going on in those shops. If they’re not consulted on the front end helping company managers and the big thinkers really know the products and know what’s next, sometimes it’s so late. A union can bring a partnership perspective. They can be valuable contributors.”
The AFL-CIO is watching how Game Workers Unite takes shape. Shuler suggests the group might want to take advantage of help being offered by other groups who have been through the process before. She says that other unions are standing by to help craft a roadmap to formalizing a structure and getting in front of executives.
There is still much to do before studios and publishers begin discussions about how unions might function in this industry. Shuler remains optimistic that this is the right time for these talks.
“This is a moment, a movement moment, that you’re a part of,” She says. “I think people are starting to discover that we don’t have to just sit back and take it. We do have a way to fight back.”