One of the biggest issues affecting the gaming industry today is one that has actually been bubbling under the surface for a long time, but only recently has become a major topic of conversation. Thanks to floodgates opened up by an unfortunate series of layoffs, investigative reports, and testimonial from developers, we’re more aware than ever of serious labor issues plaguing the entire industry. As a result of these events, more and more people on either side of the equation are making moves to take large gaming companies to task, and alongside those conversations, efforts to unionize within individual spaces have also been gaining ground. Even 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently weighed in on the issue. So let’s take a few minutes to talk about the matter ourselves. Should game developers and other industry workers unionize? Yeah, they probably should.
To put it plainly, video game developers have a lot of problems that come from a lot of different reasons. Video games are a difficult language for outsiders to speak, so a lot of problems simply get to hide behind a smokescreen of ignorance. That makes regulations difficult, because the tech industry gets to self-regulate a lot. A big part of that is crunch. While many employee regulations revolve around the usual 40-hour work week, it isn’t unusual for salaried employees to end up working late every now and then to finish up work. But in the games industry, as we’ve seen with things like the Red Dead Redemption 2 drama from before that came out, developers can end up putting in upwards of 100 hour weeks as a game gets closer to launch.
Stories have come from within several publishers or developers, including EA, Rockstar Games, NetherRealm Studios, and more, of people burning out, losing their families, losing their health and mental well-being, and in one case, possibly even dying as a result of so much stress and overwork. But crunch isn’t the only issue. The other issue is instability, an overall lack of job security and executive accountability. Game company CEOs like Bobby Kotick and Andrew Wilson are among some of the most overpaid executives in the world, according to at least one data source. Meanwhile, individual devs can not only often struggle to make ends meet, but many on staff are subject to things like contract work to make ends meet, and are often let go as soon as the game they worked on shipped. People have to relocate time and time again, uprooting their families and leaving their friends, just to keep working in the industry.
Then, there are things like workplace culture issues. Look no further than the ongoing Riot Games stories for prime examples of how things like sexual harassment aren’t taken seriously by a majority of game companies. Issues get reported to HR, then promptly ignored, swept under the rug, or worse: the person who did the reporting is the one who ends up seeing consequences. This happens in other industries as well for sure, but again the insular nature of tech companies makes this stuff more difficult to see out in the open.
Unions would be a cudgel the workers in this industry could use to help their situations, en masse. We’ve already seen it happen on our side of the equation, in the media and content industries. Companies like Vice, Vox, and Univision have all conceded to efforts to unionize, and negotiated new contracts for workers at outlets like Waypoint and Kotaku. Workers now have guaranteed minimum salaries, generous time off policies, and guaranteed severance packages in the event of layoffs. These are all things that video game companies struggle with–just look at Telltale Games and Gazillion Entertainment, both of which shut down and left their employees hanging without health insurance or severance pay.
When it comes to the video game industry, workers simply don’t have the leverage they need to fight back against brutal workplace conditions. Making massive, AAA games like Anthem is an extremely difficult endeavor, and more and more we hear stories about how these enormous projects are mismanaged at the expense of the folks working on them. While pressure has been placed on these companies, and many public bursts of drama have led to statements and promises of change, unions could guarantee those statements are made in good faith, and force these major companies into action. Sure, unions aren’t perfect – there is no magic bullet to fix capitalism’s core issues. But unions are a great option, and one that allows workers to band together and get a seat at the table, so to speak.