Working-Class Voices: First Person Accounts of Life and Work

Game Workers Unite!

Editor’s Note:

For this article, New Labor Forum’s “Working-Class Voices” columnist Kressent Pottenger inter- viewed Declan Peach, a game worker who works in England as a live ops designer. Since 2018, Declan has helped found and lead the new U.K. chapter of Game Workers Unite (GWU), which functions as a branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB).

I live in the United Kingdom and got my first job at an indie game studio in Chester, a city in northwest England. My real passion, and appreciation for what makes creating games so amazing, didn’t emerge until I was part way through my degree, when I began to really understand it. I had seen a degree in gaming advertised and realized I basically spent most of my childhood playing video games. My degrees are a Bachelor’s in Game Design and a Master’s in Game Development. In early 2018, GWU in the United States asked me if I wanted to start organizing in the United Kingdom, and I said, “Yes.” I’ve only been in the industry for two years now, but I’ve learned a lot about the industry and the experiences of game workers.

I’m a live ops designer and work on a mobile social game. My job is similar to a game designer except it is more specifically focused on a live game. It revolves around making new content and new events in the game—on the fly on a month-to-month, week- to-week, or even day-to-day basis. I make quests, events where a non-player character gives players a task and in return provides a reward. You see them in a lot of games (e.g., “World of Warcraft,” asking players to raid a dungeon). The kind I make are generally seasonal events that I build to encourage players to explore the world in the game “Avakin Life.” I also make updates to mini games, and I man- age their design and implementation.

I’m a live ops designer and work on a mobile social game.

The game studio requires many different types of workers, possessing distinct expertise. In terms of skill level, you start with people who are working in Quality Assurance. These are people who are generally less skilled and tend to work for minimum wage, usually on long weekend shifts. They find and report bugs. I have a lot of respect for them. They work hard. During the Christmas period, they work many hours. Then you have the other development disciplines: designers like myself basically lay down the groundwork and say this is how it should look and feel. Programmers make it work dynamically. And, finally, artists make all of the aesthetics, be that 3D modeling or 2D sets. There are a lot of other roles, too, including backend engineers, producers who make sure everyone is organized, marketing, and community management that oversees all inter- actions the company makes with players and fans of the product. This involves being thepublic voice of the company on social media as well as managing promotional events or moderation (i.e., stopping bad actors and cheaters).

Many studios . . . don’t compensate overtime at all or pretend it doesn’t exist . . .

The work hours in the game industry make these jobs very difficult to sustain. Quality Assurance is very precarious. You’ll be employed for a development cycle or the time it takes to make one game. When that game is released, the company will get rid of these workers. I personally
work about an eight-hour day, five days a week. But near the end of a project, I could be expected to work a lot longer hours than that. Usually people start working on a project with normal hours, probably a little bit more than you’d expect from the average nine-to-five job. Then, near the end of the project, you get into crunch time. You’d be working approximately fifty to seventy hours a week, either on weekends or wherever you actually can fit in the hours. My overtime is usually compensated, but in some instances it kinda slips through cracks. Many studios I know of don’t compensate overtime at all or pretend it doesn’t exist because they have no records of it. I’ve heard anecdotes of people saying they go home when their normal hours are up, and they’ll be the only person leaving. Suddenly you get into this situation where everybody is pressuring you to stay, even though you aren’t making any money doing so. If you don’t, you feel like you’re letting the team down. This is something that is very enforced by management even though they’ll never admit to it.

The pressure to conform to crunch time creates lots of stress among workers. Recently I was told about a big triple A games project someone was working on where two senior staff members suffered heart attacks. These people weren’t particularly susceptible to heart attacks, but it is stress and overwork. Several GWU members who are more senior in the industry have said that after a project is done, they might not be able to work at full capacity for months because it takes them that long to recover. Game workers are generally able to take sick days or paternity/maternity leave, since in the United Kingdom at least, those things are quite cemented in law. But I know a lot of people have taken sick days because of crunch when they weren’t actually sick. Or they had been made sick by their work environment. This makes crunch time pointless for the studio, as it can result in losing an entire day of work because of it. I know of one worker who went on paternity as soon as he could when he knew it was about to be crunch time, and he felt extremely bad about it. He never said he was completely ostracized by co-workers, but he always felt like it severely affected his relation- ship with them. They felt he was kind of escaping having to do crunch.

The company is basically taking advantage of how driven and passionate we are about the projects.

Crunch is the outcome of a very competitive market trying to adhere to very tight release schedules. Usually you have the studio that actually makes the game, the publisher who is a client, or a parent company that is funding the project. The publisher will be the one who dictates to the studio when a game should be released. They would be the ones enforcing these schedules. Effectively, we say crunch is their fault. Everybody would be making a game, and the studio would say we need to release it for Q4 (fourth quarter of the fiscal year). Often that time frame is completely unmanageable. But these unmanageable situations are still cheaper because of our dedication. We meet the deadlines when really we should be failing them. The company is basically taking advantage of how driven and passionate we are about the projects.

I think the best thing we can do to truly stamp out crunch is to put pressure on publishers to make them realize that release schedules like this are not sustainable and overall bad for the industry as a whole because they create burnout, illness, and high turnover. I think union action is necessary. GWU UK believes that crunch is such an intrinsic problem with the industry that it is a pillar of our organization. It is less a single campaign and more a primary objective for the organization. As the GWU website says, “We seek to increase the quality of life for all game workers by campaigning to: End the institutionalized practice of excessive/unpaid overtime.”

There was research that found the average time someone works in the game industry is about five years before moving on to something else. That creates a massive vacuum of talent on the senior level. We’re currently at the point where crunch culture is catching up on us because most people who were in the game industry for long enough realized it wasn’t worth it. What we should really be saying to publishers is: Please think about your employees beyond just your profit margins. I think the only way to achieve that is through collective bargaining.

. . . [G]ame workers . . . need to have a base understanding of unions and collective bargaining before they can organize themselves, [and] that is the biggest challenge we face . . .

I’ve been organizing with GWU UK for almost two years. We haven’t yet established a culture of union consciousness among game workers. There are huge advantages and disadvantages to this. We could take advantage of management’s lack of experience with union organizing in the industry. The problem is that neither do workers have union experience, so we need to educate them. They need to have a base understanding of unions and collective bargaining before they can organize them- selves. Honestly, that is the biggest challenge we face at the moment.

The first meetings we’ve held in every region of the country have been educational sessions. Here are the union 101 questions we have to answer: What are your basic rights? What is a union and what does it do? People are quite interested but also quite wary because they don’t know what it means for them.

Some people who were attempting to organize have had retaliation against them, usually in the form of being laid off. In every case where this has happened, it’s been pretty easy for us to threaten the company with legal action. And, in most cases, it has led to a settlement. As far as the law is concerned, we’ve quite easily been able to inflict a harsh financial penalty for this kind of retaliation, at least for people who are our members. They can say whatever they want, but if we take them to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service tribunal (an independent public body intended to improve workplace relationships which receives funding from the government), we can often prove that their reasons for firing the worker aren’t valid. They were actually doing it because this person was attempting to organize. The company prefers not to take the chance that the tribunal might rule against them. As a result, we often get into situations where settlements occur, but we are not allowed to tell anybody about it. That com- promise is the company’s best leverage at the moment. GWU’s philosophy is that in each case, the affected worker needs to be the decision-maker. If they decide to take a settlement, we are not going to stop them. We basically will stand with them every step of the way for what- ever they want to do. The difficulty is trying to build mass campaigns.

In the game industry, mass layoffs are not uncommon because of the way development cycles work. You end up in situations where we make a game over the course of a year at which point the company doesn’t need all of the staff anymore. Half of the programmers don’t have anything to program, and half of the artists don’t have any art to make. You often see mass layoffs at the end of a project, followed by incremental re-hiring as the next project begins, which is a terrible way to run a company. This is coming back to bite a lot of them. Recently I was at an indie studio with ten people. About a week after I started, the parent company decided to cut our project. This was completely out of the blue. Suddenly the studio had zero incoming funding. You see events like this a lot in the industry. In the past, when workers have contacted us individually about mass layoff situations, we have been able to help ensure all workers involved receive proper compensation.

Many workers also complain about the fact that game companies seem to make unfair and arbitrary decisions regarding crediting workers. When you see a credit roll on a typical game, someone in upper management has decided almost exclusively who will appear in those credits. There’s no union representation to decide who must appear in the credit from the bottom up. It’s gotten better in some triple A blockbuster games as well as low-budget indie games. But I think what we really need is more strong union representation for any true change to come in the way of credits. I think we need to get into situations where we have recognition agreements that specify the people who must be credited. That would be ideal, and it is basically what the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), a union in the United States does. They, more than the producers, dictate who goes on the credits. We need to get to the point where we are also negotiating recognition agreements in advance.

When you see a credit roll on a typical game, someone in upper management has decided almost exclusively who will appear in those credits.

Indie games are akin to a low-budget indie flick, with much lower budgets and far fewer staff compared to blockbuster triple A games. It is much harder to organize indie studios. Triple A games usually get made by big established studios, whereas indies get made by one, two, or ten people. There’s a big cultural difference in the workplace, although most people in the industry tend to work for both indie and triple A games eventually. Indie and triple A share the same problem with crunch. Indies may even have it worse in some instances. In smaller indie studios, the employer–employee dynamic is more interpersonal than it is in larger studios, and workers find it harder to confront their employers. That makes it more difficult to organize indie workers.

There are also many quite sympathetic indie studios and representative indie studios who are much more willing to employ better practices. A good example would be Motion Twin, an indie studio in France. They made a game called “Dead Cells” and have done a lot of work with GWU in the United States over the last couple of years. They organize themselves as a syndicat, the French term for trade union. Obviously organizing on a union model is the best possible outcome. For this reason, we have turned down a few indie studios who offered to fund us or to provide meeting space or help us with the costs of running the meetings. We see these offers as a potential conflict of interest, which muddies the waters. So, you need to establish boundaries and determine where conflicts of interest might occur.

Another complaint common among game workers, particularly women workers and workers of color, is the misogyny and racism rife within a portion of the gaming audience. They are not the majority by any stretch of the imagination, but unionization could find ways to protect workers from a minority of racist and misogynist gamers. A lot of feminists and minority voices say video games need to actually conform to cultural movements, representing people and treating them right. Some gamers get very mad at attempts to restrain racism and misogyny. But, from a trade union standpoint, the first thing we should do is encourage companies to stand with their employees and not worry about an annoying minority of hateful fans.

When I started organizing game workers, I didn’t expect to be the person heading it up, but I was apparently the most active person. I headed up the U.K. chapter, and over the next few months, some people who were well connected in the industry with the international GWU put me into contact with various trade unionists in the United Kingdom. I was introduced by labor organizers to people in the IWGB. I met with various officials from different trade unions in the United Kingdom and discussed my meetings with the wider union membership here: “How do these guys sound? This is what they’re proposing.” After many such discussions, I met with the general secretary of IWGB on a trip to London in a pub, where I basically pitched to him: “Hey I’ve got a couple hundred game developers here, and we want to be unionized.” He said, “Well I can give you your own branch that you would run autonomously, share a legal department, and various resources with us.” To us this sounded like the best deal. We didn’t really want to be a non- autonomous part of a different trade union. The best that we’d heard previously was a union offering to include us as a committee which sounded all right, but running our own branch as officials sounded better. That is the main thing that stood out to us about the IWGB as well as their track record in campaigns against Deliveroo, Uber, and other big tech companies. None of the other big trade unions in the United Kingdom seemed willing to take action on that scale. I pitched this to the membership, and we held a meeting in London. The general secretary of IWGB presented the union’s proposal. We voted virtually unanimously to form a branch.

I met with the general secretary of IWGB on a trip to London in a pub, where I basically pitched to him:“Hey I’ve got a couple hundred game developers here, and we want to be unionized.”

The fact that we know our industry best and wanted to decide our own fate as a collective of workers was the most important thing. As an executive committee, we meet with the whole central union executive committee once every two weeks. Basically, we know our industry, but we’re not super good at organizing yet because we’re not professional union organizers. So we ask the central union for advice: “We want to do this, or should we do this? What do you think?” Then we conduct our campaigns. Often legal issues will arise, and we have a whole legal department with dozens of case- workers who can help.

The international organization GWU helps to coordinate game worker organizing that is taking off world-wide. As a collection of organizers and sister unions, we collaborate with them on whatever they think is best for organizing. If they say we should put pressure on a company because they are working with some- one in the Global South who is making con- soles unethically, we will vote on if we want to do that. We want to try to act in solidarity on a fully international level. We want to be taking notes from the international people as well as locally with IWGB, to act in solidarity with the working class wherever, whenever we can.

I think for a union to truly function as a union it needs to operate under the philosophy of envisioning a post-capitalist world, and any union that doesn’t do that isn’t really thinking far enough ahead. I couldn’t tell you in the short term what an equitable game industry would look like, but I think in the long term we should really be looking at co-ops, situations in which the workers and the bosses have equitable power. We should be saying that there is no such thing as a boss in the classical sense.

If people are looking to show solidarity with game workers, there are ways to do it. We have a website with a donation and merch page. But also you can just tweet about us, say this is what we’re doing or support us when we announce a campaign or a stance—just echoing that and saying this is good. I think that’s the best thing gamers and fans can do.

Our main focus in the current political climate is the defense and reinforcement of the rights enshrined in law. The policy that a salaried employee must receive severance pay if they are laid off is one such right. Another is that all workers must be given notice if they are expected to work more than forty-eight hours in a week and that it cannot be contracted as standard. We’re going to be releasing materials on specific conditions within the industry and how they can be improved. We’re probably going to be pushing a lot more on “know your rights” material, both digitally and physically. I’ve already seen, in my own studio, stickers on the backs of laptops. I want to increase that tenfold. We’ll also defend worker rights through direct action and protest. Expect a lot of us shouting on the rooftops about why our rights are important and why we need them. I think it will definitely be an uphill battle and very much a defensive one, but it will be one that will continue to inspire more action from more game workers and more working-class action from the wider industry. We’ve grown to over 350 members in the past year. Our goal is 50 percent of any company. With 50 percent, we could walk right into the CEO’s office and demand recognition. We’re going to have an actual bargaining share of the whole industry in not too long.

Author Biography
Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in Labor Studies from the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 925 and women organizing in the workplace.