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Unionisation in the Videogame Industry

Unionisation in the Videogame Industry

The gaming industry needs unionisation, that statement is not at all controversial and it’s likely that most people who are involved in the industry would agree. In light of this, why is it that the majority of the workers in this industry continue to be treated awfully and unions are only now starting to get off the ground?

For years those in and around the gaming industry have been well aware of the infamous crunch culture that underpins the development of most, if not all AAA games. Crunch is detrimental to those that participate in it, with developers blaming it for causing damage to their health and relationships. Sadly, crunch has largely become an accepted part of the industry, something necessary to create the dense and beautiful virtual worlds that we as players have come to expect. This problem alone should have been enough to push the industry towards forming workers’ unions that would protect the wellbeing of those creating the games.

Unfortunately, the crunch culture that is prevalent throughout the industry is not the only injustice that workers have been victim of. The events at Activision Blizzard since last July have brought to light the sort of behaviour that workers in the industry have to tolerate in order to do the jobs that they love. What started off as a two year investigation into workplace discrimination which culminated in a lawsuit against the company has spiralled into several resignations with allegation after allegation coming to light. Truth be told I wanted to create a timeline of events but once I began looking into it I realised just how much of a mess they are in and how much has gone on since the lawsuit was originally filed. However, TechRadar has their own timeline which has every detail you could want that’s worth a read if you want to know more about what’s going on. The short version is that the company was subject to a two year investigation by The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. During this time women have been the victims of this misconduct, varying from sexual harassment to lower pay than their male peers.

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The reason that the Activision Blizzard situation has been the one to focus on is that it has lit a spark in our industry. Too often we hear of allegations of misconduct or poor working conditions, but every time it seems to somehow be swept under the carpet to an extent, with companies thinking that if they don’t acknowledge such allegations that no major consequences will follow. Look at Ubisoft, it was only two years ago that several damning reports came to light about harassment and sexual misconduct. Not long after the allegations they held a Ubisoft Forward event, a perfect stage to address the allegations. The world was watching, the least that they could have done was acknowledge the issues, if not also apologise to anyone that came to any mental or physical harm while working for their company and that they are making structural changes to make sure that nobody else falls victim to such behaviour at their company ever again. Of course they didn’t say any of that, or anything at all, they just carried on as if nothing had ever happened.

This could be forgiven to an extent if in the time since the allegations we had heard that changes were actually going on behind the scenes to improve the culture at the company. However, this is not the case, numerous sources have reported in the time since that although those working at the company appreciated the higher ups acknowledging the issues, very little has actually been done to change anything. This accumulated into an open letter signed by nearly 500 past and present Ubisoft employees in support of workers at Activision Blizzard on the 28th of July. By the next day the number of signatures on the letter had more than doubled to over 1000. In the letter they talk of how in the year since the accusations were revealed they had received nothing but empty promises about reform. Also mentioning how many of the offenders were either allowed to resign quietly or kept on and moved to another team to even be promoted to a more senior position. The day that Ubisoft employees penned the letter was also the day that Activision Blizzard employees staged a walkout in protest of the response that the lawsuit garnered from those at the top of the company. It was this very publicised walkout that got the ball rolling and helped us to get to where we are today. Hopefully continuing to talk about this issue that plagues our industry and educating people on the seriousness of the issue will encourage more people to discuss it. This will put pressure on the CEO’s and other higher ups to put employee wellbeing before profit and embrace the introduction of recognised unions.

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At the core of all of the mistreatment, misconduct, poor pay, and lack of job security in our industry is what Sarah Jaffe calls the “labour of love” myth in her book “Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone”. The concept here is that people starting out in the videogame industry are taught that to work in a field that they are deeply passionate about they must accept that bad comes with the good. That in order to work on their passion projects and help to create games that they love and are proud of they must simply accept the extreme negatives. Negatives like an absence of any sort of job security, particularly in lower paid positions such as jobs in quality assurance (QA) or customer service. This is especially true for contracted workers, for good reasons, we go back to Activision Blizzard and how they treat their temporary staff. “Use, dispose, repeat” was the quote given by someone who worked in QA for the company. Workers who were contracted with the company in the lead up to 2020’s Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War reported that they were given one day off every few weeks to a month as a gift during crunch periods. The workers also reported experiencing immense pressure to work unhealthy amounts of overtime. The company did state that the majority of overtime for QA is voluntary, but workers admitted being worried about their job security if they did not put in many extra hours and did not feel comfortable saying no to extra hours. Through these temporary contracts workers are aware that their livelihood is being held over them like a guillotine ready to drop at any moment. This puts enormous amounts of pressure on them to work themselves to the bone just to get a few extra months of work at a company that undervalues their profession and has no regard for their wellbeing.

As recently as the beginning of December last year, Raven Studio (who were the developers of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and also work on Call Of Duty: Warzone) laid off 12 of their contracted QA workers after months of promising positive changes in the company. They were let go in “good standing”, meaning that they did nothing wrong and their performance was satisfactory, this came after several of these 12 workers voluntarily relocated (with no help from the studio) in preparation for a return to office working as they had been assured that plenty of work was on the horizon. This led to around 60 of the remaining QA staff to stage a protest to demand that the laid off workers not only get their jobs back but also give every QA worker at the studio a full time position. The company responded by claiming that they are aiming to create 500 permanent positions at the studio, the caveat of this is that in order to do so a small number of contracted workers could not be given an extension. They claimed this was a necessary step to have the ability to make a few hundred staff full time, yet in the last quarter alone Activision Blizzard reported $652 million in revenue.

 

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On a more positive note, 2021 was the year that we saw the first ever recognised union at a game studio in North America. In December of last year the workers of Vodeo Games, the developers behind Beast Breaker unionised, becoming the first certified videogame union in the U.S.A. The management at Vodeo voluntarily recognised the union, which includes both full-time employees and also contracted workers. It must be said that Vodeo Games is a relatively small studio with around 13 employees (including contract workers) who work remotely across North America and Canada. Although the size of the studio in no way diminishes the huge step that this is towards mass unionisation across the entire industry, it is indeed one step in what has been and will continue to be an arduous journey. To bring things back to unionisation and the benefits that it could bring to workers. The Game Worker branch of the IWGB is a union that is recognised in the UK that cites the following objectives that they strive for: 

1. End the institutionalised practice of excessive/unpaid overtime
2. Improve diversity and inclusion at all levels
3. Inform workers of their rights and support those who are abused, harassed, or need representation
4. Secure a steady and fair wage for all

We should be striving for these four goals across the entire industry, none of them are unreasonable. The only negative impact that these things would bring for those running the companies that create videogames would be a slight drop in their profit margins. For an industry that is estimated to be worth around $138.4 billion I’m sure the companies could take the hit if it meant ensuring that their employees had a safe workplace and were not worried about being laid off for seemingly no reason. Here’s hoping that 2022 can begin to foster in a new era in the industry, one that puts those behind the games that we love at the forefront, one that works to ensure that the people that bring videogames to life are granted the respect that they deserve and that their welfare is considered a much higher priority than it has been in the past.

Carl Mcfadyen

Carl Mcfadyen

Staff Writer

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