A Union for Videogame Developers?

This essay was written by

  • Marie-Josée Legault, Full Professor in labor relations, Téluq-Université du Québec
  • Johanna Weststar, Associate Professor, Department of Management and Organizational Studies, University of Western Ontario
  • Laurence Tô, Master student in sociology, UQAM

Together Marie-Josée and Johanna research working conditions, citizenship at work, and diversity in the game industry. They administer the IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey and receive support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Laurence is completing a Masters thesis in sociology on the conditions of collective action among videogame developers.


The videogame industry is often criticised about its working conditions and has been accused of treating its developers poorly. According to the 2014 Developer Satisfaction Survey (DSS) of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), 32% believed that there is a negative perception of the game industry. When asked why, working conditions was the top response.

Poor working conditions have repercussions for workers, studios and the industry as a whole: stress, burn-out, work-life balance challenges, poor recruitment and high turnover, knowledge retention and management challenges. In the 2014 DSS, 42% of the self-employed or freelance respondents said they chose the status of self-employed or freelancer because they wished to have more control over their working conditions (i.e. hours).

Using data from three IGDA survey efforts (the 2004 Quality of Life survey, the 2009 Quality of Life survey and the 2014 Developer Satisfaction Survey as well as interviews with game developers in Canada), this essay discusses the actions taken and not taken by videogame developers (VGDs) in response to workplace challenges. In particular, when it comes to representing their interests and fixing problems at work, what do developers want?

Working Problems in the Industry

VGDs’ problems at work are well-documented; many experience long hours, limited overtime compensation, arbitrary managerial decisions, restrictive non-compete and non-disclosure agreements and both employment and income insecurity. Also of concern are the recognition of intellectual property and issues of workforce diversity.

An interview respondent summarized working in the game industry this way:

Everybody’s like: “Hey! videogames, cool!” but the psychological profile to get into and remain in this is very mean, honestly. Many are leaving, I’d say 20 folks per week, have to leave just like: “I can’t stand it, it’s over”.

Similarly, a manager responding to the DSS 2014 summed up the main problems:

  • Poor working conditions (crunch with no compensation, anti-creative practices, “own your soul” style contracts)
  • No job security (laid-off twice in two years, indie development is even worse)
  • Extreme lack of diversity (team members are almost all “gamers,” games have changed very little from when I was a kid and the subject matter no longer appeals to me)
  • Lack of leadership (older employees are churned out because of the above issues so there is not much guidance for the youth, game designs are profit driven so they don’t stray from established tropes and so companies all seem like part of a herd)

Note that this manager’s statements evoke a complex understanding of diversity and its impact on the game industry. In saying that all team members are gamers and that games have changed very little, he refers to a particular type of homogeneity of ideas that comes from the shared experience of being people who played the same games in similar contexts and then reproducing them. However, the “hard core” gamers who end up making games also lack demographic diversity and perpetuate the homogeneity of the workforce on these grounds. His reference to games he played as a kid and the churning out of older employees also point to the challenge of age diversity in the industry.

Added to these challenges, many VGDs do not think that the systems in place at their studios are that effective in solving the problems raised by individuals and by groups (Chart 1). Indeed, most respondents to the DSS 2014 simply stated “I don’t know” when asked these questions. In other words, a large percentage of respondents didn’t know whether the process used in their studio to solve individual or group problems raised by VGDs was effective. While it is possible that respondents may not be able to judge effectiveness because they have never raised an individual problem with management, it is less likely they have never heard of group problems being raised.

A chart showing the breakdown of survey results for the question: "how effective is your company's system for resolving the problems employees have at work?"

Chart 1: Overall, how effective is your company’s system for resolving the problems employees have at work?

The Representation of Interests

This evidence suggests that a significant proportion of game workers identify serious unresolved problems at work. It then raises the question of what action – individual or collective – they can take to solve them.

According to theories of collective action, a group of workers can only mobilize once they become dissatisfied with a particular situation, define that dissatisfaction as a collective rather than individual issue and become convinced that the unsatisfactory situation is illegitimate. VGDs meet some of the conditions for group mobilization. One well-known course of group mobilization that could be taken is unionization. Unionization is virtually unknown in the industry at present, with the exception of a few rare instances in Sweden where some employees of Digital Illusions and Starbreeze studios may be members of the national Swedish union SIF (Teipen, 2008). However, the voice actors who work on contract in the industry are unionized and their on-going strike against the top US game publishers has given the topic of unionization higher profile.

But would the videogame industry, as a whole, unionize?

According to the 2014 DSS survey, close to half (48%) of respondents said they would prefer to raise workplace problems through an employee organization rather than as an individual (Chart 2).

A chart showing the breakdown of survey data. It's a likert scale in response to the prompt: "I'd feel more comfortable raising workplace problems through an employee organization rather than as an individual"

Chart 2: I’d feel more comfortable raising workplace problems through an employee organization rather than as an individual? (2014)

Unions are a specific form of employee association. In the 2009 and 2014 IGDA surveys, VGDs were asked if they would vote for a union, following the trade union model dominant in North America. Support for this form of unionization (let’s call it the “local union”) rose from 35% in 2009 to 48% in 2014 (Table 1). In other words, in 2014 close to half of all VGDs surveyed would have come out in favour of a union in their studio. It is also worth noting that the share of respondents who answered ‘no opinion/prefer not to say’ was much lower in 2014 than 2009. This could reflect simply a growing crystallization of opinion on this topic due to increased attention. Some of the remaining reticence to state an opinion could be linked to a feeling of fear in voicing these opinions – management retaliation is always an issue in organizing drives. Data discussed below provides more information about the perceptions VGDs have about management’s response.

A table showing results for two surveys about unionization in 2009 and 2014. Support has grown in favour of unionization.

Table 1: If a vote were held today to form a union at your company/studio, how would you vote? (2009, 2014)

Respondents to the IGDA 2009 QoL and 2014 DSS surveys also indicated how they thought their co-workers would respond to a unionization vote. In 2014 the results were mixed with a third feeling (33%) that the proposal wouldn’t carry and close to another third (29%) thinking it would. This positive group is nearly twice as many as in 2009. The remaining thought it would be close (19%) or declined to answer (19%).

Comparing the respondents for how individual developers would vote and their perceptions of how co-workers would vote shows that individual support is actually greater than what is collectively perceived. This situation suggests that developers don’t discuss these issues much or that many give the impression they are more opposed to unionization than they actually are.

Project and/or team managers, same battle

The solidarity of co-workers is important in collective mobilization, but so is the attitude that management holds as this can influence a worker’s willingness to support a unionization campaign.

In 2014, more than a quarter (29%) of respondents thought that the management reaction would be fairly positive and unopposed, while close to half (47%) thought there would be various forms of opposition. A quarter (24%) preferred not to say.

The respondents seemed less inclined in 2014 than in 2009 to think that management would take active steps to oppose unionization, but more inclined to think that it would oppose the union quietly without much comment.

This fairly optimistic take on management reaction may be supported in the data on voting propensity among managers. We compared the intentions of non-managerial developers to vote on unionization to those who identified as managers; this sample was made up predominantly of project managers and team leaders. At first glance, the results may seem surprising. The proportion against unionization among managers is the same as that of developers, and the proportion of managers in favour is lower than developers in 2014, but almost the same as them in 2009.

A table showing survey results about unionization broken down between developers and managers.

Table 2: If a vote were held today to form a union at your company/studio, how would you vote? (2009, 2014)

When we presented these findings at the Game Developers Conference in 2014, project managers and team leaders explained that they have salaried positions and are under constraints specific to the industry and to project management. They also experience workplace problems (working hours and unpaid overtime, arbitrary decisions and the risk of layoffs, etc.), in addition to having to play the thankless role of passing on decisions made at the top, with which they do not always agree. Both managers and leads, on the one hand, and non-managerial developers, on the other hand, see each other as employees who have a great deal in common: they have to operate under the constraints placed on them by the market, shareholders and senior management, and some of them share reasons to want unionization.

As such, the perception of a need for representation cannot be reduced simply to poor relations between managers and VGDs. Indeed, in 2014 more than half of respondents (57%) had a good or even excellent relationship with their immediate superiors. In the videogame industry, and in other environments where management by project is the norm, the immediate superior is not essentially perceived as representing opposing interests, but rather as an employee of the same employer (in big studios), and a stakeholder subject to the inexorable forces of the market and the customer in an extremely competitive world. Nevertheless, the feeling of exploitation remains and focuses on higher authorities who reap the profits on sales.

Sector-based union organization

From a unionization standpoint, the videogame industry presents challenges similar to those of the movie, television and performing arts industry, and the IT industry. This is due to the project-based management system and highly mobile workforce. Workers don’t necessarily stay long with the same studio; they change employers as projects come and go and to pursue their own career interests. As a result, the dominant North American union organization model in which the benefits negotiated and set down in a collective agreement are attached to a job does not suit VGDs. Why put a lot of effort and money into collective bargaining (including pressure tactics) if you’re going to lose the benefits when you move from that job?

For that reason, the 2014 DSS survey asked respondents about an alternative form of union organization specific to these industries, which is sector-based unionization (and bargaining) and closer to the European model.

Sector-based organization won the support of a clear majority (64%) of respondents (Chart 3). That is 16 percentage points greater than the support for a union that would represent the VGDs from a given workplace. Given this point of view, two-thirds of VGDs suffer a representation gap because they wish to be part of a union without being so.

A chart showing overwhelming support for unions

Chart 3: Some unions represent workers and negotiate issues across an entire industry rather than workplace by workplace. If unionization vote were held today for a national videogame industry union in your country, how would you vote? (2014)

What Collective Action?

There is an asserted desire for collective action among VGDs, who wish to enhance democracy in the workplace. Which form could this collective action take? The late 20th century was marked by a decline in unionization rates (especially in the private sector) and very low rates of unionization in emerging sectors of the economy, such as high-tech industries. It could be assumed that this phenomenon is evidence that trade unions are less relevant to highly skilled professionals, who are presumed to be individualistic, mobile and career-focused. VGDs, like many high-tech and cultural knowledge workers, work in project-based environments, are highly skilled, relatively well paid, and highly mobile. However, the degree of union support that we find among VGDs is at odds with this preconceived idea.

Indeed, VGDs meet some conditions conducive to collective action. First, they have identified common problems in industry working conditions. Second, they have developed a professional occupational community with which they identify. Yet, although dissatisfied with some management practices and working conditions, like most high-tech knowledge workers, videogame developers still use “non-union” job actions and strategies.

Our interviews with Canadian game developers captured many enlightened views regarding the future of work representation. In addition to benefits, they perceive costs to becoming unionized.

One hindrance is the high individual bargaining power of VGDs that is rooted in a favourable job market. For the time being at least, many VGDs, especially those with highly demanded skills and reputations, don’t see any added value to a union. When individual or collective action is equally likely to resolve issues, the former may be the most efficient, because it does not have coordination costs. Some VGDs can use the threat of exit because the demand for skills is high on a so-called “supplier market.” But this bargaining power weakens with the constant and growing influx of young people with degrees in game development and with any external threats such as outsourcing or economic downturn. Besides leaving for another studio, another kind of “exit” response may be found in the common yearning for creating one’s own independent small-scaled studio. This trend seems to be building in the industry, facilitated by new digital distribution technologies. But the indie route is not nirvana with respect to working conditions, and shouldering the required capital investment, income instability, and risk of commercial failure is simply not an option for most.

Second, like other new media professionals, many VGDs have a weak commitment to any particular employer or employment arrangement. This is a manifestation of the project-based industry structure. VGDs move frequently from project to project, team to team, and studio to studio. As such, many do not perceive themselves as having labour issues that warrant attention because they will not be in that environment long enough for it to matter. High mobility across employers does not fit with the dominant North American model of enterprise unionism, were a union is formed workplace by workplace and collective bargaining occurs at that level.

Enterprise unionism also does not fit with the collective identity of VGDs which is rooted in the occupation or trade of game development rather than in a commitment or identification with a particular employer. VGDs have strong ties to the specific games they have made and the developers with whom they have worked. These peers will also be their main sources of placement in a creative universe where jobs are allocated based on recent reputation. In such as environment, a union of game developers makes more sense that a union of workers at Studio X. This industry or sector-based unionism is a better fit, but with the exception of other entertainment unions and the construction industry, it is not the dominant legal model for union certification and would require legislative support.

Moreover, a certain consensus can be observed between management and employees in project-based work environments. The success of the project is the unassailable goal for both management and employees because it ensures their future employability – studios with successful games will have the capital and reputation to produce future games, and developers of successful games have a positive credit on their CV as they seek future projects. This means that management and employees perceive that they are playing the same risk and reputation game and the rhetorical need to “pull together” to achieve project success is strong. In this environment, they experience a joint vulnerability to outside forces such as the competitive market, the demanding customer, or in many instances, the external clients or publishers to whom they are beholden under contract. The result is that professionals do not see themselves as being exploited by their employer; rather they see demands as the external, objectified, impersonal and unavoidable requirements of the project. The uncertainty inherent in estimating the time needed to achieve a creative result makes many salaried VGDs sound like entrepreneurs deciding how many hours to work based on the importance of product quality.

Like their medieval forebears, modern guilds focus on sharing knowledge – networking, providing services, and helping their membership anticipate and capitalize on changing industry trends. This requires building close ties with employers and does not facilitate the “us-them” dichotomies typically required for worker mobilization. The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) is a membership-based non-profit organization operating out of the United States that some developers feel could become a union. However, owners and managers often sit on the IGDA’s volunteer Board of Directors and the association rarely engages in aggressive tactics with studio employers. Respondents to the DSS 2014 saw the IGDA as primarily serving a networking and community building role (78%) with professional development (44%) and advocacy (40%) as more distant roles.

But more deeply, there is a growing gap between the collective action used by developers, which is closer to a direct democracy model and emblematic of the alter-globalization movement, and the job action model used by traditional unions. Many VGDs reject any transcendental hierarchy of command in collective action, which badly collides with well-established union approaches. Used to autonomy and leeway, they do not appreciate the centralized decision-making processes that drive bargaining processes and job actions. They prefer to collectively produce social organization in temporary coalitions. This ethos is embedded in the prior socialisation of a majority of VGDs in gamer communities where players collaborate in massively multi-player online games and “mod” the source code of games to create new variations of gameplay that are shared (as derived from the collaborative open source movement). To join issue-based coalitions that disband when no longer needed is a type of job action that is more consistent with their beliefs; moreover, their skills, resources and communication channels enable them to form effective issue-based networks. The EA Spouse mobilization provided VGDs with the feeling that “another kind of job action is possible” – one that is emerging, spontaneous, non-permanent, non-hierarchical and controlled by actors themselves.

This raises the issue of conflating union action and collective action. In our view, the general North American trade union system is unsuited to VGDs, as it is to project-based environments and its knowledge workers. Opting for alternative modes of collective action may suggest that unions face a demand for a change in their purpose and use. In a new project-based context, it is time to reconsider some well-established norms embedded in the general unionization model including enterprise-based certification and the centralized decision-making processes that drive bargaining processes and job actions. Both unions – and mobilisation theories that explain their outreach – need to account for structural economic changes that don’t make collective action obsolete, but rather call for a change.

References not provided by hyperlink

Taipen, Christina. 2008. Work and employment in creative industries: The videogames industry in Germany, Sweden and Poland. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 29(3): 309-335.