From Passion to Power

Game Unions and Historical Lessons from Media Labor

Oscar Moralde is a doctoral candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA who studies embodied aesthetics and ideology in games and other media. His writing can be found in Well Played Journal, Media Fields Journal, and the Criterion Collection. bio-blogFollow Oscar on Twitter 

A seat at the table

The standing-room-only roundtable on unionization at the 2018 Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco occasioned a meeting of minds across industrial sectors. On one side, the roundtable represented a recent groundswell of labor consciousness in the mostly-unorganized field of video game development visibly spearheaded by Game Workers Unite, a grassroots pro-unionization group whose buttons and advocacy literature had already spread throughout the conference (Williams, “After Destroying”). On the other side, invited speaker Steve Kaplan from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) educated the crowd on practical steps for organizing, and encouraged them by saying that “unions focus leverage…. If you’re not at the table you’re essentially on the menu” (Orland). Such leverage is essential for game workers who recognize that they often face poor working conditions, structurally-expected uncompensated overtime commonly called “crunch,” and employment and income insecurity within their industry (Legault et al.). This essay investigates how game workers might find that leverage by situating their current dilemma not as an isolated battle, but as part of a larger pattern of labor struggle within media industries, where historical examples of union formation can provide valuable lessons.

Kaplan was an informal ambassador from film and television, an industry with a century-long history of labor organization. The affinities between game and film workers seem obvious: both labor to produce technology-intensive mass-media products under the aegis of multinational conglomerates, and in some cases for the same conglomerates, such as Sony and Warner Brothers. These products are not interchangeable but rely on creative labor deployed on discrete projects that often unfold over several years. Hollywood screenwriters have worked on games, and vice versa, while Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) talent in games include film and television stars who have lent their voices and likenesses, and the far more numerous voice actors that split their time between video games and animated work. For many in the game industry, film and television are the closest examples of what a unionized workforce looks like.

However, some game workers view Hollywood labor with skepticism. For example, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) recognizes video game writing in the guild’s annual awards, but developers have derided these awards as unrepresentative of the medium’s best writing, as the guild excludes from consideration games without a published script or without a designated writing credit (Bernardi and Hoxter 197). When SAG-AFTRA voice actors went on a limited strike against game developers in 2016, game industry reaction was mixed, with some reportedly siding with management in perceiving the actors as encroachers angling for advantages that many game workers themselves do not receive (Ismail; Maiberg). These tensions reveal cultural and practical differences between industries that preclude game workers from programmatically following in the footsteps of their film and TV compatriots. Hollywood labor, however, has already confronted many of the issues that game labor faces today, including the need to build structures outside “company union” advocacy, the compatibility between perceiving oneself as a creative or high-tech professional and as a worker, and the importance of international and cross-job solidarity for dealing with multinational ownership. Game workers can take these historical lessons to heart as they reshape their own industry.

Beyond advocacy

The GDC unionization roundtable was hosted by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), a non-profit group whose mission statement proclaims they “advocate on behalf of our membership to ensure quality of life, perpetuation of our craft and preparing the next generation of developers.” However, the moderator of the roundtable and current executive director of IGDA, Jen McLean, has demurred on the value of labor organizing: “If you are a relatively small studio that has laid off a team, odds are you laid them off because you can’t afford them anymore. A union’s not going to change that, access to capital is going to change that” (Kim). This position is consistent with her background as a game development CEO and reveals the limits of labor support within a group that resists making distinctions between ownership, management, and labor. Former IGDA Board of Directors member Darius Kazemi stressed the issue when discussing his resignation from the board: “I believe that it is in the interest of game studios and publishers for an association of workers like the IGDA to exist in an ineffective state in order to drain the energy of people who could otherwise do effective pro-developer activism and to provide a straw man that can be pointed to in order to show that organizing will get us nowhere.” While IGDA’s worldwide membership rolls provide a forum beyond the scope of a single workplace or company, the organization’s disavowal of the divergent interests of labor and management will prevent it from ever meaningfully addressing inequities between those groups.

While not directly controlled by company bosses, the IGDA functionally serves as a quasi-“company union” which indirectly suppresses the formation of groups that can meaningfully engage in collective bargaining and the legal protections that come with it, often by appealing to a sense of intra-industry solidarity against perceived outsiders. Hollywood labor faced this precise situation in its initial decades with the 1927 formation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), an organization most people nowadays associate with the annual distribution of shiny statuettes, but which MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer expressly designed to handle labor disputes on terms favorable to the studios (Horne 40).

At the time, the film industry was also vilified by interest groups and the press for corrupting public morals, and the threat of government regulation loomed. Students of video game history might find this situation familiar, along with the response: AMPAS announced in a pamphlet that it would “promote harmony and solidarity among our membership” and “reconcile any internal differences” to “further the welfare and protect the honor and good repute of our profession”—language that echoes IGDA a century later (qtd. in Sandler). Those “internal differences” included conflict between management and employees; reacting to IATSE’s 1926 organization of film technicians, studio heads used AMPAS to forestall further unionization among actors, writers, and directors through a Conciliation Committee designed to handle labor disputes in-house (Sandler). However, the Screen Writers Guild, the precursor to today’s WGA, was formed in 1933 by writers who revived a dormant social club after recognizing that their grievances over massive pay cuts could be best resolved outside AMPAS and with the protections and strength provided by a union (Banks 44). Actors and directors followed suit, as they realized the studios’ play for filial sympathy was a smokescreen over the division between those who controlled employment terms, labor conditions, and remuneration, and those who did not.

The IGDA cannot transform into a union. Not that it would want to: MacLean’s stated preference for capital over labor, and her attempts to discuss “both the good and the bad” at the resolutely pro-union roundtable by conjuring hypotheticals—such as unions demanding to sign off on hiring decisions—clearly show the leadership’s prioritizing of entrepreneurial developers-as-management, with employee concerns as secondary (Ehrhardt). It was only after public backlash to how MacLean handled the roundtable that she tempered the leadership’s position on unions and essentially punted the issue to local chapters for further discussion (Brindle). Concrete action is more likely to come from organizations such as Game Workers United, which makes raising labor consciousness a major element of their ongoing outreach and organizing campaigns. The challenge of consciousness-raising—of workers perceiving themselves as workers with grievances that can be resolved through collective action—will be a significant challenge in the games industry, and another area where Hollywood unions might provide insight.

Questions of identity

In addition to paternalistic images of Hollywood as one big family, studio heads attempted to suppress unions by flattering the egos of actors, writers, and directors, and arguing that the creative nature of their work put them above the need for industrial organization. Beyond direct labor intervention, AMPAS also promoted the artistry of cinema through the Academy Awards, which management exploited in rhetorical and legal arguments against the need for unions. Movies were not interchangeable widgets, but unique products from skilled creators who would prosper by their individual talents. These creators did not require the kind of support a common laborer would—or so the argument went (Decherney 69-70). Irving Thalberg of MGM complained: “Those writers are living like kings. Why on earth would they want to join a union, like coal miners or plumbers?” (Banks 47). He, like many others against unionization, associated collective bargaining with blue-collar work beneath the dignity of creative talent.

In the contemporary video game industry, the terms of the conversation differ but the tenor remains the same.  Swaths of game industry culture have inherited the techno-libertarian Californian worldview espoused by their colleagues in non-game software and internet industries (Barbrook and Cameron). For these groups, organized labor is an outdated or low-class collectivist drag on a problem best solved through individual excellence and ingenuity. If technology liberates and accelerates productivity, the politics of deliberation and negotiation to fit labor processes into human lives are nothing more than inefficiencies (Milton 41-42). In addition, game production workflows make it difficult for workers to recognize conflicting interests and the potentially adversarial stance that organization requires. Labor agitation directly impacts one’s own development team, whose success depends on teamwork in the face of a parent publisher’s whims or the vagaries of a crowded marketplace. Labor organization therefore becomes internal conflict. Instead, game industry cultures cultivate the idea of “passion” as panacea and a barometer of personal worth that arises from bearing structural inequalities without complaint (Williams, “You Can Sleep”). “Passion” explains some managers’ pride in their teams working fifteen-hour workdays and six or seven-day workweeks, because they are not making database software or missile guidance systems but objects of intense fascination, and for that reason, they would surely gladly work those hours even if they weren’t compelled to. Yet they are compelled—if not explicitly then implicitly, structurally, culturally, and through the financial constraints imposed by publishers and investors, all because the thing they are making is fun and therefore enough people seem resigned to pay the toll to be in the room (Weststar 1244-1245; O’Donnell 152-153).

Hollywood labor realized a century ago that these tolls are illusory, that fun and passion and prestige do not pay mortgages or hospital bills, and what matters is the bottom line and having a say in it. Such was the impetus in 1933 when writers and actors faced sweeping wage cuts across the industry and a compromised AMPAS was unable to properly negotiate on their behalf with management: they had to organize behind groups that could put legitimate pressure on the studios through the threat of a strike (Sandler). Beyond the niceties of each guild’s definitions and bylaws, organizing creative personnel required a specific self-recognition: that one can be a creative professional and team collaborator while also identifying as a worker. And when the boss seeks to exploit the worker, resistance requires solidarity (Prindle 209). More pragmatically, the creative guild structure, which is tied to occupational role and not bound to a specific employer, provides a model for worker protection on an industrial level. McLean is correct that unionization won’t stop firm closures or layoffs. However, Hollywood guilds mitigate the vagaries of an industry characterized by high-turnover short-term employment. Industry-wide agreements with employers for portable health insurance, pensions, and minimum salaries and working conditions help stabilize workers’ lives and keep them, and their skills, within the industry. Hollywood is not a perfect example, however, and game workers should take the guilds’ stumbles as well as their successes to heart.

Challenges for the present

The primary weakness of the guild model is the factionalization it causes, especially in the face of united management. Studios responded to the guilds by negotiating under the unified banner of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) since 1982. The AMPTP has successfully exploited the fractures of the guild model to pit factions against each other, such as by making separate deals favorable to the DGA at the expense of the WGA (Banks and Hesmondhalgh 274). Game workers should see IGDA’s prioritizing of managerial game developers over employees and SAG-AFTRA’s difficulties in resolving their 2016-17 strike against game developers as two signs of the importance of uniting across occupational divisions of labor.

Any fledgling union must also confront the international and globalized nature of developers and publishers. In film, the Hollywood guilds are primarily based in Los Angeles and New York, and some professions are relatively insulated from the fear of having their jobs sent overseas. Game development is not centralized like film production, and a single AAA game project from a major publisher often coordinates the labor of dozens of studios in countries around the world. (As an example, the recent release Assassin’s Creed Origins [2017] from French publisher Ubisoft credits subsidiary studios in Montreal, Singapore, Sofia, Bucharest, Chengdu, Shanghai, Kiev, Montpellier, and the Philippines, not including further outsourced work to other contractor studios.) Many game workers fear that a union would just encourage publishers to seek cheaper non-unionized labor elsewhere, and organizers must think globally from the outset to prevent such a race to the bottom. They may require the support of game workers that occupy positions of relative privilege in the current system. The initial successes and continued survival of the DGA, WGA, and SAG-AFTRA resulted from each group’s “stars,” key figures who would have flourished regardless, who took risks to cultivate solidarity in the hope of protecting those who were in more precarious positions (Sandler; Banks 140; Prindle 14). The equivalent “stars” of game development might be needed for successful organization drives that publishers cannot ignore.

For a practical case study, game workers should look to the ongoing efforts to organize the Hollywood visual effects workers who produce the computer-generated imagery that dominates today’s blockbusters. The methods and backgrounds of screenwriters and actors might seem foreign to game workers, but visual effects workers operate with workflows and tools similar to the artists and animators of games, and they are similarly globalized. Curtin and Sanson describe visual effects workers as facing “tremendous productivity pressures to deliver perfect imagery under intense deadlines… the sector is characterized by constant bankruptcies, with some firms closing shop before the artists are fully paid. Those at the top of their game face an endless cycle of displacement, bouncing from one firm to another, and often one city to another. Less-fortunate artists are trapped in low-wage positions, hoping there is enough incoming work to at least ensure some continuity of employment before the firm goes bust” (201-202). In these internationalized and precarious conditions of employment, these groups might recognize each other as kindred spirits, or even potential allies. At the very least, in that struggle game workers can see that leverage comes from solidarity, and solidarity starts from what often seems like nothing—they only need to look to those who have come before.


Thanks to Monica Sandler (UCLA) for providing guidance and expertise on the history of AMPAS and Hollywood unions.

Works Cited

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