Do Game Developers Need Trade Unions?

Image: Georgina Howlett

Seems like every other week you hear about some depressing story or other coming from the development side of the gaming industry. Recently Quantic Dreams, the developers of Heavy Rain and the upcoming Detroit: Become Human were rocked by allegations of racist and sexist behaviour running rampant in the French studio. It should of course be noted that the allegations have been vehemently denied by studio founders David Cage and Guillaume de Fondaumière, although Cage’s rebuttal reads like a more pompous version of  the “I’m not a racist, I know that Muslim lad down the chippy” argument.

But even if one leaves aside the case of Quantic Dreams, such grim stories are seldom isolated or rare. Last year the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Developer Satisfaction Survey (DSS) found that 37% of game industry professionals who worked overtime received no monetary compensation, whilst 53% said that “crunch” (i.e. overworking staff in order to complete a given project) was expected at their workplace. Additionally only 48% said their place of employment had some form of sexual harassment policy whilst just 26% said their company had some form of formal complaints procedure to deal with harassment.

53% of game developers surveyed by the IGDA said that “crunch” was expected at their place of work

Clearly not a pretty picture but why does any of this happen in the first place? One might argue its the nature of the business. High demands are placed upon employees because games are resource intensive products that cost millions to make and are expected to meet deadlines. But I don’t feel this is a satisfactory explanation. Starting with the issue of harassment, it should be noted that according to the IGDA around 79% of game developers are male, thus making game development is a deeply male environment. Unfortunately this works to the detriment of women working there as, regrettably, these kind of hypermasculine environments tend to foster some pretty despicable behaviour.

Then there is the issue of crunch which, despite criticism, remains a depressingly normalised practice. To see the mentality underpinning crunch at its ugliest, one need look no further than Microsoft DirectX creator Alex St. John’s frankly disgusting presentation on running a tech company. In addition to saying engineers with Aspergers syndrome are ideal employees because they “have no social skills” and “work like machines” (i.e. he thinks we’re easier to exploit), St. John also argued developers should see their vocation as an artistic calling, that one should be fuelled purely by one’s passion and that to see it as work is, somehow, perpetuating what he terms a “wage slave” mentality (forgetting of course that artists ARE workers). In brief, St. John’s shit arguments inadvertently shine a light into a world predicated on ruthless exploitation of those who work within it.

By unionising, developers would have more agency to bring exploitative or negligent employers to account

But I feel there’s another, bigger reason why poor working conditions are seen as acceptable in the gaming industry, and that is the relative abscence of trade unions. Its hardly surprising unions aren’t much in force in the video game industry. The tech industry only really came to prominence during the 1980s, when Neoliberal politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did much to break the unions as an effective political force. Plus I suspect the tech industry’s individualistic “start upmindset” hinders the kind of collectivist solidarity upon which trade unions predicate themselves.

Still, whilst far from a miracle cure I strongly believe that game developers need to start forming and joining trade unions. By doing so, they would have more agency to bring exploitative or negligent employers to account, in addition to having a means to fight for safer working environments. Poor working conditions in the game industry are damaging to the wellbeing of developers and ultimately, to the quality of games being made. Developers deserve better than this.

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