Unionization and Striking
Given the poor working conditions discussed in other archive posts on this site, it is perhaps no surprise that people are beginning to talk about unionization of the game industry. Debates have arisen about whether unionization is necessary or not, about the methods of actually making unionization happen, and also about the potential terms or mandate of a game developer's union. This post serves as a summary of the arguments that have been made on both sides, as well as an account of the experiences that some game industry workers have had with other unions. We've also archived some forum discussions about this issue, as it is a contested topic and often well-argued on both sides.
An excellent primer to the subject is Paul Hyman's 2005 Gamasutra article entitled Unionization now?. It is perhaps salient to note that, a decade after this article, the same discussions are still happening and the games industry is not much closer to reaching a solution.
We've summarized some of our own research towards this topic, including some of the quality-of-life issues facing the industry and possible solutions to them, in a 4-part post featured on Gamasutra on January 9, 2013: Are game developers standing up for their rights?
In addition, the 2009 IGDA Quality of Life survey and the 2014 IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey contained questions about unionization. We helped to analyze this data and write the summary reports. They are available on our website homepage. The short story is that over 1/3 of the people surveyed felt favourably toward a game industry union.
Union Action in 2017-18
2017-18 has been a watershed moment for discussions about unions in the game industry and the actual formation of unions and pro-union groups. Check out more at the pages devoted to three key events:
Additional Commentary on Unions
Andrew Elsen on GamePolitics: July 26, 2011: Should game developers have a union?
Alyssa Rosenberg on Think Progress: July 26, 2011: Unionizing the video games industry
Brendan Sinclair on GameSpot: July 3, 2012: Why would anyone ever want to be a AAA game developer?
Russ Pitts on Polygon: Feb. 28, 2013: Opinion: Will VFX studio unionization inspire game developers?
"Jay" on House of Awesome: July 02, 2009: Gamasutra - Features - "Unionize now?"
Ian Williams in Jacobin: Nov. 2013: "You can sleep here all night": video games and labour
Peter Nowak in Canadian Business: Nov. 12, 2013: Unions aren't the answer for overworked game makers
Brendan Sinclair on Games Industry: June 24, 2014: 56% of devs in favour of unionizing - IGDA
Zhenghua Yang on Serenity Forge: Mar 24, 2016: Do we need a labor union for game developers?
March 7, 2018: Dante Douglas on Paste: Game Developers Need a Union
March, 2018 Game Talk Live: ‘Game Workers Unite!’ Movement Divides the Industry - Episode 2.038
June 29, 2018 Soundbyte: Pixel Picketers: Why is it so hard to start a union in the games industry?
Aug 2, 2018: LeftLeftUp on YouTube: Game Workers Unite And Fight
Sept 27, 2018: Brendan Sinclair on Games Industry: 2018 will go down as the Year of the Bad Employer
Oct 30, 2018: Brendan Sinclair on Games Industry: Ex-IGDA head Kate Edwards now convinced game devs need unions
Reddit, asked by "nate427" on the r/Games sub-reddit: Why is there no game developers labor union?
CGSociety, in response to the Gamasutra article: Game industry article: Unionization now?
Video Game Voice Actors' Union (SAG-AFTRA) Strike
On October 21st, 2016, SAG-AFTRA, the union that supports video game voice and motion capture actors, went on strike against 11 American video game developers and publishers. Contract renegotiations, underway since February, 2015, had failed, and union members voted to authorize a strike by a margin of 96% in October of 2015. At stake are the issues of residuals or secondary payments for successful games, protections to mitigate against vocal stress and injury, and increased transparency from games companies about the titles actors would be contributing to before contracts are signed.
Official SAG-AFTRA Union Communication
SAG-AFTRA: Negotiations Information
A more detailed outline of the proposal can be found here: Proposal details
Announcement from the SAG-AFTRA website: Oct 16, 2016: SAG-AFTRA Interactive Strike Date Set for Friday
Video outlining voice actor strain from SAG-AFTRA website: A whisper to a scream: Vocal health and strain prevention in voice acting
SAG-AFTRA updates page: Interactive Strike Centre
Video Game Companies' Initial Proposal
Feb 3, 2015: Interactive employers initial proposals
The strike has implications for the larger game development community, particularly the contentious issue of 'residuals', as it's framed by games companies, or 'secondary compensation', as it's framed by the union. The union is asking for bonus payments for its members when a game sells 2 million copies, or reaches 2 million unique subscribers. Developers, currently without a union, do not receive such payments for their work on a game, despite their longer-term involvement in its production. As such, if this demand is achieved it could set a precedent for developers to make similar requests.
A strong overview of these intersections across worker communities can be found here:
Emanuel Maiberg on Motherboard: Feb 22, 2017: The video game industry is afraid of unions
More content detailing the particulars of this strike can be found on our SAG-AFTRA Strike page.
American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Controversy
While this incident does not involve the prospect of a game developers union, it represents a clash between the games industry and another union, with a worker caught in the middle. Various major game companies and the AFM had been unable to to reach an agreement for the payment of AFM members doing work for games since 2012, charging members who did choose to do videogame work - most notably Austin Wintory, composer of Journey - tens-of-thousands of dollars as punishment. This issue remains unresolved, but advances towards a new agreement seem to be moving forward. The AFM incident highlights a challenge that many entertainment unions and various employers have faced with the rapid emergence and growth of interactive media forms, including video games. In many cases the contracts between unions and employers did not and/or do not adequately capture the nature of the work in new media forms and need to be carefully revisited and revised to adequately protect all parties. As an example the Alliance of Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) has negotiated with various employers to respond to the increased digital distribution and reproduction of actors' work.
The AFM incident was first reported by Kris Graft on Gamasutra in June 2014: Award-winning game composer takes musicians union to task.
Disagreements between the union and game companies began to be resolved only a couple of days later when Microsoft agreed on a set payment figure for musicians: Colin Campbell on Polygon: Jun. 11, 2014: New deal could clear game musician strife
Research and Journal Articles
Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter in the Canadian Journal of Communication (2006): "EA Spouse" and the crisis of video game labour: Enjoyment, exclusion, exploitation, exodus
Judd Ethan Ruggill and Ken S. McAllister in Game: The Italian Journal of Game Studies (2013): Union Yes? Computer game design, management, and labour relations