Playing for Power

Video game workers are overwhelmingly young with no trade union experience. But that hasn’t stopped them from organizing.

Attendees pass an Xbox advertisement at the Eurogamer Expo at Earls Court exhibition center on September 26, 2103 in London, England. Oli Scarff / Getty

On December 16, video game workers in the UK became the first branch of Game Workers Unite (GWU) to form a trade union. Although the video games sector is a relatively new industry, it is an increasingly important — and profitable — part of contemporary capitalism. Indeed, as Ian Williams has previously argued in Jacobin, the “exploitation in the video game industry provides a glimpse at how the rest of us may be working in years to come.”

So while this wave of unionization is clearly important for those who work in video games, it has much broader implications too. For many outside the industry, it might come as a surprise, but this struggle over contemporary work has been building for quite some time.

In 2016, I wrote about how the video games industry was developing in the UK. At that time, there was no evidence of workplace struggle — to an outsider at least. I commented that there was the potential for organizing in the industry, in particular around two issues: crunch time and institutional sexism.

Crunch time is the expectation of workers to put in long hours towards the end of a game development cycle. There are stories of workers putting in huge amounts of unpaid overtime under the pressure to finish a game on time. Crunch time mobilizes the passion that many workers have for the industry, while creating conditions that make it difficult to work long-term. This has fed into issues around representation that become self-reinforcing. For example, the long hours make it difficult for those with caring responsibilities — mostly women — to work in the industry, meaning there are less women around, so there is less pressure to lower working hours.

That same year, voice actors in the video games industry, represented by SAG-AFTRA, went on strike. Their demands included better compensation and vocal safety, and targeted eleven major video game companies. This year, workers walked out on strike at the French game studio Eugen. They organised with Le Syndicat des Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Jeu Vidéo (STJV, the Videogame Workers Union) to apply a collective bargaining agreement covering tech workers more broadly. While they did not win, as one journalist noted, “it’s a small but symbolic labor dispute in one of the country’s most often praised economic sectors that could have ramifications for workers at other studios.”

These two events fed into the first major flash point of video game organizing in the US. At the Game Developers Conference in March, there was a roundtable discussion scheduled with the title “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization for Game Devs.” This was to be hosted by the executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), an organization widely considered hostile to unionization. In response, video game workers began discussing and organizing for the roundtable. What started as a “small Facebook group became a bigger one on Twitter, which then became an even bigger movement across multiple channels … and suddenly a direct action was in place.” The name Game Workers Unite (GWU) was coined and a logo designed (a raised fist holding a game controller) — both added to a website, leaflets, and badges.

By the time the meeting came around, the stage was set for a fierce argument about unionization. As Michelle Ehrhardt reported, the IGDA tried to “misrepresent what unions do and prevent any organizing that had been taking place that day from taking root” and that “MacLean’s tactics of silencing, leading and derailing just as speakers were about to discuss organizing could be seen as purposeful union-busting.” However, the “union-busting” tactics have clearly failed. From the roundtable spread a message about the need to organize, first from the participants in the meeting, and then across the world via social media. Soon after, national GWU branches began springing up.

Not Just Joining Unions: Organizing Them

Since the roundtable’s controversy and the arrival of the GWU, it feels like something has shifted in the industry. The possibilities for organizing I identified in 2016 were no longer just possibilities. People are now experimenting with what game workers’ power could look like.

GWU produced a zine that lays out its platform:

Game Workers Unite is a broad-reaching organization that seeks to connect pro-union activists, exploited workers, and allies across borders and across ideologies in the name of building a unionized game industry. We are building pro-union solidarity across disciplines, classes, and countries. The organization is run exclusively by workers (non-employers), but we actively encourage employers, academics, and others to engage in the community and help support the organization’s direct action efforts both materially and through their visibility.

Video game workers in the UK also took inspiration from the zine and the events at GDC and formed a local branch. I was introduced to Dec, one of the first organizers. I offered my support to the early organizing and met with Dec to discuss what was happening in the UK. As he explained:

I think someone finally just took the initiative, and as soon as someone did, everyone jumped on it, because I think everyone who is involved right now has just been expecting some people to start it, and then they can jump on it, I know I was. It’s that critical point.

Dec went on to identify two grievances that have become key organizing touchstones for GWU: crunch and representation.

In the UK, GWU began to hold organizing meetings. The first was at a pub in Manchester, jostling for attention with the football playing on the TV. The second was a national meeting. I remember the anticipation of the new organizers, with no idea how many — if any — people would turn up. As each arrived, they were clearly identifiable as people who like video games. One worker with a video game t-shirt, one with Nintendo trainers, another with horde-themed World of Warcraft leggings, and so on. By the time we were due to start, there were more people than the number of chairs we laid out.

That shared culture provided an important starting point for organizing. Working in video games is often a passion and comes with many common reference points. These can be seen throughout the GWU zine as well as in conversations, often facilitated by the common use of “boss” as an enemy in video games.

The most striking thing about that early phase of organizing was that everyone who showed up knew that they wanted to have a trade union. However, they did not necessarily know what that meant in practice. It is the first time I have ever met with a group of unorganized workers who were so convinced of the need for organization.

These workers were removed from existing organizations; but they had some links with working-class organizations. A few of the workers had parents who were in public sector trade unions. This meant they had some understanding of what trade unions involved, but not how it could apply in their workplace. Despite this, the majority had a strong sense that the sector should be unionized, without having ever come into contact with a union or a union member before.

How this process unfolded is similar to how many people feel in unorganized private sector workplaces. One of the main things that was stressed in those early meetings was that a worker did not have to inform their employer if they join a trade union. It is no surprise that workers who had never joined a union before were not aware of this. If anything, the fact that some workers thought they would have to publicly go head-to-head with the boss as the only union member (and still wanted to join one) is impressive.

In another example, a worker came and spoke to me at the end of a meeting. He explained that he was keen to join the union, but had a question: would he have to talk to other people at work about organizing? When I explained that would be good, he replied: “Fuck, that’s really scary!” After a lengthy discussion, he resolved that he could do it if we collectively worked up to it with role-playing and organizer training. These kinds of discussions showed that this was not just joining a union that people were interested in. They were already oriented to a process of organizing workplaces.

At one of the GWU social events, a dozen people from one studio turned up. They had never met anyone involved in GWU but had seen a tweet about it. During a work drinks event, a few of them had started talking about unionization, and as a result they had gathered a group together at work. While they thought that their own workplace had relatively good conditions, they wanted to make sure they organized now, rather than when things went wrong. On seeing the social advertised, they booked train tickets down to London to find out more.

No One Is Unorganizable

The GWU organizing developed slowly but surely over a year. At each of the meetings the process of recomposition took a step forward. From the early informational meetings, they developed into discussion of strategy and organizing. In the UK context, this meant three options.

First, setting up their own legal trade union. Second, joining a mainstream trade union. Third, joining one of the smaller new unions. The first was considered too much of an expense and administrative burden, meaning much time would be spent on ensuring data protection and other regulations were met. The second was tested, but the interactions with some of these unions were disappointing. The third was chosen as the route to explore.

On December 16, the culmination of these discussions, planning, and negotiations was that the GWU would become a branch of the IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain). This is a small union that started organizing with Latin American cleaners in universities in London, but has now grown to cover other university workers, as well as foster-care workers, Uber drivers, bicycle couriers, Deliveroo riders, and electricians. While video game workers may sound like an unusual addition to this line up, what unites these groups of precarious workers is that they have otherwise been left unorganized by mainstream trade unions, or considered unorganizable.

This is what is so exciting about the GWU project. Here, a group of workers without traditions or experiences of trade unionism are experimenting with what workers’ power looks like in the video games industry. Like the Tech Workers Coalition, they are organizing in workplaces that much of the Left and mainstream trade unionism has ignored.

What they show is that while forms of organizing might change, the content remains the same: workers fighting for control over their work. As video games become an increasingly important part of contemporary capitalism — both in terms of extracting profits, as well as their cultural significance and relationship to the alt-right — workers’ power matters.