At an industry conference for video game developers in late March, the thousands of lanyarded attendees could try new games, swap business cards and hear from experts on rendering realistic blood spatter.
Or they could talk about unionizing.
Hundreds joined a series of standing-room-only roundtables on the topic of organized labor, taking time away from the Game Developers Conference to brainstorm ways to build worker power in an industry that is almost entirely non-union.
Organizers with Game Workers Unite, a group that has sprung up in the last year to push for wall-to-wall unionization in the $43 billion game industry, kicked off each session with an icebreaker: “Damn the man.”
l For making designers work 100-hour weeks for months on end to deliver a game on time — a practice known as “crunch” that often comes without overtime or bonus pay.
l For hiring workers to ship a new game and then announcing mass layoffs — more than 2,000 jobs have been cut in 2019, but cyclical layoffs have been a feature of the industry for decades.
l Specifically the executives of video game companies, for earning millions while developers are cut out of residuals from blockbuster titles, and workers in fields such as quality assurance are paid close to minimum wage.
Labor activism is not unusual for blue-collar segments of the tech workforce.
Lyft and Uber drivers have tried for years to organize into an effective bloc, despite their independent contractor status, and the bus drivers and cafeteria workers for Silicon Valley tech campuses have been union for years.
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But the last year has seen white-collar worker activism grow across the tech industry as well. Google employees have mounted petition campaigns to get their employer to stop developing a censored search engine for China, reshape an AI ethics board and treat temp workers better after layoffs.
In November, they also mounted a companywide walkout in response to the company’s handling of sexual harassment and forced arbitration, prompting Google to change its practices.
Amazon and Microsoft employees have started criticizing their companies’ ties to military and police technology. In March, the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter announced plans to unionize.
But video game companies, with their close ties to the heavily unionized entertainment industry and a workplace culture notorious for grueling hours and rolling layoffs, appear poised to become the first corner of the tech industry to organize.
An annual survey conducted by the International Game Developers Assn., an industry group formed in the 1990s, has found interest in unionization surging in recent years.
In 2009, the survey found only a third of game workers would support a union at their company.
In 2019, that number had climbed to 47 percent answering “yes” and 26 percent answering “maybe” when asked if they thought game workers should unionize. Only 16 percent responded with a hard “no.”
“I’ve been in the industry for 26 years, and the union discussion has always been in the background,” said Kate Edwards, who served as the executive director of IDGA from 2012 to 2017 and now works as an advocate for diversity and fairness initiatives in gaming.
“There’s been a massive shift.”
Edwards and other industry observers chalk much of this up to the maturation of the industry, in every sense of the word.
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A more experienced workforce means that developers who embraced crunch as a challenge in their 20s have lost their appetite for long hours as they enter their 30s and 40s.
Video games’ increasing centrality to pop culture and daily life for millions has given rise to a broader gaming press, which shines more light on issues in the industry.
That same mainstreaming of games, with steadily increasing revenues to match, has prompted some workers to look to the steadier livelihoods of their peers in Hollywood production and think, Why can’t we have that?
The question was simmering around the conference, as Game Workers Unite members distributed pamphlets on unionizing cheekily designed to look like gaming magazines and trading cards of industry executives listing their multimillion-dollar salaries or multibillion-dollar net worths as stats.