Changing the Game: Why Game Workers Are Unionizing. Pt. 1

Gaming has become the biggest of entertainment industries. But its 120 billion annual US dollar revenue comes at a cost. Burnouts, addictions and 100-hour work weeks became the norm among game developers. So now this very young industry is considering a very old solution: game developers are creating workers unions.

In this two part episode of NARA (ex-NYLA) podcast we are talking to people behind the movement – and why it should matter to all of us.

In its infancy, the gaming industry wasn‘t considered that big of a deal – a hobby for the recluse, if not for the kids. But its immense growth in such a short timespan brought an influx of new gamers and made old ones shift their perspective on what a gamer is.

As more people started playing games, demand grew. New technologies such as the smartphone became household items and new game studios started popping up.

But game development takes time. A lot of it. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, one of the most popular and influential games of this decade, took 6 years to develop. Programmer Jean Simonet, who was working on it at that time, started feeling severe stomach pains because in the final hours of development he pushed on at the expense of sleep. And Jean‘s story is not unique in this industry.

It‘s not hard to imagine the insatiable appetite of CEOs who are willing to drive their workforce into the ground just to turn a profit. But the closer you look, the clearer it becomes that the gaming industry today can be seen as a textbook example on how to exploit workers and draw little to no attention from the public while doing so.

“If the big companies like EA, Ubisoft, Rockstar suddenly said, ‘you‘re allowed to talk about your working conditions and there will be no retribution’, could you imagine the stories that people would tell?!” says Austin Kelmore, our guest for the first part of the episode.

“If the big companies like EA, Ubisoft, Rockstar suddenly said, ‘you‘re allowed to talk about your working conditions and there will be no retribution’, could you imagine the stories that people would tell?!”

In the interview, former Popcap, EA, Surreal and Warner Bros. programmer talks about what goes on around and inside a person who is subject to strenuous working conditions. If you walk into your workplace passionate about your work, can you keep that passion alive after working 16 hours a day, 6 days a week?

We talk about what is being done and possible solutions for the issues, but during the discussion we still stumble into invisible walls – names to be avoided to protect Austin from threats or being blacklisted from the gaming industry entirely.

ollection of Game Workers Unite zines. The UK based organisation aims to „connect workers, pro-union activists, and allies in building a unionized game industry.“ ©Game Workers Unite
Austin Kelmore on the Skype call for NYLA podcast. He has more than 12 years of experience working as a software engineer and engineering lead at multiple well-known game development studios, including Electronic Arts and Warner Bros. ©Karolis Pilypas Liutkevičius
Assemble with Care is the latest game Austin has worked on – a launch title of Apple Arcade service, it garnered a lot of attention for its visuals and story. Austin was one of the 15 people who prototyped, developed and shipped the game. ©ustwo games
With more than 200 million downloads from the Apple App Store alone, Plants vs. Zombies 2 is one the most successful games Austin has worked on. ©Electronic Arts

At the time of the recording, Austin was employed at Ustwo Games and was working on an Apple Arcade title Assemble with Care. A month after the recording, Austin was dismissed from the studio, allegedly because of his ties to a game workers union. Ustwo Games now faces legal action from the Independant Workers Union of Great Britain.

Further reading:

'You Can Sleep Here All Night': Video Games and Labor, by Ian Williams, Jacobin Mag
Every Game You Like Is Built on the Backs of Workers.’ Video Game Creators Are Burned Out and Desperate for Change, by Alana Semuels, TIME
'It’s Time For Game Developers To Unionize', by Jason Schreier, Kotaku
'Ustwo Games accused of union busting', by Haydn Taylor, gamesindustry.biz

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Studio voice was recorded at Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania.

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