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Game Developers Need a Union

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In 2016, the SAG-AFTRA voice actor strike became headline news as large gaming studios were forced to reckon with the fact that traditional labor fields are often more familiar with union organization. It’s something that doesn’t happen much in the games industry, with only a few, mostly company-specific unions worldwide, and none with the comparable power of larger unions in other industries.

The reasons for this are complex, but ultimately have something to do with the cultural understanding of games by the gaming populace, and how it’s reinforced by large games companies who stand to profit from the concept. The general understanding is that games are first-and-foremost a consumerist medium, not an artistic one. This viewpoint posits that videogames are a product, not a process. The creative labor of development is flattened in order to serve the narrative of games being a simple transaction—give money, get game. It’s the same rhetoric that underpins arguments that games are important because of the audience, and not because of the intention put into the game by the designer(s).

This viewpoint also means that game development labor is devalued, that the work that goes into creating a game is secondary to the game itself. It allows for the work of developers to fade into the background as big names and publishers reap the rewards of sales and royalties. Rarely is games development a stable or profitable career, but the few shining stars that “made it” become the benchmarks for others’ success or failure.

Although the relative power and population of labor unions in the United States has shrunk over time (from about 18 million in the 1980s to 14.6 million in 2017), in many industries they are part of the landscape, being a force that grew as the industry did. The games industry, historically, has not followed this trend, and you don’t need to go too far back into the past to see that.

The early 1990s brought about a renewed explosion of videogame development, bolstered by a new crop of developers and computer games finally reaching a saturation point in the marketplace. Standout hits like DOOM and Mortal Kombat came under fire for their brazen approach to depictions of violence, and efforts to regulate the industry’s content resulted in the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB.

Two other organizations got their start in the tumultuous aftermath of 1994’s legislative proceedings, and both remain the loudest voices of the gaming industry worldwide: the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), though both were known by different names at the time.

Historically, the ESA has acted primarily as the liaison between the AAA videogame industry and outside-industry representatives—earlier this year they came out staunchly against the World Health Organization’s classification of “gaming disorder”, and more recently the White House has reportedly sent invites to ESA representatives to discuss the (unsubstantiated) links between gaming and outbursts of violence.

In an interview in 2007 with The Escapist, IGDA founder Ernest W. Adams was adamant that the organization is not a union, but rather a professional organization built to support the careers and interests of independent game developers—that is, developers not tied to larger organizations.

Both the IGDA and the ESA were formed in response to a fear: the fear that games would one day be legislated to oblivion, made bland and sterile by the whims of those who seek to crush the creative spirit of the medium. It’s a recognizable fear to most gamers, because it’s the one we’ve been sold, over and over, and the one that larger players in the industry deploy whenever efforts to organize over labor struggles come to the forefront.

Unfortunately, the same rhetoric that defends games (rightfully) for being a creative and vibrant new medium that the mainstream may not fully grasp dovetails perfectly with a rhetoric of games exceptionalism—that games are the “most powerful” medium to tell stories, that gamers are secretly the most cultured of art consumers, and that protection of a “Gamer Identity” via brand purchases is equivalent to a moral good. You are part of something larger than yourself if you can keep up with the newest releases.

What this consumer-first, creativity-at-all-costs mentality covers up is that the games industry is rife with mistreatment of its creative labor. Crunch, underpayment and rhetoric that espouses releasing “at all costs” all play into the idea that there is nothing more important than the product, and that the labor put into the game will be recouped without fail by the simple act of release.

Organizations like the ESA and the IGDA are not inherently bad, but they’re paltry concessions in an industry that needs more than fear of censorship. The lack of worker support and labor organizations in the games development world, AAA and indie, points to a much deeper cultural problem, and one that needs more than AAA mouthpiece organizations and community networking hubs.

Detractors of the SAG-AFTRA voice actors strike of 2016-2017 often brought up that if voice actors received royalties before developers, it would be unfair to those who worked on parts of the game other than voice acting, and that they deserved bonuses and/or royalties as well. The argument was that there was no organization behind developers that had the bargaining strength of SAG-AFTRA.

They were right.


Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.

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