The Rise of One of the First Video Game Workers Unions
Science & Technology

The Rise of One of the First Video Game Workers Unions

This story is adapted from Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone, by Sarah Jaffe. The book traces the evolution of the “labor of love” myth—the idea that certain work should be done out of passion instead of pay. Whether it’s working for mere exposure and experience, or enduring poor treatment in the name of workplace “family,” more and more workers are being pushed to make sacrifices for the privilege of being able to do what they love. And across a variety of industries, including the one described below, those workers are organizing to change those conditions.

Video game programmers learn to celebrate “crunch” from the get-go. Like many of his peers, Kevin Agwaze went to a specialized school that taught coding for games, rather than a traditional university. Such schools normalize a brutal workweek, treating high dropout rates as a badge of honor, and instilling the idea that the games industry is a shark tank where only the strong survive. While in his native Germany, he noted, “Uni is free,” the program he attended, a two-year course, costs around €25,000 (about US $29,000). Such programs can cost even more in the United States, where a specialized education might run $100,000.

The schools, Agwaze and other programmers explained to me in a London pub, pump out “eight gazillion” games developer grads, for whom there are not necessarily enough good jobs. By the time they graduate, programmers expect to work long hours to prove themselves, and for those hours to stretch even longer when deadlines loom. To Agwaze, it seemed to be worth it to work in a field about which he was passionate. “I knew it was going to be bad for me,” he said with a lopsided grin. “I thought, ‘I am young, my body is going to be fine. I can do it for a while. I can handle bad conditions.’”

He wanted to work in what they call triple-A games—the video game equivalent of a blockbuster film, with a big budget and production teams that span multiple countries and studios. He applied for jobs all over and wound up in the United Kingdom at a company called Studio Gobo. The company, which bills itself as “a family of graphics geeks and artistic misfits,” offers “AAA console game development services for a global client base.” What that means, Agwaze explained, is that they work on specific parts of bigger properties for major studios. “We have all the creative freedom but none of the risk, like if Ubisoft [a French video game company] is going to cancel [a] game, they will still pay us,” he said. He’s pretty happy at his job, all things considered.

His day-to-day work schedule depends to a degree on other programmers working in offices that might be several time zones away. There’s no time clock to punch, no overtime pay; he comes in to work around 10 am, he said, and leaves most days around 7 or even 8 pm The late evenings are in part, he explained, because he’s working with developers in Montreal, who don’t arrive at work until after he’s had his lunch.

The seemingly inefficient process is common across the industry, he explained. In part, that’s because so many different people work on different parts of big games that it would be impossible to have them all in one office, or even, it seems, one company. There is also the desire for what he called “acculturation” benefits—making sure that games are accessible and interesting to audiences in a variety of locations rather than being so culturally specific to one that players in a different market won’t want it. “If you have people with different backgrounds working on a game,” he said, rather than employing “the same Bay Area American people” each time, “it might just end up being a better game.”

There is also the question of costs—some of the programming is outsourced to countries like India, where the wages are lower and the working conditions less regulated. “Somebody working in India and somebody working in Sweden can have completely different working conditions,” he noted, “even though they are working at the same company on the same game and the same project, maybe even the same feature.”

The grueling hours lead to high turnover at the jobs in the industry, even more so than the programming schools. It’s a workload, Agwaze and the others said, designed for young men without families or caring responsibilities, who can dedicate their entire lives to the job. And indeed, the demographics of the industry bear this out: Recent surveys of the United Kingdom’s games workforce found that the vast majority were young men. Only 14 percent were women, and as for workers of color, like Agwaze, in 2015 they made up a dismal 4 percent. In the United States, meanwhile, a 2019 study found that only 19 percent of the workforce was female, while a slightly better 32 percent identified as something other than white. When the appeal of working on games no longer trumps the desire to have a life outside of work, programmers leave and go into a different industry. Their skills might have been honed to make blockbuster games, but the same code that makes up the backbone of Red Dead Redemption can also be used to make the latest financial technology app, for more money and shorter hours. “It’s just a different planet,” Agwaze said.

That turnover itself makes the industry less efficient than it could be: Rather than trying to retain experienced workers, companies bring in more young workers like Agwaze to make up the difference. Meanwhile, senior positions sometimes go unfilled for months. It becomes a circular problem: hours stretch longer and longer as junior developers scramble to fix bugs; they get tired of the struggle and quit; and then a new person with even less practice is plugged into their spot. And the companies’ idea of how to make the job more sustainable is to put in a Ping-Pong table and give out free food. Agwaze laughed, “Let’s put a bed in there! Sleepover! Put in showers!” Studio Gobo’s website promotes “Gobo Friday Lunch,” with “Freshly cooked (free!) food by our in house chef, the only rule is you’re not allowed to sit next to the people you did last week. It’s an opportunity to relax and hang out as a team and some of our best ideas have emerged over a warm home-cooked meal.”

But, of course, it’s not home-cooked. Instead, it blurs the distinction between home and work. “I have time periods where, like, I sleep for two or three hours,” Agwaze said. “I’m just going home to bed and waking up and going back again. I don’t remember what happened. I just remember going to bed and being in the office again.” Coworkers become close friends, late shifts can take on a party atmosphere, and the feeling that everyone is part of something important often prevails. Studio Gobo’s website again: “Fun is at the heart of what we do. We know that if we want to make fun games, we also have to have fun making games.”

Yet that fun atmosphere itself is designed to entrap workers into staying longer daily, even without direct pressure from the boss. Crunch was endemic to the industry: Over half of the workers questioned in one survey said they’d worked “at least 50 percent more hours during crunch than the standard work week of 40 hours.” The issue came to the fore in 2004 with a public “open letter” from the spouse of a developer at Electronic Arts (EA), complaining of her partner’s eighty-five-hour crunch weeks. Two class-action lawsuits followed, alleging unpaid overtime. Both were settled out of court, but the practice continued up to 2020. And it’s not clear the practice is even worth it for employers. “Crunch,” Agwaze noted, “produces bad games, a lot of average games, and some good games. Just because you crunch doesn’t mean that the game is going to be any good at all.”

Beyond their expected loyalty to their own CV, the programmers were encouraged to consider themselves part of the family, and to work hard to pull their weight within it, even if, as Agwaze said with a sardonic laugh, “Maybe I crossed the country to start this job and I was fired in my first week after they told me I had now entered the family.” While this had never happened to him, it wasn’t an uncommon experience in the industry.

Some managers in the industry are starting to realize that they need to figure out better ways to retain experienced developers than trying to make the office feel less office-like. But the culture of the industry remains mired in the idea that putting in long hours is a mark of quality and dedication, rather than burnout and inefficiency. “They can’t even imagine it as a bad thing,” Agwaze said. “This is how it is. How can anybody believe this to be bad or wrong? This is how we need to do it.”

With the arrival of Covid-19 in Britain, Agwaze joined the masses suddenly working from home. For him, that meant an even further blurring of the lines between time on and time off the job. “I wake up, go to the other room to the PC. Then, I work for a long while. Then, at some point, I stop working. It might be after eight hours or slightly more or slightly less. I used to pretty rigorously take an hour of lunch break at 1 pm sharp with other people from work, but now I’m like, ‘Did I eat anything today? No, I didn’t. I should probably eat. What’s the time? Oh, it’s 2 pm’”

And after all the time that he spends dedicating himself to making games, he said, he doesn’t really play them that much anymore. He laughed, “I don’t have time. I sneak one in every now and then.”

The first strike in the video game industry was called by voice actors. Members of one of the old Hollywood unions, the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), struck against eleven of the biggest games companies for just over a year. They were calling for residuals and royalties to be paid to voice actors, like those film actors enjoy, and though they did not win those demands, they did win raises and proved that games companies could be brought to the table to negotiate with a part of their workforce.

To Kevin Agwaze, at the time, the victory seemed far off from the work he was doing. There was a sense from the developers, he said, that they were the ones doing the real work of making the games, and the voice actors just showed up and talked—a sense that echoed the companies’ treatment of the actors. He’d been in the United Kingdom for just a few months at the time and remembered thinking, “Yeah, it’s bad but that is just how it is.” He thought he’d be able to adjust, to work his way up the ladder. But the discontent was bubbling up around the industry.

It boiled over at the 2018 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. A panel was scheduled for the conference titled “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization for Game Devs.” The people putting together the panel, Agwaze explained, were closer to management than the rank-and-file developers, and a group of developers who were talking union began to organize around the panel to get pro-union workers to attend and ask questions. What had begun as a Facebook group, and then a chat on the Discord service, became a campaign that now had a name, an official website, flyers, and a goal: Game Workers Unite (GWU).

After the panel, Agwaze said, the discussion of organizing snowballed. People joined the Discord chat, and then began to start local chapters where they lived. The conference was based in the Bay Area, but as workers in a massive international industry, the developers knew they had to take advantage of their reach on the internet to start chapters on the ground where they worked. They talked about crunch, but they also talked about sexual harassment and discrimination. And discrimination was something that particularly drove Agwaze to get involved. “A bunch of these problems, they just get progressively worse if you are a person of color and LGBTQIA person,” he said. “They become factors compounding an already shitty environment.” His actual work experience has been fine, though the long hours persist, but, he recalled, “in school, they asked us for a current figure in the industry, in your field, that you look up to, relate to. I couldn’t name a single Black person in games.” He remained, at the time we spoke, the only person of color at his company, and for him the union was a way to speak up for marginalized people in the industry.

Most of the games workers had no experience with unions; the industry’s age skew mitigates against that, but it is also true that young workers are driving a recent uptick in unionization in many industries. The workers have also needed to be creative about organizing. The UK group moved from the Discord chat into offline spaces, and then into forming an actual trade union for games workers, one of the first in the world.

Agwaze is treasurer. After talking with a variety of different unions, the games workers became a branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). A relatively new union begun in 2012, IWGB represents mainly low-paid immigrant workers in fields that had been long nonunion: cleaning workers, security guards, and gig economy workers like Deliveroo bike couriers and Uber drivers. It was both a strange and a perfect fit, explained Game Workers Unite’s Marijam Didžgalvytė.

The games workers in many ways, obviously, are better off than many of the workers who are already part of IWGB, but they bring a militancy that can be infectious, and the union holds social events to bring members together in a solidarity that reaches beyond the picket lines. The games workers’ social media reach is a help for the other workers as well. And social media helps the union reach a key audience: video game consumers, who are notably vocal when they dislike a game, but could be marshaled, too, to support the games workers. A recent campaign to “Fire Bobby Kotick,” the CEO of Activision-Blizzard, who received a multimillion-dollar bonus after laying off eight hundred employees, drew plenty of attention from gamers and the games press. Laying off workers while juicing stock prices with buybacks and raising investors’ dividends is a fairly common practice in today’s economy, but the campaign aimed to make the human cost of such practices visible to gamers. Didžgalvytė said, “I think the players are beginning to understand that the people creating their games are suffering.”

The demands of the UK union, voted on by the membership include improving diversity and inclusion at all levels; informing workers of their rights and supporting those abused, harassed, or in need of representation; securing a steady and fair wage for all workers; and, of course, putting an end to excessive and unpaid overtime. “We try

to avoid the term ‘crunch’ because it sounds so funky,” Agwaze explained. “‘It’s crunchy! It is cool!’ No, it is excessive unpaid overtime.”

Because of the developers’ relative power in the industry, they have been able to put forward demands on behalf of less powerful workers. Issues like zero hours contracts—work contracts, in the United Kingdom, where contracts are common, that do not promise workers any hours or give them a regular schedule—are still pervasive in the lower levels of the industry, particularly for workers doing quality assurance (QA) testing.

Some QA workers, Agwaze said, even get paid per bug found in a game. “This incentivizes the wrong thing,” he noted, and it also means that someone could spend hours poring over a game, find nothing wrong, and make no money. GWU’s concern even extends to professional game players in “e-sports” leagues—which tend to be owned by the companies that produce the games. A company, Agwaze explained, can just wipe an entire league out of existence if it no longer wants to pay for it. And the workers wanted, too, to make demands on behalf of the people who did the work to produce game consoles in the first place, from mining rare minerals in the Congo to assembling the products in factories, often in China.

There is still a tendency in the industry, which affects workers’ desire to organize, to pretend that it is apolitical. “We make great art, we don’t make politics,” is how Agwaze summed up this argument. Yet the games, he pointed out, are inherently political, from war games (discreetly funded by the military) to superhero games, like a Spider-Man game that featured Spider-Man using police-operated surveillance towers to track down criminals. “How can this not be a political statement?” he asked.

Online gaming culture had a track record of toxic culture, particularly the right-wing “Gamergate” movement, and that kind of culture rubbed off on the workplace. Games companies, in the wake of the 2020 racial justice protests, rushed to put out statements saying Black Lives Matter, but they rarely, Agwaze said, acknowledged the conditions they created inside their companies.

One of those companies, Ustwo, billed itself as a “fampany,” an awkward portmanteau of “family” and “company.” It proclaimed its commitment to diversity and inclusion, but when it fired Austin Kelmore, GWU-UK’s chair, its internal emails criticized him for spending time on “diversity schemes and working practices,” and for being a “self-appointed bastion of change.” One email, shared in The Guardian, proclaimed, “The studio runs as a collective ‘we’ rather than leadership v employees,” but also said that Kelmore had put “leadership . . . on the spot.” (The company spokesperson told The Guardian that Kelmore was leaving for reasons unconnected to his union activity.) GWU-UK fought for Kelmore, but even before the pandemic, such processes took time; after the pandemic, they were backed up even more.

Agwaze’s time organizing with GWU-UK had taught him that companies were often less efficient and practical than he’d expected. “They’re more of a chaotic evil,” he laughed. Few of them were aware of the labor laws, or of how their actions would be perceived. Then, as with the Black Lives Matter protests, they scrambled to try to win some goodwill through largely symbolic actions, like donating money to racial justice organizations.

Still, all of this reflects the start of a change in the industry, signaled by the rise in political awareness within and about games. Members of the UK Parliament have even formed an all-party group to look into the gaming industry, though Agwaze noted that GWU-UK’s invitation to speak to the group had been delayed as a result of Brexit and the general election in December 2019, and then because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, it marked a change from the assumption most people had, he said, that “it’s fine, because it is video games. It must be fun, even in its working conditions.”

With the pandemic, Agwaze said, some of the union’s usual means of gaining new members—in-person meetings and speaking engagements— had to be scrapped, and the 2020 Game Developers Conference, where they’d planned a panel, was postponed. New members were finding them anyway, however, because of immediate problems on the job. “They are more like, ‘Oh, shit is on fire right now! I need to find some union assistance!’” he said. Workers at some companies were being furloughed, but being asked to keep working without being paid.

Others were being told they had to go to the office despite the lockdown. And then there was the immigration question. The games industry, Agwaze noted, depended on immigrant labor—he himself was an EU migrant living in the United Kingdom, a status that could be disrupted by Brexit and, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the government’s intention to crack down on migrants. The pandemic exacerbated these problems: Workers who lost jobs were unsure about their visa status, and with the backlog at both the Home Office and employment tribunals, there was a lot of uncertainty among workers that brought them to the union for help.

All of this meant progress—and more challenges—for Agwaze and the union. The workers at games companies, and in the broader tech industry, were finally starting to understand themselves not as lucky to have a dream job, but as workers who are producing something of value for companies that rake in profits. After all, as Agwaze noted, “for the one and a half years we’ve been around now, we’ve been the fastest-growing branch of the IWGB. We’re the fastest-growing sector that they’ve ever had.” The union is a crucial step toward changing power in that industry and claiming more of it for themselves.


This article has been adapted from Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone by Sarah Jaffe © 2021. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


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