It’s Time for Video Game Makers to Unionize | Alternet
The tech sector generally has a reputation for being fairly libertarian culturally — in other words, not particularly ripe for a labor movement. Yet the spectacular rise and crash of a once-renowned studio, Telltale Games, has shed a light on the plight of abused developers in a difficult industry. And the fate of Telltale and its workers has a shot at catalyzing unionization across the entire industry.
The digital canary in the coalmine
If you’ve never met someone who works in the game industry, their lifestyles are not glamorous. Well-being of employees is a huge issue: video game makers routinely suffer, terrible working conditions, long work-weeks, sudden layoffs with no severance. Mattias Lehman, a former developer, wrote an essay documenting the situation he witnessed in his four years in the industry: “If you work in the industry, I probably don’t need to explain how we workers are exploited by companies, only to turn around and be abused by the very communities we want to make games for,” he writes. Lehman describes witnessing rampant sexism, a horrible lack of diversity, constant overwork and “abuse of contractors” as norms in the industry.
In November of 2017, Telltale announced it was laying off 90 developers. Employees at the time were reported to be working under intense conditions, tight deadlines and long hours — something known, in the video game industry, as “crunch”, meaning a time period in which the game is in its final stages of production and employees are rushing to finish a game. Jason Schreier, news editor at the video game website Kotaku and author of “Blood Sweat, and Pixels,” a study of the video game industry, explains that crunch is seen as a necessary evil by some and is the “big ugly side of working in the video game industry.” “It’s safe to say that a large percentage of studios incorporate some sort of crunch in their work, which is essentially overtime periods that are very long nights and weekends,” Schreier told Salon. “It could be weeks. It could be months. It could, in some very rare but horrible occasions, be entire years.”
In a cutthroat industry, in the absence of employees advocating and organizing for better conditions,labor will continue to be taken advantage of by large corporations. As games continue to become larger and more expansive, the human cost rises. Kinema agrees:
“How many people burned out? How many people had mental breakdowns? How many people ran out of money? How many people didn’t go home to see their kids that night while making something like ‘Assassins Creed,’ right? The latest game is so massive, right? You look at a trailer for ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ and you’re just like, ‘How could you have made this if you didn’t just overwork your developers?’”