It was 1 a.m. and RJ Reyes was driving down a Los Angeles freeway when he realized he’d had enough.
The sleep-deprived video game developer felt his eyes grow heavy. And his car veered suddenly.
There was no collision but the scare left him with a realization: His job at a small indie gaming studio with its long hours and low pay was demanding too much. “I’m practically killing myself,” he said.
“That’s when I realized, you know, not only is it not healthy, it’s not smart,” Reyes said. “I left shortly after I found myself swerving on the road.” He declined to name the studio he left.
Gaming studios have long been known for grueling work conditions—from long hours and unpredictable schedules to precarious job security. Now some workers, like Reyes, are taking action.
Union leaders and grassroots organizers are looking to tap into the dissatisfaction that some game workers are feeling by unionizing the industry. It could be a transformative fight for organized labor, propelling unions into a tech-heavy space and delivering new members to declining rosters.
Seeing a Need
Multiple organizing campaigns are underway at gaming studios that haven’t been made public, one organizer, who goes by Emma Kinema, said.
It’s a fast-paced development coming only about a year after the first mumblings of unionizing began in earnest during a game developers conference, according to Kinema, who’s affiliated with Game Workers Unite!—a worker-run advocacy group that’s laying the groundwork for unionizing.
“We saw that vacuum, we saw that need, and we just started running,” said Kinema, who goes by a pseudonym for fear of reprisal at her job in the industry.
The GWU volunteer estimates that the group has thousands of members spread across more than two dozen domestic and international chapters. The group doesn’t have an official membership count and hasn’t disclosed the companies where members work.
“All of the chapters are growing, in some of our cases growing very fast,” one GWU organizer in Los Angeles said. He said his chapter has about a dozen core organizers and a number of other members.
America’s most prominent voice on labor is taking notice.
The AFL-CIO, whose 55 member unions represent about 12.5 million American workers, has made organizing video game developers a focus. The group dispatched its second-in-command, Secretary-Treasurer
“The people in the video game industry want a union, they want a voice, they want to be able to bargain collectively for a fair share of what they produce,” AFL-CIO President
Trumka’s unprompted gaming comments and the direct involvement of a high-level federation official signal the seriousness with which labor leaders are seeking to wade into gaming.
A ‘Toxic’ Work Culture
A number of game developers have become vocal in recent years about the conditions they face, including low pay, high turnover, and poor studio management.
Gaming studios vary in size from indie publishers that produce small-scale games for online marketplaces to large, multinational studios that produce what’s known as AAA content—blockbuster games such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Much of the industry is centered in Los Angeles, although studios exist in all corners of the country.
Workplace tensions led to a rare public display of protest earlier this month when more than 150 workers walked out at Riot Games. The League of Legends producer was accused of sexism by employees, and workers walked out to protest forced arbitration of sexual discrimination lawsuits. Riot Games said May 17 it would keep the arbitration requirement while also creating a diversity and inclusion council.
Overall, video game workers are overworked and see few of the benefits from the content they produce, according to Shuler.
“This story isn’t a new one,” Shuler said in an email to Bloomberg Law. “It’s the story of every workplace that’s ever decided to organize a union. Long hours, low wages, and toxic workplaces—all while a few executives pocket an enormous amount of money.”
A big cause of worker stress comes from an industry practice known as “crunch,” where gaming developers work long hours to finish a project at the end of its development cycle. Crunch can sometimes push developers to work more than 60 hours a week when a game nears completion. Workers creating the popular Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, reportedly worked 100-hour weeks during development.
It Won’t Be Easy
The last time organized labor attempted to break into a tech-heavy entertainment space, it didn’t go well. A 2012 bid by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees to organize visual effects workers at Sony and other studios fizzled out.
One issue unions will have to address is how they’ll affect job mobility within studios. Federal labor law prohibits supervisors from being union members. That restriction means job roles and labels may be more highly scrutinized, including which developers can be designated as team leads.
Organizers also can’t rely solely on mid-level employees if they want union drives to be successful, game publishing expert Sam Roberts said. He’s the assistant director of the Interactive Media and Games Division at the University of Southern California.
Unions will have to recruit dedicated entry-level employees and well-paid developers that studios consider “assets,” according to the gaming professor.
“I don’t know how many of the 26-year-olds who are signing up for half pay fresh out of college to work on the thing that they love are going to sign on to the union,” Roberts said. “Then you have to factor in the fact that just like tech companies, the few that are really successful, that do great work, that dig in, they actually are paid pretty well.”
But students are paying more attention to the kind of work environment they want, according to Lawrence Technological University student Spencer Baughman. It’s on his mind so much that he reached out to Game Workers Unite and started a chapter for students in Detroit.
“I don’t want to be a part of the problem,” Baughman, who graduates in 2021, said. “I want to be part of the solution.”
What to Expect
Still, unionizing the gaming industry is largely uncharted territory for labor organizers. It isn’t fully clear what a union of developers might look like.
There’s also a question of which gaming studios will be first to unionize. Organizers have remained silent on where ongoing campaigns are taking place.
Midrange gaming studios that produce best-selling content will most likely be the first places organizing campaigns are announced, according to Roberts.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see them come after a studio like Naughty Dog, which generally pays its employees well, tries to run an anti-crunch culture, but also has some ‘dude issues,’ also definitely crunches from time-to-time, and is super visible,’” Roberts said. “My guess is that that is the kind of place that they would start. I don’t know.”
Naughty Dog didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.
The Entertainment Software Association, an industry group representing video game companies, declined to comment on ongoing efforts to unionize, saying it is an issue handled at the local company level.
As for which union will represent game developers, that question is still up in the air. The IATSE “has been on the ground, helping folks figure out what the path ahead could look like,” according to Shuler.
The Communications Workers of America would also be a good fit for gaming developers, according to Kinema. Some campaigns have even expressed interest in affiliating with the Industrial Workers of the World, a smaller anti-capitalist union, the organizer said.
“Of course there will be hurdles, especially if there’s strong employer opposition,” Shuler said. “And the labor laws in this country are broken when it comes to forming a union. But the most critical element of any successful organizing effort is convincing workers that things don’t have to stay the way they are.”
Unions aren’t a “magic wand” that will eliminate all of the video game industry’s problems, Roberts said.
Even union organizers concede that crunch may remain an inevitable part of creating video games. But organizing workplaces can still lead to better job conditions, according to Kinema.
“A union can tackle any and all issues workers face,” she said. “And so, for us, it’s less about saying we should end crunch and more about saying, let’s look at the actual, material conditions of a specific workplace.”