Labour organizing in the video game industry comes to Montreal

The city is home to about half of all video game workers in Canada
Photo: Vincent Diamante
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“The expectation is that you’re in it because you love it, and you shouldn’t be concerned with how much you’re getting paid,” said Carolyn Jong, who provides support for video game workers seeking to unionize.

“When your personal identity is wrapped up in the work that you do, then there’s a tendency not to see the distinction between your interest and the interests of the company when those interests don’t necessarily align.”

For the first time, workers in the game industry are engaging in an international push to organize into unions. And Montreal, home to about half of all video game workers in Canada, is no exception.

Industry scandals

Over 10,000 people work full-time in the industry in Montreal. The city is one of the five largest video game production hubs in the world, according to Montreal International, an organization that seeks to attract private investment to the city.

The industry includes giant developers such as Ubisoft and EA, as well as a network of small developers, with 140 studios in total. It’s an industry that has thrived in Montreal for decades.

But working conditions leave much to be desired, according to a growing number of workers. Unpaid overtime, known colloquially as “crunch,” leads to burnout, and the combination of burnout and comparatively low wages leads to people leaving the industry.

Information about conditions across the game industry isn’t particularly easy to come by. Beyond reports on scandals as they happen, general data isn’t systematically tracked.

People’s passion for their jobs is often weaponized against them when they speak up for better conditions.

But scandals happen semi-regularly. The “disgruntled spouse” of a software engineer at EA Games kicked off a controversy when she anonymously reported that the company was pushing workers to 85-hour weeks, a permanent planned crunch where workers were not paid any overtime. More recently, Rockstar Games was accused of imposing crunch on workers for months — maybe even years — as part of the production of Red Dead Redemption 2.

Industry giant Activision Blizzard laid off 8 per cent of its workforce in February, despite raking in a record $2.4 billion in revenue in one quarter. And in May of this year, employees of Riot Games, the studio behind League of Legends, staged a walkout over the company policy of forcing workers into private arbitration in cases of sexual harassment complaints.

Despite the growing number of examples of game worker organizing, one of the only places where macro-level information about salaries and working conditions is available is in annual reports by the International Game Developers Agency, a non-profit membership organization whose members include both workers and management. Its report on the most recent Developer Satisfaction Survey, which was carried out in 2017, states the findings “should be troubling for every person who loves the creation, business, or play experience of games.”

Game workers from across the world self-reported on a wide array of industry issues, and 37 per cent of responders reported that they received no additional compensation for overtime or “crunch.” An additional 37 per cent reported that they received compensation in the form of meals. Less than 20 per cent were compensated for overtime with pay. Over half of respondents admitted to being subjected to crunch.

Game Workers Unite

The International Game Developers Agency has been the subject of controversy of its own. From management-aligned board members encouraging workers to put in minimum 60-hour work weeks to reformer board members resigning in protest of the organization’s “enforced austerity” regarding initiatives to advocate on behalf of game workers, the organization has been described as a “company union” whose main purpose is to preserve peace between workers and management.

Within this context, a new organization was born in spring 2018 called Game Workers Unite. It began as a response to a panel on unions at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where speakers were set to present anti-union talking points. It rapidly spread across the industry and currently has chapters in over 20 cities across the world, including a legally recognized union in the United Kingdom, chapters across North America, and a chapter in Brazil.

“I think it’s really important that game industry organizing be international, because ultimately the industry is global,” said Carolyn Jong, who provides support to Game Workers Unite organizing in Montreal. International coordination, in the long term, can “prevent things like companies threatening to pack up and leave, or companies threatening to outsource work” as a response to the increased costs of better working conditions.

“There’s this culture of fear around speaking up around working conditions.”

Jong isn’t a worker in the game industry. She became involved with Montreal game workers through her academic work, and she is writing her master’s thesis about the industry. Once she saw the working conditions, she joined organizing efforts to improve them.

It hasn’t always been easy. One of the major barriers to organizing, she said, is how people’s passion for their jobs is often weaponized against them when they speak up for better conditions.

“There’s a tendency not to see yourself as a worker, as ‘I’m just a person doing creative things,’” Jong said. “There’s also a lot of rhetoric around meritocracy in the industry.”

There’s also a factor that is common in labour organizing outside of the game industry — fear of retribution by management. Jong talked about a specific case, where a game worker in Montreal spoke to colleagues about working conditions and was fired shortly afterwards. After finding a new job, the worker’s new company was bought by the old company, and the worker was fired again.

“There’s this culture of fear around speaking up around working conditions,” Jong said.

Burnout and turnover

Marc Andre (not his real name) is a worker in the industry, who spoke to Ricochet on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about retribution from management. He said that along with issues of burnout, the way that schools churn out a large number of new workers, without teaching them about fair working conditions, also acts as a pressure against organizing.

“There’s an unending supply of students who graduate from video game–focused schools,” he said. “And so they have stars in their eyes, and they graduate, and they get whatever job they can find.”

“It’s a whole system that feeds on itself — you have new graduates that go into game companies, and because you have these graduates, the supply of people, it allows companies to pressure the [workers] they have more, because there’s always going to be someone who’s ready to get the job for the same or worse conditions.”

“I want to see my friends who work in games be able to keep working in games long-term, and not be burnt out after very few years.”

This, Marc Andre said, leads to large turnover in the game industry. Workers who begin with enthusiasm eventually realize that they could be paid more for the same tasks in other tech jobs, and they move into different work.

“There’s this ongoing trend in game companies where programmers realize this, and they’re like, ‘I could basically be doing the same job that I’m doing right now, and be paid twice the amount for it, or maybe three times the amount of right now, and the only difference would be that I’m programming an app and not a game.’”

Both Jong and Marc Andre stressed that working conditions differ within the industry, depending on what position is being looked at. And both of them stressed that the harshest working conditions exist for quality assurance testers, or QA testers — the people who test video games to find bugs and fix them.

QA testing, like writing and sound design, is subcontracted, leaving these workers without the protections that come with being hired by a studio directly. It’s hard work, based in repetition. “They’re working in the equivalent of call centres for video games,” Marc Andre said.

The Game Developers Conference puts out a State of the Game Industry report every year, which is essentially a survey of participants at the yearly conference that reflects broad trends in the industry. In the 2019 edition, nearly half of game industry workers polled said the industry should unionize, 16 per cent were opposed, and 26 per cent responded “maybe.”

Jong pointed out that while the Game Developers Conference is widely attended, it still consists of workers who are sent as delegates or can afford to pay for it themselves. This means that support for unionization may be much higher across the industry when factoring in more precarious workers.

Long-term organizing

Game Workers Unite is, for now, mostly organizing below the radar. It hasn’t launched a public unionization campaign yet. Organizers show up to events with game workers to hand out literature and build a base of support.

“I want to see my friends who work in games be able to keep working in games long-term, and not be burnt out after very few years,” Jong said. “To be able to have a life outside of their work, and not feel like they have no energy for anything else, to have a more sustainable environment.”

In the long term, Jong hopes to see some organized game workers using their power not just to improve their own working conditions but to address other social issues, “kind of like what you’re seeing with some tech workers’ unions.”

The “organizing effort at Google, with employees refusing to take military contracts” is one example, she said.

“I would love to see stuff like that happen in the games industry too.”

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