(This is an interview conducted on the Game Dev Unchained podcast)
No stranger to our podcast and fresh on the heels of more industry shakeup, we sat with Emma of Game Workers Unite to delve deeper into the “cough” state of the union (pun intended). We never like to hear of large groups of game developers losing their jobs and being displaced in the industry, but it’s been happening more and more often with less and less warning. We thought it was about time to continue the talks of Unionization across the game industry and check back in and see how things were going with Game Workers Unite.
We dug right in and asked what’s new and on the way for GWU, what the exact plans are for Game Workers Unite at GDC?
Last year we got a real first big wave of press and international attention as an organization dedicated to organizing the game industry and doing education and work around unionization and labor rights. Since then we’ve expanded into a full on, full blown international movement and organization, we’ve got 25 plus organizations and unions across four continents and a fifth continent coming soon. We have organizer training programs and all kinds of literature and stuff and things have really grown massively with our organization in the past year. We really wanted to come back to GDC this year with some really big steps. This year we got our start planning direct action around a roundtable hosted by the IGDA about the pros and cons about unionization and the room was unanimously full of workers who were supportive of unionization and openly discussing problems in the industry, whereas the moderator, the executive director of the IGDA kept trying to bring up lots of cons and things… You know, people acknowledged it but it felt like she was kind of on the defensive which was kind of frustrating… So this year we’ve replaced the IGDA’s roundtable and we’ll be hosting a roundtable on unionization this year, except we will be starting with the premise of things are bad in the game industry, workers have no leverage or control over the direction of theirs studios and the industry as a whole and unionization is the best tool we have in front of us. How can we come together as a community and discuss unionization and think about it in a way that is democratic and focus on rank and file organizing and, you know, making sure its not bureaucratic and figuring out next steps and strategies on how we can make tangible progress towards building the industry we all want to see.
So we previously dedicated an episode to Activision, but did anyone formerly of Activision reach out ot you after the 800 person layoff?
Yes, many many many Activision Blizzard workers from around the world got in touch with the international Game Workers Unite organization and a lot of our local chapters and on top of that we had many Activision Blizzard workers already in the group figuring out ways to support workers in the studio, providing support emotionally and financially for people who found out they were laid off and had trouble making rent and things like that. That definitely took over the organization for like a couple weeks and honestly we’re still working around these kinds of things and sharing resources with one another and finding ways to support the workers still in the studio and now laid off. It’s like you said, there’s a certain rhythm to these layoffs and things and it really is cyclical, it will just keep coming until we make structural changes to our industry and actually mature the business and labor of making video games. Right now the process and the structure that we use is just, it's too unsustainable and too focused on making short term returns on profits and things as opposed to ensuring long term stability for workers and it’s just a shame, it really is.
We heard rumors that there were a lot that kind of knew ahead, because of Kotaku articles, there was this impending doom since november that said layoffs were happening. Were these people that reached out completely surprised that they were the ones that got affected?
Yea I mean I think, the main thing is there was an air certainly, in a lot of the studios… People kind of knew something was coming, especially once reports came out that in a week or two for sure there would be layoffs announced during the shareholders meeting. I mean that totally changes the entire conversation and atmosphere of a studio right? People were preparing for that people were having tough conversations, people were starting to polish up their portfolio and website right? Just in case. It’s unfortunate, but it’s hard with these things, you never know if you’re safe. I do a great job, I get great reviews from my manager and all these things but sometimes your name still ends up on the list. It really does a lot to derail the culture and the effort that people put in at work.
In a unique case like Activision which for me is a first in a long time where they would report record profits and then go ahead and layoff 800 people. Did that give more fuel to the cause? How did people react differently from this one than from like a Telltale situation?
I think with a typical layoff, often it feels kind of inevitable, the studios closing, the game didn’t sell right, a project is closing, that’s the way it goes, people kind of talk about it. With this, the Activision Blizzard situation, for many reasons it kind of laid bare some of these inherent tensions and conflicts between interests and needs of employers and the interests and needs of workers. I think part of it is, often times you get end of fiscal report and shareholders meetings and layoffs happen a quarter or two later. Usually there’s a gap of time between it and I think that the fact that they happened hand and hand near each other really highlighted the relationship between the fact that yes, record revenue came in and they also cut off 800 people. If they had waited 3 months or something right, and then did the layoffs, no one would have connected the two really… I think the nature of them being so close in time to each other really highlighted to a lot of people the kind of nature of what was going on there. I think the fact that they were talking about and bragging about record revenue, I think that paired with the kind of heart break of 800 people without work and maybe not being able to make rent, I think that also provides a stark contrast. I think people responded very differently than typical and I think people really started seeing things for how they really stand during the layoffs at Activision Blizzard.
Well let me as directly from the business perspective right? I don't want to just beat up on Activision and say Oh they’re just doing X,Y,Z on purpose. Let's say they knew they were talking to shareholders, exects and everything. And everything they were doing to show bravado, or to promote and prompt themselves up as doing so well, was to protect stock price, or protect business deals we don't know about yet that are relying on Activision being a solid company… Knowing full well they were going to lay these people off and it was going to create bad news, this is kind of like let's do what we can to get ahead of it and paint ourselves in a good light, how do you feel about that being a possibility and is that even an ethical thing? Would you rather them be honest and say we’re having a tough time, knowing the stock would go down, knowing people’s retirement accounts would go down and still put it all in the forefront and tell people the truth, vs the way that they actually did it. What’s your comment or feedback on how they chose to layout that news, and if they WERE trying to protect the company, how do you feel about that ethically?
In terms of delivery of the news, I think it was a total disaster frankly. This is coming from someone who’s experienced a couple layoffs now, some worse than others. The execution of it was really terrible. One, the announcement of it following immediately, just words after bragging about record revenue… That is poor taste, poor judgement and I’m shocked that they let Bobby Kotick do that on a call that everyone can listen to. Secondly, I think we saw it on all the reports and stories from workers on the days following the announcement is just that, there were so many instances of certain studios not having a clear idea of who exactly was being laid off, workers having to wait a few days, people being told here’s the actual group being laid off in the studio and workers going to console them after work THEN coming in the next day and also finding out delayed, that they too had also been laid off. There’s just such a bad execution of communication of what’s going on and that’s just bare minimum right? If you talk about work in the nature of how they were talking about it, i would say they did come out and be truthful about what’s going on in the company and the truth is… The work that all of the employees at Activision Blizzard, that they had done created record revenue and in return, the executives that bring in $30,000,000 pay every year and give $15,000,000 job title change bonuses to their buddies, those people that make $30,000,000 a year were like, “Well you didn't make enough and we’re just going to take all these profits from your labor and we’re just going to cut you off of a job”. Yes redundancies happen and certainly with the merging of Activision Blizzard there are going to be departments that are redundant, you might not need two full marketing teams… But certainly it could have been handled better and a lot of people that got cut weren't truly redundant. The whole thing is really quite a mess and it’s very frustrating, even from someone who otherwise might be somewhat sympathetic to hard decisions having to be made sometimes by companies… It’s just the execution and the motivation and the fact that the executives are rolling in massive amounts of money every year and also cutting 800 people from their paycheck, it’s just… the whole thing is disgusting.
You know, I was sorta surprised that other competing companies didn't jump on this with a little push back. Ubisoft was the only one I felt that kind of teased that they too had record breaking profits, but they didn’t layoff anybody. The mindset, you know one of the reasons why Larry and I keep wanting to talk about this is we have worked at Activision and have seen the kind of thinking at the executive level. They are a huge leader in AAA studios, so for them to kind of lead with this type of example, even though there was a good week of coverage how everyone was denouncing this behavior, it kind of faded quicker than the Telltale situation but this situation there were a lot more employees involved and it was the exact opposite reason why you should lay anyone off. I think this had more of an impact because either Failure or Success, developers out there are defenseless and it just depends on how Bobby feels one day or another, and that’s a scary thought.
Ultimately, it’s not what Bobby Kotick thinks, because Bobby Kotick is just a representative of the shareholders and board of directors. That’s just the inherent nature of a publicly traded company. When you have a large group of wealthy people controlling the stock of the company and they pick executives they pay well enough that just follow every command and order, and destroy the long term stability of the company for the sake of short term revenue and profits for the shareholders. And frankly, I would appeal to a lot of game developers sense of systems design to understand that, because genuinely the design of a publicly traded company is to create profits for shareholders and that means finding ways to extract the value of workers labor away from the workers and channel it towards executives and shareholders… THey’re really a parasite on the process, they make games more expensive to make, they make games less creative to make and they make the industry far more stagnant in terms of being able to innovate and make more interesting games and push the medium in more exciting ways. It’s just the nature of that relationship right? Bobby Kotick doesn’t represent the companies workers, he represents the shareholders and all they care about is every 4 quarters, they get more money. And even then he’s not doing a terribly good job, because even by those standards he lays off 800 people which bumps the stock value 9% right? So that looks good going into the shareholders meeting, except for the fact that just a week or two later, the stock price was down to where it was before the layoffs happen. The bump that he laid 800 people off to get in the stock value price, that’s already gone, because that wasn’t a real bump in value, it was a short term gain so he could report it back to the shareholders. It’s just completely bullshit in terms of how to run a business stabley and with a long term view, and in terms of how you treat workers and how you value them and how you make sure that the fruits of their labor are actually coming back to them as well.