Game Workers Unite to Jen MacLean: 'We want to work with you'

A member of Game Workers Unite sits down to discuss the organization's movement during GDC.

It’s been quite a ride at this week’s GDC. Amid the dreary rain and construction that’s left the Moscone Center a touch unfamiliar even for conference veterans, there’s been a movement brewing in the halls that’s also added a dash of novelty. Hope.

On Monday afternoon, just as the conference was getting started, an outfit called Game Workers Unite issued their first tweet,

“Welcome to the beginning of GDC week. Follow and look forward to seeing more from this account later in the week as our direct action gets underway.”

What followed has been a flurry of leafleting, zine-making, and, of course, debate. In a surprising move, the IGDA’s new chair, Jen MacLean, has given multiple interviews this week in which she seemed to throw cold water on the idea, ahead of a putatively non-partisan roundtable discussion at GDC which MacLean is set to chair.

She has a clear point of view on the matter, telling US Gamer’s Matt Kim that same day:

“We can't assume that there is one single cause of layoffs. So for example if you are a relatively small studio that has laid off a team, odds are you laid them off because you can't afford them anymore. A union's not going to change that, access to capital is going to change that.”

That, of course, made for a compelling headline: “IGDA Director Says Capital, Not Unions, Will Keep Game Development Jobs Secure.” But that might be an unfair way to characterize the totality of her views, according to an unlikely defender: Game Workers Unite.

On Wednesday afternoon, I spoke to a member of GWU, Emma, who emphasized that her organization’s movement—an international affair which draws membership and resources from across the world of game dev—is not trying to be confrontational, even if the IGDA is roundly criticized in their literature.

“It is disappointing to see Jen say some pretty anti-union stuff. That being said, I want to acknowledge that even though some of the headlines have been a little scathing, some of the things she’s said are more nuanced than just pure anti-union sentiment. She does seem interested in having a conversation,” Emma told me, “We really want to have that conversation too; we don’t want to come into this to protest, or fight with them, or yell.” She also paid tribute to MacLean as a strong advocate for inclusion who “does a lot of good work.”

“If the IGDA were to change paths and not be so corporately sponsored, I’d love for them to be even more involved, Emma added. “We’d love to work with studios on this issue, we’d love to work with employers, we’d love to work with the IGDA, but with or without them we need workers representation, and that’s what we’re doing.”

This, she emphasized in our conversation, was what was at the core of GWU, and why the IGDA has come in for such criticism from their ranks. Not because of the good work they’ve done, but because the organization, in their view, represents itself as an advocacy group for developers and industry workers while being beholden to the interests of their bosses.

“Their existence is reliant on corporate donations and corporate sponsorships...and when you are reliant on corporate sponsorship you’re going to prioritize those interests, of capital, ahead of workers.”

This is why one of the GWU zines extensively quoted Darius Kazemi, a developer and advocate who wrote about his time on the IGDA’s Board of Directors earlier this decade.

“Any action we could take as an organization that carried any sort of significant risk of us losing a chunk of members (or god forbid, our corporate sponsorships) would be immediately shot down by a majority of board members with some variation on the refrain, ‘My fiduciary responsibility to the organization prevents me from supporting this,’” he writes.

This, then, is at the core of the current discussion, which Emma insists need not be seen as a conflict. When I asked her if her ideal world involved a game developer’s union working alongside the IGDA and other industry organs, she agreed enthusiastically.

Corporate interests, she said, would always be represented. There needs to be an organization whose fiduciary responsibility doesn’t tie them to powerful interests that game developers may need to organize against.

“In our ideal scenario, we would love to walk in and talk to these people about these issues in a very real, practical way, and see if we can work together on this thing,” Emma told me, saying that there needed to be a place for the rank and file, from every department in a company, to organize collectively for their interests.

This expansive understanding of who makes games includes not only programmers, developers, and writers, but QA, HR, office support staff, and others.

The story, then, seems to be less about fighting with the IGDA, much less its chair, and much more about organizing making resources available to everyone in the industry. Creating a new space, in other words, rather than replacing or infiltrating someone else’s.

In addition to pointing out GWU’s international allies, like the recently formed French game dev union the STJV, Emma emphasized that the GWU couldn’t act as a union right now. Their task at GDC this year is to build support and “organize,” in her words.

“Right now we are not a union, we are advocating for unions, we are working with people on the ground in studios to share their stories, expose the exploitation, and start building that pro-union solidarity and workers organization,” she said, referring in part to how GWU has collected game dev horror stories for use in the zines and on their Twitter. “Right now we are at step one of a thousand in getting the games industry unionized. There’s a long, long road ahead and we’re going to be working our asses off.”

What would the essence of that work be?

“That means getting workers organized.”

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