GameDev Industry is Suffering From Stockholm Syndrome – But Trade Unions Can Help!

As this dev blog is set on the backdrop of Labour Day (1st of May), we’re taking the topical opportunity to write about a thing that interests us personally, and that’s trade unions, and their possible impact on the gamedev industry.

Hello from Gamechuck. This article was written as a result of our internal discussions and includes thoughts from Lucija (who is drafting the collective agreement in our company), Alex (the managing director), and Jan (our elected union representative).

As this dev blog is set on the backdrop of Labour Day (1st of May), we’re taking the topical opportunity to write about a thing that interests us personally, and that’s trade unions.

As you probably heard, this is becoming a thing in the game development industry, with large op-eds like this one popping up here and there every now and then.

Things suck

Last year we visited many industry events and were happy to see working conditions becoming more and more of a topic there as well as in media. Just last year Reboot Develop in Dubrovnik hosted a wonderful lecture “Game Creators and the Quest for Worker Rights” from Kate Edwards, the CEO of Geogrify and the former Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA).

Even if a conference has no worker-themed talks, you never fail to hear at least a few “personal horror stories” from keynote speakers from their experiences working with the big leagues. It’s always a similar story – how the CEO or board of this or that company made a series of bad decisions that the workforce couldn’t do anything about or had no say in.

And then later, of course, they all got sacked as a direct result of those bad decisions, and so on and so forth. Not to mention general office mobbing and similar issues. For example, we all know the story of Telltale’s toxic management.

In addition, the GameDev industry is plagued with cases and allegations of sexual harassment.

So, if you’re a rookie ogling to go into game development, beware: the conditions often suck with rare but noteworthy exceptions, however, crunch time, low wages, corporate reshuffling, management incompetency and toxicity is rampant. In fact, it’s so bad, that people in the industry don’t want to recommend working in their industry to a friend.

So why are people still working at an industry they wouldn’t even recommend to a friend? And if it’s that bad, and they are experts (and most of them are driven, clever, creative experts in the field!), why don’t they just leave? Go work in other fields? It’s like the whole industry suffers from Stockholm syndrome.

Why do things suck?

However, things will not stay that way forever. We’re reaching a critical point, and finally moving from a standstill, it seems.

Why is it coming so slow, though? Well, the “common wisdom” we hear is that people who like to work in game-dev are willing to accept compromises in order to pursue their dreams.

Wage cuts and long working hours are a small price to pay for the “glamorous” lifestyle, right? And perhaps, the argument goes, so are mobbing, sexual harassment, various types of discrimination (age, gender, race) and the omnipresent toxicity.

But how is wishing to work in a creative industry that different from, for example, the film industry? Which is famous for its writers’ guild strikes and tough negotiations.

And it’s not like game development is inherently not lucrative; it’s a huge booming industry, at least when it comes to revenues.

Expenditures, however, are a more scarce information on the internet, but they too pale in comparison to the movie business (just compare your average AAA movie vs game costs, but be sure to count in marketing costs, which games usually sum up together with production, but movie budgets usually don’t, due to the fact that it’s usually handled by distributors).

It is a conundrum, but one with an easy explanation, in our opinion. It seems that the main issue at hand is not the lack of money, nor the love which turns a blind eye to injustices, but the fact game development workers are not organised. When there is no organised workforce to counterbalance the scales, crazy things like crunch (meaning: unlimited overtime forever) are just accepted as normal in the industry.

Sometimes, sure, it can’t be avoided. Many people decide to pursue their dreams of building a game-development company (myself included) and work for years on minimal earnings until they hit a break and achieve financial stability.

The big financial difference here, in our opinion, is the endgame. If the game succeeds big-time, the owners of the studio are the ones who reap the profits. If it flops, and downsizing starts, they are the last ones who are going to be thrown out of the company to seek a new job, and so on.

How to make things not suck?

In cases where extreme crunch is happening, a revenue share of the game along with the base salary would make more sense. Why not share the percentage of the game profits with all of the developers? Hollywood often shares percentages with composers, directors, actors… Why would our industry lag behind?  

In addition to normal wages and fees, why not also share percentages with the whole development team – programmers, artists, sound designers? Not to mention a say in the direction of the company. Is a strategic move too risky, and will it likely end in everyone getting sacked, and all those unpaid overtimes will have been for nothing? Who has a say in it? Definitely not the workforce…

However, revenue sharing only solves one part of the equation. Crunch still doesn’t make sense health-wise or work-life-balance-wise. It should still be avoided by careful planning and by the push from the workforce to not over-promise. Stability is key.

Perhaps it’s hard to provide stability in a small company that’s just starting out, but that’s all the more reason to democratize the whole process and make everything transparent to the workforce, not just show up out of the blue one day and declare that the entire company is now bankrupt, and everyone needs to pack up and go home.

And we haven’t even mentioned the abysmal crediting practices.

How hard can it be to give credit where credit is due? If you’re truly not sure how to approach this problem, the IGDA published clear guidelines that provide solutions to various issues, including the right to put your work in the resume.

Some would probably say there’s no issue here at all. “It’s a free country, they signed an agreement!” and that sort of stuff.

We think that sort of talk is a good starting point – people DO sign up and work for these companies, for all sorts of reasons that are not ours to discuss. However, if we leave it at that, we implicitly agree to continue nurturing a highly exploitative industry with rampant crunch culture, mobbing, sexual harassment, questionable hiring processes, and other dehumanizing practices.  An industry many of us would not recommend going in.

If all of us in the industry wish to transform it into a place *worth working in*, and not an industry that leaves people with lasting trauma, the fact that “people agreed to work, they can always leave” is not a big consolation… And if the movie industry is any indication, a good way to change the kinds of agreements that are getting signed on a large scale basis, is workforce organisation.

Putting words into action

Well, this was all fine, putting our thoughts to paper and all, but what are we actually doing except talking about organising?

One of the more historically famous ways of organising, which brought us the 8-hour-workday, the holidays, the weekends and many more wonderful things, is joining a union.

That’s why many of our employees decided to join a local union and start working on this. Currently, we’re all drafting a collective labour agreement that will address all these issues.

Perhaps it’s a bit too much for a small indie studio? A collective agreement when a company is still mostly a bunch of friends and we’re just starting out with nary a few small titles behind us? Perhaps. But the power of the union is in its size.

We’re the first game development company in Croatia to be majorly unionized (or at all, as far as we’re informed), but once we’ve wrinkled out the collective agreement, and shown that it’s not only good for workers, but for the long-term health of the company as well, we hope this will have a rippling effect.

For this novel task, of “breaking through” to a completely non-unionised industry, you can’t just form a new union yourself. You need experts who have been doing this for decades, who understand industrial relations, who have experience with what can pass in local courts, and what hurdles are usually in place.

We have contacted several unions in Croatia to help us in this mission. Some unions were understandably not interested in the hard work it takes to break through to such a small industry, one they know nothing about (the hard work of breaking through that actually defined unions back in their heyday in the 19th century).

However, we managed to find a great fighting trade union, which is ready to take on this task with us – The New Union (Novi Sindikat).

They have a reputation for defending workers even in lost causes, they even accept and help out workers who join the union alone. Union fees from a single member often aren’t enough to pay for the gasoline to go on-site and investigate, but they always do, even if it’s just one. For them, it’s more of a calling than a job, and they have the successes to prove it.

We’re currently working on a draft of the collective agreement, proposing amendments to the existing articles and provisions, and helping the union understand the specifics of the game development industry, so it could implement legal mechanisms to prevent the oft-cited failings and improve the working conditions for (hopefully, one day) everyone in the video game industry in Croatia and the region.

For example, a standard collective agreement in Croatia does not specify e.g. fair crediting practices (this obviously isn’t an issue in, for example, the textile industry), so it up to us to propose amendments to articles and provisions, which are then properly translated into legal terms by the union’s lawyers.

Lucija has taken it upon herself to handle the details regarding the collective agreement, and we have also voted in a union representative of the company for any problems that might arise, that being Jan (our lead writer).

Also, Lucija has since gotten in touch with Game Workers Unite, who will probably help us out with tips and experience as well.

What’s next?

It’s hard to say what’s next.

We believe it’s a “smart” step to have started a union initiative in our cozy and friendly atmosphere and once we’ve got all the wrinkles out, start spreading the news and hopefully getting others interested as well.

These are all uncharted territories, but if we can do our part in improving the working conditions for workers in game development, we’d be happy to.

But it’s definitely a long and difficult road, with many obstacles, including even from within the game development industry workers, who often have many misconceptions about the reasons behind it.

If you’re interested in how we’re faring so far, or would just like to talk to us about it from a game development or work-rights related perspective, or even better, propose how we could improve the agreement, we’re always available on our Discord server (Alex = patkelus, Lucija = lucebend, Jan = Jan) as well as Twitter and Facebook (Lucija handles @gamechuckdev) and other means as well (for example you can mail us at [email protected]).

Till next time! And happy Labour Day!

Disclaimer: This post has been originally published on 30 April on our dev blog. All images were linked from Pixabay.

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