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How indie devs can form their own worker cooperative

Given the current state of the games industry, there needs to be alternative ways to run indie and midsize studios. Worker cooperatives could be the solution.

Emma Kidwell, Contributor

March 19, 2019

3 Min Read

Given the current state of the games industry and anxieties like job security or worker conditions plaguing developers, there needs to be alternative ways to run indie and midsize studios. Worker cooperatives could be the solution. 

Developers from several studios spoke about the benefits (and drawbacks) of worker cooperatives, what they are, and how fellow developers can go and confidentially form their own.

Scott Benson, developer on Night in the Woods and co-owner of the worker co-op The Glory Society, opened his GDC 2019 session by outlining the positives of an egalitarian games studio. 

"There’s not someone way over your head that’s sucking up the surplus value of your labor after you get paid," Benson begins. "In worker cooperatives, everyone is sharing in that and discussing how that’s distributed.” 

Unlike a traditional triple-A studio hierarchy, a worker co-op is business owned, operated, and controlled democratically by its workers who share in the profits of their labor.

Some are more structured when it comes to organization. It boils down to one person, one vote. “It’s a democratic sort of set-up.”

Bethany Hockenberry, fellow developer on Night in the Woods and co-owner of The Glory Society chimed in, sharing the history of worker co-ops. 

"Cooperative societies have existed for centuries in various forms. Worker cooperatives rose to prominence during the industrial revolution in response to growing mass production and the emergence of industrial capitalism," she shared. 

They have often sprung up in greater numbers during economic and labor crises. "We’re in the midst of a new wave of worker cooperatives being founded."

"There’s more unionization happening because we’re in a difficult time," she added. 

Most studios operate under a top-down structure, which includes a boss (including more higher-ups, shareholders, etc.) and its workers below. 

"Your company could be really cool, however at the end of the day your boss has power. You don’t have much of a say (usually) in how much you work or are paid," Benson added.

As opposed to a worker co-op, “there aren’t bosses. Or everyone is a boss.” Tasks are getting assigned and completed by fellow workers as opposed to a boss. “It changes the dynamic of how you work together.” 

So why go co-op? There's shared control and ownership of your workplace, and the products of your labor. “You can, as a group of people, go ‘we made this.’ we all share in this success," Benson said.

There's greater accountability and participation. “You have to talk about stuff. You have to get together and talk and vote.”

There's a more equal share of profits and increased quality of work, and a greater sense of community and emotional support. "People are more invested because they feel a sense of ownership. Because you’re getting together and sharing the ups and downs of the responsibilities." 

Developers Ted Anderson (Pixel Pushers Union 512), Steve Fillby (Motion Twin), and Ian Thomas (Talespinners), all provided their personal experiences with worker co-ops, highlighting the benefits: it's a better way to develop, everyone has a voice, and there's fair distribution of profits.

Fellow devs interested in forming their own worker co-ops can click here to learn more about the process. Be sure to check out all of the resources-- it's all incredibly helpful. 

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