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Game Developers Conference had a different vibe this year: worker solidarity

An inside look at the burgeoning labor movement within the videogame industry.

The logo of Game Workers Unite.

(Courtesy image)

The annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco was different this year.

Amid the speakers, sessions, summits and tutorials of the five-day conference, there were pins, stickers, zines and flyers, with slogans “Labor Creates Games” and “Tips for beating all the bosses.” It was the work of an amorphous and mostly anonymous new organization, Game Workers Unite, which was started to advocate for workers in the industry and encourage discussion on what a game workers’ union might look like.

“The argument is frequently that we’re not really a normal industry, we’re all just friends working together,” explained Mohini Dutta, one of the organizers of the movement. Dutta is a Brooklyn-based game designer teaching upstate this semester at Syracuse University, where she talked to Technical.ly by phone. “But people work unrealistic hours. Our goal is to highlight how this is unsustainable.”

Game developers have the reputation of being pretty well-paid group and well-worked group. According to the latest study we could find, conducted by Gamasutra in 2014, the average worker in the games industry earned $83,000. But making a decent living doesn’t necessarily mean that working conditions are good, Dutta pointed out. Particularly in the weeks before new games are launched, workers often find themselves frantically laboring at all hours. In the games industry, this is called “crunch time.”

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“Because development isn’t an easy thing to predict, [bosses] ask for unrealistic timelines of how people have to work, sometimes up to or more than 60 hours a week, and it’s really unhealthy,” Dutta explained. “They’re compensated by being given a large bonus, but it leads to a lot of worker burnout. In games especially, this kind of unsustainable work/life balance isn’t taken seriously enough as something to push back against as workers.”

To make its case, Game Workers Unite is asking workers to share their stories of mistreatment in the industry.

The group has set up an “exploited workers’ story lock-box” where workers can anonymously submit their own accounts of grueling hours, inappropriate behavior, and whatever else. It hopes that by collecting and sharing these stories, workers will understand that they’re not alone in their feelings, setting the groundwork for some type of union organization.

So far, interest in building a union is “immense” in the industry, Dutta said.

“Games in general its a positive industry in many ways, people are very passionate,” she explained. “But there’s a fear that if people speak out they’ll be blacklisted. So we’re trying to offset that by sharing experiences at least anonymously. At this point we’re using the momentum from GDC to build up the organization and think of what a union could look like.”

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