An Interview with an Anonymous Game Worker
Game making is big business. While there has been a recent rise in the visibility of indie or auteur game developers, much game-making happens at large companies with widespread labor issues that are at odds with the feelings that their games evoke. Like many creative industries, game companies capitalize on workers’ passion for the medium—and the fact that there is a ready supply of new recruits once people burn out or get wise to the industry’s exploitative practices.
Game Workers Unite is an international worker-run solidarity organization that connects pro-union activists with workers and allies in order to improve conditions in the game development industry. It formed in March of 2018 after workers were galvanized by a roundtable discussion at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) titled “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization.” Through their organizing, they fight against the endemic unpaid overtime, poor job security, and rampant sexism in the games industry.
We sat down and talked to an anonymous member of Game Workers Unite. Some details have been changed, to avoid the threat of retaliation.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I work for one of the biggest AAA developers. We have studios internationally, and our games are worked on by teams that range from 400 to over 1,000 people—at least our big marquee titles.
I've worked there for about six years. I came to work at a game development company because I had a passion for games—I was excited to be part of a company whose products I really enjoyed.
The game development industry is unique because it's multidisciplinary in a way that I can't really think of having analogues in any other industry. Game development is this complicated intersection of software, tech, media, and Hollywood. There are so many different kinds of skills that come into making a game. And it can often feel like it’s just a lot of pieces that are hastily thrown together. The development cycle is very, very hectic—a game never feels actualized until the last few months.
In terms of revenue, the game development industry makes more than twice what Hollywood does any given year. It’s been ahead for almost a decade now. But that's not going to the creators—not the programmers, not the QA folks, not the artists. Game development is centered in metropolitan areas like San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Paris. These are places where the rents are going up, but the pay for game workers isn’t. So more and more, we're seeing people struggling to make it in this industry.
How have the jobs changed within the gaming industry over time?
Similar to other parts of the tech sector, the game development industry is moving away from hiring people full-time and towards a gig model. It’s becoming commonplace to hire contractors and freelancers, instead of hiring full-time visual artists, sound designers, or writers for games. Or having fans submit speculative work to be used in games, paying them only a pittance.
We're also seeing executives increasingly try to pay people in exposure, particularly in the promotion of games. While most companies have dedicated marketing and community teams, there is also a trend towards trying to promote through “influencers”—often younger gamers with a sizable social media presence that will spend hours streaming their game sessions. If someone has a lot of views on their channels, the company will pitch a partnership, offering free games or flights out to flashy events—a moment in the sun. In reality, these people should be hired and paid a living wage to do this sort of promotion.
Twitch is another way that companies are exploiting players. A company will say, “Oh, your Twitch channel gets millions of views every month, why don’t you sign a deal with us?” And for a lot of these young players, maybe they've never signed a contract before. They have no idea whether what they are signing is a fair contract or if they are going to be compensated fairly. And unfortunately, with thousands of Twitch and YouTube video game personalities, they have to make hours and hours of content every week to stay relevant or they lose their viewership. Game companies will tease people with the possibility of full-time employment in one of the few cherished on-staff social media positions, in order to get them to keep grinding to stay in the good graces of the company.
In terms of the labor of game-making, if people have heard of anything, it’s often the idea of “crunch.” Could you talk a bit about that? What is your experience with crunch?
Every developer has a story involving crunch—it’s existed as long as the industry has. It's generally a three-month-per-year period of mandatory unpaid overtime, sometimes up to twenty hours a day. Three to six months is average. I've heard people say that there are crunch periods that have lasted over a year, which is extreme. I’ll say, crunch time doesn’t exist solely in the game development industry. Tech companies definitely have crunch periods, as does Hollywood. But it is particularly acute in game development.
Crunch periods have led to things like people working so long that they suffer from memory loss and anxiety attacks. There was one developer who described working for so long that he had an attack of paralysis — he went out to his car and was literally unable to move for an hour. All sorts of health problems are attributed to crunch periods. Anyone knows that working a sixteen-hour work day for three months will fuck with your health. And obviously those sorts of work hours are also detrimental to your relationships.
Crunch, in my experience, is almost entirely due to bad management practices. There have been plenty of studies that show that crunch is not only bad for your health, it’s actually ineffective and wastes money. It's not profitable. In every way, shape, and form, it is a bad labor practice that has no practical benefit. But it’s the thing that management has always done.
Crunch is contributing to a brain drain in the industry. The average burnout rate is around five or six years, after which people just quit. They can't take it anymore. They want to raise a family, but they're not making the money they need to be able to. They're too exhausted and don’t have time to do the things they want to do in life outside of work. So they leave the industry, and then we have to reinvent the wheel with a new batch of folks fresh out of college.
It's not a problem as far as management is concerned, because there are always plenty of new people that they can pay even less, who are told they should be grateful to work in this industry that they have idolized for their whole lives, who are willing to put in the same long hours. Until they burn out, and then the cycle repeats.
Now that most consoles are connected to the internet, do technological changes like digital patches and updates impact crunch time? You might expect that since we now live in a world where you can always patch a game after it is released, the pressure to crunch to get it perfect the first time might be lessened.
You would think so. Before we could patch games, you would finish the game, send it out, and then that’s the end of the project.
But the reality is that this just means you get an extra three more months to continue the crunch cycle. What ends up happening is you produce an unfinished or under-polished game that will get patched later—and creating the patch then becomes even more urgent because the game has already "gone Gold" (industry parlance for "finished and ready to ship"). There are games that come out where if you don't have internet access, you are getting a markedly different product. It’s a playable product, because first party publishers (i.e. console makers) have thresholds that games are required to meet—but barely.
The pressure this creates just makes it more intense, because when an unfinished game is going to come out, you know that if you don’t continue to work on it you will have released a shoddy product. You feel like your future is riding on fixing it with a day-one patch, because otherwise the game you’ve worked on for two or three years will review poorly, which will affect sales, and as a result you’ll get laid off. And having a game that is critically panned on your resume doesn’t look great when you go looking for your next job.
Do conditions differ between indie vs. AAA studios?
It really depends. There are some smaller independent companies which are co-ops, which is super cool. Motion Twin, who recently released a very popular game called Dead Cells, is a company of about twenty people in France who are all paid the same wage, and all have a say in everything about how the company is run. And there are definitely some smaller studios who are open to the idea of unionization.
But the finances are very different. It’s not like there is a culture of venture funding in game development, and a lot of smaller studios are folks who are doing it either on the side of another job or in their free time. So their development cycle is much, much different than for AAA. Most AAA games have a very strict two- to-three-year development cycle, whereas indie games can take up to five to ten years. And as far as compensation, working conditions, and stuff like that, it varies. It’s not as simple as, smaller studios treat people better because it’s a more familial setting or whatever. I have heard stories of small studios that are nightmares, and I've heard from people who work in AAA studios who really like their experience there. So it just depends on who you ask.
I will say that AAA studios are experts at giving the appearance that they are taking care of you. My company is constantly sending us emails emphasizing the amenities they are offering. There are rewards for working there for certain periods of time that are ludicrous when you look at them. Like if you’ve worked there for five years, you get to drive a sports car for a day. If you’ve worked there for ten years, you’ll get a paid weekend away somewhere.
And it’s like, ten years? If I’ve worked there for that long, I better be making a good living. My partner and I have plans for raising a family one day. In ten years, I don’t want to go on a weekend excursion, I want to make sure I can put my kids through college.
There is this very paternalistic way that all the game development companies treat their employees. We’re often told, “We’re one big family.”
And the workers are the children.
Yeah, exactly. It’s a way to manipulate you into feeling guilt for demanding more, for expecting a reasonable work-life balance.
Looking For Group
You’re currently involved in organizing within the game industry. How did you get involved with that?
When I started at my company six years ago, I had no nuanced political analysis, and no real idea that I could be bargaining for anything. I was just drinking the company Kool-Aid, and accepting everything they said. I really believed that the company was taking care of me. Only in the last three years have I started to piece things together through my own experiences and reading stories of labor abuses through the industry, which go back thirty to forty years—pretty much since the industry started.
I first got involved with GWU after the March 2018 GDC, which is the major annual industry conference for game developers. During GDC, there was what was effectively an anti-union panel, which galvanized people to join the organization. After I read about that, I inquired a bit more and reached out to folks on Twitter.
And immediately I was like, this is the intersection of the two things I’m most passionate about: the organizing work I’ve been doing for the last two and a half years with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and game development, the industry I have been in for the last six years. I had been in the same position for a long time and felt like I was stagnating. I was weighing whether it was worth staying in the industry. But after hearing about GWU I thought, here’s the opportunity to organize the game development industry and make it something that that lives up to the expectations that people have for it. I definitely wanted to be a part of that movement.
So after the GDC action in march I reached out to Emma, one of the founders of GWU. I learned there was no chapter where I was, and I was encouraged to start one.
Can you give a bit more background on what you do within Game Workers Unite?
GWU is a union advocacy group. Our job is to advocate for unionization in the games industry, generally advocate for game workers, and spread a grassroots movement internationally. If anyone feels alone, or that unionization is something they want to see but they don't know how to achieve it, they can reach out to us. We give training and education to workers so they can start organizing in their studios and communities.
We are a completely horizontal organization. There are no leaders, no one is “in charge.” To make things manageable and to be able to have a grassroots, bottom-up movement, we organize around local chapters so people have a place to plug into. But everyone has an equal say in the business of any chapter.
The organization has scaled up massively since starting. We went from essentially a Facebook group of frustrated developers to over twenty-five chapters internationally with thousands of supporters. We now have hundreds of members from all areas of the industry, from folks who are freelance or contractors to people who have been in the industry for years to students who are just getting interested in game development. Some have years of organizing experience, while for others this is their first foray into organizing.
I’ve never seen a movement grow so fast and so organically and remain so positive. In contrast to other groups I have been involved with, there’s far less worry about the politics of how we organize, and much more focus on making sure that people get the support they need to build the kind of industry they want to see.
We are involved with the effort to unionize, but I would say that the final goal of becoming an industrial union is many years away. It's thousands of steps away. We're on like step five. So right now we're focusing less on formally becoming a union, and more on just helping people start to organize their workplaces. And that begins with establishing some rapport with your coworkers, learning how to talk to them and identify their self-interest, seeing what they need that their company is not providing them, and seeing if you can organize around that.
Locally, we’ve started our education efforts with some basic initiatives, like giving people workplace organizing training and working with unions and organizations like Labor Notes and Tech Workers Coalition. We’ve also been learning about the history of the labor movement, reading about things like organizing in the steel industry.
We’ve started to form really good partnerships with existing unions. The stagehands union (IATSE), which is responsible for building all of the booths at GDC, has sent union organizers to our meetings to help guide us through things. Everyone I’ve spoken to in a union is very excited to see the industry unionize, which is really great.
So yeah, right now it’s still this massive scaffolding of an organization, but with a lot of exciting plans down the line.
Have there been any successful labor actions within the industry?
The only labor action I’m aware of in the game development industry has been the voice actors strike of 2016. During that strike, basically all unionized voice actors stopped voice acting for games. The strike lasted for almost a year. They won—but honestly, it wasn’t as big of a victory as their union, SAG-AFTRA, played it up to be.
The voice actors were fighting for royalties on their games. They will work on these huge products like Grand Theft Auto that make over a billion dollars, but only get paid a few hundred dollars per session. In response, CEOs tried to pit workers in the industry against each other. They would say, “Well, it wouldn't be fair to everyone else if we gave you royalties—the programmers and the designers and the artists aren’t getting royalties.” And it’s like, “No, you’re absolutely right, they all should get royalties!” They try to play us all against each other, but really we should all be in this together.
What has the reception been like with the player and fan community?
People are really interested in what we're doing. There's been a lot of media attention. Prominent game developers and respected journalists have been writing about us and what we are up to, which has been extremely good for us.
Because that's the big challenge: any unionization movement needs a big solidarity effort from the community. We need players to be on board with our efforts to unionize and understand why we're doing it, and that it is not going to detract their experiences. It’s not going to make games worse, it’s not going to delay games—all these myths that are popping up.
GWU is not just against shitty labor practices. We’re also against shady business practices, and those impact players. A good example is the recent controversy around “loot boxes.” People will design systems that require a ton of grinding and say, you could toil through this game for 100 hours in order to get all the content, or you pay us five dollars and we'll unlock the Darth Vader mask or whatever it happens to be that you want to get.
That's an exploitative business practice, and it's shitty because game workers didn’t come into this industry to make little tchotchkes to sell to people. They came into this industry because they loved the great experiences they had playing games growing up, and they wanted to contribute to that and tell their own stories. And instead they're forced into making this cheap, exploitative content.
In building an anti-capitalist framework to fight back against shitty labor practices, there is a natural alliance with players who are exploited by shitty business practices—not that they always appreciate that.
It sounds like the relationship between developers and players is pretty complicated.
It’s tough, because to some people outside of the industry there is a perception that working in games is a dream job. That making games is so fun and easy because you get to play games all day. And it’s not like that. Sometimes it’s hell, all day, and then you go home and people troll you on social media for making something that didn't live up to their standards.
It’s not just frustrating, it's something that hurts the organizing, because it makes people not empathize with your situation. People think you’re doing fine for yourself because you’re working in the games industry—you're not working in service or whatever.
And there are a lot of examples where particularly toxic fan reactions have had a real impact on people’s lives in the industry. We saw this with GamerGate, where women in game development and games media were made targets of online harassment, including death threats, and in some cases companies folded under the pressure and fired workers for standing up for themselves.
In the last few months, ArenaNet, a company that makes an MMO called Guild Wars, fired two of their workers for defending themselves on social media. One of the narrative designers wrote a long Twitter thread about a complicated narrative puzzle that affects her as an MMO narrative designer. To which some dude with no actual experience making games responded with some incredibly basic, obvious response. And so she got frustrated and tweeted back the equivalent of: “I don’t need you to mansplaining my job to me.”
That spawned this tornado of vitriol, where people were like, how dare you treat one of your customers like that. And one of her co-workers defended her by observing that as a man, surprise surprise, he’d never received this sort of treatment from the community.
The two were unceremoniously fired the next day for “failing to uphold standards of communicating with players” —basically proving to the trolls that they have power. The bosses value their purchasing power more than the well-being of their own employees.
This is absolutely a labor issue, because if these companies were unionized, there would be a defense against this. We shouldn't take this—we should have protection. We should at the very least not get fired for defending ourselves online.
Recently there was a huge exposé of the sexism that happens at Riot Games, the company that makes League of Legends. I have a friend who works at Riot who told me things that weren’t in the stories that were published—it’s just been toxic for years and years, and only has come to light recently when workers tried to defend them themselves publicly, and were fired.
This is unfortunately very common. In the game development industry, if you are a woman, or if you are trans or nonbinary or intersex, you've always had to deal with sexism or workplace discrimination, whether in the form of outright harassment or lower pay. I am hard-pressed to think of anyone that I know personally in the industry who hasn't.
And that's something you organize around.
We met with the Anonymous Game Worker in September 2018. In the days and months after our conversation, a number of new high-profile cases illustrated the volatility of the video game industry. Two days after we spoke, Telltale Games, the creator of the critically-acclaimed narrative game The Walking Dead, laid off 250 employees with no severance. A few weeks later, another 150 workers were laid off at Trion Worlds. Meanwhile, leaders at Rockstar games have been called out for speaking proudly of their companies’ exhaustive crunch periods for Red Dead Redemption 2, describing several “100-hour” weeks.