Nearly Half of the Videogame Industry Wants to Form A Union—Can Game Development Companies Avoid This Boss Fight?
It’s a secret to nobody that the games industry has evolved into a huge economic and corporate force. The global games market, valued at $134 billion in 20181, continues to grow steadily with no signs of slowing down. But even though the market is evolving, some unpleasant relics from earlier times in the industry haven’t changed.
Specifically, the 60-100 hours-per-week “crunch times” that studios endure leading up to release milestones are just as bad today as they were in the 80s—and have arguably gotten even worse. Many developers see crunch time as an unavoidable expectation of the field, but others in the industry feel that it’s an unsustainable concept that is being abused. A recent industry survey suggests that crunch time and similar issues are why nearly half of employees in the game development industry are looking to become union represented.
Only 16% of surveyed game industry professionals thought a union was a bad idea.
The Game Developers Conference (“GDC”) released the results of its annual “State of the Industry” survey on January 24, 2019.2 GDC surveyed almost 4,000 game industry professionals about different aspects of their business and the industry as a whole. Several survey questions addressed the time and labor spent developing a game.
Developers and publishers should take particular note of the high number of game industry professionals who believe that it’s time to organize a game industry union. Almost half (47%) of the 4,000 people surveyed said “yes,” workers should unionize, and another 26% said “maybe” they should unionize. Only 16% thought that workers should not unionize.
The survey helpfully allowed respondents to explain their answers. Those explanations focused on repeated unreasonable deadlines, ever-increasing periods of crunch time to meet those deadlines, and a perceived commoditization by the industry that treats programmers, writers, and artists as interchangeable cogs in the game development machine.
GDC’s survey also asked whether the respondents thought that unionization would actually happen, and those numbers were much less certain. Only 21% thought that a union would be formed, 24% said a union would not form, and another 39% said only “maybe.” One stated reason for that doubt was the respondent’s concern that, because there are so many people eager to work in the games industry, development companies could simply lay off pro-union employees and instead hire employees with fewer demands.
When half the industry is saying something, everyone should listen—especially game companies.
Game development and publishing companies should be paying real attention to these concerns. Employers have traditionally been concerned about the detrimental impact of unions on the employers’ flexibility, innovation, efficiency, and ability to react quickly to market, industry, and competitive challenges and developments. Those are important concerns to any company, but are even more critical in the constantly adapting game development industry.
So when half of the workforce says that it’s in favor of forming a union, that assertion should be a strong reality check for any company that may have previously dismissed the threat of a union as “too unlikely.” And even though most of the GDC respondents thought a union was unlikely to actually form, history has shown that it doesn’t take much to turn a spark into a flame—especially in today’s age of social media.
But—and this is important—developers and publishers don’t have to accept unionization as an inevitability. While nothing is certain, there are steps that companies can take to address employee concerns and help forestall the unionization process. The attorneys at Ryley, Carlock & Applewhite have a long and successful history of both 1) helping employers implement policies, procedures, strategies, and employment terms that minimize the risk of union organization; and 2) assisting employers whose employees have chosen union representation to minimize the adverse impact of that representation on the conduct of the employer’s business.
1 See, for example, the year-to-year figures published by NewZoo, a games-focused market research company.
2 If you would like a copy of the survey, please feel free to send me an email.