Worker strikes, let alone successful ones, are vanishingly rare in the video games industry. But in August, writers at Lovestruck, a mobile app that publishes visual romance novels, went on a 21-day strike, accusing the company of unfair pay, and won a rates increase after owner Voltage initially dismissed their demands.
This is part of a growing, global unionisation movement among game developers – a movement whose urgency has been intensified by the pandemic, according to Declan Peach, who helped found the Game Workers Unite UK union in late 2018. With rising inquiries, casework and membership since lockdown, problems from the pandemic have brought growing momentum to the union. But dire conditions in the games industry had been driving developers to unionise long before coronavirus struck.
“I was left feeling suicidal,” says David*, who had worked in the games industry for 18 years. He had just lost his job at a large UK games company and been left with severance of two weeks’ pay. His team were working on a new title in a famous game franchise, but the project was falling apart, he alleges. Management communication was nonexistent, staff would frequently take weeks off sick and head developers kept being fired. Moreover, everyone was working significant amounts of unpaid overtime.
“Nobody ever asked you to do it, but it was the normal thing in the industry,” he says. “You ‘choose’ to do overtime but in reality, to meet the expectations of senior management, I had to stay hours into the evenings every night.” Months into the project and without receiving any previous sanctions or warnings, David was fired by the company’s director.
David’s story is one of countless cases of precarious working conditions, and exemplifies the long-standing problem of “crunch” in the games industry – the practice of forcing excess overtime on to workers to produce games on budget and to a promised schedule, which often leaves them working weekends or sleeping in the office.
Two years ago, the head of Rockstar games boasted that his staff had been working “100-hour weeks” in the buildup to releasing Red Dead Redemption 2, prompting an outpouring of stories from Rockstar employees on social media and forcing the developer into urgent clarifications: founder Dan Houser said the comments applied to himself and three senior members of the writing team, rather than all staff, and that working these hours was entirely voluntary. (Rockstar has since reportedly improved conditions at the affected studios.) This year, while developing The Last of Us II, staff at Naughty Dog reported working 12-hour days, often without weekends off, according to a Kotaku investigation – Naughty Dog has not yet responded to the reports. A 2017 survey by GamesIndustry.biz found that 74% of game workers were not paid overtime but 90% were expected to regularly work it.
The campaign for change has been slow. Technology is a sector that unions have continuously struggled to break into, with claims of Google, Tesla and Amazon trying to discourage attempts to start unions. Moreover, gaming is an extremely young profession: two thirds of games developers are under the age of 35 – a demographic that trades unions have struggled to galvanise in recent decades. Game Workers Unite has seen some success in spite of those obstacles. In less than two years, and from a standing start, the group has unionised roughly 5% of all UK games workers.
Coronavirus has radically worsened the games industry’s endemic problems, say union activists. Game Workers Unite has received complaints from employees that they are being forced back to work in unsafe offices, and that companies are using the job retention scheme only to later dismiss staff. Declan says coronavirus and the problems it has caused has left a lot more games workers feeling the need to unionise.
“For many companies, because of lockdown they’ve had record profits and record user engagement,” Peach says. “It’s gotten better for the people making the money, but now that we have record users we have record work to keep them engaged … we’ve had a lot of massive overtime complaints to the union.”
* Not his real name.