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Are Game Developers Standing Up for Their Rights?

January 9, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Video game developers have other options for collective action as well.

The industry has a non-profit professional association in the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). According to its webpage, the IGDA mission is: "To advance the careers and enhance the lives of game developers by connecting members with their peers, promoting professional development, and advocating on issues that affect the developer community."

This is important, because high-tech labor markets such as new media and video game development have high mobility and limited employer investment in training; therefore, professional associations play an important role in improving their members' opportunities for finding employment in the regional labour market, helping them to improve their skills, and improving their individual negotiating positions.

According to the work of Chris Benner, Associate Professor at UC Davis, professional associations or guilds are seeing a resurgence in high-tech sectors (i.e., System Administrators' Guild, HTML Writers' Guild, Silicon Valley Web Guild).

In a 2003 article, Benner cites the words of Kynn Bartlett, founder and then president of the HTML Writers' Guild. "The term 'guild' was chosen to look back at the older, medieval-type guilds. What we liked from that model was the notion of sharing knowledge -- that building web design was something of a craft... [The term 'guild'] keeps in mind the main purpose... sharing information to make everyone successful."

However, these contemporary guilds and the IGDA do not have the same leverage as legal unions. Most importantly, the IGDA lacks the ability to exercise monopoly control over access to skilled labor. It does not regulate and restrict entry into the industry through certification and exams like other professional associations (i.e., doctors and lawyers) or like the apprenticeship systems of the craft unions. It also cannot enforce restrictions on production standards or bargain working conditions on behalf of its members.

In recent years, the IGDA has shown some interest in more direct collective action. It offers a pooled health and benefits plan for members and supports volunteer special interest groups (SIGs) on key topic areas. The Quality of Life SIG advertises a grievance committee to "manage complaints from IGDA members about employer policies that are in contravention to IGDA standards."

Examples of committees that set standards are: crediting and intellectual property committee, anti-exclusive clauses committee, and quality of life committee. On a number of occasions, the IGDA has published press releases encouraging accused studios to curb excessive overtime and other poor working conditions and indicating their intention to further investigate employee claims (i.e., KAOS Studios, Rockstar San Diego, Team Bondi).

The challenges faced by the IGDA are its reliance on volunteers and its lack of real power to impose sanctions. The IGDA can say that it is displeased, and many studios will respond to this negative "peer pressure" and the bad press it garners. After all, studios are trying to attract the best people to work for them. But there is no fallout if the IGDA is ignored. The organization must grow more powerful for that to be the case.

Another form of collective action that people in the game community have used is "whistleblowing," or mobilizing over the internet. One of the first cases was the emergence of the anonymous virtual union "Ubifree" in December of 1998. The group described working conditions at Ubisoft in France, and sent a call for Ubisoft employees around the world to join the union. The small initiative harvested a wealth of supportive messages, many of them denouncing the working conditions.

After only a few months, Ubisoft management announced some improvements and the anonymous group closed down the website/union. One improvement was the addition of an employee representative in a few committees; however, this representative was never granted any decision-making power. Recently, the Ubifree 2.0 site has also been launched, with what appears to be one person's account of the working conditions of Ubisoft Montreal.

A more successful episode known to all in the industry was the "EA Spouse" affair. In November 2004, the fiancée of a developer (later revealed to be Erin Hoffman) used her LiveJournal blog to denounce an abusive situation of constant crunch time in Electronic Arts' Los Angeles studio. Similar to the Ubifree movement, her post received thousands of comments from gaming fans and beleaguered developers at EA and other studios. This rallied a movement against EA in particular and crunch time in general. EA later banned work on Sundays and adopted a policy favoring five working days a week.

Other tell-alls or exposés have followed, such as Rockstar Spouse, 38 Studios Spouse, and a series of articles by investigative journalist Andrew McMillen about Team Bondi studio. Each received a large number of supportive or appreciative comments and were discussed widely across the game community and in the press. But none reached the notoriety or impact of EA Spouse.

This raises the question of the efficacy of these actions. It could be argued that the success of EA_spouse in motivating change was due to a confluence of factors: It was the first instance of whistleblowing about unpaid overtime and crunch, so it was incredibly cathartic to those in the industry and a real shock for those outside the industry who thought the industry was a hallmark of the new, decent, knowledge economy jobs. The timing of the post also occurred in conjunction with a class action lawsuit against EA. We now know, of course, that EA_spouse's husband was a lead plaintiff in that case. The IGDA published its first Quality of Life white paper in 2004 as well. All this means that there was a considerable amount of energy devoted to the issue of crunch at that time.

The recent Occupy movement was amazing in its ability to raise consciousness and mobilize a large population without any formal leadership. Indeed, the lack of identified leaders and spokespeople was heralded as a central feature in the grassroots and democratic ideals of the movement. However, most social movements require leadership to collect, magnify and channel the dissatisfaction of its followers.

In the wake of EA_spouse, Erin Hoffman emerged as a leader and spokeswoman for the Quality of Life movement -- but additional, ongoing, formalized leadership is lacking. Hoffman's self-regulating industry watchdog website Gamewatch has seen only sporadic activity over the years. At the level of the IGDA, the association has been in transition, with a number of executive directors; there is uneven output from the various committees. Arguably, the energy has ebbed.

The more recent outcry against crunch and unpaid overtime at Rockstar San Diego by the "Wives of Rockstar" was essentially identical to Erin Hoffman's plea, but received comparatively less attention than EA_spouse. A Rockstar employee posted a comment under the name Code Monkey 20 days after the Wives' original post. It is illustrative of the fragility of the movement, and the ability of management to appease disgruntled workers with the promise of better things to come:

...R* management have informed its San Diego employees that everyone will be given a generous and extended break after the product conclusion. Maybe I feel a bit guilty about venting in a public place about any negative aspect of a job I still adore, especially now that I've read a few press snippets that have taken quotes of my writings slightly out of context. I don't think anything I ever said was "damning."

Since no one else has, I'll say that I feel our concerns have been responded to one way or another, and it has been favorable. I think it should also be said that the long mandatory working hours for this project, at least for my own tenure, are unprecedented at San Diego in particular. They've told us that it certainly wasn't their intention to extend working hours in such a manner, and I believe them. I think we'll all pull through just fine, we'll get our time off, and I don't see this situation happening again anytime soon.

My apologies go to Rockstar for not anticipating that anything I said here could possibly have a negative impact of some kind.

In this case management apologized, gave a one-time reward, and deflected blame. It is unknown whether lasting changes were made to the problems in the development process and decision-making hierarchy that were credited with creating the "death march" by these developers. The Ubifree movement was also quickly silenced with only cursory appeasements from management.

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