Spontaneous action on the internet is invigorating, but if all it does is create a short-term media buzz and collect anonymous missives of support, there is not much lasting momentum. As Paul Hyman asked in his May 13, 2008 Gamastura Feature, "Quality of Life: Does Anyone Still Give a Damn?"
So what should video game developers do? What do they want to do?
An additional action is possible, and that is the formation of a legal union or guild. This seems like a very large challenge, because most assume that the perception of unions in the game industry and in other high-tech industries is negative. But some prominent voices are in favor.
In a March, 2005 Gamasutra article on unionization, Paul Hyman quoted attorney Tom Buscaglia as saying, "I'm just not sure there's a way around it." In the same article, Erin Hoffman was quoted, saying, "...the only thing that will get publishers to budge is unionization, which I believe to be the best solution."
And the 2009 IGDA Quality of Life Survey shows that they are not alone. The following graphs show developer responses to two questions on unionization.
These results are more positive than some would have anticipated, but there are still a number of features of the traditional union movement that seem antithetical to the work of game development.
High mobility among video game developers is a powerful deterrent to unionization in North America because the certification and bargaining model is "enterprise-based." This means that individual unions or union locals of the same parent union are formed on a studio-by-studio basis, so all the negotiated advantages held in a collective agreement are linked to the ongoing employment relationship at that studio. This model does not fit a highly mobile industry where workers move from project to project and studio to studio; it is not worth it to fight for individual conditions at one studio if you do not intend to stay. It is also the reason people say that unions will increase production costs at one studio and make them uncompetitive compared to the guy down the street.
Mobility also poses challenges to typical union pay structures, which are based on seniority and long term service. Many see unions as anti-creative and antithetical to the meritocracy system that anchors excellence in technology-based industries.
Seniority is seen in direct contrast to the recognition of merit and to developers' self-perceptions as high achievers who continually learn, enjoy challenging assignments, and advance based on accomplishment. In this environment, reputation and skills are a driving factor to success, not necessarily time on the job. This was actually the consolation prize in the Rockstar San Diego case.
Several comments in the "Wives" online thread consoled the beleaguered team, saying that the boost to their reputations from delivering an amazing game under extreme conditions would be worth it in the end. One called it a "golden ticket" on their future resumes. They are trapped in an informal reward and punishment system linked to building a desired reputation. They are promised future benefits and rewards if they consent to overtime, but are threatened with a professional stall-out if not.
So, are unions not a viable alternative? Perhaps not in their traditional form, but other models are possible.
An industry-wide, multi-employer certification and negotiation process can address many of the above obstacles to unionization. This means that individual developers would not join a union or a union local at their studio; similar to the scope of the IGDA, they would join a single union representing video game developers across the industry -- nationally or even internationally. The agreements bargained between this union and an association of video game employers would set the standards across the industry and therefore remove the issue of studios competing against each other.
Other systems like this are in effect elsewhere. European countries are known for their centralized industrial relations systems, where most minimum standards are negotiated between unions and employer associations at the industry level. The auto sector in North America regularly engages in "pattern bargaining," where a standard template is applied across the main auto manufacturers so that none are disadvantaged with respect to the other. Unions in the film and television industries have been working under similar systems for decades.
A further legislative option can be found in Status of the Artist legislation that stems from a 1980 UNESCO recommendation. A form of this legislation is in place at the federal jurisdiction in Canada. A variant, An act respecting the professional status and conditions of engagement of performing, recording and film artists (RSQ c. S-32.1) exists in the province of Québec, Canada. This system for the performing trades allows for social insurance plans that follow you throughout your multiple employers and is an early adopter of the principle of portable rights as is used in the U.S. film industry.
Under this system, artists can also benefit from the state's health and security plan, and co-regulate the sharing out of incomes drawn royalties and residuals. Moreover, the act's provisions for respecting professional status can cover the appreciation of merit. This system promotes a minimum standard hiring contract, but allows for better conditions should the artist be more in demand or more prestigious. Similarly, individual negotiations or "above-scale deals" are a long-time industry practice in the motion picture and television unions.
In the 2009 IGDA Quality of Life survey, 64.2 percent of the 2,506 developers who responded were poorly informed about the labor laws where they live, and 63.4 percent said that they did not feel the laws would protect them sufficiently should a grievance arise with their employer. In material terms, developers are not void of motives for collective action, and yet their current individual and collective means seem unable to fix systemic problems in the industry.
Unionization is an option, but it will not be successful without a dramatic increase in knowledge among developers about what options are available in terms of union models and a greater understanding on the part of existing unions about what developers need. Maybe it is trite to think that as democratic institutions, unions are what their members make them. In the meantime, developers will rely on the good will of their employers and the success of their games as they build their reputations and individual bargaining power. And we will all wait for the next powder keg to be posted online.