Opinion: Now is the time to unionize the game industry
It’s understandable that the turbulence of global politics has drowned out a lot of other news lately--deservedly so.
But those of us who care about the game industry should continue to mark the strike against 11 game publishers by America’s SAG-AFTRA trade union, not only for the specificity of their demands but also for the simple fact that it is exposing us all to something we have thought to little about: the importance or organizing the people who make our games.
I’d like to see the majority of SAG-AFTRA’s demands met; voice actors are underappreciated and the work they do is essential both to our industry’s present and to securing the future of the medium as a whole.
But I also want to see this historic strike lead to wider conversations about whether the largest studios should unionize. It is an open secret that onerous demands are placed on the people who make our games and it’s long past time that we saw game studios as shops in want of stewards.
In responding to the SAG-AFTRA strike, the CBC reported that, “[a]dvocates for the publishers' side have argued that players care more about the visual effect of Commander Shepard darting across a battlefield than what she sounds like in dialogue scenes.”
This is fatuous on its face; Jennifer Hale’s voice acting is something that fans of the series won’t shut up about--myself included. It also seems to contradict the logic that those same publishers employ when they tout the presence of “big name” celebrity voice actors like Kevin Spacey or Martin Sheen; if people didn’t care, why bother touting a well known actor?
"Whether you’re a writer, a visual artist, a social media manager, a designer, or a programmer, you’re part of an enterprise that relies on weaving together multiple skills. That separation of labor is vital, but also makes it easy to isolate individuals and suggest their relative lack of importance to the overall project."
But beyond that, the narrative of disposability inherent in this defense points out something that should trouble every game developer at triple-A companies, regardless of what floor or department you work in: this is how management sees you. At a moment’s notice you suddenly become surplus to requirements; the fans “don’t care” about you, despite all available evidence to the contrary.
Whether you’re a writer, a visual artist, a social media manager, a designer, or a programmer, you’re part of an enterprise that relies, for its existence, on weaving together multiple skills and arts to conjure its product.
That separation of labor is vital, but also makes it easy to isolate individuals with certain skill sets and suggest their relative lack of importance to the overall project. “Art’s pretty, but it’s the programmers who really matter.”
Or: “Anyone out of a comp sci program can code, but a real artist is what makes the game come to life.” On and on, divide and conquer, pitting you all against each other, when in reality you all matter to the production of a game.
The truth is in the eyes of every game developer who’s lived through mergers, downsizing, layoffs, and crunch: a recognition that everyone rises and falls together.
Veteran journalist David Wolinsky recently published an informed report on this question that is worth everyone’s time to read. Among the abuses that unionization might resolve, he says, are schemes like Germany-based Crytek foisting all its overtime on foreign employees who were unlikely to know about the country’s strict overtime laws. Further, he notes:
A full-time employee’s Glassdoor review of Crytek from 2014 reads, “For a long period, Crytek stopped paying its employees and just kept saying, ‘Thank you for your loyalty as we move through this difficult time.’ Any company that can’t pay its employees on time is a company you don’t want to work for.”
Wolinsky catalogues similar abuses, like third party QA contractors demanding that people work for free after hours.
One of the single biggest issues here is a kind of perverse ideology--and I’m hardly the first to talk about it. The games industry is literally all fun and games: working in it is meant to be a “dream job,” a privilege. “You get to play video games for a living! How lucky!” By manufacturing entertainment, the industry manages to profit from its mantle of fun-loving unseriousness. Simply getting this close to the intimate process of making a game is supposed to be an intangible benefit that supercedes more material ones.
But we know that’s not how this works.
That tired old saw-- “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”--is, frankly, bullshit. Even if you love your work, it’s still work; it doesn’t warp the time-space continuum to allow you to spend more time with your family, or counter physical and mental exhaustion, nor does it add extra hours to the day. Work you love may be more fulfilling, but until our economy stops running on money, it should never be considered its own reward.
Yet the industry seems to thrive on this slippage between work and play, and all the people whose work goes into making video games are (perhaps quite literally) the poorer for it.
There is an irony here in that the game industry nurses an inferiority complex against the film industry--a better unionized world, by far. Part of the reason that many triple-A video games give A-list actors top billing as voice actors is that they confer the glitter dust of legitimacy on our virtual world, they signal the ever-recurring “arrival” of our industry on the doorstep of seriousness. But video games are not movies, they constitute a vast and ever changing medium with a lot to offer in its own right, and what mainstream purchase we have gained did not come from making faint pantomimes of previous artforms but by doubling down on what makes us unique.
"Unionization is about asserting that your work is unique, that it matters, and that, above all, it is necessary to make video games what they are, today, tomorrow, and for the coming century."
To wit, the striking voice actors represent an underappreciated legacy. They either came from the world of animation voice acting or came up through video games specifically, and cultivated styles and characters around their unique artform, one suited to the video game medium. A voice actor’s work is related to but profoundly distinct from the labor done by a screen actor.
As a result, our industry has minted or refined talents that ought to be bigger names in their own right, rather than playing second fiddle to the occasional A-list screen actor who moonlights for VO--talented as some are. Courtenay Taylor, Dave Fennoy, and Jennifer Hale are the stars of our medium, whose indelible characterizations have brought countless games to life in ways that so very many gamers remember with deep fondness.
We should be proud of that victory and own it rather than sheepishly trying to imitate something we’re not.
What does this have to do with unionization? The devaluing of the unique labor that makes video games video games is, unfortunately, at the heart of stymying an organized workforce. It compels you to think: "We’re not special, we’re just making children’s toys, working in a toymaking industry that is occasionally graced by the presence of real artists."
That’s absolute rot, and everyone reading this should reject that mentality forcefully. Unionization is about asserting that your work is unique, that it matters, and that, above all, it is necessary to make video games what they are, today, tomorrow, and for the coming century.
After my bromide against copying the film industry, one might wonder why I’m also arguing that the game industry imitate this one aspect of it. Simply because the truth of respecting and properly remunerating labor is transcendental: it has nothing to do with the specifics of film or game or anything else, and everything with recognizing that a fair day’s work deserves a living wage, and proper security. Nothing more or less.
As ever, there are complex details to be worked out. How large should a studio be before it unionizes? What demands are reasonable and unreasonable? Consider this column a beginning, rather than an end. A call to start a conversation that, by its very nature, must be collective. I cannot provide those answers here and now, but you can get the ball rolling. The SAG-AFTRA strike is an opportunity to have a conversation. Have at it, my dear devs.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.