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Unions and Workplace Representation in the Videogame Industry

by Johanna Weststar on 10/18/16 09:14:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Authors:

  • Laurence Tô, Master student in Sociology, UQAM
  • Marie-Josée Legault, Full Professor in Labor Relations, Téluq-Université du Québec
  • Johanna Weststar, Associate Professor, Department of Management and Organizational Studies, University of Western Ontario

Full Report complete with Tables and Figures available

As we indicated in a previous article for Gamasutra, a significant number of game developers are dissatisfied with their working conditions. We have documented many challenges such as: long hours, overtime compensation, arbitrary treatment, workforce diversity, restrictive NCAs and NDAs, recognition of intellectual property, job insecurity and lack of protection against employment risks.

A developer we interviewed summarized working in the game industry this way:

Yeah... Everybody’s like : “Hey! videogames, cool!” but the psychological profile to get into and remain in this is very mean, honestly. Many are leaving, I’d say 20 folks per week, have to leave just like: “I can’t stand it, it’s over”. Many seniors move to teaching, management, things like that. Many just can’t stand it. It’s human, I think. Everybody gets a sense of “Hey! videogames are gonna be cool, as in the movies!” then you reach in and reality is totally different. It’s not that jolly. It’s very cheerful but there’s as much bad as good, it’s quite even. When they step in, there’s plenty of: awesome but then there’s the bad, they can’t endure.

Poor working conditions have repercussions for workers, studios and the industry as a whole. These include stress, burn-out, work-life balance challenges, high turnover and associated recruitment, knowledge retention and management challenges. Working conditions also seem to be at the root of why many game developers enter self-employment or contract/freelance employment. In the 2014 International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Developer Satisfaction Survey (DSS), 42.3% of respondents who chose this status said did so because they wished to have more control over their working conditions (i.e. hours).

In our report we rely on data from the 2004 & 2009 IGDA Quality of Life surveys, the 2014 IGDA DSS and interviews that we have conducted with Canadian game developers. We discuss the ways that developers could protect their interests at work and explore their views about various methods. These include complaint procedures set up by their employer or through forms of employee associations including professional associations like the IGDA, or other regional groups or as yet non-existant unions. This is with the goal of determining what developers want and what forms might best suit.

We conclude that videogame developers face a representation gap - that is, their interests are not being adequately represented and protected in the workplace. 

Though some developers think that studio management can be effective in solving the individual problems raised by employees individually or as a group, a large percentage of respondents didn’t know whether the processes used in their studio were effective in solving individual or group problems raised by developers.

When asked whether they would like to see the developers in their studio unionized, following the trade union model dominant in North America, game developers support for this form of unionization rose from 35% in 2009 to 48% in 2014. As well, in 2014, a third of respondents (33%) thought that a union certification vote wouldn’t carry (due to a lack of perceived support of their co-workers); while close to another third (29%) thought it would—nearly twice as many as in 2009.

Support for unionization doesn’t mean that relations between employees and their immediate superiors aren’t good. In 2014, more than half of respondents (57%) had a good or even excellent relationship with their immediate superiors. As well, some managers and team leads seem to support unionization or at least do not oppose. In 2014, the proportion of managers against unionization was the same as that of developers. The proportion in outright favour was lower than developers in 2014, but almost the same as developers in 2009. At first glance, the results may seem surprising. But in fact, both groups have a great deal in common: they have to operate under the constraints placed on them by the project-based regime, the market, shareholders and senior management and they face similar workplace problems of insecurity and arbitrary treatment. This creates shared reasons to want unionization.

With a project-based management system and a highly mobile workforce, the video game industry presents unionization challenges. Workers don’t necessarily stay long with the same studio, changing employers as projects come and go and to pursue their own career interests. As a result, the dominant union organization model in which the benefits negotiated and set down in a collective agreement are attached to a job and are lost when an employee leaves that job does not suit game developers. Rather, a form of sector-based organization is more appropriate.

Developers seem aware of this distinction as a sector-based model won the support of a clear majority (64%) of developers in 2014. That is 16 percentage points greater than the support for a union that would represent the VGDs from a given workplace (local union). With this point of view, two-thirds of developers suffer a representation gap because they wish to be part of a union without being so.

Full Report


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