It's been almost two years now since the launch of Game Workers Unite (GWU), the most concerted effort yet to bring game developers to fight for better working conditions industry-wide. In the years since, we've seen a few stuttering steps toward collective action inside game studios, including an employee walkout at Blizzard to protest the company's controversial policy toward Hong Kong protesters and a walkout at Riot to protest proposed arbitration over sexual harassment allegations (that case was later settled without arbitration).
But while nearly half of developers supported the idea of unionizing in a GDC survey published last year, no major game studios have thus far announced formal plans to form a workers' union.
The industry's stalled labor effort got a potential shot in the arm last week, though, when GWU announced it is partnering with the Communication Workers of America (CWA) to form the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE). The move puts one of the country's biggest unions—with a reported 700,000 members represented across telecom, IT, news media, education, and more—squarely behind the effort to bring tech and gaming workers together for collective bargaining.
"CWA has decades of deep experience, knowledge, and expertise that are invaluable in helping level up the organizing ability of workers in the game industry," GWU co-founder and CODE lead organizer Emma Kinema told Ars in a recent interview. "CWA's history of organizing national campaigns across many locations all over the continent is invaluable, when thinking about the sprawling nature of many of our corporations."
Improving a “dream job”
Kinema says the CWA reached out to the nascent Game Workers Unite movement soon after it was formed and has spoken with various local chapters of the organizing effort over the last two years. In that time, and through discussions across the industry, Kinema says that developers have generally been "curious or open to the idea of unionization," in her experience.
"Ultimately, every person comes to work with some grievances and some issues they wish to be fixed or improved," she told Ars. "As folks get to know that union organizing really means coming together with your coworkers to support one another, care for one another, and improve conditions for one another, folks are usually really responsive to that."
That said, there are some unique issues in the game industry that may make it harder for workers to organize a union effort. "The vast majority of game workers are in the industry because it's our dream job, and working on games is our passion," Kinema points out. "Unfortunately, that passion can open us up to exploitation by our bosses, because we are simply grateful or content to have the job we have."
Kinema said the union is also pushing back against "the impression that unions are only for blue-collar industrial-style jobs," and that highly paid tech professionals don't need such protections. But that impression doesn't take into account the "outsourcing firms, temporary employment schemes, and low-wage positions of all sorts" that are "as essential to the industry as the more publicly visible developers at name-recognition studios," Kinema said. "The industry is not a single monolith, and we need to care about and organize all workers throughout the industry."
Even for developers with steady, salaried positions, "no one comes to work at a perfect place, with no problems, and nothing to be improved or optimized," Kinema said. "All workers have issues they face and reasons to organize. So even workers with relatively affluent positions still can benefit and effect real positive change in the world through unionization."