Workers of the Videogames, Unite!

Last year I wrote a couple of paragraphs on the goals I would have in mind if I were to travel to San Francisco to attend GDC 2018, this year’s edition of maybe the most important and certainly the biggest conference on videogame development.

Inspired by the Matajuegos mission statement, I wrote that I wanted to listen closely to the conversations that are happening at the core of the industry and in the avant-garde games criticism, in order to bring them to Latin America.

That’s what this article is about, particularly in relation to disputes about industry unionization. But first things first.

Tuesday, November 28th

I get an email from FundAV congratulating me for receiving one of their scholarships for attending GDC 2018. The scholarship consists of a Conference & Summits pass for the event.

For this pass GDC charges 2 thousand dollars, which, according to my calculations represent more than 3 consecutive months of dining every night in some expensive restaurant from my home city, Buenos Aires. In other words, completely inaccessible to me without the scholarship, or at least reckless for a first trip and with no idea what kinds of opportunities might arise.

In the following weeks or months I buy the plane ticket to San Francisco (also very expensive), book my stay, get my passport and my US visa, which entails a couple of headaches and the very real possibility of rejection: this year, as is widely known, 3 of the people Rami Ismail had invited for his panel on game development outside the US could not attend GDC because their visas were rejected, and 2 of the people invited to replace those 3 were rejected as well.

My attendance to GDC, then, involved considerable amounts of

  • money
  • time
  • effort
  • sacrificed vacation days
  • predisposition
  • privilege
  • luck

and writing some paragraphs about my goals for attending GDC, which I mentioned at the beginning of the article, for FundAV’s selection process. All of which in my case was worth it, but in other cases it could’ve easily not been (as we’ve already said here in Matajuegos).

Friday, February 23rd

GDC publishes the complete schedule for talks and workshops to take place during the week of the Conference. In my twittersphere, one talk in particular is the target of loads of speculation. It’s called Union Now? and it’s in fact no talk at all but rather a roundtable, where at least in theory anyone who shows up will be able to participate.

The subtitle of the talk is Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization for Game Devs. The roundtable is part of the advocacy track, it won’t be recorded, and the moderator is Jen MacLean, executive director of IGDA. On Twitter, the people who talk about it share a couple of concerns:

  • The IGDA leadership is mostly made of CEOs and employers, the kind of people who’ve historically opposed unions.
  • While the use of “pros and cons” suggests an neutral approach to the issue, “consequences” has suspiciously negative connotations.
  • Given the videogame industry’s history with unpaid overtime, mass layoffs, and wages reliably inferior to those of similar positions in the rest of the tech sector, unionization is a necessity, and a “neutral” stance is not enough.
  • MacLean was the CEO of Curt Schilling’s company 38 Studios, and she left the position soon before the company declared bankruptcy in ways that were irresponsible toward both their employees and the Rhode Island government, which constituted one of the biggest controversies in games in 2012. 38 Studios left hundreds of people that would precisely have benefitted from belonging to a unionized industry to their devices.

GDC’s advocacy track is packed with roundtables presented by the IGDA, on subjects as knowingly progressive as the role in games of the LGTBQ, black, latina, jewish, and muslim communities, as well as that of women and allies, to subjects less allergic to conservatism as the relationship between game dev and paternity, writing, accessibility, open source code, localization and education.

All fascinating issues for people like me and my colleagues, but unsettlingly tainted by IGDA’s reputation and the suspicion that an organization full of businesspeople is always taking care of its public image by being progressive in absolutely every way that doesn’t hurt its member’s pockets.

The advocacy track contains two subjects this year that involve those pockets: unionization and ludopathy (legal efforts have been proposed to deal with it, which IGDA’s roundtable calls “censorship”). I see a lot concern over both these roundtables, but the former calls the most attention without a doubt.

Sunday, March 11th

Liz Ryerson (admired by the Matajuegian staff and author of the first translation we ever published) reflects on anti-union tactics and the coming roundtable in a Twitter thread that concludes with the idea of organizing a mini-protest. It’s still Sunday in California.

I reply to her that GDC 2018 is going to be my first time outside of Argentina, and that taking part in a workers’ rights protest before coming back would make the trip really worth it. She tells me she’ll see what we can do.

Monday, March 12th

Bruno Dias (who was also translated in Matajuegos) publishes How the “Advocacy Track” Fails Devs, first part of his series of articles condemning many practices of GDC and its organizer, UBM. This first part is about the separation between the “serious” GDC talks and the advocacy track. All through the week, he publishes four additional texts about the arbitrary pass system, the prohibitive geographic location, the bad labor practices, and UBM’s actions.

Liz Ryerson adds me to a Twitter chat group where a handful of people are organizing the mini-protest. It’s much later that I learn there was a smaller Facebook chat group before this one.

Tuesday, March 13th

The conversation over at Twitter becomes too big for a single channel and it moves to other, more appropriate platforms where dozens of channels emerge to cover different aspects of the union issue. This is a multifaceted and much-postponed conversation. It took a handful of people to gather for hundreds to realize how much they needed it to happen.

The number of members explodes from one minute to the next. Industry personalities who sympathize with the cause, members of the French videogame workers union (STJV) and all kinds of people argue, debate, and talk about what’s clearly becoming much more than a mini-protest.

Wednesday, March 14th

We at Matajuegos publish the original Spanish version of Prestige is for People With Money, Rumpel’s article on the problems of GDC idealization and the necessity of finding and creating accessible alternatives to whatever GDC’s supposed to offer.

As it always happens in these cases, we receive very positive and very negative responses. Some people tell us our work elevates the level of discourse in the Latin American gamedev community, some people point out an error in the text regarding Steam income distribution as if it invalidated the author’s “authority” to offer her take on the industry’s flaws.

Monday, March 19th

First day of GDC!

My flight is spectacularly delayed. I get on a plane for the first time in my life 15 hours later than anticipated. I arrive in San Francisco when all Monday talks are over. At night, I meet with Pablo Quarta (founder and silent Matajuegos collaborator) and Gabi Pella (from Estudio Escabeche) at the Golden Gate Tap Room (which is a bar, despite the grandiloquent name).

Because it’s a small world, we run into the guy who was bothered by the Steam errata on Wendsday’s Matajuegos article. The guy explains the many virtues of GDC to us and we explain to him that virtues don’t cancel defects. The guy asks us not to get offended, and starts off a pretty long and agitated monologue on the article’s many imprudences. Pablo seizes a silence to ask him if that’ll be all or if he has anything left to say. The guy, suddenly exasperated, says that this is no way to have a conversation and leaves the group. We never saw him again.

Or maybe we did but we didn’t recognize him.

Tuesday, March 20th

My first day of GDC!

I meet a lot of fantastic people and I manage to attend talks, mainly about narrative.

I keep checking the mini-protest group, which now has a logo, fanzines, stickers, buttons, a website, and is called Game Workers Unite.

At night, the first physical Game Workers Unite meeting takes place at the Metreon, the food court right in front of GDC. Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry (Night in the Woods creators) brought bags and bags of stickers and buttons. There’s also boxes and boxes of fanzines. I meet Liz Ryerson! I say I’m going to translate the group’s literature into Spanish.

There’s a bit of talk about the plan for Wednesday’s roundtable, and about yesterday’s Jen MacLean interview, “IGDA Director Says Capital, Not Unions, Will Keep Game Development Jobs Secure”. The real quote, of course, is longer and much less categorical, but it’s an important piece of data of keep in mind for the roundtable.

The literature is distributed so we can in turn give it away at GDC before the roundtable and during the rest of the week.

They tell me some guy saw people gathered and participated of the meeting without knowing exactly what it was, just trying to network in the industry.

Wednesday, March 21st

Roundtable day!

I meet even more people who are fascinating.

I give away fanzines and flyers and I attend the roundtable. The table is square, and most of the people sit against the walls forming a bigger square containing the one at the center. The layout is weird, is what I mean.

Partly due to the interventions by Game Workers Unite members, partly due to the people from STJV and Steve Kaplan (representative for the theater union IATSE), most of the conversation centers on the necessity of unionization for combatting abuse in the industry. If indeed the IGDA was planning to balance the meeting towards management’s side, they did poorly.

About MacLean’s moderation, later coverage alternates between recognizing her good intentions and denouncing her attempts at pushing the conversation towards a space less favorable to unions. The truth is probably not to be found somewhere in the middle, but perhaps it is on both extremes at the same time.

Some simple facts are made clear. In order to achieve working conditions that benefit them, people have to negotiate with their employers. Employers have by default more power to destabilize negotiations in their favor. Organizing is the only way to apply a real counterweight.

The air is charged, yet no big conflict arises. Even being there in the main room at the center of this story and at the right time, I get the feeling that the real story is everything that happened earlier this week and what’ll happen from now on.

Thursday, March 22nd

Michelle Ehrhardt writes for Unwinnable that MacLean spent the session demanding finished solutions, when it’s really about starting to elaborate them.

Friday, March 23rd

Adam Smith writes for Rock Paper Shotgun that MacLean spent the session talking about the potential abuses by unions as a possible argument against their creation. The logical conclusion for that line of reasoning, Smith says, is that videogame companies, also guilty of much less hypothetical abuses, should cease to exist.

Saturday, March 24th

I come back to Buenos Aires for Argentina’s Day of Remembrance. I try not to get myself down thinking about the nefarious relationship between my country’s history and the union movement.

I begin to organize my notes for writing this article, and I carefully read Game Workers Unite’s fanzines and flyers, that I’m going to start translating as soon as possible.

We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Further reading

  1. How the “Advocacy Track” Fails Devs by Bruno Dias
  2. On Class & Passes by Bruno Dias
  3. Hosting GDC in San Francisco Hurts Marginalized Devs by Bruno Dias
  4. How GDC Exploits Industry Veteran and Novices Alike With Shady Compensation Schemes by Bruno Dias
  5. UBM Just Doesn’t Care by Bruno Dias
  6. This is the group using GDC to bolster game studio unionization efforts by Allegra Frank (Polygon)
  7. It’s Time For Game Developers To Unionize by Jason Schreier (Kotaku)
  8. The game industry needs to change and it begins now by Adam Smith (Rock Paper Shotgun)
  9. Game Workers Unite to Jen MacLean: ‘We want to work with you’ by Katherine (Gamasutra)
  10. After Destroying Lives For Decades, Gaming Is Finally Talking Unionization by Ian Williams (Waypoint)
  11. IGDA head pledges to support growing unionization movement by John Brindle (ZAM)
  12. IGDA, Union-Busting and GDC 2018 by Michelle Ehrhardt (Unwinnable)
  13. El prestigio es para la gente con plata by Florencia Rumpel Rodríguez (Matajuegos)