A sign on the window of a game store saying it is closed.

We just want what we’re owed’: workplace organising and the games industry


 

Video games and cap­i­tal­ism have a com­plex and often para­dox­i­cal rela­tion­ship. Not least is the fact that videogames are – for the major­i­ty of the ‘mar­ket’ – a func­tion of cap­i­tal and mar­ket eco­nom­ics. Games are devel­oped, mar­ket­ed and sold, as well as being played, enjoyed and talked about. They gen­er­ate huge and ever increas­ing prof­its while con­tribut­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the glob­al econ­o­my.

This is of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance for those who design, man­u­fac­ture and actu­al­ly sell these games; for the vast work­force who actu­al­ly keep the games indus­try run­ning. Increasingly, sto­ries of the poor and exploita­tive labour con­di­tions prac­tised by major devel­op­ers are com­ing to light, but these have been known for far longer by those with­in the indus­try. This extends to the use of zero hour con­tracts (or other vari­a­tions of ‘flex­i­ble hours’ which encour­age pre­car­i­ous­ness), low wages, union bust­ing, and other prac­tices of the indus­try from actu­al design through to ware­house work, machin­ing, and retail sales. I’ve heard some accounts of those in the game indus­try tak­ing col­lec­tive action and organ­is­ing around work­places to com­bat these prac­tices. That is not to say, of course, that the will and agi­ta­tion does­n’t exist to address these prob­lems more direct­ly, on a wider scale. The obsta­cles are seem­ing­ly insur­mount­able to over­come. As an overview by Ian Williams for Jacobin mag­a­zine put it, “[in the video games indus­try] we see the kind of exploita­tion nor­mal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the indus­tri­al sec­tor in cre­ative work”,1 where work­ers are sub­ject – for exam­ple – to lower wages “when com­pared to the broad­er tech sec­tor”. There is a feel­ing that despite the mas­sive prof­its gen­er­at­ed by these stu­dios – and the com­pa­nies who retail their prod­ucts, such as GAME – exploita­tion, low wages, and poor work­ing con­di­tions remain very promi­nent. An arti­cle by Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter from 2008 explored just some of the prob­lems expe­ri­enced by those in the indus­try — not least those of “exclu­sion”, “exploita­tion”, “exo­dus”, and “enjoy­ment” (because, after all, work­ers in the indus­try so often want to be doing what they love). In their study, the researchers con­clud­ed that “our analy­sis […] con­firms that the game work­place is a site of con­flict, rather than of acqui­es­cence”, but that it is also sub­ject to huge work­place pres­sures.2

But the prob­lem isn’t lim­it­ed to cre­ative and devel­op­ment staff – such as writ­ers, coders and design­ers – but also those work­ers who facil­i­tate and sup­port the indus­try. Not least are the retail, fac­to­ry and ware­house oper­a­tives, such as the 6,000 work­ers who risked los­ing their jobs after the retail­er GAME went into administration.When it ran out of cash, the com­pa­ny could not meet out­stand­ing wage pay­ments. 2,104 job loss­es were list­ed imme­di­ate­ly.

This threat of job loss­es and out­stand­ing wages was not always met with­out resis­tance. Staff of GAME Ireland respond­ed in a vari­ety of ways, includ­ing form­ing the “Game Ireland fight for your rights” group. In their state­ment, made on 13 April 2012, the work­ers observed that “we have had won­der­ful sup­port from our local TDs [deputies], Councillers, and Senators. We have had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to have our case spo­ken about dur­ing a Topical Debate in the Dáil. This not only high­light­ed our plight, but also brought up the issue of UK Companies trad­ing in Ireland, being allowed to close up their oper­a­tions in Ireland and force their employ­ees to claim their redun­dan­cy from the state whilst they remove their assets to the UK”.3 Workers claimed that many had not been given the ade­quate notice peri­od before they were made redun­dant, and demand­ed the out­stand­ing pay they were due.

The work­ers organ­ised sit-ins across eleven stores, seek­ing “legal enti­tle­ments includ­ing prop­er notice, redun­dan­cy, and wages owed”. Their pres­sure made a sig­nif­i­cant impact; where “we have forced PWC UK to appoint PWC Ireland to process statu­to­ry redun­dan­cy paper­work for our staff”, whilst “our full time staff have now been paid their due wages, with part time staff being paid 2 of their 3 weeks wages owed”. The work­ers received sup­port from local and inter­na­tion­al back­ers and sup­port­ers. It demon­strat­ed the vital­i­ty and sig­nif­i­cance of tak­ing direct action and of organ­is­ing autonomous­ly to pres­sure for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions and basic enti­tle­ments. It was a key moment in so far as it showed that, despite the often exploita­tive and pre­car­i­ous con­di­tions which many work­ers expe­ri­ence, col­lec­tive action has a very promi­nent place in agi­tat­ing for change, embod­ied in the Facebook update from one protest­ing work­er that we “just had an admin­is­tra­tor at our door, ain’t get­ting our keys! It’s all offi­cial now!”. In anoth­er store, work­ers pro­duced a writ­ten sign explain­ing their aims and objec­tives, and – in bold pen – wrote, “WE JUST WANT WHAT WERE OWED”.

But the prob­lem is dif­fer­ent again for those work­ing out­side of the major or AAA indus­tries and the retail and ware­house work that sup­ports it. Producers of inde­pen­dent games, vol­un­teers, unpaid jour­nal­ists, and oth­ers, con­tribute mass­es of bril­liant alter­na­tive work, cov­er­age and organ­i­sa­tion which – despite hav­ing been wrung through the cru­cible of GamerGate, and hav­ing had to con­tin­u­ous­ly stake out and defend their (our) cor­ner in the mar­ket – remains a dia­mond in the rough of an indus­try that has so often sac­ri­ficed qual­i­ty for prof­it and equal­i­ty for sales mar­gins. But this does not detract from the fact that inde­pen­dent or “alt” games work­ers and jour­nal­ists – who are work­ers, even if they are not employed on offi­cial rotas – still exist in rela­tion to wider social and eco­nom­ic struc­tures. They – we – have to pay rent, eat, and live. It’s why Zoe Quinn and oth­ers have ten­ta­tive­ly put for­ward the argu­ment for “Punk Games” and games work where, as she puts it, “it’s no secret inde­pen­dent games mak­ers are feel­ing the ever-increasing pull these days between mak­ing art and mak­ing rent”, “strung up between social and eco­nom­ic ten­sions”, fac­ing abuse, hope­less­ness, and a vari­ety of other pres­sures both per­son­al and social.4 Quinn’s urge for the “need for alter­na­tive spaces” with­in this indus­try is absolute­ly present. I’m not mak­ing any sort of ral­ly­ing cry here – because oth­ers have done it bet­ter and more elo­quent­ly – but show­ing that there is a real need for mutu­al aid and sol­i­dar­i­ty between inde­pen­dent work­ers and those who are employed across a range of lev­els of the indus­try, from cod­ing to stack­ing shelves. Creating these alter­na­tive spaces can take a lot of inter­est­ing forms, both with­in and out­side of the AAA indus­try.

The exam­ple of the GAME Ireland work­ers in their direct action to secure basic work­place rights is an excel­lent case in point of the fact that the AAA indus­try – how­ev­er big, how­ev­er bad and irre­spon­si­ble at times – can also be pres­surised to recog­nise those who prop it up through their work. Even if alt devel­op­ers and writ­ers and design­ers and thinkers and cura­tors are exclud­ed from those spaces, and from the com­mer­cial sup­port that the com­pa­nies seem to accu­mu­late and restrict at will, the wider games indus­try, of what­ev­er stripe, ben­e­fits from col­lec­tive action as well as from the cre­at­ing of alter­na­tive spaces where its pri­or­i­ties are inclu­sion, acces­si­bil­i­ty, and mutu­al aid. Precariousness is a dif­fi­cult expe­ri­ence to nego­ti­ate day by day, but the GAME Ireland work­ers also demon­strat­ed that by cre­at­ing spaces for mutu­al aid and sup­port, pre­car­i­ous­ness can be turned into a site for rad­i­cal change. Of course, inde­pen­dent work­ers don’t – for the most part – make any­thing near a “liv­ing wage” from their work, their cre­ativ­i­ty. Most of them are happy to do this, as long as they can pay rent, for this is a ‘labour of love’, a com­mit­ment to do the things they want to do and to cre­ate excit­ing, chal­leng­ing and inno­v­a­tive spaces with­in games and games con­ver­sa­tions. You only have to look to amaz­ing pub­li­ca­tions such as The Arcade Review or Memory Insufficient – or the cura­to­r­i­al work done by Critical Distance – to see that the com­mu­ni­ty, even remote­ly, on Twitter, is fan­tas­tic at show­ing a col­lec­tive front and in work­ing togeth­er, mean­ing­ful­ly. Even if as an indus­try the inde­pen­dent work­ers are not with­in the direct finan­cial struc­tures of the games indus­try – and do not do wage labour for it – they are still affect­ed by it, and can shape and be shaped by it, too. It’s heart­en­ing, how­ev­er, to see that many care enough to work toward cre­at­ing spaces where oppres­sion, inequal­i­ty, and neolib­er­al­ism in the games indus­try – from cod­ing to retail­ing – are chal­lenged. This is even more impor­tant now that – in the UK, at least – the coun­try faces five more years of a gov­ern­ment who pri­ori­tise aus­ter­i­ty, as an ide­o­log­i­cal weapon, to con­tin­ue to oppress the poor and the mar­gin­alised.

  1. https://​www​.jacobin​mag​.com/​2013​/​11​/​v​i​d​e​o​-​g​a​m​e​-​i​n​d​u​s​t​ry/ []
  2. N. Dyer-Witheford and G. de Peuter (2006). “EA Spouse” and the cri­sis of video game labour: enjoy­ment, exclu­sion, exploita­tion, exo­dus. Canadian Journal of Communications, 31 (3). http://​www​.cjc​-online​.ca/​i​n​d​e​x​.​p​h​p​/​j​o​u​r​n​a​l​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​v​i​e​w​/​1771​/​1893 []
  3. https://​www​.face​book​.com/​G​a​m​e​I​r​e​l​a​n​d​F​i​ght []
  4. Zoe Quinn, “Punk Games”, http://​boing​bo​ing​.net/​2015​/​03​/​16​/​p​u​n​k​-​g​a​m​e​s​.​h​tml []