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 WE’RE 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.
- https://www.jacobinmag.com/2013/11/video-game-industry/ [↩]
- 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/index.php/journal/article/view/1771/1893 [↩]
- https://www.facebook.com/GameIrelandFight [↩]
- Zoe Quinn, “Punk Games”, http://boingboing.net/2015/03/16/punk-games.html [↩]