Video game labour is still in need of unionization

Nine months ago, Telltale Games officially closed its doors after firing hundreds of its employees without proper notice or severance. What emerged afterwards was a narrative of persistent mismanagement, creative stagnation, financial unsustainability, and never-ending crunch that brought down one of the most beloved and exciting developers of our time.

In November, I wrote an article arguing for unionization in protecting game developers. Since then, the deluge of recent news has had me extremely worried about the state of the industry, and the fate of the mistreated and overworked game developers. From a culture of sexism and forced arbitration at Riot Games, to the mistreatment and discrimination faced by QA testers at NetherRealm Studios and Treyarch, to the punishing patterns of crunch time endemic across the entire industry, game development has never seemed more exploitative.

Let’s look at BioWare, creators of Mass Effect and Dragon Age and the gaming pride and joy of Edmonton. In April, Kotaku published a damning exposé on the development of their newest game Anthem. This revealed indecisive and stubborn management, constant technical issues with the notoriously difficult Frostbite engine, and a protracted seven-year development cycle where the game was crunched in the last 18 months before release. Depression, anxiety attacks, and burnout are reported to be a common epidemic within BioWare, costing them numerous veteran departures over the years and “stress casualties,” where developers don’t come to work for weeks or months on end, and sometimes never return.

I attended E3 for the first time this year, and while I did revel in the expensive advertising and glossy press conferences at the time, I feel some sadness and guilt looking at all those high-budget AAA releases on display. When I play Mortal Kombat 11 now, I worry about the quality assurance testers who clocked in hundreds of hours, harassed and intimidated by coworkers and bosses, paid and treated like dirt for their efforts. When I watch the trailers for Cyberpunk 2077, I think about the horror stories of high-profile releases like Halo 2, of developers throwing years of work away and physically and emotionally killing themselves to complete something to be enjoyed by millions.

As I am nearing completion of my Certificate in Computer Game Development at the University of Alberta, I am left wondering: is this what I have to look forward to? Is this what awaits me when I go to work in the industry? Soul-destroying crunch? Toxic office politics?

Or maybe I’m part of the problem. The video game industry frequently refers to its labour as driven by passion, but also by privilege. “We should be grateful for the ability to make video games,” they tell us, and we can be easily replaced by the next summer wave of hungry game developer graduates.

I believe that there is a way out of this. As I have written in the past, unionization can help developers protect their worker’s rights, guaranteeing severance and healthcare, and promoting self-advocacy through collective action. “Game Workers Unite” is an international advocacy group that has worked to inform, organize, connect and support game developers and push for solidarity and unionization. Their efforts have helped to draw public attention and scrutiny against exploitative working conditions in the industry. 

Unionization, while historically disparaged in the tech industry, is the only way to protect game developers and ensure the ethical wellbeing and sustainability of the games that we play. No game is worth such a massive human cost.

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