Union Reps Meet With Game Devs About Unionization

Union rep flew from LA for meeting

IATSE International President Matt Loeb speaks onstage at the 54th Annual ICG Publicists Awards Credit: Mathew Imaging/WireImage

The people who create video games may not have a union yet, but at least one international union representative tells Glixel, following a round-table meeting on the topic at GDC on Thursday, that the industry could be heading toward change.

“What I took away from today is that those people who want to be activists, who will then become representative exist and that’s the report I’m giving back to international,” said Steve Kaplan, international representative for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts.

The event drew Kaplan to San Francisco Wednesday morning because he heard it was going to be an “anti-union” talk.

“The way this discussion was billed, much to the detriment of the IDGA, was an anti-union discussion,” he said. “I know that’s how it was presented to me and why I flew up on a Wednesday morning to be here. I came here to answer that. I came here to say, ‘If you’re going to have an anti-union discussion you’re going to have it with a union rep in the room. ‘“

The GDC round-table was entitled “Union Now?” and described as a chance for game developers to share their perspective on the “challenges they face, how unions can and can't help them, and the potential benefits and disadvantages of unionization.”

More than 100 people filled a massive second-floor room in the Mascone Convention Center’s south hall, sitting in chairs that lined a square of tables and sat along the room's walls. International Game Developers Association president Jen MacLean chaired the discussion, something she later told Glixel she was invited to do by the Game Developers Conference. The round-table kicked-off with a short introduction by MacLean, who then asked both Kaplan and Katie Ryan, a representative with IATSE’s local 16, to explain what the union does.

What followed quickly became a laundry list of grievances presented by a number of those in attendance about all of the prevailing problems that game developers struggle with while making games and how a union might fix those issues.

“I see tremendous abuse from overworking employees, burning people out to inadequate compensation,” said one attendee who described the “insane mandatory crunch” that he has endured in the industry.

Others noted the industry’s common practice of staffing up to ship a game only to fire most of those employees once the game is finished. Workplace harassment, lack of overtime pay, employee intimidation, unpaid internships, not protecting marginalized developers were also discussed by those in attendance. Unions, those who spoke in the hour-long meeting said they believed, could help deal with many of those issues by leveling the playing field and giving employees a place at the table with management.

“It’s not about requiring a union to sign-off on a project or deciding who’s being employed,” said an attendee to the group. “It’s about employers talking to employees. It’s about this being a conversation. It’s about a discussion.”

While there was some discussion of potentially creating different rules for smaller companies, one person noted that any union should work to create a “floor” so that no one would be treated worse than that.

The discussion, while sometimes a bit heated, was mostly civil and ended with MacLean noting that it would be good to have further conversations on the topic. After the round-table ended, MacLean said that it’s a complicated topic.

“The IDGA’s priority is to make sure our members have access to good information,” she told Glixel. “I think it was great to have Steve and Katie there because they were able to give a lot of good factual information. I think it was good to have that discussion because there are elements of the game industry that are fundamentally broken that we need to fix. We can’t move forward in any shape without that discussion.”

Kaplan said that the only way for the game industry to start to unionize is for someone to be first, one studio has to go down that road and then others could one day follow. But, he added, they need to understand what that means.

“They need to understand what can be achieved," he said. "They need to understand what the steps to unionization are. They need to decide amongst themselves who they are going to align with or are they going to start their own organization.”

He added that he thinks that the discussion at GDC about unionization was driven by a lot of things.

“The voice actor strike left a lot of devs wondering, ‘Well, what about me?’” he said. “I think in today’s world and politics, the current administration with what they’re doing and how flagrantly they’re doing it, leaves a lot of people angry about, ‘I don’t want this to trickle down to me.’”