During the week of March 18, a convention center in midtown San Francisco hosted the annual Game Developers Conference. The conference, which usually acts as an international meeting of workers involved in the creation of video games, including artists, writers, programmers, and others, this year marked the anniversary of the formation of Game Workers Unite, an organization advocating for the organization and unionization of the games industry.
Since last year, Game Workers Unite has expanded exponentially, coordinating several dozen active union campaigns worldwide, and opening a chapter in the UK. Fittingly, labor issues and unionization took center stage at the conference throughout the week, both figuratively and literally.
Organizing in the game industry
A recent survey released by the conference organizers found that 49 percent of game workers are actively pro-union, with only 16 percent currently not sympathetic – figures that were clearly reflected throughout the proceedings of the conference.
Game Workers Unite organizers from around the world gathered at the convention to distribute informative pamphlets, zines describing what unions are, and how to organize within a workplace, cards detailing CEO net worth and income compared to average worker salary at their companies, and pro-union buttons and stickers to thousands of workers in the games industry from all areas of the world. Conference-goers read and shared resources, some openly wearing the buttons and stickers in support of the effort. Some even told organizers that they were about to leave the heavily exploitative industry, but Game Workers Unite gave them hope and the inspiration to stay in order to win better conditions for themselves and other workers.
Alongside the more informal presence of the organizers at the conference, there were several official panels and roundtable discussion sessions about unionization. One panel entitled ‘Lessons From Labor Union Organizers’ included Game Workers Unite co-founder Emma Kinema, Game Workers Unite UK Treasurer Kevin Agwaze, SAG-AFTRA organizer Linda Dao, WGA-East Director of Organizing Justin Molito, and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, who had previously published an open letter calling for the industry to unionize and declaring the AFL-CIO’s willingness to support the effort.
The panelists discussed challenges they faced in organizing and lessons they had learned. Notably, panelists pointed out the recent growth of organized labor, talked about a “movement approach” to labor organizing and spoke to the need to build communities as a part of nurturing growing union campaigns. Shuler summed up the current state of the labor struggle as a “movement moment,” where workers across many industries – teachers from West Virginia to Oklahoma to California, and hospital workers in California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Illinois and Rhode Island showing inspiring examples – are suddenly and energetically organizing, nationally and internationally, not only within individual workplaces, but also across whole industries.
At another panel talk, “Embracing the Co-Op Studio Model in Indie Games”, organizers from Game Workers Unite and workers from cooperatively-owned game studios, including Talespinners, The Glory Society, Pixel Pushers Union 512, and Motion Twin (the latter two founded by self-identified socialists), discussed the process of founding worker cooperatives for creating games, alongside the history of the model and their role in workers’ struggles.
There was also a two-part roundtable discussion which took place over two days, where workers in the industry could openly discuss the struggles they faced in the workplace and how they could begin organizing a union campaign in confidence. Members of Game Workers Unite answered practical questions from the workers in the room and addressed their concerns with getting their own unions started. Afterward, there was further discussion and literature distribution outside the conference room.
Workers’ struggles and the struggle against fascism
While the ins and outs of unionization and other forms of worker organizing were being discussed at main events during the main hours of the conference, at the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Choice Awards event, the struggle against fascism and the game industry’s role in it were highlighted and connected to the labor struggle.
While wearing a prominent “UNION NOW” pin, Meg Jayanth, a freelance writer who had previously won an award for 80 Days, an anti-colonialist, anti-racist, feminist game, gave a speech at the Independent Games Festival Awards that brought attention to the way the right-wing GamerGate movement had laid the foundation for the growing fascist organizing that led to the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand.
“It fueled a monster who went to a mosque with murder in his heart, and if we don’t utterly, and vocally, and wholly reject these people – these Nazis, and fascists, and white supremacists – then we are inviting them in. If we make room for them, then there is no room for anyone else. And what we represent here tonight must stand in opposition to them. And we have to do it together.”
Continuing later with the closing speech for the Independent Game Festival Awards, Jayanth spoke to the need for better working conditions for all game workers, especially marginalized workers. “We want bread, and we want roses, too. If our industry is broken, then so are our lives. And if we don’t value all kinds of people, how are we going to be able to create the conditions for all kinds of work?”
Militant labor organizing to defend against exploitation and fascism
Game Developers Conference 2019 has shown the growing need for unionization in the industry, the growing class consciousness of workers in general, the international connections between workers and the connection between labor struggles and the struggle against fascism and white supremacy. The organizing of Game Workers Unite at this year’s conference has helped to grow the confidence of and solidarity between workers in the industry, all over the world. The organization of game workers will allow them to begin resisting the absurd level of exploitation they have been put through, along with the attacks from fascists and white supremacists that have, until now, pushed out the most marginalized among them.