AFL-CIO open letter to game devs: things won't get better until you unionize

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I almost signed up to a big name as a game developer, but fortunately, my young self had an acquaintance who had actual experience as a game developer. His advice was simple as it was wise:

“Run,” he said, “Run and never look back.”


maybe that union can proofread your headlines


I used to have a bunch of statistics about game dev industry employment memorized. I don’t remember what the exact number was, but the turnover rate–as in the percentage of people who leave the industry entirely, for good–was astronomical. Something like 50% get out permanently after five years or less.

I never got in, for a bunch of reasons, but the reason I stopped trying was I realized that the conditions, particularly as a woman, would most likely turn my controlled, mild-to-moderate clinical depression into an ongoing life-or-death crisis. I was prepared to give a lot for the dream of working on games–my glasses weren’t entirely rose-tinted–but one day it just… hit me that the industry wouldn’t give me a single inch on that front in return. If my mental health meant I fell behind for even a moment, I would be chewed up and discarded without a second thought. I decided that not only did I not want to (and likely could not) live that way, I didn’t want to participate in a system where workers being that cruelly disposable was the acknowledged norm.


@doctorow as usual URL vs article title is awesome… also spell check the title.


Many moons ago the IT staff at my workplace voted to unionize. I regret voting no. Mind you there were two unions trying to represent us and the first vote was for the Teamsters which just didn’t feel like a good fit, the other was an engineers union which I would have voted yes on. Sadly there was no second vote.


Having worked in the game industry, this doesn’t surprise me. I always suspected the game industry had turnover rates similar to the porn industry. (Most of the people I worked with were fairly recent grads. The experienced people there were mostly either fantasizing about, or actively training for, a different career entirely.)

This is also why nothing changes, even though abusive working conditions (and low pay) have been standard for many years. People don’t stay and fight for better conditions - they just accept that this is how the industry is, leave and a new batch of suckers comes in who bought into the game industry propaganda that they’re lucky to work there. Eventually their bank accounts/relationships/mental health/physical health don’t allow them to continue in the industry either, and the cycle continues.


They ain’t wrong


There’s a long-standing tradition that professionals don’t unionize. That means doctors and lawyers and architects and engineers - even in situations where these people are treated like labor. I have a client who is a doctor working in an urgent care, and the hours are horrific, and they don’t need to be. That’s just how it is.

I wonder when Americans are going to figure out that mental labor is labor.


The last time I checked, the average game development career was still about 7-8 years, depending on the discipline. Some people don’t last the first year, and others – like me – don’t ever seem to do anything else.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen a lot of people tap out around the 10 year mark, simply because they want to have more time for family, for themselves, or for their true passion. I’ve also known people who irreparably damaged their health before they hit that mark.

If the work itself suits you, it’s really hard to go to anything else, both because it’s hard to find the same intellectual challenge in anything else and because it’s hard for people in other industries to take game development seriously.

It’s absolutely better now than it was in the '90s. Things are getting better all the time, if only because of the fact that a few codgers like myself continue to persist and actually try to make things better for those teams we lead. But that small individual contribution only ever goes so far. Unions make much more sense.


There are obviously some places that are worse than others, but going by my own experience, you made a good call. I wish I’d been smart enough to recognize it before it wrecked me.

“Churn and burn” is how an exec at a revered company proudly described this to me. They prioritized hiring people who didn’t have much experience because they were easier to exploit and gaslight.

Which is bizarre, because the complexity of what games are doing and the absurd speeds at which they do it make it pretty clear that game devs are way more competent than most “real programmers.”

[insert Mike Acton rant about how Excel takes 20 seconds to start up or whatever]


some places don’t let them unionize-- it is illegal for teachers to unionize in texas where i live.


So? Unionize anyway. It is an immoral law.

Just watch out for the Pinkertons.


This is why my degree in Simulation and Digital Entertainment (aka, game design) never translated into a career. I had children and needed job stability, and the market is a dumpster fire for those things. There are very few stable game companies, and there’s always a danger they’ll get snapped up in a merger or the work offshored after a game is released (whether successful or not).

IGDA’s 2017 survey reflects the problems. About half of all respondents had been in the career six years or less, showing a high volatility for burn out and turn over. 25% had been at 3 or more employers in the last five years, and another sizable portion (not broken out from those who had worked at 1 place only) had been with 2 employers. The pay is shitty when you’re starting out, and the problems with crunch time have already been well reported. Like most industries, they abuse the “manager” designation to put as many people as possible under salaries instead of hourly wages so they don’t have to pay overtime for all that extra work time during the crunch (only 18% of respondents said they received overtime pay).

But it’s an entertainment industry, to be clear. Those are always more volatile than manufactured goods, research companies, financial institutions, etc. And shit, you’re making a cool game, how awesome is that! If I had been young enough when I graduated to be able to be fluid in mobility and didn’t have kids, I probably would have still jumped at the chance for one of these jobs.


We barely have unions even for “labor”, let alone white collar. Decades of propaganda have convinced most people that unions were invented by Stalin as a way of stealing our women (because the outside is always going after the womenfolk).

Frankly, I would love to see IT unionize.


I wanted to get into game development from the time I was a little kid. When I was in high school I decided that I’d be constrained just to my own projects because the working conditions in the games industry were just awful. Everyone’s known it for years and unionizing is way overdue.


You’ve been lied to. The Texas AFT is a teachers union.


It’s not illegal to vote.

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“professionals don’t unionize”

Pilots unionize and they do quite well b/c of that. Including in “non-union” airlines.


My father was an engineer working for Chrysler, and he was in a union. I’m currently a member of a so-called ‘pink collar’ union, where many of the members are professional women (no jokes, pls.) As long as the union doesn’t become an end unto itself, unionizing can be very beneficial.