A brutal wave of layoffs has hit workers in the video game industry. Last year saw a 700% increase in layoffs compared to 2022 both in tech and in games specifically, with industry leaders like Epic, Bioware, Bungie, EA, Blizzard, as well as smaller studios laying off significant portions of their teams. Now in January of 2024 alone we are already approaching the numbers from the entirety of 2023. This year opened with mass layoffs at Unity, the company that makes the world’s most widely used game-making tools, when they fired a full 25% of their employees – 1,800 workers – in one fell swoop on January 8th. This decision, cruelly pitched as a “company reset,” followed disastrous missteps by company management last year.
The game industry is certainly not unique in making workers pay for the mistakes of management or the ups and downs of the market. This can take the form of layoffs, it could also be delayed raises, reduced starting wages, fewer benefits – but the main tool for game industry bosses is crunch.
“Crunch time” is the period before a game’s release where workers are asked to push themselves to stay late fixing issues and finalizing features so that a game can be released on time. When, nonetheless, the game does not come out on time, crunch is extended. A recent survey found over half of developers experienced crunch in the past two years. Workers on Cyberpunk 2077 reported being asked to work long hours and six-day weeks for over a year. There are studios where crunch is practically a permanent condition.
In recent years, workers have turned to organizing and unionization to address crunch and other workplace issues. In 2022, 28 Quality Assurance (QA) testers at the Activision Blizzard subsidiary Raven Software voted 19-3 to form a union. Last January, 300 QA workers at ZeniMax successfully unionized. QA workers, who are critical to the development process, typically make much lower wages than others in game development with an average wage of around $18/hr nationally. The industry is able to exploit this large section of its workforce because QA is one of the few ways to get your “foot in the door” in the industry without specialized education.
Stopping crunch is usually a leading demand in these organizing drives. At times it can be hard to pin down why exactly crunch happens and who is to blame. Unrealistic deadlines, studio heads over-promising, sweeping last-minute changes, whatever it may be – for workers in this industry it is a widely shared experience. Regardless of why it happens in each case, it’s undeniable that management systematically benefits from the lengthening of the work day, and we lose out when we make sacrifices in our lives to accommodate crunch.
Sexism and Harassment
Even without formal unions, workers have taken action to force change. One of the most high-profile examples of this was when over 1,000 Blizzard workers walked off the job against sexual harassment and corporate sexism. Workers at Riot Games also organized a mass walkout after an investigation that exposed the hostile work environment for women in particular. Workers who have taken risks in order to engage in these types of bold actions are leading the way for a wider and more powerful movement to develop in the coming years that can change the culture at work.
While some studios have a particularly egregious “frat house”-like atmosphere, the general problem of sexism and unfair treatment of women and nonbinary people is widespread and not limited to a few studios. Their work may be considered less valuable for no justifiable reason, they’re passed over for promotions, and they may face harassment at work. Some of this is rooted in the history of video games, which used to be a male-dominated pastime, but it’s no coincidence that many of the worst offenders are in the top leadership of these studios. The culture benefits them. Underpaying a whole section of workers keeps costs down, and when workers are divided by sexism (or racism, transphobia, etc.), these dynamics can be an obstacle to banding together in solidarity to extract concessions from the company.
Unfortunately, Human Resources departments (HR) are not on the side of workers in these situations. HR wants any issues to stay behind closed doors and ultimately exists to protect the company. Even when HR does help in a few individual incidents, it’s clear that HR will not be the path to uprooting the widespread culture in the industry. This is a task for an organized grassroots movement across the whole industry, and the union movement can and should be the heart of that.
Are We All in the Same Boat?
There can be a real sense, especially at smaller studios, that workers and management are all in the same boat, working together against the competition in the market. But this idea falls apart when we look at who wins the most in the case of success, and especially, who is at the most risk if things do not go well. Why do CEOs and upper executives get to just carry on and pivot their business strategy while the workforce is decimated with layoffs? Why are we discouraged from talking about wages, benefits, raises, and grievances with our coworkers? We need a union precisely because we’re not in the same boat. We need to organize together if we want to discuss, defend, and improve our working conditions and shift the culture of the workplace.
Some recent union drives have unfortunately missed this fundamental point, and instead have doubled down on the “team concept” advocated by management. The argument is that the company should come to its senses and realize that a union is good for everyone – workers and management. The risk here is that workers are unprepared when the boss, understanding the reality of the situation, inevitably goes to great lengths to bust the union. They know the union threatens their “right” to the greatest possible share of the profits.
Even in spite of some weaknesses, every new union formed is a huge win for game industry workers, who have only just begun to organize. We need to grow this movement and organize wider within these companies so our unions can encompass all non-management employees in a studio. This can make more durable unions that are not isolated within the company and have more collective power.
Workers in the game industry should organize around clear demands that could address widely felt issues. Every workplace is different, but the following are broadly applicable and can serve as a starting point:
- End crunch. Rather than long hours, weekend work, and intensified work days, we need realistic deadlines and for our own work estimates to be the main factor in determining the release schedule.
- Significant raises for Quality Assurance workers, who are systematically underpaid across the industry.
- We need a united struggle against sexism and sexual harassment at work, against “frat house” culture which is particularly dangerous for women and LGBTQ people, and for equal pay for equal work.
- Companies threatening layoffs must be transparent about their financial situation and financial history so we know if a crisis is genuine, how it happened, and who is responsible for it.
- Executives and investors can not be trusted to use recent advances in Artificial Intelligence in a way that helps workers or improves the quality of our products. AI can be a tool for workers but must not be a replacement for us.
- We are not organizing to secure a relative “privilege” compared to the rest of the working class – all workers everywhere should have a union and we are in active solidarity with all of those efforts.
Just like everything else in the capitalist system, games have become industrialized and turned into vehicles for profitable investment. This process over the past few decades has made the industry more and more like other industries. We need to recognize that, just like auto workers, baristas, and film writers, we too are in a battle with the employer over wages, working conditions, and control of our labor.