The State of the Union: GDC, Jen MacLean, and Game Workers Unite

Games Features GDC
The State of the Union: GDC, Jen MacLean, and Game Workers Unite

There were a number of valid concerns and hot topics leading up to GDC 2018, but among the most important was unionization in games development. Both in an official capacity and on a grassroots level, the discussion about the organizing and banding together of the industry’s most vulnerable members was on everyone’s mind, from the student to the seasoned game designer.

The two biggest events of the week centered on the movement Game Workers Unite and an IDGA roundtable discussion hosted by IDGA executive director Jen MacLean. The former was born partially in response to the latter: Game Workers Unite came about in the wake of the roundtable’s announcement, and concern over the wording of the discussion’s description, which read in part: “what unionization could mean for game devs—including outcomes both good and bad.” Combined with a dismissive Kotaku interview and a conversation with USGamer that hardly inspired confidence (in which MacLean stated capital, not unions, would save industry jobs), the question hung in the air: could the leaders of the industry’s organizations most dedicated to advocating for businesses, not employees, possibly hope to protect and sympathize with its workers?

Seeking the answer to that question was Liz Ryerson, one of the organizers of Game Workers Unite. After the announcement of the IGDA roundtable, she reached out on Twitter to debate Jen MacLean’s position on unionization, landing on the conclusion that a mini-protest should be formed during the session to show support and solidarity for organizing workers. The ensuing Discord group decided to create and distribute literature and buttons (created by Night in the Woods developer Scott Benson) during the event to raise awareness, as well as attend the roundtable discussion to see what the IDGA had to say, hoping that, when faced with real people, the organization might be held accountable.

There was a lot of anticipation leading up to the event and unsurprisingly, the roundtable was over capacity. Many folks remained outside to show their support, including Ryerson and Paste Magazine’s Dante Douglas. Says Ryerson, “The whole intent was to get as many people to show up in support of unionization as possible so that the IGDA would have to address those people’s concerns face-to-face.” And it seemed to have worked. The limited space was far too small to hold the crowd—and the vast majority were in support of unions. “Many people afterwards told me that it felt like it was the entire room vs. MacLean.”

From the people I’ve spoken to who were at the discussion, and examining the livetweets of other attendees present at the time, the talk consisted mostly of people sharing their personal stories and arguing for the need for unions, with MacLean playing “devil’s advocate,” offering resistance to every point raised. Leading up to the show, many cautioned against interpreting the IGDA’s approach cynically, but from the eyewitness accounts, the alarm may have been justified. “MacLean had a clear anti-union agenda and attempted to drive the discussion that way despite strong sentiment to the contrary in the room,” one developer told me. “She was pretty rude, talking over people and constantly telling us how little time we had to discuss while taking a lot of that time to restate her points and questions. She also tried to control the discussion by directing the volunteers with the microphone to specific people, and demanding it back after just one or two people got the chance to speak. There was a lot of discussion about improving education that got twisted by MacLean into unions controlling who gets hired.” At one point she even seemed to exhibit a bizarre streak of ableism, steering the conversation towards “aptitude,” “implying that disabled people inherently lacked aptitude for the job” and strongly suggesting they didn’t deserve equal pay or special accommodations for their condition, declaring that “everyone in the room had a disability” in a tone, my source adds, “that said ‘get over yourselves’”.

Another developer corroborated, “MacLean did mention aptitude several times, implying, in my mind, that unions would let in people who weren’t qualified for the job. [T]he comment about ‘we all have a disability, visible or invisible’ …I think was a very tone-deaf way of saying something like ‘Each of us is struggling with something,’ but of course totally erases people with actual disabilities. She did seem to be pushing the idea that having a union would mean hiring people who were looking for a free ride or not willing to pull their weight, as well as bringing up some other anti-union stereotypes.” Both developers stated that MacLean apologized for her comment, but did not address the sentiments she expressed leading up to it.

Nonetheless, says one of my sources, people did get to speak their mind. Says the source who filled me in on MacLean’s ableist comments, “Some told stories of personal mistreatment in games, some told about positive experiences with organization. Squinky, for example, brought up the potential power of collective bargaining to make spaces more accessible in their grad school, and a developer from the studio in France that’s currently striking talked about his experience organizing and striking. Most of us talked about what we hoped a union might help us achieve.” Some union reps were also present, adds my second source, “both from IATSE and from SJTV in France. The IATSE folks were incredibly knowledgeable in US labor law, and were able to bring actual facts to the table to counter Jen’s fearmongering and sowing of uncertainty and doubt. I read in another piece that she hadn’t invited them, and I really wonder who did.”

Another witness stated that a representative from SAG-AFTRA was also present to observe and offer information of their own accord, perhaps a positive sign for the games industry in terms of support. The film industry, as many have pointed out, already provides an example that games unions can model themselves after (for example, while MacLean has claimed that games unions would destroy small independent studios, in reality, film unions monitor and regulate movies even with the tiniest of budgets, allowing them to use union talent no matter how small the project). This point was raised by one of my sources directly to MacLean during the roundtable discussion, but like many others was breezed over in favor of MacLean’s rebuttals.

Ryerson, meanwhile, sounds hopeful about the response. “In the end the IGDA flipped their position on unions in the press from their interviews at the beginning of the week to after, I think because of how many people we are able to bring out to the roundtable itself. So I’m really happy about that.”

As for the grassroots efforts on the ground level of GDC, by all accounts, response to the zines and buttons was positive, with volunteers stating they could barely keep the items in supply. Says Ryerson, “Most everyone I talked to was at the very least intrigued, if not outright excited about it. Many, many people were asking for buttons. I’m glad that Scott Benson made so many of them.” Emboldened by the support, Ryerson adds that they intend to continue. “We’re going to be planning on spreading more zines and pamphlets with basic info about unions out to more events, and getting the conversation into as many sectors in the game world as possible, which will definitely take some time. The game industry had just never been unionized before, so we’re creating a conversation that has never really happened on this broad of a scale before (even though it has happened in smaller ways in the industry in the past).”

As for what the future holds, Game Workers Unite have outlined a number of concerns in the literature distributed during GDC. Some issues highlighted include crunch, discrimination, health insurance, and paid parental leave, among many others (full printer-friendly PDFs can be found at their official site). Ryerson, meanwhile, says that the next step in organizing will likely center on a new group, rather than IGDA or Game Workers Unite, one that can set standards of what unions in different sectors of games (like art or audio) would look like and provide a collective bargaining power that members can get behind without fear of firing or blacklisting.

“Game Workers Unite is meant to educate and facilitate. We’re all still trying to figure out the direction we want to go in, but what we did at GDC was a really important and crucial first step.” She adds, “It’s still step 1 of like 10000. We want the conversation to spread out as far and wide as possible, so the burden doesn’t fall on one or a small handful of people, because we don’t have all the answers.

“The problem with individual workforces trying to unionize is we’re all still trying to figure out the models of how this stuff works, and that means people need to be sharing information as much as possible.”

As far as sharing and distributing information goes, the efforts of Game Workers Unite during GDC appear to have been successful. Near the end of the week, a developer relayed a story to me, a dialogue he’d witnessed between two attendees that gave him hope about the future of games unionization. “They were having a pretty typical GDC conversation,” he told me, “the type you have at GDC, ‘what do you do, what are you working on’, that sort of thing. One of them was a developer, and the other was a student.” The back and forth continued til the conversation had nearly reached its natural conclusion, at which point the developer suddenly switched gears. “Since you’re just entering the workforce, there are some important things for you to know about your rights. Here, take this,” the developer said, handing over a Game Workers Unite zine with Sonic the Hedgehog on the cover.

Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.

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