How Unions Could Heal a Sick Gaming Industry

Game development is a labor rights issue

How Unions Could Heal a Sick Gaming Industry
Source: Labor Creates Games.

In Fullbright’s brilliant game Tacoma, you investigate a space station of the same name that is missing its most important component: its crew. Through a series of virtual vignettes, it becomes obvious that whatever happened on board the Tacoma devastated everyone, affecting the role and lives of each person. The makeup of the Tacoma is reflective of our daily lives, the people aboard the ship from different walks of life. Despite their various pedigrees, these are normal people. Tacoma shows us a glimpse into birthdays, diary entries, and every day worries. It sets the stage for the tragedy that has already happened.

The crux of the plot in Tacoma is centralized around the protections provided by unions, and how corporations will do everything in their power to dismantle, destroy, and prevent unions from happening. The sabotage on board the space station is a direct result of the conglomerate that owns the ship treating its human workers as less-than, gleefully sacrificing their needs and their very lives for the company. Without unions, without protections, it is easier to disrupt people’s lives. It is easier for those on board the Tacoma to be given lesser jobs, and it’s easier for companies to farm labor back home. Without unions, HR becomes a facet of the company and not the people, and any personal issues can simply be dismissed in reference to company protocols.

Source: Tacoma website.

If you’ve been on social media lately you’ve no doubt seen what is happening with Activision Blizzard. The stomach-churning sexual harassment allegations are inhumane and disgusting, and in this case they go far beyond an accusation: the State of California is suing the company after a two-year-long investigation into the seriousness of the claims. My gut reaction to the news was shared by many — How can this happen? How can people do this? How can this sort of workplace culture not only be allowed, but flourish? I quickly wrote up (and then pulled) an article summarizing what we should do to change things, but in my anger, forgot the most important aspect of the entire ordeal.

This happened because the workers were not protected, and some gaming sites have been making the call for union support in the industry for years now.

While sexual harassment in the work place might sound surprising and horrifying to many, to others it’s just part of the day-to-day. Women, femme, trans, and non-binary people (especially those of color) live and work in this horror day in and day out. Despite the fact that we have years of call-outs, survivor stories and tell-alls, nothing much has changed. This isn’t because people are inherently evil or because game development is flawed to its core, it’s because like any industry of this size, there is a serious lack of worker protection. We can beat our chests and go on Twitter and scream and cry, but like those onboard the Tacoma, this is intentional and nefarious. Those in power are often the ones who end up providing the abuse, and those in power often end up being the ones who protect abusers. Like Catholic priests accused of molesting young people, there is story after story of male developers simply being shuffled into different positions or different companies. Without accountability, without protection, there can be no change.

Retaliation in the workplace is often feral and crosses lines of identity and protection. The reason people don’t speak up is because they feel like they are not empowered to do so. The reason people don’t step in to help is because they are afraid of losing their jobs. Without the proper protections in place, there can never be any change, because those in power disproportionately wield reality.

Scott Benson (who himself has faced workplace harassment and abuse) echoed these sentiments on his personal Twitter:

Workers need leverage. Without protections, especially if individuals do not feel united and are facing American legalize, their efforts will simply be ignored or punished. When companies are not held accountable by their workers, and when workers do not feel empowered to hold their feet to the fire, they can simply respond with a few buzzwords and continue on with business as usual. At the end of the day, people want their jobs. They need their jobs for a variety of reasons, and those that work in game development will often tell you that these are their dream jobs. Without unity, without protection, without unions, people will suffer alone in the workplace just for the chance to fulfill their dreams. People will endure predatory and vile situations, and then when they finally speak up they are vilified or ignored.

(It was also after reading these emails that I learned that, uh, the current executive vice president for corporate affairs, corporate secretary, and chief compliance officer at Activision/Blizzard was the Homeland Security Advisor to George W. Bush.)

Email sent to Activision Staff via Fran Townshend.

These words are empty without backing, and the workers need to hold the power and the rights. Game development is part of labor, and by extension, anyone who works on video games deserves as much protection as the rest of us. If we claim to love video games, we also must love the people that work on them. The only way to stop these “frat boy” type working conditions from happening is to demand great changes from the bottom up, and for most of us that begins and ends with our dollar. In the United States, it’s very difficult to start unions, and it is also difficult to sustain them. But no matter how nice your company seems or how great your working conditions are, every day you work in a job that is lacking actual protections and the ability for those who work there to enact any meaningful change.

In a surprise move, many gaming magazines and journals are calling for a temporary boycott on all Activision/Blizzard properties for the time being. Hopefully this brings this very important issue to light, and people can get the restitution they deserve.

The work culture will be improved, but we have to do it together. Video game development unions are coming into existence. Game development needs unions, but those with platforms need to be the backbone. If you are a YouTube essayist, Twitch streamer, or game journalist, think about how you use your platform to make actual, everyday changes that help the industry you love so much.

If you are a person in power, if you are a male coworker who might actually be able to make a difference, say something. If you or anyone you know has been the victim of abuse or sexual harassment in the gaming industry, please contact the number below.

Games and Online Harassment Hotline: text SUPPORT to 23368


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