There’s a word – it starts with a “U” – that is unspeakable around most high-tech professionals. It conjures images of thugs breaking legs and poor workers forced to hand over dues to a fat parent organization. When the going gets tough, the word reappears in developer culture, but only within variations on a theme; those that have suffered and oppose poor management rail for it, and, predominantly, individuals doubt other developers could ever swallow the idea, even if they themselves support it.

It is a long and difficult discussion that’s tumbled in the industry for some time, and like most long-running discussions, it is fraught with mythology. Whether or not a union is a good solution for the industry remains to be decided, but this past February, one of the primary myths – that organization could only hurt small studios – burst wide open.

A Toss of the D.I.C.E.
At the 2007 D.I.C.E. Summit this past February, Michael John, independent game designer and proprietor of Method Games, became the talk of the town by saying the U-word in his presentation on open market dynamics. John also blogs for Gaming Mercenaries, a site devoted specifically to spreading the word about disconnecting from the mothership of classical third-party development.

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Near the end of his presentation, John attacked the union notion head-on: “You say this word in a room of game developers, they think of Hoffa and Tony Soprano. Here are some things I’ve heard. Unions will bankrupt small studios. Unions let slackers keep their jobs. … Yeah, if we’re stupid.”

This unflinching catapult into the notion that a developer’s union could be a good thing sent shockwaves through D.I.C.E. and beyond. In the month between John’s presentation at D.I.C.E. and his requested encore at GDC, a host of studios buzzed with talk of organization.

The immediate response startled John, who’d only meant to suggest the notion of a union as a possibility and an afterthought to his “open market” pitch. “When I did the D.I.C.E. speech, my real agenda was about free agency, about trying to loosen up the industry to the idea that not everybody who works on a game needs to be – or even should be – a full-time, permanent employee. As part of that talk, I discussed some of the things that would help the whole thing work, so that included a proper set of agents (not recruiters), a decent healthcare option and like in Hollywood, unions would be helpful.

“I didn’t anticipate that the union message would be heard so loudly. But moreover, that it would be heard so positively.”

Deliberately provocative in his address, John realized that bringing up the U-word was playing with fire. “Much of it was under hushed breath (I think there’s a view especially among old-school developers that anyone who favors a union is somehow not manly, or ‘sufficiently independent of spirit’), but people were, by and large, positive. It was this reaction, not my original intent, that led me to really research unionization and to think very hard about how it might be done in games.”

On the Same Side
What surprised John the most was the immediate, if very quiet, support he received specifically from heads of small independent studios, oft regarded as the cowboy heroes of the game industry.

“Some of the strongest supporters I’ve had … have been heads of studios. In an important sense, organized employees level the playing field for studios – especially those that are concerned with treating their people well and dislike the idea that they’re essentially being ‘undersold’ to publishers by studios who are willing to slave-drive their employees.”

Smart studios know death marches make for poor product. Precisely because game development, like all software engineering, is a “white collar” endeavor, it requires a lot of brain power, and brain power is the first function to shut down under excessive fatigue. No one – perhaps least of all the studio head who stands to lose a project or even a company if a major undertaking spins out of control – wants to put his employees through a death march, but studios, particularly small ones, are at the mercy of the deals they can secure from publishers. If another studio promises more delivered in less time, they gain a competitive edge over the studio seeking a fair deal, and this cycle can become one of infinite regression, as young studios compete to out-stretch each other.

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A developer organization would give a small studio a wall to lean on when pressed or tempted by unreasonable contracts, and this is the quiet, unspeakable reason indie studio heads support unionization. Because developers and independent studios tend to be on the same side, the organization of one becomes the sharp tool of the other.

But that’s not all, John says. “There’s another important consideration, which is actually legal. Under current law, it would probably be illegal for independent studios to sit down and discuss their deals with publishers in detail, because that would be anti-competitive. However, if those studios had in common a collective bargaining unit in their employees, then they are allowed to sit down and share business information with each other. This is for instance the area of law that allows Hollywood producers to share information about the deals they get from studios, and work together to improve those deals.”

Beyond bargaining, unionization can actually protect an industry or individual studio from class-action lawsuits. “Collective bargaining also has an advantage in that it lets studio management off the hook to a degree vis-a-vis work conditions. Under most states’ labor laws, much of the enforcement of labor conditions is shifted at least in part to the union and away from the state labor commission. So long as the studio is in compliance with the collective bargaining agreement, it has little to fear of class action lawsuits.”

We Can Rebuild You
Once Pandora’s Unionization Box is opened, the question then becomes: How can we rationally address the challenge of creating an organization that fills these needs without turning into the Teamsters?

John says that the question of urgency comes from the increasing and unrelenting encroachment of other unions on the game industry.

“For me, I just wish that developers – rank-and-file developers – had a voice in the industry. I described this scenario at D.I.C.E. – and maybe that was my Waterloo – but when the Screen Actors Guild comes to the table and makes an argument that their talent is crucial to the success of games, with the current structure there’s nobody to say, ‘That’s great, but actually, development talent is far more important than you’ll ever be.’ I mean, who would say that? The publishers aren’t going to say it. Yet that’s pretty much who’s at the table with these groups. Doesn’t it seem like we should fix that?”

John doesn’t think unionization is a question of “when” – it’s still an “if.” But as time goes on, he envisions advocates postulating advantages along with disadvantages, and the use of more friendly terminology than the historical U-word.

“Now, let’s consider again this fictional Developers’ Guild. The bylaws of the guild are whatever we want it to be, and the laws are very generous in what can be called a ‘union’ under the law. … For instance, I believe that the role of the Guild would be deeply different whether the member is an employee of a large corporation like THQ, or a very small company like 1st Playable. So why not structure the Guild to treat these entities completely differently?”

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Of course, opponents to unionization typically are less concerned about workers organizing than they are about the unions themselves growing into corrupt organizations. Certainly the first history lessons that come to mind when facing down the U-word are cases of unions doing more harm than good. But John believes solid thought can overcome these obstacles. “Policies that undermine meritocracy or threaten studio viability are often tempting, but poisoning the community well helps no one. So, for instance, a Developers’ Guild would need to be fairly silent on the issue of job security – games are too uneven as a business to demand that studios maintain a permanent staff.”

“Similarly, any policy on work hours would have to be very subtly crafted to allow for ‘crunch’ but avoid the ‘death march.'” This distinction and the dangers therein, are why labor lawsuits become such messy situations, viewed awkwardly by all concerned – and why situations have to become so absolutely severe before the law can be involved. Just as five different developers will give you five different definitions of “quality of life,” so too does it become complicated to invent a hard-and-fast rule that will apply uniformly to work hours.

The Common Voice
Finally, I put to John the question that I receive so often:

“Is a Game Developers Guild inevitable? No, I don’t think it is. We may be able to go on for a long time without organizing, and to be fair, that isn’t a terrible prospect, especially if the IGDA can come to the plate with some of the services like portable healthcare coverage. But we have to think about the alternatives of not organizing in an open and thoughtful way, such as:

  1. “An existing trade union manages to organize a portion of development talent (perhaps a single discipline like animation or programming) and fragments a number of studios.
  2. “A small, pissed-off group forms a union without thinking the issues through (remember, it only takes a few people and a document to be called a “union” under the law).
  3. “Studios and/or publishers start behaving really badly, and a union is formed under tense terms, instead of friendly terms.”

John believes, like many of us, that a union should be a good thing. It should provide a collective voice so we are not 12,000 individuals agreeing but voicing that agreement singly. Ultimately, organization has entirely to do with investing ourselves in the greatest happiness and fulfillment we can attain from our jobs – which makes for better games – while avoiding the pitfalls of the industries that came before us.

“One of the statements that I’ve oft repeated is that any organization of game makers should be for developers, by developers. I think that developers and their employers are currently very closely allied in their goals, especially for the smaller employers. So bearing this in mind, what’s to prevent us creating a system that in fact considers both sides of the coin, and works to the advantage of both? And now, when these goals are aligned, not in conflict, is the right time to set up this organization, isn’t it?”

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.

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