By Frank Tonsi
Editor’s Note: The following article is a response to a Kotaku guest editorial that was written by Liz Shuler of the AFL-CIO. In the article, Shuler encouraged people working in the games industry to unionize.
To Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO,
I speak as a member of the IWW since Fall 2018, as a member of Game Workers Unite since Spring 2018 (though I do not necessarily speak for GWU as a whole), and most of all as a Game Worker since 2015. The excitement generated by your editorial in Kotaku is palpable because game workers do in fact need a union.
If we game workers are going to have a union, we must answer important strategic questions. The first is whether to organize by craft or by industry. The answer lies in who was primarily affected by a recent rash of high profile layoffs in our industry: people working in departments such as Quality Assurance, whose valuable work is often seen as ‘unskilled’ by bosses. If we organize by craft, we will leave the most underpaid and precarious workers in our industry vulnerable. Employers will exploit that vulnerability to divide us. It would be bad for the work of game development too; all roles require talking to programmers, designers, artists, QA, and producers every day. We have to be able to rely on and trust the people we work with. This would be undermined by the divisions of organizing by craft, the model under which the AFL generally organizes. Thus, when we talk about organizing in our industry, we must mean the entire industry, not just game developers but all game workers from programmers to QA to cleaning staff.
Organizing by industry instead of craft is also paramount for fighting forms of oppression beyond just capitalism. Anecdotally, if the studios I’ve worked in had been organized by craft, they would also have been organized along lines of gender, race, and national origin. As programming became highly paid and professionalized, women were pushed out of a trade they formerly dominated, and indeed invented. Now, programming is overwhelmingly done by mostly white men and therefore any union made up solely of programmers would mostly serve the interests of white men. That is no way to build institutions that ought to be fighting every kind of oppression workers face. For this reason, game workers ought to have a union that has not had to learn through trial and error that the primary beneficiaries of white supremacy, misogyny, and xenophobia are the few, not the many. In an industry whose workers deal with racist, sexist, queerphobic, and xenophobic harassment, we need a union that will fight every form of oppression they face.
Finally, what should the ultimate goal of a games labor movement be? Equilibrium with the bosses whose greed forced us to organize in the first place? The last 50 years have taught us that the capitalist class won’t accept such an arrangement. Instead of asking for a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, we must be willing to build a new industry run by the workers themselves. Motion Twin, an indie game studio run as a workers cooperative, has shown us what we can achieve without bosses: success, as defined by critics, audiences, and most of all as defined by the people who make and play games. Their game “Dead Cells” was a financial and critical success in a field dominated by multi-billion dollar game studios, dramatic boom-or-bust releases, worker burnout, and massive layoffs. We are the ones who make these games and we know best how to organize ourselves and create a more democratic game industry.
Game Workers of the World Unite to beat The Boss!
[This post was published in the April-May 2019 issue of the Seattle Worker]