In late September, The Verge reported that development studio Telltale Games laid off nearly 400 employees, leaving only a small group of 25 to finish pending projects. The workers were given little notice of this decision, and those who were fired were not granted severance. That same month, CBC reported that Capcom Vancouver, the developer responsible for the Dead Rising games, finally closed its doors, leaving 158 people without jobs. This latter closure wasn’t too much of a surprise—Gamesindustry.biz reported layoffs totalling 30% of the staff last February—as the developer restructured to focus more on its studio headquarters in Japan.
In the videogame industry, this is hardly remarkable: studio closures and downsizing are extremely common, so much so that they have historically not garnered an overwhelming amount of attention. The industry is full of other examples: Microsoft cut 1,400 jobs in 2009, including significant cuts to its games division; Irrational Games, the makers of the BioShock series, closed its doors in 2014; 2017 saw its share of layoffs and shutterings at EA, and mobile studios Storm8, Goodgame Studios, and Popcap. Montreal-based mobile studio Hibernum reportedly laid off the majority of its staff. That same year Kotaku reported that Activision had mass layoffs despite reporting a “better-than-expected and record fourth-quarter.”
Those who work in the games industry have known for years that mass layoffs not just frequent but cyclical. A 2012 Wired piece by Andrew Groen titled “‘Routine’ Game Industry Layoffs Kill Creativity,” laments that “business as usual” layoffs result in broken bonds between creative team members—writers, level designers—who spend months or years together working on a game, only to be separated when the studio no longer has any work for them, and has made no plans to retain their talent. Jessica Price, a writer and producer, recently warned former Telltale employees looking for a new job that many new listings are being placed by companies that have themselves recently gone through a cycle of layoffs. In a Twitter thread, Price details the reasons layoffs, concluding that “[...] More often, it’s mismanagement. And it’s seeing game industry talent as disposable.”
Price, who was recently fired from ArenaNet after a dispute with fans over dialogue boiled over into a harassment campaign that successfully pressured the company into cutting her loose, knows all too well that game companies are extraordinarily unlikely to stand behind their employees under even the slightest strain. She explains in the thread that most of these disposable jobs go to young workers who can be paid less, and that there is little chance that most companies will be held accountable for their malpractice.
This is all true to various degrees, but we can dig a little bit deeper here. The games industry uses an arsenal of tactics to suppress and exploit its workers, above and beyond general mismanagement. These tactics include industry blacklisting, outsourcing, precarious contracts, wage theft, and various internal forms of abuse and harassment, especially to more vulnerable employees (women, LGBTQIA+ people, non-white workers). That word, “mismanagement,” might be used to let the industry off the hook, but if anything its commonality should be even more of an indictment. It’s a result of, as Price points out, not valuing workers in the first place, and like mass layoffs or unpaid overtime, is typically deployed and then discussed with a sort of casual callousness. These practices and attitudes that are so prevalent at the managerial level happen to fit hand in glove with the infamously poisonous behaviour of many gamers, who as a group have earned a reputation for their harassment of critics, dissident employees and anyone else they can target for blame for real or imagined slights. Harmful company practices, from crunch to mass layoffs, are so common as to be considered routine in the industry, whereas the incandescent rage that became so apparent during the height of Gamergate, is treated more like an embarrassing indiscretion of consumers that isn’t sanctioned by respectable corporate figures in the industry. But that’s a lie that has only become more obvious over time, especially as workers and marginalized people in the subculture have made their voices louder. Angry gamers can easily be understood as a pool of reactionary scabs that serve as a resource for videogame companies that prefer it when its workforce is afraid, quiet, and deprived of the leverage it needs.
The successive occurrences of Gamergate, the 2016-17 SAG-AFTRA voice actors strike, and the burgeoning Game Workers Unite movement have forced suppressed, but widespread labor issues into the mainstream. This is a reflection of the larger leftward political response to resurgent fascism and failing neoliberalism has also brought with it a renewed interest in unions, which have generally been depleted of their power over the last 30 years. This interest is now finding voice in an industry that grew up firmly within the confines of neoliberalism and echoes that ideology.
What’s become clear from these events is that while reactionary voices are persistent, they don’t speak for many or even most actual game workers or even consumers. Telltale received a tremendous amount of backlash for its decisions, and the overwhelming response to the class-action lawsuit being brought against the company by a former employee seems to be in favor of the workers. That said, reactionary and anti-worker attitudes are still persistent and trickle down from the managerial class in the industry, pervading everything. As pro-union sentiment grows, these attitudes are likely to become more aggressive and their relationship to persistently bad working conditions more obvious.
The SAG-AFTRA voice actors strike—the longest in the union’s history, lasting 340 days—began in October 2016 and lasted until September of 2017, and culminated in a deal between the union and 11 videogame companies through Barnes & Thornburg, the law firm representing them. The union demanded, among other things, better safety standards for voice strain and risks associated with stunt coordination (for motion capture), an improved structure for bonus payments, transparency and employment mobility. The 11 companies in question, including Activision, WB Games,Insomniac, Take 2 Interactive, Electronic Arts and Disney Character Voices, for their part, claimed that the union was being “undemocratic” in its move to strike, and uncompromising despite fair counter-offers made during the last 18-month negotiating phase put forward by the companies. After mass strikes and walkouts, including a rally at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles that drew a crowd of 500 strikers, the companies invited the union back to the negotiating table, and they eventually reached a deal that some workers felt was compromised. This was particularly the case regarding the hotly-debated new “bonus structure” the companies introduced to address concerns about unfair compensation for voice actors, and especially for those who worked on games that generated profits vastly out of proportion with what they were getting paid.
Part of the reason for consternation over the mixed results of the negotiation can be linked to statements made by the companies, their legal representation and their online defenders that sought to conflate the “bonus structure” with the concept of “residuals”. The two concepts are similar, with the slight distinction that a bonus refers to a gratuity on top of the actor’s regular fee that scales up per sessions worked, while “residuals” would refer to a secondary fee paid, in this case, per units sold. These words got tossed around as did the term “royalties,” but the nuances between them are less important than the purpose of using them to compromise the union in the eyes of gamers, and especially other game workers. These comments seemed designed to paint voice actors as greedy, and seemed to work to some extent. The issue divided not just gamers and game workers, but game workers amongst themselves.
Most notably, public statements made by the companies through their lawyer, Scott Witlin, successfully drove a wedge between organized and unorganized workers. As SAG-AFTRA’s Interactive Committee Keythe Farley told me in January of last year, while the strike was ongoing, the union had actually demanded a proposal for secondary compensation on games selling over 2 million copies, rather than on sessions worked. The companies were the ones who counter-offered with the bonus-per-session structure, as Farley explained, “doesn't pay anything to an actor on the first session that they work.” Nonetheless, the companies essentially accused the union of greed and arrogance, and many gamers and game workers expressed resentment that voice actors were demanding additional, unearned benefits that they could not share in.
While these voices were far more prolific at the time, and included plenty of programmers and designers alongside overzealous fans, a few records of this narrative still exist: this Reddit thread, for example, contains a spirited discussion on the topic. While many users side with the voice actors, the thread also features such commentary as, “Voice actors deserve better safety standards, but they don't deserve residuals. It's not like regular programmers get royalties either, and they'd be just as laughed at for demanding them.” and “Just because they add something doesn't make them special snowflakes deserving royalties.”
A regular refrain among the anti-union set is that the industry is fundamentally fair, as long as one keeps their nose to the grindstone. These ideas are certainly more popular among those who continue to benefit from things as they are: consumers, but also plenty of industry insiders and even (generally more socioeconomically privileged) workers who see themselves as future bosses. The implication here is that unions are undesirable because they reward the undeserving, and videogames are a “meritocracy” that recognizes individual talent.
Speaking to me over Skype, writer and independent developer Liz Ryerson recounted a conversation with an acquaintance in the game industry, someone who “has pretty progressive politics,” expressing frustration with the voice actors: “[they were] basically just like, ‘Fuck the voice actors. they get paid way more than us. I don't give a shit about them. They're entitled.’” Ryerson continued, “Maybe it's because the voice actors are coming from Hollywood, where there's unions. People who work in the game industry expect these things to not be unionized and expect to waive a lot of their rights, so they view a lot of these voice actors as entitled instead of recognizing a mutual territory...a lot of people in the games industry just don't have the vocabulary for it.”
The fact that workers themselves may fall for some of the more pernicious propaganda may seem like a separate issue from gamer rage, but they’re deeply linked, not least because many gamers will not only gladly police workers on behalf of their bosses, but aspire themselves to work in the industry. Though it pains me to revisit the topic, this sort of policing is reflected in the Gamergate saga, a very stupid and seemingly pointless tantrum thrown by gaming’s conventional audience against everyone they perceived to be “outsiders” from the culture: women, non-white people, LGBTQIA+ people, and anybody who supported their inclusion. These conflicts ranged from the benign to downright dangerous, such as groups of self-identified “Gamergaters” attempting (and sometimes succeeding) to get their opponents fired for dubious reasons, stalking, violent threats to their opponents and their families, and SWATting (falsely reporting their opponent to the police in an attempt to get them killed).
The conflict began with a baseless attack on developer Zoe Quinn started by a jilted ex and centered on a claim that she had traded sex for positive reviews of a free-to-play game. This was a ridiculous lie, one of many that circulated during a campaign putatively about “ethics in games journalism,” but it exploded like a pustule over the face of the industry and was never really washed away.
Alison Rapp, a former mid-level marketing employee for Nintendo, was fired from the company shortly after becoming the target of a Gamergate smear campaign. The story, covered extensively by journalist Patrick Klepek, involves a controversy in which Rapp was blamed for changes made during the localization process of Japanese games, despite the fact that Rapp worked in public relations, not localization, for the development division of Nintendo called Treehouse. When Rapp became the target of their ire for changes Treehouse localizers made to games Fire Emblem Fate and Xenoblade Chronicles X, she became the central figure in a niche dispute over translation accuracy that had already been going on for years.
Detractors accused Rapp of being a pedophile and an advocate for child porn on the basis of a college paper entitled “Speech We Hate: An Argument for the Cessation of International Pressure on Japan to Strengthen Its Anti-Child Pornography Laws,” in which she argues that Japan ought to have the autonomy to legislate free speech with regard to the fictionalized sexualization of children, in accordance with its own cultural standards and without pressure from large imperial powers like the United States. (It’s worth mentioning that while some of this may be unsavory and worthy of scrutiny, Rapp at no point advocates for the sexual exploitation of children, referring to it it as a “social ill” in the paper.) When that wasn’t enough to get her fired, her detractors attacked her for provocative modeling photos and began circulating rumors that she was a sex worker, insisting this made her unfit for her job.
During the spring of 2016 when this all went down, Nintendo said nothing—that is, until The Daily Stormer weighed in, blaming Rapp and her apparent misdeeds on“the impact of Jews and feminism on our society.” Commenting on this article, Andrew “weev” Aurenheimer, the neo-nazi black hat hacker who went to federal prison in 2013 for his apparent involvement in an AT&T data breach—and who also helped bully designer Kathy Sierra out of a job over a decade ago—called for people to leave phone and email complaints to Nintendo executives en masse in the hopes of getting Rapp fired. Ultimately, all of these strikes against Rapp converged, and she was ultimately fired from Nintendo while she and her new husband were honeymooning in Japan. (Her husband, who worked as a barista at Nintendo’s coffee shop, later quit following an overwhelming amount of abuse and hectoring he received from angry gamers. Neither received severance.)
Nintendo’s official explanation for the firing was summed up as “conflict with Nintendo’s corporate culture,” but Rapp told me that nothing her detractors dredged up had been hidden from the public or presented a problem before the Gamergate campaign. Nintendo denied that harassment had anything to do with the decision and claimed Rapp had been “moonlighting” at an unnamed second job, which was against policy. While Rapp received support, although it fractured and wavered over time, this took place entirely in a disembodied sphere of public opinion with no actual direct, organized power. While Gamergaters sometimes referred to their opponents as “Anti-Gamergate”—some of whom adopted the moniker in an attempt to brand themselves as a sort of official resistance—there was never really an ideologically-committed, organized countermovement. Most Gamergate detractors still engaged with it on its terms as a kind of “consumer revolt,” rather than an attack on workers, and so there was never any throughline that connected what was going on with broader labor struggles either in the media or in the general discussion.
There was no institutional apparatus to take a second look at Nintendo’s reason for Rapp’s firing, and no realistic way for Rapp to individually sue the company for wrongful termination. Rapp describes the termination as just the “nail in the coffin” following a series of “major problems” that had been ongoing before she became the subject of a coordinated harassment campaign. She explained to me that in nearly three years working at Nintendo, she had gone to HR “several times” over what she perceived as an unfair enforcement of company policy. In one instance, she complained that men in Treehouse were allowed to have personal Twitch streams but she was not; she was also told not to tweet about rape culture because “then it would become a news story, that someone from Nintendo was talking about rape culture.” She also says that “several male colleagues” from Nintendo of America had made inappropriate sexual comments towards her, which she claims began barely a month into her tenure there.
By December 2015, following, as Rapp claims, a largely positive fall performance review, she had become a target for harassment. The rumor that she had been a sex worker began to circulate. Around this time, she claims that the company had begun to harass her internally: “HR sat me down and railed on me about the weirdest stuff—the fact that I'd gone to the in-office holiday party instead of working straight through it, the fact that I'd texted a coworker (a coworker we were supposed to text if we were worried about a deadline... A management-mandated practice).” HR later revoked her spokesperson privileges, and accused her of “inciting her own harassment.”
“The reality is, really suspicious stuff had been happening for a long time, and the sex worker stuff was just a convenient way for Nintendo to get rid of someone who had become a PR liability to them without raising too many legal red flags,” Rapp tells me, expressing her belief that the company used her character assassination as a way to dispose of an employee who had become a liability on legitimate-seeming grounds while her public credibility was compromised. The company, she claims, had ulterior motives for wanting to get rid of her, and the campaign against her gave them an easy out.
After putting out an open call on social media, I spoke to many workers in the games industry, from all sorts of backgrounds and specializations—from quality control to sound design to programming—who expressed fear they would suffer the same fate if they spoke out. Some spoke to me in person, others over Skype, and many over e-mail exchange. Many of the respondents who reported feeling vulnerable in this way were women, many of whom also reported instances of inappropriate behaviour, including touching, from their male colleagues and superiors followed by very little sympathy from HR. One anonymous respondent who reported her harassment at the hands of a fellow employee told me, “This is basically how HR at my former employer worked. If the image of the company was in any way harmed, their mission was to turn the blame on the victim as to keep denying that anything was wrong with the company.”
Most of the workers who reached out to me were from North America and Europe, and while labor laws and enforcement vary from nation to nation, there were certain obvious consistencies. I spoke to nearly 20 workers who all expressed a desire for a union but did not feel secure creating one, felt alienated from their peers, and antagonized and suppressed by their bosses. Many expressed difficulty envisioning the shape a labor union for games might take, or who it might include (or exclude). They all described tactics that their bosses deliberately use to coerce behaviour—such as agreeing to unpaid overtime, or staying quiet about abusive superiors—but also subtle social pressures to express enthusiasm, passion, and a self-destructive drive to work.
I don’t mean to suggest that game companies and gamers knowingly conspired to silence and bully workers, but there is evidence that, as long as gamers direct their grievances at individual workers, videogame companies understand that they can use that dynamic to shield themselves from community criticism while using it as leverage in internal conflicts with employees. This has, for a long time, represented a win-win for companies, ensuring not just the PR victory with their fans, but also deeply suppressed and compliant workforce, and an opaque shroud over the industry’s internal workings. That shroud, however, seems to be starting to clear.
These fears that workers have are founded, but a critical mass of solidarity may be forming to overcome individual anxieties. A majority of workers actually do long for unionization—56% according to widely-cited 2014 IGDA survey—but fear sabotage and reprisal from their bosses, fans, and even peers. Most who spoke to me asked for anonymity, and many described an undercurrent of intense paranoia that contributed to a desire to stay quiet, keep to the grind, and be grateful for their continued employment. (I refer to these sources with an anonymized first name to protect their privacy.)
“There’s still a fear of being replaced,” Gwen, a former Ubisoft Montreal employee told me after we had moved away from our original meeting location, where too many recognizable faces were enjoying their lunch break. She confirmed a general desire for some form of unionization, but feared that a union representative would find little success at Ubisoft. A lot of the struggle, Gwen said, could be chalked up to ignorance or fear, but she also described a work culture that rewarded people who offered themselves up willingly for additional work. She mentioned management pressures to overperform were part of the issue, but that many people also viewed themselves as future bosses. Why handicap their own future prospects by advocating for their peers now?
A developer working in systems design, told me: “These libertarian tech companies haven’t ever had to deal with any labor they couldn’t bully around. They prey on the young and idealistic; give them mediocre pay while asking for a ridiculous amount of work hours and providing completely unhealthy fast food to do it. [...] Once the project is done, terminate anyone to maximize profits. It’s depressing because we’ve kind of just accepted that this is how it is and how it has to be. Many people leave this industry because they want to have stable personal lives; and making video games, even thirty-forty years later, does not cater to it.”
Many respondents described a “revolving door” churning out a young, inexperienced workforce, under pressure to perform with time and resource constraints generally caused by poor management, lack of benefits, poor pay, and a culture demanding their fealty to the brand. The abuses that take place within slick studios stocked with free kombucha and beanbags are by now well-documented—Ian Williams’s essay “You Can Sleep Here All Night”: Video Games and Labor is one example—but an important aspect is how these practices are reinforced ideologically.
“Passion is always a big part of it all,” an anonymous respondent who used to work at EA DICE wrote to me in an email. “Hell, DICE even has it in their bloody core values: Quality, Innovation, Passion (which was a bit ironic at the time BF4 shipped broken). Passion means you’re so lucky to be there, you’re so lucky to be working on this, don’t ruin it by complaining. Passion means you’re so lucky, then why are you up at 3AM crying and feeling dead inside every day?”
The question of “passion” and toleration of abuses is by no means a settled issue. As recently as October 14th, Variety reported that workers at Rockstar Games involved with the upcoming Red Dead Redemption sequel were working “100-hour weeks,” following provocative statements made by company co-founder Dan Houser who later clarified that only he and a handful of people actually did this. A statement Rockstar sent to Kotaku and which has been attributed to Houser, claims that nobody at the company is ever “forced to work hard,” and that rather, some senior employees will do this entirely by choice, “purely because they’re passionate about a project.”
The latter argument—that crunch is a sign of passion and commitment—is the more pervasive one, having been embraced by nerds who not only play games but make them for years (Erin Hoffman detailed the effects of this practice on her husband in 2004 on Livejournal, in her infamous “EA Spouse” post). This idea of “passion” fuels the idea that workers should feel grateful to be able to work in the industry regardless of the conditions, and that this state of affairs constitutes a meritocracy where the best developers always rise to the top, rather than burn out and leave development altogether. Any complaint can then be handwaved as laziness, greed or ingratitude on the part of a “bad apple” employee, usually some disposable woman. As Steven T. Wright points out in his piece, “Despite Resistance, Crunch Continues to Define the Video Game Industry,” the crunch-as-commitment narrative gained traction exactly because the industry has always been extremely volatile, and employment extremely precarious.
Poor working conditions—especially crunch and mass layoffs—are treated as measures of a worker’s passion, but the irony is that none of this “grinding” or “passion” is necessarily resulting in better-crafted or more creative games. Poor project management practices and lack of team-building may result in broken or lackluster products, but more vulnerable workers who are easier to isolate are the ones who end up bearing the brunt of pissed-off gamers.
These attitudes and practices pervade the industry, from major studios to mid-level indies to freelance contractors. Despite the rosy arthouse reputations many mid-level studios enjoy, many of their workers are contending with the “small business tyrants” of the industry, where they may or may not have the luxury of an HR department to ignore them.
Anne, a contractor, spoke to me about her 5-month stint for a well-known Montreal-based indie games company. She told me that she experienced routine mismanagement and internal reprisal for speaking up about misbehaviour and unfair practices she experienced in the workplace. “My time there was really fraught, and looking back on it now it just feels like some surreal, bizarre kind of nightmare,” she told me over coffee.
She told me that this company, despite projecting an outward image of dedication to social justice, touting its diverse staff and games focused on social and moral issues, such as bullying, suffered from a multitude of poor internal practices. Anne, who worked as a community manager, described being expected to pull 16-hour days in her first week and was told to “get over it” when she refused. She described male colleagues finding excuses to give her unwanted massages or make lascivious remarks to her on the job, only to have her bosses ask her to sympathize with her harassers. She explained that she got on the bad side of influential figures in the company for refusing to do extra work, for calling out racism and sexism in the workplace and in the company’s products, and for sticking up for another employee who was being made to man two virtual reality booths at an industry conference by themselves. The experience left her feeling bitter about the industry and disillusioned with soi-disant “progressive” rockstar indie brands. While theoretically in favor of unions, she fears that many people are still willing to go along with the status quo out of fear, or exhaustion, or basic alienation from the condition of other workers and the companies they work for.
As Carolyn Jong, a Montreal-based researcher and organizer with the grassroots union advocacy group Game Workers Unite told me, the fact that there’s no real labor organization in games means that things are generally framed in terms of the consumers’ interests and demands, rather than in terms of the workers’ needs. Even those who seek a more progressive vision of games generally engage with that vision on very superficial, neoliberal terms. This usually finds expression in companies pandering to reactionary elements of their fanbase, but pandering to progressives without a class consciousness is just as easy for game companies as it is for Whole Foods. This is how a company with such shoddy internal practices can maintain a squeaky-clean public image while totally evading scrutiny.
“It is very obvious, the way that a lot of the harassment in games happens is connected to this consumer-producer divide; people defining themselves in terms of consumerism and what they purchase, and that being the only legitimate source of power that they can imagine,” Jong said.“I think Gamergate served the industry, obviously—the industry being the bosses, the multinationals—because it scared their employees, it got rid of a lot of their critics. It basically served this pacification purpose. I think that polarization is very real, and I think it's a result of the mushy status quo being unsustainable. You cannot just keep reproducing what exists because it's breaking down all around us.”
The International Games Developers Association, or IGDA, is emblematic of the kind of “mushy status quo” that Jong describes. The association is a non-profit primarily known as an advocacy group that produces a lot of labor surveys and headhunts on behalf of companies. It is not, as former IGDA board member Darius Kazemi made clear to me over Skype, functionally capable of acting as a union. This is because the organization is classified as a 501(c)6 tax-exempt professional association, rather than as a 501(c)5, which renders it unable to do things like collectively bargain for employees. The IGDA board of directors is composed largely of individuals with management or executive profiles, leans heavily white, cis and male, and maintains relationships with a procession of corporate sponsors. Kazemi, a programmer and founding member of tech co-op Feel Train, who officially left IGDA in 2013, told me that while the IGDA maintains an outward impression of being pro-worker, the organization’s main concern is “its own continued existence,” and the maintenance of a balance of power that benefits it.
The new advocacy group Game Workers Unite, on the other hand, may be a viable engine for worker interests that the IGDA is structurally incapable of being. The international group, which has chapters in cities across the globe, has been busy this past year fanning the flames of union sentiment in the games industry. Last spring, in fact, the two groups faced off head to head at the gaming world’s biggest annual conference, the Game Developers Conference (or GDC).
On March 21st, 2018, IGDA ran a roundtable entitled “Pros, Cons and Consequences of Unionization.” The discussion was hosted by IGDA president Jen Maclean, former CEO of the now-defunct 38 Studios. As reporter Ian Williams described it, Maclean’s amicable and even-keeled tone quickly degenerated into thinly-veiled hostility as game workers who filled the room loudly pushed back on anti-union rhetoric. As Williams points out in his article “After Destroying Lives For Decades, Gaming Is Finally Talking Unionization,” when Maclean posed theoretical questions like “How do you see unions helping protect marginalized people?,” she encountered an audience willing to answer them with force and moral clarity. Williams writes,
“The question had already been answered prior, when the speaker brought up equal pay, and further answered when they mentioned their grad student union helping trans bathroom rights at their university, but MacLean’s question wasn’t looking for an answer. It was a wedge, designed to create an imaginary rift between the class concerns typically associated with union questions and the cultural questions of identity. As the evening wore on, her interruptions became more frequent, the politeness more forced. The audience began to become more restive, as well. It was tense because it mattered.”
The anti-union tone of the roundtable wasn’t lost on many pro-union voices within the industry, who organized in secret channels weeks in advance to distribute pro-union material at the conference and push back on Maclean’s anti-union disposition, filling the room with pro-union talk in a way that Maclean and the IGDA clearly didn’t expect. Like the eleven videogame companies named in the SAG-AFTRA strike, like Nintendo in the case of Alison Rapp, Maclean began her gambit with every reason to believe that the those in the crowd who could not be pacified with bromides could be intimidated by fear-mongering. Instead, the workers talked, sometimes shouted back. The pro-consumer, anti-union tenor that still pervades much of gamer culture hasn’t proven as stable as people like Maclean or even most workers once thought. That is an extraordinary change.
Still, much work remains to be done. One anonymous Game Workers Unite organizer told me that they felt optimistic, and most of the people they encountered at GDC expressed enthusiasm about the prospect of a union. But they admit that an attitude still persists whereby “people in games are groomed to see themselves as future management rather than workers, and thus see poor working conditions as ‘paying one's dues’ before ‘working their way to the top.’”
In a sense, the naked exposure of angry gamer backlash against workers is a good thing. It reveals that workers are now more united than previously thought, and that companies and the ornery nerds who love them are beginning to loosen their stranglehold. The backlash has always been there—it was the very same backlash that pushed legendary developer Kathy Sierra out of the industry in 2004, and then descended on Mass Effect writer Jessica Hepler in 2012. It is the same force that was deployed against Jessica Price, Zoe Quinn, Alison Rapp, and countless others who became a liability to the industry.
Now, workers themselves are beginning to form an opposing force that will hopefully expand, encompassing not just artists and programmers but exploited industry workers of the Global South, including rare earth mineral miners, factory workers and “e-waste” workers. Nerd rage has been a powerful tool for the industry to use against its workers, and until recently it has been allowed to rampage unopposed. Game culture stands as a perfect, miniature example of the ways in which neoliberal economics beget reactionary shock troops to defend its institutions whenever it falls into crisis, and so it’s no surprise that such a volatile industry has harbored such a volatile community. Hopefully, though, international solidarity and the energy for change will prove to be the antidote.