The Rise of One of the First Video Game Workers Unions
January 30, 2021
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Online gaming culture had a track record of toxic culture, particularly the right-wing “Gamergate” movement, and that kind of culture rubbed off on the workplace. Games companies, in the wake of the 2020 racial justice protests, rushed to put out statements saying Black Lives Matter, but they rarely, Agwaze said, acknowledged the conditions they created inside their companies.

One of those companies, Ustwo, billed itself as a “fampany,” an awkward portmanteau of “family” and “company.” It proclaimed its commitment to diversity and inclusion, but when it fired Austin Kelmore, GWU-UK’s chair, its internal emails criticized him for spending time on “diversity schemes and working practices,” and for being a “self-appointed bastion of change.” One email, shared in The Guardian, proclaimed, “The studio runs as a collective ‘we’ rather than leadership v employees,” but also said that Kelmore had put “leadership . . . on the spot.” (The company spokesperson told The Guardian that Kelmore was leaving for reasons unconnected to his union activity.) GWU-UK fought for Kelmore, but even before the pandemic, such processes took time; after the pandemic, they were backed up even more.

Agwaze’s time organizing with GWU-UK had taught him that companies were often less efficient and practical than he’d expected. “They’re more of a chaotic evil,” he laughed. Few of them were aware of the labor laws, or of how their actions would be perceived. Then, as with the Black Lives Matter protests, they scrambled to try to win some goodwill through largely symbolic actions, like donating money to racial justice organizations.

Still, all of this reflects the start of a change in the industry, signaled by the rise in political awareness within and about games. Members of the UK Parliament have even formed an all-party group to look into the gaming industry, though Agwaze noted that GWU-UK’s invitation to speak to the group had been delayed as a result of Brexit and the general election in December 2019, and then because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, it marked a change from the assumption most people had, he said, that “it’s fine, because it is video games. It must be fun, even in its working conditions.”

With the pandemic, Agwaze said, some of the union’s usual means of gaining new members—in-person meetings and speaking engagements— had to be scrapped, and the 2020 Game Developers Conference, where they’d planned a panel, was postponed. New members were finding them anyway, however, because of immediate problems on the job. “They are more like, ‘Oh, shit is on fire right now! I need to find some union assistance!’” he said. Workers at some companies were being furloughed, but being asked to keep working without being paid.

Others were being told they had to go to the office despite the lockdown. And then there was the immigration question. The games industry, Agwaze noted, depended on immigrant labor—he himself was an EU migrant living in the United Kingdom, a status that could be disrupted by Brexit and, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the government’s intention to crack down on migrants. The pandemic exacerbated these problems: Workers who lost jobs were unsure about their visa status, and with the backlog at both the Home Office and employment tribunals, there was a lot of uncertainty among workers that brought them to the union for help.

All of this meant progress—and more challenges—for Agwaze and the union. The workers at games companies, and in the broader tech industry, were finally starting to understand themselves not as lucky to have a dream job, but as workers who are producing something of value for companies that rake in profits. After all, as Agwaze noted, “for the one and a half years we’ve been around now, we’ve been the fastest-growing branch of the IWGB. We’re the fastest-growing sector that they’ve ever had.” The union is a crucial step toward changing power in that industry and claiming more of it for themselves.

This article has been adapted from Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone by Sarah Jaffe © 2021. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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