Do Video Game Developers Want Unionization?

Do game developers want unionization? If so, how do they think a union will actually help them?

Every year, the Game Developers Conference surveys thousands of game developers about their lives. It’s an interesting look into the game industry, which is a fast-evolving (and potentially lucrative, for some tech pros) space. This year, the survey had almost 4,000 respondents, and 47 of them thought that game developers should indeed unionize (another 26 percent said “maybe,” 16 percent said “no,” and 11 percent didn’t know).

However, many developers don’t think unionization will ever happen. “When asked whether they think video game workers actually will unionize, the largest share (39 percent) gave an uncertain ‘maybe,’” read the report, while “24 percent of respondents said they don’t think game workers will unionize; just 21 percent said yes they will unionize, and 15 percent said they don’t know.”

At first glance, a push for unionization makes sense. Over the past several years, certain game studios have been accused of overworking employees. For example, Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser said his development crew worked “100-hour weeks” at several points to finish “Red Dead Redemption 2,” a massively popular open-world game set in the Old West (Houser later walked those comments back, but Rockstar Games is well-known for its crunch culture.) In theory, unionized game developers would have more leverage to ask for better work-life balance.

But according to this survey data, overwork isn’t a huge issue for most developers. Some 24 percent of respondents worked between 36-40 hours per week; 21 percent worked 41-45 hours per week; and only 3 percent worked more than 60 hours per week. Moreover, the number engaging in insane crunch time was low: Only two percent said they’d worked 91-100 hours over one week in the past twelve months, one percent worked between 101-110 hours, and one percent worked over 110 hours.

Some 10 percent said that they worked their maximum hours due to management pressure, whereas 33 percent described the impetus as self-pressure (another 10 percent ascribed it to peer pressure). That makes sense, considering the number of indie developers out there who have no staff; if you’re trying to get your iOS game out the door, there’s nobody to drive the production schedule but you.

But that working-hours data belies developer complaints about working conditions. “People who work in games should not have to work an unhealthy number of hours and be subjected to poor working conditions just because someone up the chain of command can’t schedule an appropriate release date or because they need to show their ‘passion,’” one (anonymous) respondent told the survey-takers.

The game industry is a fragmented one: In addition to the largest studios, there are hundreds of developers making games on their own. In that context, unionization might seem like a far-off dream to the idea’s supporters. In the meantime, game studios are clearly wrestling with issues related to work-life balance, crunch time, and inefficient management. Let’s see how this shakes out.