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Unions have become more common in the games industry over the last five years, forming at places like Activision, ZeniMax, Sega, and more as developers seek to negotiate better pay and workplace policies. It’s a promising start, but there’s still so much more that can be done.

At GamesBeat Summit 2024, IGDA executive director Jakin Vela and actor Zeke Alton spoke about the power of unionization and how it can help video game workers. Vela said that although a majority of developers are supportive of unions, there’s still some misunderstanding about what they do thanks to anti-union propaganda and other myths that continue to persist.

“Of the many images of a union that detracted from the concept is the idea that union members are trying to get rich off the back of their employers, that union staff or directors or the C-suite of unions are siphoning money out away from their employees and the corporation, whether they’re just simply a bureaucratic black eye that gets in the way of getting anything done,” Alton added. “Now all three of those can be true in instances, but I don’t think it takes away from the basic concept of what a union is designed to do.”

Vela noted that with the devastating amount of layoffs currently going on in the industry, more and more people are starting to talk about unionization.

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“What I see that unions provide for game developers is obviously a voice at the table,” he said. “But what does that really mean? Well that can mean talking about workplace policies, diversity issues at the workplace, talking about sustainability, ending crunch culture, all of that.”

Workers in Sega of America’s Irvine, California office formed a union in 2023.

As a member of SAG-AFTRA’s interactive media negotiating committee, Alton has a lot of experience with talking to publishers about establishing livable wages and protections for voice actors, particularly with the rise of AI. When asked by Vela about what studio leaders and management can do to better support employees and their unions, he said the conversation can differ depending on the size of the company you’re working with.

Alton compared smaller indie studios to the old days of Disney and Warner Bros., back when creatives held the power and ran the companies themselves. It’s easier to start a conversation about unions with indies because they want to collaborate with the best talent available and aren’t solely chasing after revenue or worry about pleasing investors. He said it’s much more difficult to broach the topic with triple-A studios, which do have shareholders and profit margins.

“It’s different at the larger triple-A level where [company leaders] are not creators of things. They’re business people,” Alton explained. “And the people with the purse strings are accountants and IP lawyers and what I call robber barons, and their job is to plunder enough money out of this company for the shareholders and then when it’s done, they take a golden parachute and bounce. That’s a much more difficult conversation because they’re not interested at all in making something good. They’re interested in using an industry to make money. It just happens to be games today.”

This has led to a volatile time for video game workers, and they’re increasingly looking to unions to better protect themselves.

“And so we have to find a way to have that conversation with the management and the workers to say, ‘How do we work together to make this sustainable?’ Not so that someone gets rich in the next five years, but that this is a profession for the next 20 or 30 [years] because it can and should be that. That’s how you make good games,” said Alton.

Both Alton and Vela agreed that educating studio leadership about what unions actually are — collaborative partners that help create a sustainable talent pool — will go a long way. It also wouldn’t hurt to educate consumers about the different issues facing developers.

“I think, interestingly enough, having more consumers support game workers — we all know consumers have lots of opinions on our titles, on our games. But if we can also leverage that same kind of PR in support of worker empowerment initiatives and erasure of crunch and more diversity, that would be pretty cool. I think that can help a lot with our industry,” said Vela.

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