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Feature: An Industry in Union?

Feature: An Industry in Union?

Have you ever felt exploited by the game industry? Are you in a precarious situation? No job stability and in desperate need of support? Are you losing hope that you can work in a landscape you love at all?

Let me introduce you to the potential future of fair work in the interactive entertainment sector, Game Workers Unite Australia.

A recurring talking point amongst developers, the movement evolved during the recent Game Developer Conference 2018 (GDC 18) in San Francisco, where International Game Developer Association (IGDA) member Jen MacLean held a roundtable discussion titled “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionisation.”

Since discussion at GDC18, the conversation has manifested into a movement, one that is bringing together games workers around the globe, and creating a community of people that are discussing, debating, and most importantly, taking action in the fight for the betterment of the worker in the sector they hold so dear.

We wanted to learn more about what a games workers union in Australia would look like, how it would operate, and who stands to benefit, so we spoke with the founders of Game Workers Australia, Tim Colwill and Felicia Anne, as they grow the movement, taking the first steps towards a unionised Australian games industry;

For the younger industry members who may not be familiar with the GWU movement, could you give us a quick introduction?

Felicia: Tim and I had been discussing for a while now about trying to get a game workers’ union going – it’s been something he’s been working on in his spare time as well, before we even began discussing it. These kinds of movements, they always start like this – someone working in their spare time and doing the hard yards on top of their job, otherwise it will just not get started. And, I think, our industry is desperate for it. We all love video games, but the video games industry does not necessarily love us. When GWU was formed internationally, we saw the opportunity to use that momentum here.

Tim: The GWU movement itself is young, but the idea of game workers union, particularly for developers, is as old as the industry itself. The basic idea of a union for game workers is the same as it is for all workers – that by standing together, workers can pool their resources and strength to make sure their wages are fair, their conditions are reasonable, and that bosses listen to them when it comes time to make decisions for the company. Trade unions have been around for hundreds of years – they’re the reason we have the eight hour workday, the reason we have sick leave, annual leave, parental leave, equal pay for women, all these kinds of things. Nothing has changed simply because do a lot of work online or on computers!

Who would a Game Workers Union represent, are traditional careers such as games PR, marketing, and sales included?

Felicia: Yes, certainly. If you work in the industry, you should be covered. The MEAA already covers several disciplines, like public relations for example, and they’re largely who we would like to see cover the gaming industry here in Australia. If there is a worker doing any kind of job for a video game company – whether that be in-house, in an agency, on contract or casual – it doesn’t matter if you stream or if you play professionally, if you are working in or on video games, you’re a game worker.

There’s a number of budding content creators and influencers in Australia, how does the GWU fit into the content creator equation?

Felicia: Content creators, influencers, streamers, as much as some studios would hate to admit it, the industry would be worse off without them. Streamers have to deal with dodgy partnerships or ridiculous requests all the time. They’re given contracts that aren’t completely transparent, and are given little for their time – they’re a lot like independent game developers in that way. Many have to have a full-time or part-time job to ensure they put food on the table. The AAA tend to see them as ‘hobbyists’, just like their own employees. They’re not hobbyists, they’re trying to have a real go at a self-made business. Oh, I’m really banging on about this, haha.

Tim: Companies love content creators and influencers, because they see them as free labour – they get their product promoted out of it, and it costs them nothing. Anybody in a content creator or influencer role needs to be aware that their relationships with companies can become very one-sided and exploitative. Having a union at your back means you can protect yourself from people who would try to take advantage of you and make sure you receive fair compensation for the hard work you do.

Where does the GWU fit-in with existing representative bodies such as the IGDA, GDAA, and IGEA?

Tim: We hope to be able to work constructively with all of these bodies. We don’t have a formal relationship with them yet, although we certainly hope to keep channels open. All of us want the same thing: for the games industry in Australia to grow. Our concern is that the people who do the work to grow that industry see their fair share of any profits, instead of all the money and rewards going to managers and CEOs.

There seems to have been a struggle to unionise the industry in the past, what’s changed?

Felicia: I think people are just sick of it, to be honest.

Tim: I agree. And we need to be clear that there still is a struggle to unionise the games industry – this will be an uphill battle! But something that has changed is that economic conditions here in Australia and overseas are worsening, and fast. Inequality is rising, to the point where just eight people control half of the wealth in the world. People, including game workers, are looking around for a way to take back some measure of control in their lives. Joining a union offers people control and strength in unity.

How does the GWU plan to encompass such a wide range of games industry members, as for example, the challenges facing esports players differ greatly to those of a community manager?

Tim: Dealing with a wide range of issues is already a regular occurrence for unions – for example the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union covers people who make ice cream AND people who build railways. Initially we need to work to understand those issues, which is why we’re urging everyone to please fill out our survey so that we can get in touch. Workers understand their own issues best. GWU, as with all unions, will offer them the empowerment and strength they need to tackle them.

Felicia: Absolutely, we need everyone. We’re only as strong as each other.

As independent developers are generally self-employed and self-funded, how would a union benefit them if at all?

Tim: It’s understandable that indie developers might be sceptical of unionisation efforts. However, even indie developers form part of the broader scene, which means the same issues affect them all – a rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes. Specifically, unionising offers indie developers access to the certainty and security that come with being part of a powerful collective, including legal assistance, lobbying for funding, advice and information around pay standards, group buying power for better prices on equipment and software, and so on. Plus, union fees are tax deductible!

For those looking to take part in the formation of a Game Workers Union, where should they go to get involved?

Felicia: First up, please take our survey. The more data we have, the more we can showcase the sheer spread of issues in this industry and make a stronger case to the unions we will be approaching. Secondly, you can sign up to the GWU and join us for discussion on our Discord server.

Tim: Start the conversation at your workplace! Unions have changed the world for the better, and it all started with workers talking to each other. Talk to your colleagues about the issues, and if you have questions, get in touch with us. We’re workers just like you and we can all help each other!

To learn more about, or get involved with Games Workers Unite and the games unionisation movement, check out the official GWU website.

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