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How unionisation could change the gaming industry

business-articlesHow unionisation could change the gaming industry
After years of scandals about tough conditions and toxic company cultures, workers in the gaming industry are starting to organise.

As the movement grows, it could potentially transform gaming and the wider tech industry. So what’s likely to happen and how could it affect businesses?

 

Where did the current movement come from?

In many ways, the gaming industry – and the tech sector at large – often epitomises some of the ugliest aspects of the modern labour landscape: long hours; a highly competitive work environment; blurred lines between life and work; and chronic job instability.

Those within the industry often talk about the ‘crunch’, where workers grit their teeth and push through an exhausting amount of (often unpaid) overtime as deadlines approach, worrying that they’ll be replaced if they complain.

Meanwhile, the industry also has deep-rooted problems with misogyny and sexual harassment. Gamergate was one of the events that propelled this issue into the mainstream. More recently, Microsoft’s takeover of Activision Blizzard drew attention to the latter's ongoing lawsuit. A damning two-year investigation into Activision found a culture of ‘constant sexual harassment, unequal pay, and retaliation’ that was allegedly encouraged by senior figures at the company.

Under such conditions, it was only a matter of time until workers decided that enough was enough.

 

The first unions form

Worker organisation has happened slowly, but the momentum is growing. Over the last few years, the global Games Workers Unite movement evolved, with the UK chapter being a legally recognised union within the Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain.

At the end of 2021, Vodeo Wokers United became the first certified videogame worker union in North America. Plenty of other movements have also sprung up – including the Games Workers Alliance, which came out of the Activision Blizzard scandal – and the push for unionisation is spreading in other parts of the tech sector, too.

 

How will unionisation effect the gaming industry?

Unionisation can be a divisive topic, especially in the US, and there are potential pros and cons. So how might the situation play out?

 

1. Industry backlash

First of all, we could see – and are already seeing – a backlash against unionisation. Recently some major companies, including Nintendo and Epic Games, have had complaints filed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for alleged union-busting.

Such moves to resist unionisation may prove self-defeating. Trying to crack down on unions could simply fuel the fire.

In May 2022, representatives of United Paizo Workers met US President Joe Biden. One of the lead organisers, Alex Speidel, told Biden that success came after freelance writers refused new work in solidarity with those attempting to unionise.

In this example, resistance to unionisation inspired others to act. And the fact that union leaders met the US President shows that the movement has some serious momentum. Resistance may be futile.

 

2. Higher wages

With collective bargaining power, workers may be able to secure higher wages. The outcomes of this? Well, making video games could become costlier. Businesses might need to up their prices or accept smaller profits as a result.

 

3. Better conditions

Along with better pay, workers could enjoy better working conditions: reasonable hours, no more unpaid overtime, job security, and an end to the ‘crunch’ culture.

While great for employees, this once again could eat into a company’s profits. If a business now has to pay for all that overtime – and at a higher wage, no less – then that money has to come from somewhere. Perhaps executives will accept a smaller slice of the pie, though it’s perhaps more likely that they’ll want to preserve profits and pass costs onto consumers.

 

4. Beyond unionisation

These changes could eventually spread to non-union workers too. The effects of unionisation usually ripple out through an industry as a whole. So, even if a small portion of the gaming sector secures better pay or conditions through organisation, other companies may change their approaches to adapt to the new normal.

 

5. Competitive advantage

So far, some of the points make it sound as though what’s good for workers is bad for business, but that’s not necessarily the case. Better conditions and higher pay will likely lead to happier, more productive employees creating higher-quality work. This could help companies gain a competitive edge as the gaming industry continues to expand.

The companies who treat their workers more fairly will also be more competitive as employers, meaning they’ll be able to attract and retain the top talent. And paradoxically, those who embrace positive change for employees will negate the need for unionisation.

 

6. Outsourcing overseas

Finally, a potentially negative effect of unionisation might be that some of the work is outsourced overseas. If things get too costly or complicated in the UK or the US, some businesses may decide to operate in other countries where they can pay their employees less.

However, it’s hard to know how much of a threat this actually is. Countries with a well-established gaming industry have a big advantage in terms of infrastructure, talent, and existing value chains. Those who try to undercut competitors by outsourcing overseas might see their plans backfire.

 

The path ahead

With unionisation snowballing through the industry, it now seems unstoppable.

There may be bumps in the road. Prices may rise or profits could take a hit, and some companies might need to adjust to the new labour-market landscape.

But hopefully it will lead to some long-needed changes, with employees across the sector finally being treated fairly.
 
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