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Game workers are uniting!

BEN COWLES meets KARN SPYDAR LEE BIANCO, the chair of the new trade union aiming to organise video game workers

VIDEO games made up more than half (51.3 per cent) of Britain’s entire entertainment industry in 2018, according to the Entertainment Retailers Association. Their net worth is estimated to be close to £4 billion.

Karn Spydar Lee Bianco
Karn Spydar Lee Bianco

Rockstar Games’ 2018 masterpiece Red Dead Redemption II (RDRII) reportedly made the company $725 million (£560m) in its first three days, making it the second highest grossing entertainment product ever. The first, Grand Theft Auto 5, was made by the same company.

The gargantuan size of the industry would be great news were it not for the fact that it is almost entirely non-unionised. Making video games, then, comes with a whole host of labour issues.

Last year was particularly bad for the workers. In September US developer Telltale Games suddenly announced it was shutting down, selling off all its assets and laying off 250 staff members — all of whom received no severance pay and were left without health insurance.

In an interview last October weeks before Rockstar Games released RDRII, the company’s co-founder Dan Houser casually told the New York Magazine that while they were finishing up the game “we were working 100-hour weeks.”

It was therefore heartening to hear last December that workers in the industry here in Britain were organising.

“These discussions about unionisation have been going on for years,” Karn Spydar Lee Bianco, chair of the freshly inaugurated union Game Workers Unite UK, says. “But it’s just never really materialised. There were so many catalysts last year we just thought now is the time.”

Trying to form a union proved quite the challenge initially. But Bianco and his comrades decided the right path to take for the union was to join forces with the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) as a separate chapter.

“They seemed like a perfect fit,” Bianco says. “The union’s smaller, younger, more militant, and has a history of unionising previously un-unionised industries in the gig economy and achieving some really big wins.

“We can draw on their legal experience but we’re still independent. We have our own identity and drive in the direction that we want.

“We’re working together now on finding our first real campaign where we can achieve a tangible win and show people within the industry that we can help them.”

One of the first issues Game Workers Unite UK plans on tackling is the institutional practice of what workers in the industry refer to as “crunch,” a period of excessive overtime their bosses put them through as the game they’re working on approaches its release date.

“It’s kind of a cultural phenomenon. Sometimes you have overbearing bosses pushing you to do this. But often it’s people doing it voluntarily because they’re excited to be in this industry.

“But that creates this culture where it’s expected, whether it’s verbalised or not, to work these unhealthy hours. The burnout rate is massive, most people only last four or five years and they move on.”

Tragically, some employers have infected the industry with some of the worst modern labour practices. In recent years workers have been blighted by the proliferation of zero-hours contracts.

“Most programmers are full-time employees. But Q&A testers, quality assurance, people who test the games everyday, they’re often treated as the bottom of the ladder, they’re often on minimum wage, and on precarious contracts.”

Another problem in the video games industry is that it is a notoriously exclusive club.

“We’re a predominantly a white male field and there’s a lot of harassment and abuse of women and people of colour. We want to improve that.

“Gaming culture more widely has issues with bullying. Up until now, we feel like companies haven’t been very good at defending their employees against that kind of stuff. They’re wary of being in opposition to their consumers. So it’s left to the ones being targeted to defend themselves.

“We want to be a public force that can step in the middle there and help support those people.”

Game Workers Unite UK, Bianco says, is exploring engaging workers and gamers in more radical left-wing politics.

“There’s a lot of right-wing influence. The alt-right are welcoming gamers with open arms and radicalising them. And there’s not that many figures or forces on the left of the spectrum that are doing the same thing.

“We’re hoping we can do that as part of a wider kind of political movement."

So far in its first month of existence the union has accumulated 120 members. “For an industry that has never been unionised before, we’re really starting from ground zero.”

“This year we want to start building membership and have our first few wins and show what a union can do. And I like to think that in the next few years the industry will look more inclusive and have less people who look like me [white, male] in positions of prominence and have a voice. And for crunch to be the exception and not the rule.”

Karn Spydar Lee Bianco is chair of Game Workers Unite UK. Ben Cowles is the Morning Star’s web editor.

For more about Game Workers Unite UK, including how to join or support it, visit gwu-uk.org.

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