When IGDA executive director Jennifer MacLean took to the mic to begin her organization’s round table on unionization at this year’s GDC, she emphasized a tone of respectability and congeniality. She stressed that anyone in the audience could speak during the event, but to be conscientious that “we have a lot of people to go through.”
With her, but not invited by her, were two representatives from International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union, Steve Kaplan and Katie Ryan. MacLean mentioned that these people might need to take some extra time on the mic to help accommodate certain discussions.
But otherwise, she claimed that this was not a standard presentation and that it was open for audience input. Essentially, the introduction was a by-the-book tutorial for those who had not been to a GDC round table before, and MacLean set the audience up for two things: to expect a polite atmosphere and to expect her to host and foster discussion among attendees rather than participate herself.
“I think we’re all here for the same reason – we want to make it so that everyone with the aptitude to make games can,” stated MacLean. She would come back to this idea of advocating for those with “aptitude” numerous times throughout the talk. It seemed to be her sticking point.
The tone of the crowd was far more restless. The room was sweltering despite San Francisco’s reasonable enough 64 degree weather and those unlucky enough to miss out on the oddly sparse chairs in the windowless, at-capacity room were forced to stand against the walls (upon trying to kneel so that I could take notes more easily, a worker forced me to get up and relocate). Chatter supporting worker organization filled the room before the talk officially kicked off, and many attendees carried pro-union literature on their person, which had been distributed among conference goers throughout the day. This was partially due to statements MacLean had made earlier in the week that had those on the pro-union side skeptical of the round table’s impartiality.
Speaking with Matt Kim of USGamer at the beginning of GDC on the 19th, MacLean spent the latter half of their interview responding to Kim’s questions about her goals with the union round table by dodging strong statements about her feelings before eventually leaning anti-union. In response to “what is the ‘bad’ of unionization,” she simply went back and forth about different regions having different labor laws, and in response to concerns about crunch, she responded that workers are aware of crunch going in and that if one worker refuses to crunch, 99 are there to take their place. When pressed further on if this or the hire-and-fire cycle common to game production should be the standard or if unions could help change the bottom line of acceptability, she finally played her hand that she thinks there’s an oversupply of workers and that capital, not unions, is the answer to this issue. This will come up again later.
Moving into the talk proper, MacLean first asked Kaplan of the IATSE to briefly explain how unions are formed, then opened up the audience to propose “problems that exist in the game industry, and how unions can solve them.” The first audience member to respond raised the issue of companies hiring people who will do more for less pay, thus lowering the minimum standards for everyone, and suggested that unions can negotiate with companies to set a baseline standard so that workers don’t feel the need to harm themselves in a salary price war. MacLean’s response set the tone for the rest of the talk.
Quick to respond, just on the biting edge of cutting the audience speaker off, MacLean stated, “What’s the specific way that unions could allow more workers in an office? Argue for more chairs? Does anyone else want to take a pass at the question?”
This struck me as rude and condescending, not the behavior of a host fostering “respectful” discussion, but rather a representative of a vested interest. If the idea at the beginning of the talk was to make audience members feel comfortable contributing thoughts, this set a more hostile vibe that made taking the mic seem dangerous. In other words, silencing.
The next speaker raised the issue of crunch, mentioning that he had at one time been forced to work extreme overtime hours on a project for nine months while only getting one week off as a reward. MacLean frequently interrupted him and asked how specifically unions could help with this, before eventually intimidating him away from the topic of crunch and onto the also worthy topic of a lack of reliable insurance – for a half second before she took back the conversation.
This continued need for “specificity” on MacLean’s end began to strike me as disruptive, requiring that those simply feeling out ideas instead immediately save the world with their point, or else the whole issue is rendered moot. These are problems the industry has been mulling over for decades – requiring a speaker that you invited to the mic to solve it in five minutes or else you condescend to him is more than a double standard. It makes me question whether anything will ever be specific enough to prevent this derailing.
Another speaker brought up routine hiring-and-firing in the game industry, or the practice of bringing on 80 to 100 extra team members halfway through development of a failing game to try and save it, only to immediately fire them with no severance as soon as the game ships (and probably still fails).
It’s here that MacLean played a card she would rely on for the remainder of the talk: putting words in the mouths of pro-union speakers. She responded to this concern by saying, “What is your suggested solution, then? Are you saying that unions need to individually vet every hire before they’re brought on?”
This is a gross mischaracterization of both the speaker’s point and the nature of unions. The speaker tried to state that he meant unions can come to an agreement with companies for a standardized set of hiring rules, and a French developer pointed out the possibility of strikes, but it was too late – the straw man had already stuck and a round table worker placed the mic back in MacLean’s hands.
One more speaker brought up an issue close to my own heart, that of software companies requiring workers to sign away the rights to the code they write not only on the job, but also at home for personal projects or even just fun. This has prevented me from collaborating as a growing game developer with programmers I’d love to work with and could learn much from, so I look forward to hearing the speaker continue. The speaker furthered her point by bringing up how this practice is illegal in the state of California, but as she began to explain the specifics MacLean asked for, MacLean cut her off with a warning about not being “respectful” to the time of others waiting to speak, and took the microphone back. Again, the goalposts of specificity and respectability moved further back.
A few more speakers later, and she moved the room on to the topic of “what unions can’t fix.” The room squirmed at this transition in topic, with few people wanting to offer a point, and it was clear that public opinion was against MacLean. She pursued anyway, and the divide between her and the creators her organization claims to advocate for grew even further.
One speaker raised concerned about disability causing her to be seen as having less “aptitude.” MacLean responded, “Everyone in this room has a disability, whether physical or mental.”
An audience member pointed out, “What you just said was very ableist,” and the room cheered.
Another speaker pushed back against MacLean’s idea that capital would support aptitude by pointing out that this simply reinforces the misconception that those with the most money are always the most skilled. MacLean said, “No one has ever said money is a decider of aptitude.” The room laughed. Another speaker pointed out how a graduate student union at their school was able to get the school to set up gender neutral bathrooms, to which MacLean said – away from the mic – that that’s a good example before hurriedly going back on mic and moving on to another speaker.
At this point, I was exhausted. The tone of respectability and politeness had been revealed for an excuse to tone police and shut down conversation, to manipulate speakers and place more burdens on them than should be present at a casual round table. To misrepresent what unions do and prevent any organizing that had been taking place that day from taking root. The unionized AV worker behind me and I shared a look. She had been saying “Let him/her speak” as people got cut off throughout the talk thus far and we would later talk after the round table about how MacLean’s tactics of silencing, leading and derailing just as speakers were about to discuss organizing could be seen as purposeful union-busting.
The IGDA represents itself as “the world’s largest organization serving individuals who create games.” On their about page, they advertise, “We bring together developers at key industry conferences, in over 90 Chapters and in Special Interest Groups (SIGs) to improve their lives and their craft.” Specifically, they state, “We advocate on behalf of our membership to ensure quality of life, perpetuation of our craft and preparing the next generation of developers.” They bring up their five methods for carrying this out- advocacy (speaking out about key issues), networking (connecting members with peers), professional development (promoting constant improvement of our craft) and international reach (expanding the global community of game developers). Notably lacking here is worker representation.
Despite MacLean’s mischaracterizations about the nature of unions, Kaplan made his penultimate contribution at the talk by explaining how unions operate. “All a union does is give you a seat at the table when the employer is making decisions. It forces them to listen to your needs and, since it’s a two-way street, you do need to listen to their needs as well. But it’s still preferable to not being at the table. Because if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Speaking to a friend after the talk, he was under the impression until recently that the IGDA was a union. But without that key step of representation, it cannot be a union. It is only an “advocacy group,” a non-profit, yes, but one that is threatened by the existence of an actual union that may usurp it.
Which is perhaps why this talk shook out the way it did. It is likely that there was never any intention of having a fair discussion, that the polite tone laid out in introducing the round table was a red herring. More likely, the game plan – subconscious or not – was making the idea of employee representation sound ridiculous by forcing its advocates to solve specific, advanced issues representation might be tasked with solving right there and then before even getting said representation in order. Think of a congress having to solve cancer before they organize rather than simply having to argue that having unrepresented citizens is inequitable and damaging to the people a state is supposed to serve. As the congress continually addresses goalposts that move further and further back before they can even set up the democracy they’re supposedly justifying, the king remains in power. At a certain point, the good must beat out the perfect and direct action needs to replace “discussion.” Especially when the existing power structure is not held to this same high standard.
This dismissive tone stings double when considering MacLean’s past work as CEO of 38 Studios. Established in 2006 by MLB pitcher Curt Schilling, 38 Studios existed for six years before going defunct in 2012. During this period, they purchased subsidiary studio Big Huge Games from THQ, keeping 70 of about 120 staff members, and assigned them to develop the controversial game Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning. Meanwhile, the company relocated to Rhode Island in order to acquire a $75 million loan from the state. When the game didn’t perform as well as expected and 38 Studios began bouncing checks, Rhode Island and the FBI began investigating the company. MacLean, who happened to be on maternity leave at the time, quickly stepped down as CEO, at which point the company applied for bankruptcy. Two months later, the entire staffs of both 38 Studios and Big Huge Games were laid off via mass email.
Mistakes happen, games flop and nobody is necessarily at moral fault for this. However, this is a cut-and-dry example of hire-and-fire in which more capital – 75 million dollars worth – did not help secure the workers’ jobs, and during which the CEO abandoned the company before it – and its unprotected, nonunionized workers – saw the worst of its downturn.
Kaplan ended his contribution at the talk by emphasizing the need to educate workers about their rights and their ability to organize. MacLean took this as an opportunity to say, “So I suppose what we really need to do is have more respectful, back-and-forth discussions like this one.”
The room groaned as we recognized the dragging feet.
Updated to clarify that the IATSE reps were not invited by MacLean. – Editor
Michelle Ehrhardt is a reporter and critic based in NYC. She is currently studying game development at NYU.