The stories about working conditions in the games industry are now frequent and familiar. In recent months, employees at companies like Epic, BioWare, and Rockstar have all come forward with accounts of brutal work schedules that can stretch to 100 hours per week; other reports have alleged discriminatory and toxic work cultures at studios including NetherRealm and Riot. But this same period has also seen a significant shift in the conversations around these issues, with a renewed push for labor organization and unionization within the industry. Just last month, over 200 employees at Riot staged a walkout to protest the company’s efforts to force two sexual discrimination lawsuits into arbitration.
A study of labor issues in games could be of real value at this moment. It seems like good timing, then, for the release of Marx at the Arcade: Consoles, Controllers, and Class Struggle by Dr. Jamie Woodcock, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. He opens his book by recounting a mission from Assassin’s Creed Syndicate in which the player is instructed to “Follow Marx” – literally – and Dr. Woodcock notes that he intends to do just that, analytically speaking.
Engaging and incisive, Marx at the Arcade examines the labor that makes the games industry possible. By drawing on a rich history of Marxist critique, Dr. Woodcock is able to discuss the entire global supply chain involved in the development and physical production of a game, as well as the cultural significance of an industry now generating over $100 billion in revenue each year. He brings into focus varied topics like the passion that motivates modding communities and the games industry’s long, profitable relationships with arms manufacturers and the US military. Throughout, he weaves in stories of his personal connection with gaming and his experiences with the UK branch of Game Workers Unite.
In a recent interview, Dr. Woodcock offered his thoughts on the developments in games labor and explained why he believes they could have impacts that go far beyond the industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The book feels very timely in its focus on labor and the potential for organizing within the industry. Exploitative labor practices in the industry have been known for a long while – the EA Spouse story, which you discuss in the book, made waves about issues like crunch and mandatory overtime back in 2004. In the past year or two, though, it feels like we’ve really seen the mood around organizing change very rapidly. Why do you think that might be the case?
What I’m very keen to do when talking about the last year is point out that it’s not like nothing happened before that. With lots of the game workers that I’ve talked to in the UK, this might be the moment when they’ve started to openly or publicly do things, but many people have been concerned about their work and concerned about how they’re treated or about how their colleagues are treated. But they haven’t had a collective outlet.
The events at GDC [during the panel on unionizing at GDC 2018] were really kind of a lightning rod that allowed all of that built up frustration and below-the-surface organizing and resistance that’s happened for a very long time to suddenly come out into the open. And I think the speed with which things have developed with Game Workers Unite can’t really be explained unless that had been happening. In the book, I tried to show that this kind of resistance has been there since the birth of games. There’s a much longer history, but with the Game Workers Unite stuff, we’ve reached a kind of watershed moment, which I think has the potential for much longer-reaching change.
The book also discusses the history of anti-labor efforts within the industry. It’s often argued that the industry just naturally evolved without unions, because it’s a specialized workforce that is relatively high-wage. But you point out that, no, that’s not a natural evolution at all. It reminded me of that lawsuit from a few years ago that concerned Apple, Google, and others allegedly colluding to suppress wages.
Yeah, there’s a long history of this. When software development was becoming a larger form of employment in the US, there was actually some early discussion with managers, who were saying, “Look, if you don’t want trade unions in software development, you pay them as if they have a trade union, and that’s the cost you pay for them not having power over their work.” Essentially, you buy people off. And that works for a while. But as we’ve seen in the US…
To tell you a quick anecdote, I’ve worked quite closely with Game Workers Unite in the UK. And they had their first annual general meeting of the union yesterday. It was quite an emotional moment in lots of ways, because they now have their full committee, they had elections, they’re planning out what they’re doing for the next year. There was a group of young workers who were explaining to each other about their right to work, how to get involved in a union, what a union was, the processes that go on. This was in the same building that we had one of the first meetings and a Q&A on unions, when none of them knew what a union was. So in under a year, they really have come such a long way.
And I think this is a useful anecdote because lots of people say, “Well, in this sector or type of work you can’t have unions.” People would have said that about the videogame workers a year ago. And I think the speed with which they have learned what it means to have a union in their sector is incredibly inspirational for other kinds of work. Particularly given the cultural reach of videogames, the more that it is publicized that these workers are in a union, the more that it can become an example to other workers in sectors that don’t have unions. For that reason, it’s quite a powerful example of people finding that they have their own collective power and starting to exert it.
A big part of your book is your analysis of the game as a commodity, which takes into account the material aspects of a game’s production. It involves looking at the supply chain and manufacturing and taking into consideration all of this labor that often gets overlooked, partly because it’s geographically displaced from the more “digital” or “immaterial” labor of game development.
These are obviously very separate workforces in many ways. But I’m wondering if you think there is any potential within the games industry for international organizing and solidarity across these sectors.
In terms of the supply chain, it’s something I’m really fascinated by because, as production gets shifted around the world in various ways, there’s the potential for new lines of solidarity and new connections. I spent some time in India last year, where there’s a lot of tech outsourcing. We met with a new union of young IT workers, and one of the things that they asked when we met with them was, “Can you put us in touch with people who work for companies that we outsource for?” Because they see themselves as part of the same supply chain. They don’t want to be positioned as undercutting jobs elsewhere, but rather see it as a new connection that can be made, that if they’re in conversation they can strengthen both sides. In the south of India there’s a very big center of graphics design and videogames in Chennai, and people there were very keen to hear about videogame workers organizing. But in a sense, that’s a more similar job to videogame workers in the Global North, because they’re doing an outsourced version of software development.
I think the much harder connection is connecting people who work in “immaterial” labor, for want of a better term, with the more material force of labor. Particularly that’s thinking about how you build solidarity with workers in China, which is a really difficult task. And that’s something that would be incredibly exciting, but it also requires people thinking through how their work is connected to those supply chains. That’s one of the things that I find quite exciting about Tech Workers’ Coalition. A lot of the work they’ve been doing is getting to sit and think and talk with each other about how their labor affects other people. One of the arguments in the book is that workers in the games industry are going through the process of thinking about their work. Part of that has to be thinking through what effect you have on workers elsewhere and if you can build alliances with them in various ways. But I think we’re still in the early stage there.
I attended the Theorizing the Web conference a few weeks ago, and one of the panel discussions was about organizing in the games industry. I had just read your book and felt like it connected really nicely with the panel.
During the Q&A portion, an audience member asked about the potential limits to unionization. One of the panelists was Vicky Osterweil, who writes about games for Real Life Magazine. And she mentioned her concerns about the fact that, in the US at least, there has often been a link between unions and institutional racism. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on whether or not games unions could challenge this history or if they’re at risk of replicating it.
I think the biggest successes so far have been in the UK, because it’s the first of that wave to establish a formal trade union. And it’s worth noting that the union that they’ve formed is not a mainstream trade union. They’ve joined a smaller, alternative union which has its roots in organizing migrant workers, so it specifically comes out of a response to some of those structural problems with much bigger unions. There’s been a real awareness from the game workers in the UK that it’s not a question of joining a union that teaches you how to be a union, but that you can join with people who have similar aims and goals, and that it’s a learning process, so the union will have to adapt. They have their own autonomous branch of the union and they can choose to cooperate with other branches if they want to, but they set their own decisions and their own path.
I think in the US there’s a much slower movement towards forming a union because a) there are much bigger barriers to joining one, and b) there’s a much more complicated history of exclusion. The argument that I’ve tried to make with the game workers in the UK is that there’s not a model that you can just take to unionize your sector. There are some good traditions and some bad ones, and you need to figure out which of those work for you and which need to be changed and updated. So, these workers are being very critical and are thinking these things through. But if they weren’t, I would echo the concerns from the conference, because unions are not always a progressive force. There are many examples of unions excluding on racial or gender or skill basis.
One common criticism of books that do this kind of analytical work is that they point out problems but don’t offer solutions. But you end your book with a really clear call to action: people should get involved with Game Workers Unite. What inspired ending the book this way?
In the context of call center workers or Uber drivers or delivery drivers, I always try and develop the research in conversation with those workers, because the people who know best about the problems of crunch or the inequalities in the industry are the people who are already inside that industry – the workers who do that on a day-to-day basis. So, it was important to see the book as helping to support them in what they’re doing. And that means helping to document what’s happening. The process in the UK has been one of meeting with these workers, helping them to develop their union branch, and offering support where I can, so the book should be a reflection of that.
The best thing people can do is to get involved. So, for me, it’s a fairly clear-cut thing. Part of the argument in the book is that for too long people have not engaged with these debates and these arguments, and that’s partly how we’ve got to the situation we’re in now.
What potential do you see for organizing and political action within the industry beyond unionization? What struggles could unionization embolden or be a starting point for?
When we first started meeting with videogame workers in the UK, their target was forming a union. And I remember when we finally formed the union, somebody said, “What do we do now? We’ve done the thing that we wanted to do.” And somebody else turned around and said, “Well, that’s the start – that’s not the end point.” It’s really important to emphasize that a union is a vehicle, it’s a tool for doing things. What I think’s so exciting is that they’re not talking about pay rates or pensions, they’re talking about questions of control over their own work: how much they should work, who they should work with, what kinds of things they should be making. And that’s an incredibly empowering thing. You’re telling people that they don’t just have to go into work and be told what to do, they should have a say over what they spend their life doing.
For me, engaging in workers’ campaigns or unionizing efforts is about empowering people to take control over their lives. And that’s also about saying, “You can reshape the videogames industry, but you can also reshape all of society.” Whether you’re making videogames or you’re delivering pizza for UberEats or you’re driving people around or you’re teaching lectures, the workplace is the point where you can start to take more control over your life, but it can go much broader than that to take on other societal issues.
What I try and make a point of is the idea that there is no such thing as an ideal union. And that’s what is so exciting about what people are doing at the moment. They’re reshaping what it means to be in a union. And it’s the same with other precarious labor, like people in the gig economy in the UK. I think it’s hugely inspiring, and I feel very humbled by how far these workers have come in such a short space of time. If they can do it, lots of other people can, too.